Sharon Zukin

 

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

Cover Interview of December 16, 2009

The wide angle

These broad questions of authenticity and displacement challenge the political, cultural, and economic habits of city dwellers all over the world.  But Naked City is also a very specific book about New York.  I argue against both sides of a power struggle that has shaped New York City during the past half-century: the struggle between the corporate city and the urban village.

The corporate city is identified with the slash-and-burn urban renewal policies and massive highway construction overseen by New York’s public-sector urban builder Robert Moses from the 1930s to the 1960s.  Moses was notorious for imposing his plans on a captive public through his adroit use of an overbearing bureaucracy and government funds.

The urban village refers to a different experience: the small-scale social life of neighborhoods and community autonomy.  First described in a study of the West End of Boston, an Italian-American working class community, by the sociologist Herbert Gans, the urban village is closely connected with the writer and activist Jane Jacobs, who worked with community groups in Greenwich Village to defeat Robert Moses’s last big plans in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Revered for her common sense vision of the city, Jacobs wrote about “the ballet of the sidewalk” and the intimate life among strangers on the streets—local residents, store owners, and workers.  Radical at first, in contrast to Moses’s power, Jacobs’s view has gradually become more influential.  In fact, this is the lifestyle vision of both gentrifiers and contemporary city planning commissioners, an aesthetic ideal of authenticity that consumes both the neighborhood and its longtime residents.

Of course the corporate city and the urban village are idealized landscapes, tropes for opposing “good” and “evil” values.  Nevertheless they inspire real aspirations and behavior, and these become ways of using the city to promote one group’s advantage over another’s.

I think I have always had a passion to discover the “authentic” city.  And it has been honed by living in New York during the period Naked City describes.

First coming to New York as a college student, and remaining through three decades of teaching and writing, I have been both exasperated and enchanted by the city’s gilt and dross, brutal honesty and flagrant self-promotion and ability to inspire dreams.  I don’t want to be nostalgic for a city that never was.  But I find a more attractive modernity in the noir image of the city, the post-World War II, black-and-white street scenes of Weegee’s photos and Jules Dassin’s film Naked City, with its diners, tenements, taxis, and even offices.  Can city life be better without displacing the poorest residents and turning the streets into an urban shopping mall that looks like every other place on the planet?  Can we consume the city without destroying it?

I know that “authenticity” is a chaotic concept.  Many people say you cannot even talk about cities as authentic because they are constantly changing.  New York especially has been tearing down and building up at a rapid rate at least since the 1850s.  But the idea of authenticity has an undeniable cultural power.  It has a real effect on our attachment to our neighborhood, on the stores where we like to shop, on the way we see some places as interesting and others as unworthy of our attention as cultural consumers.