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).
Both authors are consciously, unavoidably “in dialogue” with Jacobs, as Sorkin puts it, so it’s probably not surprising that the two broadly agree on what ails New York and how it should be remedied. The city, Zukin laments, has “lost its soul.” What Sorkin calls the “pathology” of gentrification is obliterating those elements of thriving urban life that Jacobs famously identified: diversity of uses; the mom-and-pop stores; what Zukin calls the “cheek-by-jowl checkerboard” of rich, poor, and middle class; the distinctive identity of neighborhoods. Formerly funky precincts are upscaled, redeveloped, and—you guessed it—“Disneyfied.” In the Village, Sorkin declares, “local businesses and longtime residents are being forced out by rising prices and yuppies.” In SoHo, the sidewalks have long been packed on weekends with people who “with no thought of art” (my emphasis) have “come simply to shop and brunch and to look at each other shopping and brunching.” (I should add that although their screeds and prescriptions are banal and predictable, Sorkin’s and Zukin’s minute, street-level observations and their analyses of the social forces underlying gentrification are astute and precise.)