Mini-Stories: Volume 16

Roman Mars [00:00:01] Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Happy New Year, beautiful nerds. As is our tradition, we are launching 2023 with another batch of mini-stories from the 99PI crew. We took an episode in between to send a big box of Christmas gifts to our Lola, but we wouldn’t leave you with only one mini-stories episode. Of course not! We have stories of liminal space discombobulation, the wildest theme park in the world, and the new family road trip game that will soon be sweeping the nation, called “Should This Be a Street or a Road?” Stay tuned. Hey, Delaney Hall. What’s your mini-story about? 

Delaney Hall [00:01:21] Hey, Roman. My mini-story is about a word that I learned recently. And the word is “stroad,” which is a portmanteau of “street” and “road.” And are you familiar with the term? 

Roman Mars [00:01:33] I am. I am familiar with the word “stroad,” although I don’t think I know everything. So yes, let’s talk about it. 

Delaney Hall [00:01:38] Okay. So, for people who aren’t, it describes a thoroughfare that basically tries to do two incompatible things at once. And in the process, it does both things badly. 

Chuck Marohn [00:01:53] We call this the futon of transportation. 

Delaney Hall [00:01:56] So this is Charles Marohn. He’s also known as Chuck, and he invented the term “stroad.”

Chuck Marohn [00:02:03] If you think of a futon as being an uncomfortable couch that makes into an uncomfortable bed, a stroad tries to do two things at once and it fails at both. It tries to be both street and road. 

Roman Mars [00:02:14] I think most people think of those two things as synonyms. But what is the difference between a street and a road? 

Delaney Hall [00:02:20] Yeah, I mean, I think that’s right. Most of us don’t think of there being any difference. But Chuck is a former traffic engineer, and he gave me his take on how he thinks about those two different things. So, we’ll start with how Chuck defines a road. 

Chuck Marohn [00:02:37] A road is about moving things over distance at speed. 

Delaney Hall [00:02:41] Okay, so that’s a road. It’s all about getting people quickly from point A to point B. A street, according to Chuck, is a place–like where people go to shop and hang out. 

Chuck Marohn [00:02:51] In an urban setting. A good street is one where you are going to experience more people outside of a vehicle than within a vehicle. You will have narrower streets. You will certainly have slow traffic. You will have lots of space for people. A good street is one that prioritizes being in the place over getting through the place. 

Roman Mars [00:03:14] Okay, I get it. So, if you take the features of a road and you mash them together with the features of a street, you get a stroad, which is a place where traffic is moving relatively fast and there’s a lot of development and people. 

Delaney Hall [00:03:28] Yeah, that’s right. It’s like an unholy combination of the two things. Stroads usually have multiple lanes of traffic going in each direction. And then they’re also lined with strip malls, or big box stores, or just business establishments that people are trying to get to. 

Chuck Marohn [00:03:45] This is a place that, when you look at it, the dominant feature of it is automobile mobility. The dominant feature is moving cars quickly. And in that case, it has a certain highway kind of sense to it. But appended to that–in this very almost freakish kind of way–is this afterthought of humanity. So, we’ll put on the edge a little bit of place for people to walk. Maybe we’ll throw in a bench here or there or a garbage can because there might be somebody walking by with a Coke bottle they want to throw away. 

Roman Mars [00:04:26] I love the way he puts it. “An afterthought of humanity.” “You get a garbage can if you’re lucky.” 

Delaney Hall [00:04:31] Exactly. Yeah. I mean, their concession to people is a garbage can. And the way Chuck describes it–and, I think, the way most people who’ve driven down a stroad experience it–is that because they’re confused about their purpose, they’re very stressful. Like, for everybody. 

Chuck Marohn [00:04:52] If you’re driving through these environments, they create a lot of tension within you because everything about the design is saying, “Go fast.” But everything from the speed limit, to the traffic signals, to the turning traffic is slowing you down artificially from what the design is expressing to you. 

