The City that Lost its Soul: New York City in “Naked City”

By Rachit Khaitan, IFMR Finance Foundation

In the early years of the twenty-first century, New York City lost its soul. Some people doubt that the city ever had a soul, because New York has always grown by shedding its past, tearing down old neighbourhoods and erecting new ones in their place, usually in a bare-faced struggle for financial gain. Others just shrug because, today, all big cities are erasing their gritty, bricks-and-mortar history to build a shiny vision of the future.

Sharon Zukin explores the notion of authenticity in a city that by placing a high premium on it is effectively destroying it. New York’s quest for authenticity might be seem contrary to the concept of “Manhattanization,” that signifies everything in a city that is not thought to be authentic: high-rise buildings that grow taller every year, dense crowds where no one knows your name, high prices for inferior living conditions, and intense competition to be in style. The city, however, presents a classic case of the conflict between its dwellers’ desire for authentic origins – a traditional, mythical desire for roots – and their new beginnings in terms of the continuous reinvention of communities with the physical fabric of the city constantly changing around them.

As bistros replace bodegas, cocktail bars morph out of old-style saloons, and neighbourhoods as a whole create a different kind of sociability, a city is left to hold on to its sense of authenticity by creating the experience of origins. By preserving historic buildings and districts, encouraging the development of small-scale boutiques and cafes, and branding neighbourhoods in terms of distinctive cultural identities, gentrified and hipster neighbourhoods of New York City today have become the models of urban experience. Zukin makes the case that this pursuit of authenticity, which is now a consciously chosen lifestyle and a means of consumption by the new urban middle class, is also fuel to the rising real estate values and the vast inflow of investment capital that ultimately displaces the original inhabitants – artists, mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, and homeless people – that lent New York its sense of authenticity to begin with.

How Brooklyn Became Cool

Zukin refers to the borough of Brooklyn to show how “uncommon” spaces or neighbourhoods with distinctive histories and traditions to show how origins and new beginnings create a sense of authenticity. Brooklyn underwent a major shift in its perception in the early 1990s from its sorry reputation of a place where factories were Dickensian sweatshops of dirt and squalor and social life was lived on the street to a new ethnically white, cosmopolitan image centred on the north side of the borough. The shift was characterized by a residential influx of rich people into an unlikely neighbourhood, a classic process of gentrification, but motivated by the “down and dirty” hipster culture more than other factors. This gritty and industrial appeal of neighbourhoods like Williamsburg stood in contrast to the bland homogeneity of corporate offices and suburban homes, and being a resident was a statement against Manhattanization and corporatism.

Brooklyn Heights; Image Source.

The story of Brooklyn also reflects the deliberate absence of economic involvement by private developers and public officials, who ignored manufacturers’ pleas for protection from landlords when they refused to renew their leases or dramatically raised their rent when they saw the new higher paying residents coming in. In fact, when the New York City Planning Commission rezoned 170 blocks in Williamsburg in 2005, they explicitly aimed to upscale the waterfront, riddling it of its remaining industrial uses and reclaiming the prime space for high-rise residential construction. The upscale real estate development that followed, shows not only the effects of capital investment and government policies, but also demonstrated the cultural power of the media and new middle-class consumer tastes. It produced a sense of Brooklyn’s authenticity that combines hipsters and new immigrants, lifestyle media and blogs, and the desire to become the next cultural destination and yearning for an urban village that disappeared after World War II. For each generation, though, the idea of Brooklyn’s authenticity shows an aspiration to connect the place where people live to a timeless urban experience.

Union Square and the Paradox of Space

Zukin refers to Union Square to explore her notion of “common” spaces such as public parks, streets, and community gardens characterized by a timeless ideal of authentic public space that is free and democratic. Where Union Square might appear as an endless arcade of possibilities, reflecting and refining city dwellers’ creative abilities to shape their own, spontaneous social place, it hides a paradox. The public space of Union Square is controlled by a private group of the biggest property owners in the neighbourhood, the Union Square Partnership, which carries out the public functions of financing, maintaining, and governing public space. Its main purpose is to keep the space clean and safe at a time when city government budgets are grasping for funds and city dwellers are repelled and frightened by the litter, odour, panhandling, and other nuisances they find when they step outside their front doors.

Union Square; Image Source

More importantly, however, it works to raise property values in and around the square, a prerequisite of which is the eviction of the homeless people sleeping on park benches, cleaning up the graffiti on walls, and providing basic services of street cleaning, trash collecting. On one hand, the public gains the use of a clean, safe space, and on the other, loses control over it. The very idea of private management betrays the public’s trust in that private organizations control public spaces more severely than government dares to do and these control strategies consequently exclude socio-economic groups such as homeless people, push-cart vendors, and street artists. Privatized public space, in other words, tends to reinforce social inequality. It makes the centres of cities more like the premier privately owned public space of our time, the shopping mall: clean, safe, and predictable.

The Crisis of Authenticity

Zukin’s work explores other uncommon and common spaces such as Harlem, the East Village, and Red Hook to find that though people think authenticity refers to a neighbourhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses their own anxieties how places change. She argues that the shift that New York saw from the 1950s isn’t just a structural shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society or the result of a periodic boom in investment and construction, but 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.

Calling these changes “gentrification” minimizes and oversimplifies the collective investment that is at stake. Real estate developers, joint partnerships between the public and private sectors, and community organizations have led organized efforts to transform gritty streets, old loft buildings, and former docklands to gold. Together capital investment and consumer culture encouraged both city governments and city dwellers to think they could have it all: a post-industrial revolution with no human costs, both a corporate city and a new urban village. New Yorkers experience the conflict between the corporate city and the urban village as a crisis of authenticity.