Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places

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: 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.

Where Different Levels Comingle

Photo (partial) by Mario Tama

Where Different Levels Comingle

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.

Book: Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture

Author: Sharon Zukin

Publisher: Taylor & Francis

Publication: 2004-03

Format: Paperback

Length: 336 pages

Price: $29.95

Image: 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.