Delaney Hall [00:05:12] And so when you’re in a car, you’re like, “Why is it so crowded here? Why is it so stop and go?” And then if you’re a pedestrian or a bicyclist, you’re just, like, trying not to die. 

Chuck Marohn [00:05:25] 80% of the crashes that result in a fatality or a traumatic injury are on arterials and collectors, which essentially are stroads. These are really dangerous environments, and everybody can feel them when they’re in that. 

Delaney Hall [00:05:39] And the wild thing is that even though stroads are dangerous, and disorienting, and all the things Chuck has just described, they are everywhere in America. Like, I’ve definitely had this experience where now that I know the word “stroad,” I cannot stop seeing them everywhere. It’s like I have magic glasses on. And I think that’s true for most people, especially here in the US. 

Roman Mars [00:06:04] Yeah. Yeah. So why are there so many stroads in the U.S.? What makes them happen here more than anywhere else? 

Delaney Hall [00:06:10] Well, Chuck says that it has to do with the history of development in this country and how we came to be a country with a lot of sprawl. Back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, we began to connect the country with a vast network of roadways. It was, as you know, a huge investment. It was driven by the work of civil engineers. And it was motivated by a very idyllic picture of what the country could be. 

Chuck Marohn [00:06:41] “We need to go out and spend billions and billions of dollars building this brand-new system to connect places. We’re going to create a middle class. We’re going to create suburbia. We’re going to do all this, so that we don’t slide back into depression, and so that we create, like, this great new version of America.” That was the marketing brochure. 

Delaney Hall [00:06:57] And if you just take the marketing brochure on its face–hold off on all the downsides we know about now–you can see why mobility and roads were so important to this essentially suburban vision of America. 

Chuck Marohn [00:07:14] We can get more people to more jobs, to more places, to more opportunity, to more shopping, to more, more, more, more, more, more. And we can really drive our economy. And so, what is handed down to modern engineers is an ethic of mobility. 

Roman Mars [00:07:32] Yeah. And of course, the mobility is really important; it was genuinely transformative to connect the country through the interstate highway system. 

Delaney Hall [00:07:40] Yes, totally. But the value placed on car-based mobility also created this situation we’re in now, where a lot of us live in communities that aren’t quite cities and aren’t quite towns, and where stroads are really the bedrock of that suburban development style. And so over time, we’ve just built a lot of places that are very car dependent, and they just prioritize cars over people. 

Roman Mars [00:08:10] Yeah. So, I get that the history of the development of the United States has led to a lot of stroads. But if we’re realizing that stroads are bad–which I think that more people than Chuck have realized that stroads are bad–why do we keep building them? 

Delaney Hall [00:08:24] I’m sure part of it’s just inertia; that’s how we have done it for a long time. I mean, Chuck described being a young traffic engineer and basically being handed this manual of standards that are just, like, received wisdom about how you build streets and “they should be this wide.” 

Chuck Marohn [00:08:45] And when this knowledge was given to me, it was given to me as, you know, you would give any sacred text. “Here is our code of being, and this is the way we do things.” 

Delaney Hall [00:08:57] But there’s another reason, too, which is that “Over time,” Chuck says, “a certain theory of development has taken hold in a lot of communities.” And basically, the theory goes: If your city or town has economic problems, then it should build more roads because there’s a lot of state and federal money to fund transportation projects. 

Chuck Marohn [00:09:20] We have problems with economic development. We have problems with job creation. We have challenges with getting this park fixed. You know, on and on and on. And they all become, in one way or another, transportation challenges because that’s where the money is. 

Delaney Hall [00:09:35] And back when he was an engineer working on transportation projects, Chuck would make the argument to cities and towns that their investment in stuff like stroads would eventually pay off. But over time, he came to doubt that that financial argument was even true. Like, there’s now a lot of research that shows that dense downtowns are not just safer and more pleasant, they’re also a much better bet financially than suburban style stroad development. 

