Saturday, May 22, 2010

Schwarz in The Atlantic on Gentrification and its Discontents

Benjamin Schwarz has written a fascinating article in The Atlantic called Gentrification and its Discontents: Manhattan never was what we think it was.  The intro:

MICHAEL SORKIN, AN architect and critic, and Sharon Zukin, an urban sociologist, have each written what they describe as books about contemporary New York City—but that’s putting things far too broadly. Zukin’s Naked City does make forays into the white-hot center of hipness, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, and to rapidly gentrifying Harlem. But the bulk of her book, and all of Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, is confined to fine-grained observations of the streets and neighborhoods within roughly 20 blocks of their apartments in Greenwich Village—that is, west to the Village’s Meatpacking District and new Gold Coast along West Street, east to the fringes of Alphabet City, north to Union Square, and south to SoHo and Tribeca. This area today is in every sense rarefied, and for most of its history was in crucial ways set apart from the rest of Manhattan, which to some extent leaped beyond it. Still, the precedent for using the Village to draw lessons and issue prescriptions about New York generally, and indeed urban life writ large, was of course sanctified in 1961 by that doughty urban observer and community activist, Jane Jacobs. She largely formed her conclusions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—the ur-text for contemporary writing about urban life and the most influential American book ever written about cities—by closely reading the neighborhood life around her house on Hudson Street (about six blocks from Sorkin’s apartment and, by my reckoning, about 10 from Zukin’s; it’s all a bit clubby). . . . 

This article asks us to rethink the basic assumption that the urban life Jane Jacobs describes was really a traditional and organic manifestation.  For Jane Jacobs fans like me this is a really intriguing historical argument.  More from the article:

Inevitably, behind cries of decline is a conception, conscious or not, of a time and situation that was better—when the city had a soul. In her invocations of laundries and shoe-repair and hardware stores, Zukin betrays a vague nostalgia, shared by many chronicles of New York (Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Ric Burns’s documentary New York, Pete Hamill’s memoirs), for the Old Neighborhoods characteristic of what was once an overwhelmingly working-class city. . . . [Noting that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was only one generation before Jacobs, it] means that even hazy melancholy for the New York of regular Joes with lunch pails returning after a good day’s work to their neighborhoods of kids playing stickball and corner drugstores dispensing egg creams can only evoke scenes pretty much limited to the years of the LaGuardia administration.

Stickball. That cracks me up.  When I lived in Tennessee, I had a friend who loved to insist (with complete knowledge and humor) that because I was from "New York" (well upstate in a suburb of Albany, actually), my childhood must necessarily have been replete with games of stickball in the alley, scampering around with mischievous moppets, stealing apples from the fruit carts, and so on.  But this article's challenge to the Jacobs thesis of urban neighborhood decline is quite serious: 

Thanks to the profound influence that The Death and Life of Great American Cities has exerted, the West Village circa 1960 has come to epitomize—really to be the blueprint for—the urban good life. But in its mix of the new and the left over, in its alchemy of authenticity, grit, seedy glamour, and intellectual and cultural sophistication, this was a neighborhood in a transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment. Which meant that it was about to lose its soul. 

It's a great article, challenging to many of the assumptions that people have today about the basis for the urban good life, and you really should read the whole thing.  h/t to Matt Berger.

Also, it's worth noting that this article is part of The Atlantic's special report, The Future of the City.  Lots, lots, and lots of interesting stuff there.  Do check it out.  

Matt Festa

New Urbanism, New York, Planning, Politics, Urbanism | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Schwarz in The Atlantic on Gentrification and its Discontents:


I've just run across this post, and I'd like to make a belated comment/suggestion:

I hope that those who are interested in this topic will also check out my comments on the Benjamin Schwarz essay. They can be found just below the online article itself. (Sometimes it takes a while for the comments to the article to load.)

In brief (and my comments on the Atlantic Monthly website are longer), the Schwarz essay seems to me to be, unfortunately, more of a discussion of various myths that have arisen around Jane Jacobs, rather than about what she actually wrote, said or did.

My first two comments begin about three or four comments down the page; and then I have another comment about half way down the page

Benjamin Hemric
July 8, 2010, 8:19 p.m.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric | Jul 8, 2010 5:20:14 PM