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Street Life


ISSUE:  Fall 2016


“Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too.” This advice from Annie Dillard, the consummate intellectual explorer, is at the heart of journalism’s mission—“to examine all things intensely and relentlessly.” It’s the call of poetry, too. And fiction, and the essay, and sometimes (infamously) the memoir. It’s the call of most writing endeavors, because why sit down to the embarrassing task at all if not to discover what demands telling?

The principle of relentless examination sustains our editorial mission, while our restless curiosity gives it range, leading us through the literary, the reported, the personal and policy-grounded, the photographed and sketched, the graphic and lyrical. Now and then we come across stories that blend a few of these elements into strange hybrids that don’t quite fit anywhere else, that don’t quite conform to the narrowing specifications of the marketplace. A writer wants to take chances; a writer wants to stretch a little. These impulses help shape the surprises you find in the best magazines, surprises that sustain the eclectic integrity of the general-interest experience. The surprises come in how the story is told, but also in what the writer finds, and the writer finds by gleaning.

Dillard’s gleaning grounds—intellectual, spiritual, and otherwise—were near Tinker Creek for a time, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Roanoke, Virginia. For this issue, we assembled pieces that glean from the built environment, be it a capital or backwater, a suburb or pop-up village. The backdrops range from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, from Miami to Colorado Springs. What links them are variations on the theme of civic engagement, as well as the idea that the public sphere contains its own creative force, born of agitation and a sense of order, imagination and goodwill. In as much as 200-plus pages allow, we reach for the public experience, whether it’s peaceful, violent, sublime, or grimy. In other words, all the stuff you find in the gaps.

Our features frame radically different circumstances that bond people together. To San Salvador, where a young mayor uses his public-relations savvy to renovate the capital city’s perception of itself, and in so doing hopes to end the cycle of violence escalating between gangs and law enforcement. To Cleveland, a place whose very name is burdened, where, after a championship put one fifty-two-year-old insecurity to rest, the beleaguered city must ask itself, Now what? A simple but loaded question that serves as motive for an experiment in photography and reported verse set there during the Republican National Convention. And finally to Wise County, Virginia, where for three days thousands of people gather at the largest pop-up medical clinic in the country, for the only treatment they’ll receive all year. Here we witness an outsized project of mercy that’s part MASH unit, part Our Town, and where we discover the human component missing from both the government’s and private industry’s approach to America’s uninsured.

We examine what entangles communities large and small. We explore the subtext of race relations at exclusive supper clubs in New Orleans, and visit roadside chiefs in Cherokee, North Carolina, whose commodification of tradition serves to not only monetize their culture, but to preserve it. We linger to watch the after-hours social rituals of New York’s Meatpacking District, and go on a walking tour of Baku, a capital at the edge of Europe whose very architecture is a kind of revisionist history. Altogether, the takeaway here is as much about models for governing as where to find the sublime. 

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” Dillard’s backlit aphorisms are as important to the naturalist as the flâneur, and we might argue on behalf of the latter. For where better to find and express this astonishment than in the creative compression of street life, where the pinballing of the strange and familiar creates something entirely unique—both visceral and intellectual—worth gleaning and, ultimately, passing on to others?

— VQR


This fall, on a weekly basis, we’ll be rolling out new content  from a variety of genres—from reporting to poetry, fiction to photography. If you’d like to be notified when new content is available, we encourage you to sign up for VQR’s e-mail newsletter. Of course, if you prefer to dive into the entire issue at once, we’d love for you to subscribe. You can visit the table of contents to get a complete preview.

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