Chuck Marohn [00:10:07] The thing I found time and time again is that the pre-Great Depression pattern of development–the pattern that was built around essentially people walking–that pattern has enormous levels of financial productivity. In other words, the community is getting more tax revenue out of those places than it costs to provide ongoing service and maintenance. 

Delaney Hall [00:10:30] And on the other hand, development that looks more like big box stores kind of strung along vast stretches of stroad–that is not a great investment. 

Chuck Marohn [00:10:39] Because they’re built in a static way, not a dynamic way, not a way where they evolve and change over time, they also tend to lose their financial productivity when maintenance starts to come due. 

Roman Mars [00:10:51] Huh. Oh, that’s so interesting. So, is there any way to unstroad a stroad if you want to make that environment a little bit better for everybody? 

Delaney Hall [00:11:02] Well, in many ways that is now Chuck’s work. He eventually left his job as a traffic engineer because he felt like his work was harming the places where he lived and worked. He even wrote this book called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. So now, instead of building stroads projects, he’s become a kind of evangelist for denser urbanism. And he travels around the country, talking to people about how to build stronger towns. And he says that one of the most important things a community can do is just decide what is a street and what is a road. 

Chuck Marohn [00:11:44] Give me two categories. I’m either trying to build a place or I’m trying to move vehicles quickly. I can’t do both. I can’t do both at the same time and have it be safe, have it be productive, have it be a good investment. I gotta do one or the other. Give me a road or give me a street. 

Delaney Hall [00:11:56] And then, you know, once you’ve decided something is a road, treat it like a road. 

Chuck Marohn [00:12:01] No more trying to induce that cheap development. No more making huge investments in infrastructure. And in these places, we focus on moving vehicles quickly. We focus on not trying to accommodate pedestrians in a marginal way. We really focus and put our resources on “How do we move cars really quickly here?” 

Delaney Hall [00:12:22] And then on the other hand, when you decide something is a street, you invest in it, you make it better, you make the street safer and slower, you think about pedestrians and cyclists as you’re designing it, and you encourage dense development along the street. 

Roman Mars [00:12:39] This is so interesting–kind of forcing that binary to make people think about what they want out of these, you know, conveyances. It’s hard not to use the words “street” and “road” when we’re talking about streets and roads. 

Delaney Hall [00:12:48] So hard. 

Roman Mars [00:12:49] And making it, like, this circular tautology. But anyway… 

Delaney Hall [00:12:52] Biggest challenge to this story. 

Roman Mars [00:12:56] But, you know, for people who travel every day, it’s really important to think about “What is this for?” And then, you know, design for that. 

Delaney Hall [00:13:06] Totally. And, you know, it gets back to that idea that I have these magic stroad glasses now that help me understand the built environment in this new way. And just as an example, a couple days ago, I was driving down a road in Santa Fe. It was unambiguously a road–it carried me quickly across town. There was not a lot of development or stores on either side, weren’t a lot of stoplights, weren’t a lot of pedestrians. Its purpose was just very clear. And traveling on it was pleasant. And as I was driving, I muttered, “Now this is a road,” which was really confusing for my husband, who was riding along with me. He was like, “Uh. Yeah. Obviously, this is a road. What are you talking about?” So then, you know, I locked all the doors so he couldn’t get out and gave him a lecture on stroads and why they’re horrible, which is my favorite topic of conversation these days. 

Roman Mars [00:14:09] Well, I think it’s going to be a lot of people’s favorite conversation. Like, when you’re just driving around it’s like, “Street or road? Street or road? What should this be?”

Delaney Hall [00:14:15] Yeah. 

Roman Mars [00:14:17] Well, this is awesome. Thank you, Delaney. 

Delaney Hall [00:14:18] Thank you, Roman. Happy New Year. 

