Where Different Levels Comingle
Photo (partial) by Mario Tama
These latter are also known by turns as the effects of ‘neo-bohemianism’ and ‘the Warhol economy’, the collaborating interests of the arts, fashion, and entertainment that drive development these days especially in cosmopolitan cities such as New York. In the sociologist’s lingo, it’s an updated version of the transition between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, literally community and society, the transition from the traditional and to the modern (or postmodern as the case now may be).
At the end of the 19th century, this dialectic described the movement from an agrarian, rural-based system of small, self-contained communities to an industrial urban one of the large teeming metropolises. Today the transition is from a mass-manufacturing based system of production to a primarily knowledge-based consumer society. This new and improved world order is the subject of Zukin’s previous book, Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture (2004). And Naked City fills in some of the political and economic considerations that arguably went underexplored in that earlier study’s emphasis on individual expression and cultural identity as revealed by Zukin’s ethnographies conducted at the sales counter.
Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture
(Taylor & Francis)
Given that, one of the admirable things about Naked City is its accessibility. For years now, sociologists have been wringing their hands over their perceived marginality in public debates, in part because of the specialization that has increasingly characterized the discipline and narrowed the audiences for each of the subfields that seem to multiply each academic year like viruses. Zukin deftly synthesizes concepts of urban, economic, and cultural sociology and makes them concrete by applying names and faces to them.
Thus Red Hook, the former heavy-industrial section of the South Brooklyn waterfront, becomes a case study of capitalism’s collision of local and global with family ethnic food vendors working neighborhood ball fields and vying for a piece of the American dream in the margins left between new colonial districts being carved out by big-box imports like IKEA. The struggle between centralized market dependency and local self-reliance is further exemplified, on the one hand, by the invasion of the urban landscape in all parts of the city by commercial interests in the form of super-sized billboard ads and, on the other hand, by the neighborhood community gardens in Manhattan and the outer boroughs that provide sustenance and self-satisfaction for local residents.
Plus, throughout the book are photographs, taken mostly by Zukin but a few also by her spouse Richard Rosen, which document the changing urban environment. These could be presented on their own with brief captions as an effective example of yet another subfield, visual sociology, though they are engaging and informative in their own right.
A significant cultural shift of which Zukin takes note in the change from the old authenticity to the new is a waning of political consciousness and the rise of aesthetic sensibility in its place. This ostensible diminishing of the public sphere, the theoretical disengagement of citizens from issues of common concern, is often explained as an effect of a broader transition from a modern producer-oriented society to a postmodern consumer-oriented one. This explanation generally correlates the dissolution of group solidarity with individual feelings of disconnection left in its wake.
Other evidence typically presented along these lines are eroding rates of voter participation (although the last presidential election seems to have reversed the trend somewhat for the moment at least) and reduced involvement in civil society organizations (the so-called ‘bowling alone’ syndrome). Another element in the process is the privatization of public services, including the demise of the welfare state under free-market libertarianism. These ideas dovetail neatly with Zukin’s basic thesis of the negative effects of pure market logic on the urban environment; however, the evidence she collects also suggests an opportunity.
Perhaps most dramatic is the case of Union Square Park in lower Manhattan. Since the ‘70s, a consortium of private concerns has managed Union Square, one of the most active and accessible public spaces in New York. This private control, Zukin argues, should result in a less democratic environment. And yet, she notes, in this case it reveals a ‘paradox’. After September 11, Union Square became one of the primary sites of public mourning in part because it was the closest large open space to Ground Zero, abutting as it did the northern boundary of the ‘Frozen Zone’ at Fourteenth Street. But just as important was Union Square’s legacy, going back more than a 150 years, of social interaction and especially activism. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq and in the time since, Union Square was and has been the site of many a protest, in some measure due to its proximity to two of the city’s major institutions of higher education, the New School and New York University, but also because it’s a place where New Yorkers have always gone to express public sentiment.
It’s also a place where the different levels of New York’s populace comingle. The northeastern end of the park houses the Greenmarket where the likes of celebrities Anthony Edwards and Kate Hudson, both of whom have pied-a-terres nearby, have been spotted grocery shopping on Saturday mornings. On the southern steps, political activists make speeches and hand out literature. Tattoo artists, caricaturists, and other street vendors ply their trade on the surrounding pavement. People from all over the come just to hang out and watch the world go by. (One of the great personalities of Union Square, vegetable-peeling gadget barker extraordinaire Joe Ades, died in 2009 and was profiled in The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s annual special issue ‘The Lives They Lived’.) Hence there are places and times where regardless of the governance structure underneath, urban crowds can still ‘vote with their feet’, effectively proclaiming their right to the city.
This sets the stage for what some might see as an overly optimistic reliance on Zukin’s part on somewhat old-school remedies of voter mobilization and electoral politics. But, as Zukin points out in her conclusion, the model Jane Jacobs espoused steadfastly refused the option of government action as an outside influence on what should be local concerns, and that’s what brought to our current situation. The challenges of the new urban environment call for a new paradigm. Naked City takes a significant step in that direction.