Keeping It Real in the Postmodern City
One of my favorite places on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is Yonah Schimmel Knishery on Houston just east of the Bowery. One of the last holdovers from the neighborhood’s storied Jewish past, Yonah Schimmel has been in business in the same spot since 1910. The building has hardly been updated in all that time with plumbing and electrical fixtures installed on top of the original interior plaster walls, the whole lot of which has been painted over dozens of times in the past century. The worn display cases also appear to be original issue, the tables and chairs mid-20th century.
The guys who run Yonah Schimmel seem to have stepped out of the past too, with their thick Yiddish accents, wrinkled black trousers and white shirts with rolled up sleeves, and oversized Coke-bottle-lens eyeglasses. Until the digital conversion, a small, antiquated portable TV with foil on the rabbit ears was perched high on a shelf behind the service counter and always on, though it was hard to tell what station it was tuned to. Yonah Schimmel’s knishes are so legendary that well-to-do Jews in the Diaspora (that is, anywhere west of the Hudson River) often show off for friends and family by having them air freighted in from Manhattan for special occasions. (Order online and see for yourself.)
Yonah Schimmel is also the site of one of my favorite cultural mash ups. A few years ago, the neighborhood started going upscale. The New Museum of Contemporary Art relocated from SoHo to an avant-garde structure on the Bowery nearby. Rents started going up. A Landmark Theater multiplex showing first-run art films and a new ultramodern Howard Johnson’s hotel moved in, flanking the knishery on either side. Svelte fashionistas, dressed from head to toe in black, sporting the logos of Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and such, started dropping in for a bite before and after show times.
At first, the proprietors seemed genuinely perplexed by this crowd, in particular because the newcomers couldn’t seem to get into the routine, in place at Yonah Schimmel for decades, that standing in the take-out line means just that: when your order comes up, you get it and leave. (Hey, if you want to eat in, sit at a table, already. This ain’t McDougal’s, Mr. Brown.) I once joked to the guys that pretty soon they’d need a velvet rope and stanchions and a bouncer to keep things in line. This clash of old and new notions of city life is at the heart of Sharon Zukin’s new book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.
Naked City: The Death and Life of Authenic Urban Places
(Oxford University Press; US: Dec 2009)
A sociologist who teaches at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, Zukin has been examining urban life for the better part of four decades with a special emphasis on her hometown, the Big Apple. As the subtitle suggests, her new book revisits the argument laid out by Jane Jacobs in the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But it just as much extends the line of inquiry Zukin has pursued since the beginning in books like Loft Living (1982), Landscapes of Power (1991), and The Culture of Cities (1995), namely, chronicling how the forces of creative destruction of capitalism work to continually refashion the urban environment in pursuit of profit.
Jacobs saw local communities (‘urban villages’ as another sociologist, Herbert Gans, dubbed them) engaged in a pitched battle against government bureaucratic power seeking to create a cookie-cutter corporate city of glass-box office towers, high-rise apartments, and limited-access highways. In contrast, Zukin points to unbridled market forces using the tools Jacobs first espoused, in particular cultural diversity, neighborhood distinctiveness, and ‘liveable’ scale, in a kind of jujitsu that leverages local ‘authenticity’ in the service of economic development. The result is usually to force out an area’s original inhabitants in favor of a more-affluent clientele. Ironically, what happens in the process is that more and more of the urban environment has become just a ‘hipper’ variation of the standardized world Jacobs abhorred. (Starbucks is the postmodern equivalent of McDonald’s. Go to any so-called upscale shopping district in major cities around the world and you’ll see the identical designer brand names adorning many of the storefronts.)
Zukin looks at several key neighborhoods that help illuminate the different ways in which this type of gentrification has worked. In the case of Williamsburg, writers, artists, musicians, and other cultural creatives followed the old ethnic working classes that had been pushed out of SoHo and Little Italy over the Williamsburg Bridge (part of the story told in Loft Living) into the near side of Brooklyn to create a funky neighborhood of bistros, performance spaces, and boutiques accessible to and from downtown Manhattan on the L line of the subway. In Harlem, middle-class housing stock that had been built on speculation and rejected by whites earlier in the twentieth century provided the foundation for a ‘new Renaissance’, this time based not on the natural genius of the New Negro but on the quest for a relatively affordable homestead still located in Manhattan. (Even America’s most hallowed social institution, racism, has proven to be no match for the upward pressure of the city’s real estate values. The New York Times recently reported that Harlem is no longer a majority-black neighborhood. (“No Longer Majority Black, Harlem Is in Transition” by Sam Roberts, 5 January 2010)
The East Village’s legacy as a bohemian enclave going back to the time of the Beats and continuing with the hippies and then the punks has set the stage for an explosion of lifestyle consumerism. What is consistent in each case is the reliance on the private sector to manage what was once seen as the responsibility of government on the public’s behalf, which in striving to appeal to commercial interests has threatened the local character of these areas as they have undergone ‘revitalization’.
Zukin admits that there are up sides to this process. Few people miss the crack dealers down in Alphabet City, even if they did help keep the rents low back in the day. The range of fresh produce and other foodstuffs available for most of the year at the Union Square Greenmarket is a welcome respite to the often-meager selection of the grungy shitholes that pass for supermarkets in many parts of New York City. What’s more, Zukin and her husband were among the urban pioneers of the East Village, having lived there since the ‘70s when the loft building in which they still reside was predominately used for light manufacturing. They know first hand about ‘sweat equity’, having invested time and their own money in upgrading a raw industrial space into an urbane residential property.
They further enjoyed the advantage of being in on an initial co-op conversion, enabling them to own their share of the building. (Many people invest in similar leasehold improvements, as they’re called, which can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, without ever having the benefit of ownership.) The problem is what to do about those who aren’t so fortunate, those whose lives are upended because they can’t afford to keep the places they’ve called home, sometimes for generations.
Here Zukin evokes French urbanologist Henri Levebvre’s concept of ‘the right to the city’, that is, the claim an individual or a group has to a particular piece of urban territory. In Zukin’s reading, this right is now negotiated as a clash of ‘authenticity’, the moral claims of old vs. new, of origins vs. style. The former often takes the form of the traditions and activities pursued by ethnic inhabitants of previous generations who populated a particular area, as in the soul-food restaurants, jazz and R&B joints, and sanctifying storefront churches of Harlem in its twentieth-century ghetto incarnation. The latter are basically the tastes and pursuits of what Richard Florida terms the ‘creative class’: the trendy little shops of entrepreneurial designers, nouvelle cuisine restaurants and cappuccino bars, microbreweries, galleries, and the like.