Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places

April 8, 2010

Like the cops who chase the gangsters across New York in the 1948 film noir Naked City, Sharon Zukin travels from district to district, describing "How Brooklyn became cool", "Why Harlem is not a ghetto" and "Living local in the East Village" in a slightly futile pursuit of "authenticity".

Naked City is written as a critique and update of Jane Jacobs' canonical work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which, although out of date, is still essential reading for any student of the city and is ripe for revision. Jacobs argued for a city of lively streets at human scale in which barren open spaces unpoliced by the human eye should be kept to the minimum. She won a fight with Robert Moses, then a highly powerful developer in New York, and prevented him from redeveloping key parts of the city in line with his modernist vision.

Zukin's writing shares some of the tone and pace of Jacobs' work, although it lacks the clarity of vision. She records in loving detail the transformations in the street life of New York: the fate of Sikhulu Shange's Record Shack on 125th Street in Harlem, for example, or the growth and demise of family food vendors in Red Hook. In a sense, this book has more use as a social history than anything else, as it is too waffly, too journalistic, too patchy in its coverage and too lacking in concrete information and convincing sources to be of much use for teaching. So much could have been done with pictures, maps, diagrams and (dare I say) graphs to show the roles of changes in demography and land use in the transformation of her case study areas. Instead, we are left to rely on Zukin's sometimes maundering descriptions and the odd photo.

She pines for the days when shops were local, when low and middle-income people could afford to live in New York, resulting in the mix that is so essential, she feels, to authenticity. The book sometimes reads as a requiem for Zukin's lost love - the New York of the 1980s, the New York that I remember from my days there as a student. It presents a delightful trip down memory lane and makes me think of my own vexed relationship with London, where I was born and raised but where I could never live. In this way, she draws attention to the displaced feeling that comes over many city dwellers, which is perhaps as much a product of nostalgia and midlife crisis as anything else.

This is not to diminish the importance of her essential message, which is one that fits with the "Just City" movement emerging from the US. In the current climate, planning policy gives priority to economic growth and often seems to serve developer interests at the expense of everything else. Buildings and sites are sometimes treated like coffee or bananas, another bland commodity to be traded between international companies with astonishingly little consideration of their impact on the life of their city of origin. Zukin stresses the need to put pressure on governments to support communities against the power of market forces in order to "restore a city's soul". I think she is absolutely right, but I wish that she hadn't said it like this.

Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.

By Sharon Zukin. Oxford University Press 309pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780195382853. Published 7 January 2010

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