In the April issue of Playboy magazine, Professor Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, published an essay in the Forum section entitled “How the City Lost Its Soul.” An editor from Playboy asked me to write a response to that essay, and they published my letter in the June issue.
In the letter (below), I call 9/11 "the last nail in the coffin of New York's soul."
I wanted to continue the dialogue with Sharon, and give her the last word. So we did that over email, where I started off by asking her if she thought I was being a bit hyperbolic in my Playboy letter.
click twice to enlarge and read
SZ: I think you do well to state issues boldly (as I tried to do). I don't think we disagree on anything vital. That being said, you probably exaggerate the effect of 9/11. The leveling of the Twin Towers, when the city's loss of life and innocence made its exceptionalism more palatable to the heartland, did not mark the beginning of the end.
The end of the gritty, noir New York begins instead in the very heart of darkness: the 1970s. Landlords, banks and industries walked away, and a certain part of the middle class--children of the suburbs and those whose hearts had never left the city despite their education--began to move back to neighborhoods their grandparents had fled. That was when the manufacturing economy, which anchored so much of the city's old physical structure, lost the politicians' support and gave way to loft living, gentrification and dreams of new development. We didn't know it at the time, but this is when the corporate city began to celebrate the urban village in order to promote new investment.
JVNY: Maybe "The End" has come in stages. The seeds were sown in the 1970s and germinated through the 80s and 90s, but we've seen the full flowering in the 2000s. And 9/11 gave it a boost. I don't want to let go of this notion that the 2000s, in particular, have been out of proportion in terms of immense, rapid changes to the city. Other urban scholars have argued against this, saying it's "change as usual." Where do you stand on that question?
SZ: Cities are always changing. And New York, especially Manhattan, has a bad rap for tearing down and rebuilding all the time. But something was happening in the 2000s. Global capital flowed into New York real estate. Chain stores like Costco, Target and Ikea changed their bad opinion of the inner city and wanted to get into New Yorkers' pockets. Young people--especially white college grads--flooded into the city to make a career in art or finance. These were all forces for change.
there are also some naked ladies in the June issue
JVNY: These days, young white college grads get automatically labeled gentrifiers, or yuppies, or (in my own parlance) yunnies. But they've long come to the city, and many contributed to New York's "soul"--the Beat poets, the abstract expressionists, etc. Today, it seems like many of the young people (not all) who come to New York don't want to live in a city, they want to live in a suburbanized fantasy of the city. What's going on with these people?
SZ: Tastes change. Young people today have grown up surrounded by shopping malls and branded stores. Maybe they don't care about preserving the old city but they do care about sidewalk cafes. And let's face it, this is the image the city government and real estate developers want to project.
JVNY: Sidewalk cafes. Now that it's spring, they're proliferating like weeds, making the sidewalks narrower and the street noise noisier. I used to like the presence of sidewalk cafes, until there were too many of them. Maybe that's part of the growing up with brands thing you mentioned, maybe there's a generation of people who want LOTS of a thing, repetitions of the same. That's how brands work. They flood the mind with copies of themselves. I think about, and worry about, this kind of stuff and its effect on the city, but you seem unfazed by it all. Do you remain optimistic about the changes, or is that a shrug of resignation I hear?
SZ: I'm not unfazed, I'm angry. But changing tastes reflect consumer culture. It's hard to change that. The only solution is to change the laws--for zoning to keep old buildings in place and build low-rise affordable spaces, for rent controls to keep individually owned stores and residential tenants where they can build communities. Whether it's a Latino grocery in Bushwick or a bagel shop in Williamsburg, let it put down roots.