Urban Planning from a Savvy Flâneur
By Gary Schmidgall
Many years ago, when I first came to CUNY as a Mellon post-doc at the Graduate Center, I sublet a tiny apartment in a funky tenement building on West 10th in the Village, just above a lampshade boutique called A Shady Business. Since I rarely saw a customer in it, I began to think it was really a mob front, cleverly named by a Mafioso with a flair for the double entendre.
My very fond memories of that bohemian year in the Village came flooding back as I read Michael Sorkin’s new Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (Reaktion Books). This book is inevitably quirky and serendipitous because it is all about a typical walk from Sorkin’s apartment near Washington Square to the design studio in Tribeca he occupied for 16 years: One never knows what to expect on a Manhattan stroll.
Twenty Minutes — like any foray into the city’s streets — is a bracing dose of variety and cognitive dissonance: pages of wry, bemused contemplations of the vagaries of city apartment-living and bipedal commuting are shuffled with serious mullings on the major issues of urban planning. Sorkin, a CUNY Distinguished Professor, directs the Graduate Urban Design Program at City College’s School of Architecture, and his studio has an international practice. He also professed urbanism at the University of Vienna for many years. His tart style, streetwise aura and un-shy opinions were probably honed over the 10 years he was architecture critic for the Village Voice.
Sorkin’s commute begins at the walk-up apartment on the top of a rent-stabilized tenement on Waverly Place that he and his wife have occupied for nearly a quarter century. It dates from 1892 and Sorkin names it after Poe’s late, lamented Annabel Lee (it's not the real name). About this building we learn much. With droll humor Sorkin laments his mother-and-son landlords — the son “appears to be completely without altruism” — and the floor-neighbor who sublet to a drug dealer (both now gone). But he fondly recalls an elderly fellow tenant who was Chairwoman of the Stoop and full of neighborhood history. His dedication is “For our Neighbors.”
First, of course, the stairs down to the street. A chapter is devoted to the psychology (it’s a “schlep”), physiology (you burn .1 calorie per step up, .05 going down), and design of stairs. Sorkin is a fan of straight-run stairs rather than the switchback ones that save on landing-space. Straight-run stairs are “more elegant and enjoyable to ascend” — the ones in SOHO’s cast-iron buildings are “glorious.”
Once on the sidewalk, Sorkin gets to talk about our grid plan. We have the plan of 1811 to thank for all the 60-foot-wide streets and 100-foot-wide avenues. But it did not make room for alleys as the planners of Chicago and Los Angeles did; hence all the disruptions of traffic flow by garbage trucks. Sorkin revels in the grid-free Village and its maze of “tasty” blocks, and amusingly notes that Villagers are notoriously bad at giving strangers directions in it.
Sorkin moseys south into Soho, “the nation’s poster-child for gentrification,” which he clearly is fond of. “If there is a place in New York with the dimensions of a nineteenth-century European city, this is it.” But he also sees reason to worry for it, noting the downside when a neighborhood becomes a tourist destination and the habitat of high-end metrosexuals.
The dicey task of crossing Canal Street (the badly disguised freeway for New Jersey-to-Brooklyn drivers) sets Sorkin off on a fascinating meditation on traffic and pedestrian control. He recalls the profusion of “movement systems” in India — buses, rickshaws, bullock carts, elephants, bikes “and, of course, those ubiquitous cows” — and in a fairly rare burst of planner-speak calls it “the ultimate convulsive collation of circulatory modes.” But he admits a fondness for the democracy of everyone having to negotiate in the slow-moving mass of vehicles.
Sorkin’s studio happened to look down on the former Hudson Square, which now is the spewing-point for traffic exiting the Holland Tunnel. He spent much time over the years day-dreaming of ways to return the venue to public use: “many schemes for its amelioration grew to fantastical cogency under my gaze.”
Sorkin’s architectural politics are worthy of a “child of the Sixties,” as he calls himself. He is a big fan of Jane Jacobs, who fought epically with “Robert Moses and the geometers” and advocated for “integrated diversity” and preservation of local neighborhoods in city planning. Pointing proudly to the Gay Pride and Halloween parades as the Village’s “most dramatic assertions of the public’s right to the enjoyment of public space,” Sorkin also insists on a place for the Rabelaisian carnivalesque in civic life.
His enemies, aside from his landlords, are predictable: New York University (“an amazingly deaf ear to community concerns”), the landmarks regime (“lethal to innovation and formulates its judgments and approvals according to a theory of the mean”), and Donald Trump (who plopped a “completely bland” 45-story “hotel” into Soho through a zoning loophole).
Sorkin’s walk is littered — I speak figuratively — with some remarkable facts: The elevator was “usefully invented” in 1852; about half of the world’s city-dwellers live in slums; a recent report says our city has the smallest middle class of any place in the country. He will also expand your vocabulary in colorful ways: brickscape (a window view many New Yorkers have), flânerie (French for strolling, especially in a large city), and cyburbs (suburbs in the age of the Internet). He also has a knack for the arresting urbanist aperçu (see sidebar).
Twenty Minutes in Manhattan also has a happy ending. Annabel Lee’s landlords finally spring for new double-paned aluminum windows. “How long have I dreamed of this day! Well-sealed sash!” Sorkin exults, guessing the old exterior window “might well have been unwashed for a century.” He jubilantly descends to congratulate the landlord, and she says (thinking of the rent hike she can now slap on), “You’ll pay, you’ll pay.”
“And then I walked downtown,” the book ends. Since his studio is now on Varick, the stroll is several blocks shorter today.
Sorkin on the Good City
The core of the very nature of the good city: the struggle for diversity; the struggle for self-organization.
Neighborhoods are not like generations, fixed cohorts that march through experience together: They house multiple synchronicities.
By protecting continuity, rent control is the social equivalent of landmarking.
“Gentrification” is a term of artful derogation and should not be applied to more inclusive styles of reviving urban places.
One of the tests of a good contemporary city is, “Do we detect Disney?”
The idea of a flexible bubble of personal sovereignty is at the core of urban civility.
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Persian Gulf Politics
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