Roman Mars [00:14:20] Oh, Happy New Year. So, I’m here with producer Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, whose name you’ve heard, but whose voice you haven’t heard yet. So, what are we going to talk about today, Jeyca? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:14:45] So, Roman, in my short time on the show, I think you guys have all realized that I’ve got a real fascination with amusement parks. 

Roman Mars [00:14:52] I’ve noticed that pattern in your pitches. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:14:55] Yeah. I mean, I love all amusement parks. I love the big ones–your Disneys, your Universals. But I am especially fascinated by smaller parks. I think the more niche and weird it is, the more interested I am in it. And in doing some research for a pitch, I got really obsessed with this one park called Hacienda Napoles in Puerto Triunfo, Colombia. So, this park covers almost eight square miles and is located four hours from Medellin on the Magdalena River. The area is honestly pretty secluded, which was a good thing for the previous owner of this land, Pablo Escobar. 

Roman Mars [00:15:29] Oh, okay. So, the land that this amusement park sits on today used to belong to, you know, world famous, notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. So, tell me about how that happened. I mean, what was he doing with those, you know, eight square miles? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:15:45] Yeah. So, when this land belonged to Escobar, it sort of was his theme park. He was somebody who was not afraid to flaunt his wealth and spoil those around him–his family, his friends. Not only that, but he was so rich that he just truly didn’t know what to do with all of his money, so he had to start spending some of it. So, he built Hacienda Napoles in the late 80s and the early 90s. And quite often he let the people from the surrounding area come visit the estate and experience everything that he had to offer. 

Roman Mars [00:16:12] Which was what? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:16:13] It was a lot of stuff. First of all, he had his house, which was a Spanish colonial-style mansion. There was a racetrack, there were many pools, 27 artificial lakes, a bullfighting ring, a brothel, vintage cars, a sculpture park with some really ugly sculptures–including some dinosaur ones that are bizarre looking–and, of course, an airstrip because you’re Pablo Escobar. You need it. 

Roman Mars [00:16:38] Sure. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:16:39] And over the archway of the property, there was a life-sized replica of the first plane Escobar used to smuggle drugs into the U.S. And on top of all that, there was not just one but three zoos. 

Roman Mars [00:16:51] Oh, three. That sounds like a lot. So why have three zoos when one would probably do? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:16:59] You think one would be enough, but Escobar had a real obsession with exotic animals. He had elephants, ostriches, giraffes, rhinos, antelopes, zebras, exotic birds, all of that. And most notably, he had four hippos, which we will get back to in just a minute. 

Roman Mars [00:17:16] That’s a tantalizing tease. Okay. So, Escobar builds this giant playground for himself, you know, exulting in his past exploits and also just fun stuff to do with him and his friends. And then, you know, they’re all having fun in these three zoos, a bullfighting ring, and brothel. I mean, what happens when it all comes crumbling down? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:17:35] So the good times are rolling until December of 1993. 

Newscaster [00:17:43] The killing of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is sending a tougher message. Mr. Escobar was gunned down yesterday, and Colombian authorities say its message to other drug lords is to surrender or you will be killed. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:17:54] So Pablo Escobar is shot and killed by the Colombian police. And after his death, there was a lengthy legal dispute over who owns this land–the government or Escobar’s family. The government eventually won, and they seized control of that land. 

Roman Mars [00:18:07] Okay, so the Colombian government takes control of Escobar’s park. What did they do with everything that was there? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:18:14] They didn’t really do much. Most of the animals that were there were moved to different zoos around the world, but the structures that sat on the land were mostly left abandoned. It was sort of the government’s way of saying that they weren’t going to honor the legacy of Escobar. But that all changes in 2007 when the government finally leased land to a guy who wanted to build an amusement park. His name is Oberdan Martinez.

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:18:46] In an interview with TV news show The National Desk, Martinez said that the mission was to take this region that was struggling because of security issues and reinvigorate it. He was going to bring tourism back, essentially. There was a lot of violence that surrounded Hacienda Napoles when Escobar was there, which scared off visitors. So, Martinez took over this property and took aspects of what was originally there–but kind of turned them on their heads to make this theme park. 

