Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Government

September 13, 2010

Sharon Zukin's Prayer for The City

The author of Naked City laments New York's astounding loss of authenticity.

Max Lakin

My cousin, a 30-year-old securities lawyer who takes more jaunts to places like Moscow and South Beach than to his office, has lived in Manhattan for years. His new apartment—a glistening, glass-walled, nearly transparent ridgeline of a building on the Bowery near Houston Street with an attended lobby and well-manicured roof deck and $4,000 per month rent—imposes little of the spectre of its neighborhood’s past. It manages to be all hulk and angles, yet achieves that New York new-construction anonymity. It sits around the corner from the old CBGB (now, of course, the edgy John Varvatos storefront), and a half dozen discount chandelier shops. The alley that buffers it has an artisanal chocolate boutique at its end. He finds no irony in this at all.

Sociologist Sharon Zukin, however, finds the irony endless, and more than a little dejecting.

Sharon Zukin
"If the economic recession halts the insanity of building more luxury apartments, we have a chance to save Manhattan’s soul."

Sharon Zukin

In her new book, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Zukin, a professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and City University Graduate Center, offers a taxonomy of New York neighborhoods that would otherwise comprise some guidebook list of New Essential Hot Spots—Williamsburg, Harlem, and yes, the East Village—but here stand in as anthropological studies of the New Gentrification that, for many, has rendered New York a smooth caricature of itself. The authenticity, she argues, of places like Clinton Hill and Red Hook, once working-class redoubts populated by immigrants and unimpressed with bourgeois dining options, has drawn in new residents enamored with that allure yet unable to keep from eroding it; it is the authenticity of these places that has become their death warrant.

Certainly New York and its boroughs have not yet descended into rudderless chain-store homogeneity, but in the vein of Jane Jacobs, Zukin delivers a wistful dirge for a city that's getting uncomfortably close to evaporating. Gelf spoke with Zukin via email about who draws the bounds on authenticity in an endlessly shifting city, and what, if anything, is left.

Gelf Magazine: How long have you been looking at New York?

Sharon Zukin: I've lived in New York since college and graduate school at Columbia, so I speak from an embarrassingly long experience of living and working in the city. When I published Loft Living, my first book about New York, in 1982, I wrote about the loss of the city's old manufacturing base, the erosion of its social infrastructure, and the cultural strategies of redevelopment that supply amenities for and by the "creative class" and its financial patrons and employers. These are still dominant themes today. Let's face it, real estate has been New York's basic industry for a long time. This shapes both the city's physical fabric and its moral universe.

Gelf Magazine: The book is largely concerned with what remains "authentic" after old architecture and its inhabitants give way to the gentry. While you're surely not alone in your concern of a certain emotional hollowness that seems to accompany new construction in New York, isn't that ebb more a temporal product of perspective, as opposed to a singular blight being perpetrated? We lament a Whole Foods pushing out an Irish pub, for example, but nativists didn't much care for that Irish pub in the first place.

Sharon Zukin: This kind of reasoning makes sense but soon segues into free-market aesthetics. Sure, groups of people move on, tastes change, and new trends emerge. But how many of the changes we see in our neighborhoods result from "natural" processes? How many changes are forced by developers' or landlords' desires to charge higher rents?
As a result, the city develops the emotional hollowness you ask about, with the aesthetic sameness of chain stores and the lack of diversity among people you see around you on the street. This is a new version of the "great blight of dullness" that Jane Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, a book that both influenced and infuriated me while I was writing Naked City.

Gelf Magazine: Is hipster Brooklyn essentially an annex of the Pacific Northwest? Beards and coffee, right?

Sharon Zukin: It's more an annex of the East Village or Morningside Heights. Wow, walking to the L train on Bedford Avenue or Morgan Avenue is like being back in college. Meanwhile, a lot of the centrally located avenues have been duplicated from the same shopping-mall gene.

Gelf Magazine: Would you say Astor Place—at one time home to three Starbucks—was the apogee of gentrification? What was it about the East Village that made it so rife for such fast social turnover?

Sharon Zukin: Actually changing the use of space takes decades. The New York Times was writing about the Bowery's "inevitable" redevelopment in the 1950s, but it didn't become the boulevard of boutique hotels it is now until after 2000. Either new retail entrepreneurs, often artists themselves, open cafés, bars, and boutiques that signal an area is safe for new investment, or the city government follows developers' noses and rezones or subsidizes new construction. Williamsburg is an example of the first case, Harlem of the second. You never know when you've reached the peak of gentrification; when I wrote about SoHo in the 1980s, I thought that was the apogee! Sometimes life imitates sociology.

Gelf Magazine: The announcement of The Williamsburg Hotel pretty much sends that neighborhood over the precipice of speculation and into Ninth-ring territory. I'm just curious where it goes from here. Does it get a glass-enclosed air-bridge to the Meatpacking District, or do they just co-opt it and charge single admission? Or do we just need to cut it out and drop it all east of Bed-Stuy to staunch the bleed?

Sharon Zukin: Don't forget that New York is unusual among US cities for the rampant spread of both hipster and luxury districts. It's much easier and cheaper to get by in a city with minimal opportunities for uber-alt and uber-rich to thrive. And the current long wave of gentrification follows decades of ghettoization when investors refused to support people and housing.

Gelf Magazine: The culture changes in the neighborhoods you focus on—Young Brooklyn, The East Village, Harlem—are undeniable. But I'm not certain they're wholly negative. Residents are pushed out as rents become untenable, but people can only subsist on coin-laundromats and Chinese take-out windows for so long. What is the compromise between progress and exploitation, preservation and erosion? That Third Way between Jacobs and Robert Moses?

Sharon Zukin: If the Bloomberg administration's wholesale rezoning schemes can be stopped, or if the economic recession halts the insanity of building more luxury apartments, we have a chance to save Manhattan's soul. Physically, most blocks are still short and the old architecture is rich and varied. Socially, there are still cheap apartments where low- and middle-income tenants are protected from sky-high rents. There should be many more cheap apartments and low rents for stores, as well.

Gelf Magazine: In so far as Manhattan has become a theme park—the branded marketing arm of Bloomberg Inc. accessible only to European tourists—is there any coming back? Can it be reclaimed from the seven-figure condo price point to a place where two people can reasonably expect to raise a family?

Sharon Zukin: It's interesting that the latest census data show more young families deciding to stay in Manhattan and having more children than in the past half-century. Are they just DIIB (dual income investment banker) families who like the new, domesticated city? Or are they betting that Manhattan will become a more humane and pleasurable place despite the high price of housing?

Gelf Magazine: You argue that the distinctiveness of New York neighborhoods is now only simulacrum—the projection of an image, cultivated and maintained, fueled by an intricate psychology of praising the authentic with the right hand, genuinely, even—while paving over it with the left. This is pretty depressing.

Sharon Zukin: Think of authenticity not just as an experience but as a form of social justice. Say two words: "Rent. Control." Let's also think how our neighborhoods would look if we had zoning for small-scale shops within a short walk of everyone's home. Just as we need laws to protect the natural environment, we need government to protect the city's social environment.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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- Books
- posted on Sep 14, 10

I can't take anyone who advocates rent control seriously. Ask any economist - those who primarily study urban economics (Ed Glaeser and others) or even Nobel Prize winners on the left (Krugman) - they'll warn you against it.

Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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