Possible cities

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Michael Sorkin (216pp, 16.99, Reaktion)

Michael Sorkin's elegant and readable book is hung on his daily route from home to work and is ostensibly about the New York City of the title. However, whilst it certainly at times captures a sense of Greenwich Village and lower Manhattan, it is mostly a series of informed and entertaining, if occasionally polemical, digressions to discuss architecture, gentrification, redevelopment, and the very nature of the late 20th/early 21st century city.

Sorkin is an architect, so there is plenty of observation and technical detail here. I was fascinated by his discussion of how urban blocks work architecturally; also, by his clear discussion of how the interiors of both industrial buildings in Soho and tall office blocks work in different ways. He is just as good at capturing the sociological aspects of the city too, how people respond and adapt to place and change. There is, for example, a hilarious section on Sorkin's own adopted elevator etiquette.

There are much more important matters at the heart of this book though. Sorkin repeatedly comes back to the tension between the planned super-city or megapolis envisioned by Corbusier (and critiqued by Jane Jacobs, another touchstone for him) and the evolving, changing and liveable city created by and for people. Clearly, Manhattan is no Corbusien nightmare, but it has seen architectural, traffic and pedestrian rules and zones imposed on it without much consideration for the knock-on effect.

Sorkin is no fool, can see that urban regeneration can be good, but he is all too aware that spiralling property prices and gentrification simply result in cities for the urban rich; that clearing the sidewalks of street vendors and beggars simply moves the problem and results in each and every city becoming the same homogenized shopping mall. He is especially interesting when considering traffic flow: he considers the idea of removing traffic lights and signs so that instead of stop/start traffic a slow moving column results, where individual encounters with oncoming and turning traffic are negotiated - as in Indian cities with their mix of humans, cattle, bicycles and motor-driven vehicles. On one level this, and other suggestions throughout the book, merely seem facetious and idealistic, but Sorkin is no naive joker. He welcomes modernist architecture, welcomes restored and cared-for older buildings, but not at the expense of affordable living for normal people.

He clearly resents legalistic intrusion where things are working well, citing the lower crime rate in Washington Square Park itself as an example of self-policed social space that does not need a proposed security fence around it. He is suspicious of deals cut with real estate corporations, where the pay off for the city is a sliver of green land in exchange for oversized dull buildings that do not suit the areas they are situated within. And he does not support the way landlords refuse to maintain buildings and sidewalks, preferring to let tenants suffer until they can afford to redevelop the site and sell condominiums or apartments for millions. (Remember, we're talking gentrified Greenwich Village here, not the Bronx of 70s films.)

Clearly, Sorkin is a child of the Sixties, idealistic and impassioned, but he is also level-headed and academically minded. (He is a Distinguished Professor of Architecture.) He is astute enough to see through the idealistic fascism of Corbusier, but not foolish enough to ignore concepts such as hidden highways, streets in the sky, green policies and the changing economy which might provide possible solutions or point towards them. He clearly loves his home city (well, who wouldn't or doesn't love Manhattan?) and resents it's partial change into a playground for the super-rich at the cost of social diversity and a network of neighborhoods. He is also visionary enough to suggest practical, surprising and idealistic, well-considered changes and possibilities for not only New York but cities everywhere. This is an engrossing and thoughtful read.

    Rupert Loydell 2009