Roman Mars [00:19:11] What do you mean by that? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:19:12] Well, the theming of this park is interesting and it’s kind of all over the place. There’s one section that’s Jurassic Park-themed–not licensed, of course. It’s called Jurassic Adventure, and it’s like if Rainforest Cafe met Jurassic Park. That part of the park kind of feels like a nod towards Escobar’s own dinosaur sculptures that he had when he owned the land. There’s also a water park that’s Pangea-themed, which I don’t totally understand as a theme for a water park. 

Roman Mars [00:19:39] Yeah. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:19:39] Escobar’s original bullfighting ring is still there, but they converted it into an amphitheater. And then the park features tons of animals. But unlike Escobar, the animals on the park now are rescues. So, they’re brought in from other zoos, and the goal is to give them a comfortable place to spend the rest of their lives. So, they’re home to tigers, lions, elephants, capybaras, monkeys. On top of that, there’s a butterfly house, a bird and reptile house, and of course, there are those hippos, which I mentioned earlier. 

Roman Mars [00:20:07] Here we go. Okay, hippo time. Tell me what happened with the hippos. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:20:12] After the government seized control of this land, the hippos that were Escobar’s remained on the land because transporting hippos is really expensive and really hard to do. But they managed to escape from their enclosures, and they reproduced rapidly. It’s hard to say exactly how many hippos there are, but there are well over 100. And some of them still roam near the park–so there are signs posted all over, warning people about wild hippos. And that might seem like a funny park theming thing, but it’s true. There are wild hippos in the area. And this has become such an issue that in March of this year, the Colombian government declared hippos an invasive species. Scientists have predicted that their numbers could multiply to over 700 in the next decade. And there are a lot of differing opinions on what the solution should be. And some of the offspring of those original hippos now live at the theme park. So, Roman, I’m going to show you a picture of the park’s mascot, and I want you to describe her to me. 

Roman Mars [00:21:07] Okay, so this is a hippo on two legs–bright magenta–with a crown. I would say it’s a little femme for a hippo. Skirt. The necklace. Really lovely. It’s great. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:21:21] Great lashes. 

Roman Mars [00:21:24] Exactly. Strong lashes. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:21:24] Yeah. So that’s Vanessa the Hippo. She is based on one of the actual offspring of Escobar’s original hippos who lived on the land. Vanessa was rejected by the larger group of hippos. I found out that a group of hippos is called a “bloat” of hippos. She was rejected. And so, she’s been raised at the park by humans and is very social. You can meet Vanessa, feed her carrots, and she’ll respond to her name. And she’s got her own blog, which I’ll be honest, it’s a little bit lackluster. There’s not much going on. It’s a few pictures, and all the lorem ipsum is still on the bottom. 

Roman Mars [00:22:02] So independent of the aggressive hippos that might be taking over Colombia, what have they done with the Escobar part of this area? Like, have they kind of erased it? Are they preserving it–presenting it? What happens to all things Escobar when it comes to this amusement park? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:22:18] The focus of the park definitely is not Escobar. In fact, it’s sort of intentionally hidden. But there is a place on the property that’s vaguely named “The Memorial Museum.” Most of the structures that Pablo Escobar built have crumbled except for pieces of the mansion. So, this is one of the few places across the whole 3,700-acre park that openly acknowledges Escobar’s connection with the property. And if you go to their website, you’ve even got to dig to find that; it’s not one of the main listed attractions. 

Roman Mars [00:22:51] It’s no Vanessa? 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:22:53] It doesn’t get a blog, no. This is where you can see a few of Escobar’s vintage cars parked outside. These are all, like, burnt out and riddled with bullet holes. And inside the remains of the mansion is a museum commemorating some of the journalists and politicians Escobar had killed. It’s meant to sort of be an anti-crime museum. This is partially an effort by the government to make sure that the life of a narco trafficker isn’t glorified because with shows like Narcos that really show the glamor of the drug trade, the government’s actively working against that. It’s definitely a weird juxtaposition with the pink hippo in a tutu. But I think it’d be equally weird if they just didn’t acknowledge Escobar at all. 

