Last night, a crowd gathered in the café of McNally Jackson Books to celebrate a first in the history of Urban Omnibus: the publication of a real-life, paper-and-ink booklet, collecting the winners of our third annual writing competition. This year, the competition’s theme, “Common Shares,” took its inspiration from historical connotations of the commons and the contemporary realities and technologies of collaborative consumption in an era when pretty much everything can be bought, sold, or rented. Read the original call for entries here.
To launch the booklet, UO editor Cassim Shepard invited each of the winners to read from their pieces. Standing in for Malaysia-based Frederica Hill, assistant editor Jonathan Tarleton read an excerpt of her winning piece “A Commons of Unwanted Things,” a candid chronicle of sifting through discarded memorabilia that probes the complex interplay between self-creation and self-discovery. Check out the full piece, including an illustration by George Bates and photographs of Hill’s collected discards, here.
Runners-up Keith Engel and Yen Ha brought us their pieces “311 Complainer” and “A Shared Life,” infusing what were already powerful narratives with subtle inflection, tones, and humor. Engel’s monologue plays out as a diatribe in the voice of a man who takes it upon himself to enforce the city’s rules and regulations, calling attention to the illogic of real estate, the anonymity of contemporary grievance platforms, and the gray area between personal and collective responsibility. It’s a piece that begs to be read aloud, and with deft, deadpan comedic timing and slivers of a latent Bronx accent, Engel brought his character fully to life.
Yen Ha seemed particularly at home as she narrated her story of a pair of strangers navigating an extreme form of sharing, stretching our contemporary notions of co-housing. Much to our surprise after selecting the winners, we learned that Front Studio, where Ha is a founding principal, had designed and completed McNally Jackson’s café in 2009. In a story that is at once unsettling and romantic, Ha probes the blurred edge between peer-to-peer and under-the-table, collaboration and exploitation, the possibilities cities present and the sacrifices we make to live in them.
As always, all of us here at Urban Omnibus relished the opportunity meet many of you — our readers — and to discuss these pieces of writing that are both distinct and complementary. If you couldn’t make it, you’ll still have plenty of chances to catch up on the winners. The booklet — designed by Jena Sher with illustrations by George Bates — is on sale at McNally Jackson while supplies last. Head to the Architecture section to get yours soon. And beginning today with “A Commons of Unwanted Things,” we’ll be publishing each of the winners here on Urban Omnibus. Look for the others in the coming weeks.
Many thanks to all of you who came out and to our Partnering Bookstore, McNally Jackson Books, for hosting and printing the booklet on their magical Espresso Book Machine. And keep an eye out next spring for the call for fourth annual Urban Omnibus writing competition.
All photos by Varick Shute
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.