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The death and life of Jane Jacobs critiques

Urban sociologist Sharon Zukin's recent book, Naked City: the death and life of authentic urban places, reads for Oli Mould as a character assassination of New York City, tearing through a few cherished myths of Jane Jacobs' on the way.

Oli Mould

Cities: New York-Newark

Topics: Integrated planning, Participatory governance

Naked City: the death and life of great urban places, by Sharon Zukin
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The mere mention of Jane Jacobs evokes a whole range of emotions for urban scholars these days. It seems that every new musing about how cities function, whether a peer-reviewed journal article, a major book release by a celebrated urbanist, or a fleeting blog post about the follies of new urbanism, quotes or reminisces about Jane. So much so that her (arguably) most famous monograph, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) has become a master lexeme template for a profusion of analogous titles of various written media.

And so it is with Sharon Zukin's latest book — Naked City: the death and life of authentic urban places. An urban sociologist, Zukin is known for her work on urban cultural anthropology; her previous books of note include The Cultures of Cities (1995) and Loft Living: culture and capital in urban change (1989). The idioms imbued in these narratives are rich with the cultural life of cities and how it affects their capital accumulation, and she continues in this vein in Naked City.

The book is, to be terse, a character assassination of New York City. Zukin has spent her life in this city and has seen its incongruent economic cycles (deaths and births?) throughout the last few decades. This book charts the 'latest' cycle of the clamber for 'authenticity'. And it is perhaps the interpretatio of this word that forms the tenet of this book. Authentic places, Zukin argues, are a product of the capital and culture of the people viewing a place, rather than the make up of the place itself. This is critique of Jacobs' rhetoric — indeed Zukin is verbose enough to proclaim that "Jacobs failed to look at how people use capital and culture to view, and to shape, the urban spaces they inhabit". She goes on to argue that:

"Jacobs' view perpetuates the image of the New York City block as a microcosm of social diversity. This is the block we know from films, from the tenements in 1930s movies … Jacobs' image of her block is just as much a social construction as the movie image of a New York City street".

These are bold words, and resonate with a New York City of the twenty-first century, one that has infused itself into the psyche of the world. So for Zukin, 'authenticity' (the word is often enhaloed in scare quotes throughout the book) is our own expression of anxiety of urban change, including but not limited to the much-maligned process of gentrification.

Zukin's critique of Jacobs' view of the 'social-less' city block proceeds with a detailed description of specific areas of the city and how they have become 'authentic'. The first half of the book is occupied with the idea of 'Uncommon Spaces', those in the hands of private citizens and developers. In a cultural anthropological twist on a traditional methodological technique of 'urban transects', she plots a line of development that stretches from Brooklyn through the East Village to Harlem. The intricate pictures she paints of these places are of developing areas of 'cool'. The story of low-rent areas attracting a Floridian bohemian class of artists and the like, becoming a Mecca of cool, subsequently witnessing rising rents, is one familiar to many urbanists and city-dwellers across the developed world.

Williamsburg, for example, "began with a low-rent and somewhat dangerous neighbourhood, enabling moneyless twenty-somethings who wanted to be artists to form scenes, 'zines, and experimental art forms with little market value". The local media then get a handle of the 'coolness' of the area with fusion restaurants, late night raves and new bands. The new York Press, in 1991, published an article called 'Brooklyn Unbound', extolling the funky clubs, bars and restaurants, and soon artists and other bohemians are moving to Williamsburg from the increasingly expensive East Village.

It is this process which Zukin sees as the artificial creation of a type of authenticity. 'Authentic' places are not those infused with history, but with a desire from the people to maintain a stylistic quality that is conducive to their own life-style. The following chapter charts a similar pattern in Harlem, where Bill Clinton's Foundation on 125th street played a major role in developing the area, not through capital investment but by making Harlem a serious place to do business.

The following chapter is the last of the 'Uncommon Spaces', the East Village. Being the home of Jacobs and the area she praised as the model for New York's development in the 1960s, it is perhaps the most interesting part of the book, if only for its mesmeric descriptions of locality (a skill Zukin has perfected over the years). But in a measured and controlled critique of the area as a place of manufactured authenticity, Zukin manages to suck the life out of Jacobs' proclamation as the Village as the place to be revered. This alone is a skill that many urbanists do not have, and for that Zukin's narrative is worthy of acclaim. 'Authenticity' is something that is manufactured and worked upon, and the areas of Williamsburg, Harlem and the East Village are developing because of this, not in spite of it.

In the second half of the book, Zukin changes tack, and begins to outline 'Common Spaces', controlled by private contractors as the places of 'authenticity' in the urban space. Setting out the history of Union Square in exquisite detail, Zukin argues that "looking at Union Square in a broader framework shows that its authenticity also reflects other levels of governance, from social norms of political control and capital investment to metasocial norms of citizenship and national identity."

Her argument that common spaces of the city are more authentic because of the intersecting process of the variety of urban actors — federal and local governments, nearby businesses, local communities, residents, developers — is an interesting and valid one. By creating a quasi-private space (the term public-private doesn't quite cut it given her description of the actors involved in creating Union Square), the 'city' has an authentic urban space, one that is under the stewardship of local businesses and residents. This she exemplifies with a chapter on Red Hook Park and subsequently on community gardens in the city. She argues strongly for the ability of ethnic and minority residents (those purporting to provide 'authenticity') to 'put down roots', legally and culturally.

Concluding the book, Zukin is persuasive in her arguments for a city that has changed and morphed into a place of our own making. "We are eyewitnesses to a paradigm shift from a city of production to a city of consumption, and from a resigned acceptance of decline to a surprising disillusionment with growth."

While her arguments make sense for a city like New York where there will always be the social and fiscal capital to sustain an authenticity based on local stewardship, they are less pertinent for other cities. In fact, one wonders whether any city other than New York could really benefit from her proposals. Her introductory chapter claims New York is the city that 'lost its soul', (a suspicious metaphor for any city) and the final sentence of the book suggests "finding a balance between a city's origins and its new beginnings; this would restore a city's soul". But I suspect that for many cities around the world, this is not the case.

As a blueprint for other cities (if indeed that's the intention), I would take this book with immense caution. New York has a special history and is now a metropolis whose very reputation depends on people's perception of it, and that includes its authenticity. Her acclamation of 'stewardship' of public spaces by local businesses and residents would work well in New York's proud city squares and neighbourhoods, but in developing-world mega-cities, the resources would simply not be there for these people to run public spaces. Overcrowded public spaces run by local businesses that operate more often than not in the street would be a recipe for perhaps even more corruption than exists already. Also, New York's space has a substantial dollar value attached to each square inch. Other cities around the world do not have such high rents and as such, community gardens are not as immediately crucial as they are in Manhattan. Newer cities of the Gulf and in China have been laid down so quickly that space is not the constraining factor, and State control is such that if a directive were handed down to build a community garden, it would happen in spite of, not determined by, land values.

Zukin's book is a wonderfully rich and descriptive narrative of New York City's immediate history and how it can be revitalised if it only realised what 'authenticity' is and how it is created. But it also goes a long way to making sure that that special history is very much part of its future, even if that future requires another death and life to realise it …


Naked City: the death and life of urban places
Sharon Zukin

Oxford University Press, 312 pp, £11.99, 2011, ISBN 978-0199794461


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