Roman Mars [00:23:35] Right. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:23:36] It’s a pretty tricky line to walk, but the park really isn’t meant to be Escobar-themed. It’s just a theme park on what used to be Escobar’s land. 

Roman Mars [00:23:45] Wow. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:23:46] And the best example of this is an archway at the entrance of the land. So, when Escobar lived there, he had that replica of his plane–the little Cessna. And then when Hacienda Napoles Theme Park took over, they took the plane and they painted zebra stripes onto it–sort of to add that, like, safari theme right in the entrance. But it was still too connected to Escobar. People who were watching Narcos would come to take a picture with the iconic archway and plane because it reminds them of who the park belonged to. And so eventually the park took that plane down and knocked that whole archway over. The plane was brought into the park so that it’s not the first thing you see when you get there. So, you can still find those hints of Escobar, but you’ve got to look for them in the park. 

Roman Mars [00:24:29] Wow. You definitely found one of the most unusual amusement parks in the history of the world probably. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:24:35] I think so. 

Roman Mars [00:24:36] What a series of conundrums that they have to solve–not least of which is the wild hippos that have now, you know, taken over parts of Colombia. I mean, what an amazing place connected to a really horrible man. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:24:50] Yeah. It’s an interesting repurposing of the land for sure. 

Roman Mars [00:24:53] Yeah. Yeah. Well, this is fascinating stuff, Jeyca. Thanks so much for bringing us the story. And it was a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Jeyca Maldonado-Medina [00:25:00] Thanks, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:25:09] We’ll go down a dark alley with Kurt Kohlstedt after this. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. When you’re at your best, you can do great things. But sometimes life gets you bogged down, and you may feel overwhelmed or like you’re just not showing up the way you want to. Working with therapists can help you get closer to the best version of you. And when you feel empowered, you’re more prepared to take on everything life throws at you. Some people respond to negative talk and negative feelings, and it makes them pick themselves up by their bootstraps. I am not one of those people. I need to feel good if I want to exercise, get up early, or make dinner. You know, like, I need positive reinforcement and support to be my best self. If you’re thinking of giving therapy a try, BetterHelp is a great option. It’s convenient, flexible, affordable, and entirely online. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist. And switch therapists any time for no additional charge. If you want to live a more empowered life, therapy can get you there. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. If you retire, do your savings retire tools? Will rising inflation deflate a life of hard work? Does everyone know this stuff but you? The only wrong question is the one we never ask. That’s why at Lincoln Financial, they make it easy to start. Their annuities are designed to help do more than grow the money you already have. They can offer a protected monthly income for life once you’re ready to retire. Go to to learn how to plan, protect, and retire. Annuities issued by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, Indiana–and in New York, exclusively by Lincoln Life and Annuity Company of New York, Syracuse, New York. Variable Products distributed by Lincoln Financial Distributors, a broker dealer. Just because we spend most of our time unconscious–and quite possibly drooling in our bedrooms–doesn’t mean we can’t do it in style. Article has everything you need to turn your bedroom into your best friend–all for a great price. Article offers cozy beds, swanky headboards, and tons of lighting options to help you set the tone. Article combines the curation of a boutique furniture store with the comfort and simplicity of shopping online. Article’s team of designers are dedicated to a modern aesthetic of mid-century, Scandinavian, industrial, and bohemian designs. Fast affordable shipping is available across the USA and Canada and is free on orders over $999. All in-stock items are delivered in two weeks or less. Article cuts out the middleman and sells directly to you. There’s no showrooms. There’s no salespeople. There’s no retail markups. So, you can save up to 30% over traditional prices. A couple of days ago, I had coffee with our intern, Sarah Baik, and her partner, and he asked me–point-blank–he’s like, “Do you really have all that Article furniture?” I absolutely do. It’s all over the house–including… I sleep on an article bed. So, you should get one, too. Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit, and a discount will automatically be applied at checkout. That’s for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. Earlier this year, 99PI’s Kurt Kohlstedt co-produced a three-part series on vernacular architecture that celebrated our 500th and 501th– 501st and 502nd episode. And in those episodes are staff and friends of the show–they shared their personal experiences with various building types that were near and dear to them. And in the end, we just had too many great stories. And so, Kurt saved one for later. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:15] I did. And for anybody who’s ever wondered how I got to be this incredibly nerdy urbanist that I am today. Well, there’s also a little bit of my origin story baked into this tale. It starts in Old Beijing, a part of China’s capital city. And I was in the country to travel with my father, who was working there. And we saw all of these amazing sights. But to me, Old Beijing was the most fascinating place we visited. 

