Michael Sorkin's elegant and readable book is hung on his
daily route from home to work and is ostensibly about the New York City of
the title. However, whilst it certainly at times captures a sense of
Greenwich Village and lower Manhattan, it is mostly a series of informed and
entertaining, if occasionally polemical, digressions to discuss architecture,
gentrification, redevelopment, and the very nature of the late 20th/early
21st century city.
Sorkin is an architect, so there is plenty of observation and technical
detail here. I was fascinated by his discussion of how urban blocks work
architecturally; also, by his clear discussion of how the interiors of both
industrial buildings in Soho and tall office blocks work in different ways.
He is just as good at capturing the sociological aspects of the city too, how
people respond and adapt to place and change. There is, for example, a
hilarious section on Sorkin's own adopted elevator etiquette.
There are much more important matters at the heart of this book though.
Sorkin repeatedly comes back to the tension between the planned super-city or
megapolis envisioned by Corbusier (and critiqued by Jane Jacobs, another touchstone
for him) and the evolving, changing and liveable city created by and for
people. Clearly, Manhattan is no Corbusien nightmare, but it has seen
architectural, traffic and pedestrian rules and zones imposed on it without
much consideration for the knock-on effect.
Sorkin is no fool, can see that urban regeneration can be good, but he is all
too aware that spiralling property prices and gentrification simply result
in cities for the urban rich; that clearing the sidewalks of street vendors
beggars simply moves the problem and results in each and every city becoming
the same homogenized shopping mall. He is especially interesting when
considering traffic flow: he considers the idea of removing traffic lights
and signs so that instead of stop/start traffic a slow moving column results,
where individual encounters with oncoming and turning traffic are negotiated
- as in Indian cities with their mix of humans, cattle, bicycles and
motor-driven vehicles. On one level this, and other suggestions throughout
the book, merely seem facetious and idealistic, but Sorkin is no naive joker.
He welcomes modernist architecture, welcomes restored and cared-for older
buildings, but not at the expense of affordable living for normal people.
He clearly resents legalistic intrusion where things are working well, citing
the lower crime rate in Washington Square Park itself as an example of
self-policed social space that does not need a proposed security fence around
it. He is suspicious of deals cut with real estate corporations, where the
pay off for the city is a sliver of green land in exchange for oversized dull
buildings that do not suit the areas they are situated within. And he does
not support the way landlords refuse to maintain buildings and sidewalks,
preferring to let tenants suffer until they can afford to redevelop the site
and sell condominiums or apartments for millions. (Remember, we're talking
gentrified Greenwich Village here, not the Bronx of 70s films.)
Clearly, Sorkin is a child of the Sixties, idealistic and impassioned, but
he is also level-headed and academically minded. (He is a Distinguished
Professor of Architecture.) He is astute enough to see through the idealistic
fascism of Corbusier, but not foolish enough to ignore concepts such as hidden
highways, streets in the sky, green policies and the changing economy which
might provide possible solutions or point towards them. He clearly loves his
home city (well, who wouldn't or doesn't love Manhattan?) and resents it's
partial change into a playground for the super-rich at the cost of social
diversity and a network of neighborhoods. He is also visionary enough to
suggest practical, surprising and idealistic, well-considered changes and
possibilities for not only New York but cities everywhere. This is an
engrossing and thoughtful read.
© Rupert Loydell