Sharon Zukin


On her book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places

Cover Interview of December 15, 2009

In a nutshell

Are cities losing their soul?  Stroll around the center of the world’s great cities, and you see the same gentrified neighborhoods, certified historic buildings, spectacular skyscrapers and new modern art museums.  On the waterfront you find deserted warehouses next to loft-apartments.  Cafés and boutiques are standout destinations in shuttered factory districts that now represent the epicenter of cool.  This Destination City is attractive to tourists, calmed by shopping and secured by private guards.  But it’s a city that has lost its edge of difference, its authentic character, what some people call its “soul.”

Like other cities from London to Shanghai, New York has gone through these identity changes during the past thirty years.  Despite a chronic fiscal crisis and the current economic recession, the city has filled the uneven gap between grit and glamour, sprouted manicured public parks controlled by private business districts and brought white residents, mostly college graduates, to neighborhoods that used to be dangerous and unappealing.

A chain store invasion has turned the city into a continuous network of Starbucks, Chase Bank branches, Rite-Aid stores, and H&Ms.  Declining crime rates and rising careers in finance and media encourage new people to make all of New York their own.  In the process, though, many longtime residents have vanished and much of the city’s authentic character has been transformed.

My book focuses on the power of authenticity as an urban ideal.  Naked City visits Greenwich Village, Harlem, and the Brooklyn waterfront to show how New York’s working-class neighborhoods and “dark ghettos” have been transformed by entrepreneurial hipsters, gentrifiers seeking their roots, aggressive real estate developers and mayors, and government grants.  But we also uncover new terroirs where cultural identities are forged: public ball fields where Latino immigrants sell the foods of their homelands, a locavore farmers’ market, and a community garden in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

This journey poses two big questions.  Is the idea of authenticity only a means of preserving a city’s elite cultures?  Or can it be used to ensure everyone a right to stay in the place where they live and work?