Roman Mars [00:30:40] And I take it from the name “Old Beijing,” it’s old. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:30:44] Oh, yes, yes. For starters, it’s very, very old. And it’s this area that’s defined in large part by these ancient hutong alleyways, which are mostly car free today and are dense and bustling with city life but in this cozy and comfortable way that I really loved. And these already narrow alleys, in turn, branched off into even narrower paths–like veins and arteries forking into capillaries. But when I started to wander down one of these smaller paths, this old woman appeared at a doorway, and she waved me off because apparently, I had crossed some kind of invisible threshold between public and private space. It was this line that only she could see. And to my dad and my brother, it was just a curiosity. But to me–I mean, you know me–I was very deeply intrigued and I had to do it. 

Roman Mars [00:31:30] Like, “I can’t let this go!” 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:32] Of course not. No. Me of all people? No. No way. And so, after the trip, I started digging into the long history of hutongs to try and understand what my transgression had been. And I learned a lot about the history of these hutongs along the way, which have changed a lot over time. Way back in the 13th century, hutongs were simply these utilitarian alleyways that helped Beijing function. 

Roman Mars [00:31:54] I mean, it makes sense. A lot of cities have alleys. I mean, so what was different or specific about hutongs? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:31:59] Historically, it was less that the alleys themselves were different–more that the architecture they served was because the city’s residential vernacular was dominated by this special kind of courtyard home that took up a lot of space. We’re talking about huge walled estates, each containing multiple houses arrayed around this central open space. And so unlike alleys–in the way that we think of them–running behind blocks, these ran behind blocks, between blocks because what they were serving was these huge courtyard complexes. 

Roman Mars [00:32:28] Right. Okay. So, you have this open space. There’s lots of freestanding buildings between them. These alleys–they’re not in a grid necessarily. They’re basically, like, roads to access all these different spaces within these courtyard systems. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:32:41] Exactly. And these hutongs serve other walled structures, too. Like, this courtyard approach I’m talking about was used for palaces, markets, temples, and all kinds of other architecture. And in a way, the city itself was kind of like a giant courtyard mega complex because it had its own walls and watchtowers. But then in the early 1900s, everything changed. 

Roman Mars [00:33:01] Yeah, I would say so. I mean, you talk about the fall of the last, you know, Chinese dynasty–you’ve got political struggles, you’ve got revolutions, you’ve got modernization, urbanization. Like, I can imagine that all of that had an impact on the capital city as well. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:13] Yeah, just a little bit. And so, the built environment was reshaped really quickly and really dramatically with all of those forces you just mentioned. And to begin with, they started pulling down those walls around the city so that Beijing could grow outward. But of course, there’s also this growing population inside the city. 

Roman Mars [00:33:31] Hmm. And I’m guessing that the courtyard homes and all that extra space, you know, was pretty tempting when it came to, like, developing some new spaces for people to live and exist. Yeah. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:42] Oh, yeah. And so, to make room, some of these courtyard houses were predictably just demolished, which left an empty site for denser, taller architecture to be built up. But a lot of them were just filled in instead. 

