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Saturday, August 05, 2017

Book Review: Magnetic City

Magnetic City: A Walking Companion to New York by Justin Davidson
Spiegel & Grau, 2017
Paperback, 240 pages

Walking tours and New York City go together as books. Amazon brings up nearly 250 titles in a search for "New York Walking Tour" and I have at least a half-dozen such books in my library. Although there exists such walking tours as Radical Walking Tours of New York City, Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac's City, and Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past: 8 Self-Guided Walking Tours through New York City, the format lends itself best to architectural tours. The Municipal Art Society put out 10 Architectural Walks in Manhattan in 2009, for instance, and even the AIA Guide to New York City – albeit hardly convenient to carry at 1,088 pages and 2-1/2 pounds – includes numerous walking routes for people to navigate the city while they look at old and new buildings of note.

Magnetic City by Justin Davidson, architecture and classical music critic for New York magazine, would appear to fall into this niche category; after all, it is subtitled A Walking Companion to New York and seven of its eleven chapters are structured as walks around different parts of the city, most in Manhattan. But a few things should tip off readers to his book being different, being more than just walking tours: the size of the book (~7x9"), larger than most guidebooks but still light enough to carry, thanks to lightweight paper and duotone photos; five "interludes" that allow Davidson to expand upon architecture in the city beyond what the boundaries of the seven walking routes allow; and a lot more text than images, something that inverts or upsets the balance found in most walking-tour books.

Reading the book – which I can attest can be done very easily and pleasingly while out of town – reveals these three tip-offs to be accurate. Davidson's book is certainly a "walking companion" to parts of the city (it has maps at the start of each chapter and walking directions alongside the text), but it is also a critique of the city's architectural evolution, a captivating history of some of its places – many unexpected – and, for lack of a less trite term, a love letter to the city he's called home for much of his life. Delving into the "City of Ideals" chapter, which takes us along 42nd Street from Bryant Park to the United Nations, he discusses what is present as much as what has been gone for ages. Although it made me think we're missing VR goggles to really immerse ourselves in the historical scenes (in this case, the Crystal Palace sitting on current-day Bryant Park), Davidson's text capably leads our imaginations into settings that, albeit physically absent, have in some way shaped the city we walk with him.

So although the book is a sequence of walks and interludes geared around physical paths cutting through the city, his writing acts like a companion to the city where its reality, history, imagination, and happenings converge, as if all times exist at once. If Dante is our guide to hell, Davidson is our guide to a city that is sometimes hellish but also beautiful, enduring, and full of contradictions and complications. It's hard to come away from the book without a greater appreciation of the city and the way its evolved over the centuries. It's also hard to read the book and not see the ghosts of the past – be they people or buildings – alive in the present-day metropolis.

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