Books

Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places

Sociologist Sharon Zukin looks at the forces at play in some of the cooler neighborhoods of New York in this update of Jane Jacobs and the principles of urban revitalization for the 21st century.

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.

Book: Naked City: The Death and Life of Authenic Urban Places

Author: Sharon Zukin

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publication Date: 2009-12

Format: Hardcover

Length: 294 pages

Price: $27.95

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/n/naked_city.jpgA 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.

Next Page


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.