Roman Mars [00:33:54] So filled in in what sense? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:33:55] Well, as in those open courtyards I was talking about became packed with these new buildings. But of course, the hutong alleys running alongside these big residential blocks–well, suddenly there were buildings inside of the former courtyards that they couldn’t reach anymore. 

Roman Mars [00:34:09] So they basically had to make more hutongs to reach everything inside. Was this, like, a planned thing, or it just kind of happened?

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:16] I mean, as far as I could tell, it really wasn’t. It was pretty organic, and residents just sort of negotiated this mishmash of remaining voids so that everybody could have at least some narrow path into and out of the complex to get to their house. And these new paths that were formed in these courtyards aren’t exactly public spaces, but they aren’t exactly private spaces either. They’re liminal spaces. Or at least that’s, I hope, why I would shooed away from one when that was in Old Beijing. 

Roman Mars [00:34:44] Right. So, you passed this threshold where this bigger alley became a smaller alley that basically became, like, the pathway to someone’s door, essentially. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:34:53] And there was no marking to delineate that. But that’s exactly what it was. And of course, for me, all of this was really charming and interesting. But that’s always the case for an outsider. And things can be different for people who live there. And when I was researching this afterward, I learned that in some cases, for example, a large number of these very small households don’t have enough space to have their own bathroom. And so, they have to share a communal one. But some dwellings alongside the hutongs are still quite expansive and luxurious, too. Like in most places, there’s a huge range in terms of the quality of life and the cost of living there. 

Roman Mars [00:35:26] Yeah. I mean, so you researched all this after the fact. You didn’t know this at the time. But what made you go down a hutong to begin with? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:35:36] Yeah. No, it was so many things. There were all of these little grocery shops, cafes, and bars. And there were residents just relaxing, playing chairs, and sipping tea. There was laundry strung up above the hutongs, bikes leaning against the walls, and basically any niche that hadn’t been filled by something else had plants in it. And so, it was like the closeness and the density of this space pushed everything out into a shared public sphere. And again, it’s easy for me to say, “Oh, that’s cozy” rather than “cramped” because I don’t have to live there. 

Roman Mars [00:36:10] Right. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:11] And I should also mention that the meaning of the word “hutong” itself has evolved as well, much like these physical spaces that we’re talking about. So, these days, “hutong” can still mean alleyway, but it’s also become a term for the neighborhoods that grew up around these old alleys. 

Roman Mars [00:36:25] That makes sense–that just naming something after a defining feature, like, I don’t know, Hermosa Beach or something like that. The whole thing is not a beach, but…

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:33] But yeah. But it gives it its character. And that’s what people think of when they think of the place. And for me, as an urbanist, I really love these hutongs. They’re dense and walkable with all this street life and all these shops. And you could say that they’re right up my alley. 

Roman Mars [00:36:49] No, you could not say that. Not in this house. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:51] Really? Am I not–? Okay, I won’t–

Roman Mars [00:36:51] Too far. Too far. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:36:54] Too far. Great.

Roman Mars [00:36:56] I feel like over the years, we might have trained people to see the hutongs and not the Great Wall–or do both! 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:37:07] Yeah, I’d like to think so. Yeah. It’s very much, you know, always read the plaque, take a minute, look closely at the thing. It’s so easy to overlook. And it’s so hard to miss the Great Wall of China. 

Roman Mars [00:37:19] Exactly. Well, thank you for, you know, another year of helping us see the things that are pretty easy to miss, Kurt. I appreciate it. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:37:25] Oh, well, you too, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:37:35] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Delaney Hall, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and Kurt Kohlstedt. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Christopher Johnson, Emmett Fitzgerald, Chris Berube, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg, while it lasts. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at You’re listening to a Stitcher podcast from SiriusXM. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize