Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by Sharon Zukin
Oxford University Press, 2009
Hardcover, 312 pages
A brief history of US urbanism in the last half a century starts with the flight to the suburbs after World War II, moves on to the subsequent deterioration of cities and urban renewal plans that replaced so-called slums with public housing and other "towers in the park," and arrives at the present day with reinvestment in cities and the gradual reintroduction of suburbanites (and other new residents) into the spaces they abandoned. Needless to say, change in cities during that time has been great. The most recent phase includes the retrofitting of industrial buildings to residential uses, among other reconfigurations, but also new construction that reshapes skylines and transforms the lives of longtime residents. As cities like New York find themselves catering to developers that participate in the gentrification of different neighborhoods, certain questions arise. In her latest book Sharon Zukin asks "are cities losing their soul?" and explores this broad question by focusing on the concept of authenticity, which of course raises more questions: "Is the idea of authenticity only a means of preserving a city’s elite cultures? Or can it be used to ensure everyone a right to stay in the place where they live and work?"
Zukin examines authenticity in New York City in six chapters, six stories: Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Harlem, the East Village, Union Square, Red Hook (Brooklyn), and a community garden in East New York (Brooklyn). These snapshots of the city touch on the various ways neighborhoods in the city are changing, such as the role of artists and media in defining areas as "cool," the city's role in gentrification, and food culture. In each chapter Zukin follows a consistent format that describes the sensation of the particular neighborhood, gives historical context to the place, and then gets into the nitty-gritty of the contestations for the rights to one aspect of the city. In doing so she portrays the place as real, not abstract, with a history, and as active and changing places of participation. All chapters are integral for fully understanding Zukin's thesis, but the chapters on Williamsburg (for confronting the hipster trend), Union Square (for its relationship to World Trade Center and the coverage of that place's rebuilding), and Red Hook (for making the story of local vendors vs. the city and big business captivating) stand out.
Three threads meandering through the various neighborhoods and topics rise to the fore: the impact of digital media, food, and shopping. For the first, Zukin cites numerous blogs, making them not only indicators of trends (like the New York Times, traditionally) but shapers of the changes taking place, especially since many bloggers reside in Brooklyn neighborhoods that have seen the most transformation in recent years. Food culture has brought healthy, tasty, and locally grown foods to a lot of Americans, affecting restaurants, stores, and how much people are willing to pay for feeding themselves. And shopping has pervaded society and life at large, but a general change from local mom-and-pop stores to chain stores (and online) is still a fight worth fighting, according to Zukin. Authenticity, of course, is the main thread running through the book, and, like the city, it is an ever-changing term that is batted about by different people to mean different things. It may be a 100-year-old store to somebody, some grafitti on a wall to another, or a 99-cent store to yet another. Authenticity may not be the solution to urban transformations that privilege certain groups (rich) over others (non-rich), but it is an important element to consider at a time when consumption is elevated over everything else in terms of how we interact with the city. This scholarly yet very readable book is highly recommended for understanding the recent changes in New York City and the state of cities everywhere.