Sidewalk Critic

Sidewalk Critic

Courtesy Reaktion Books

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan
Michael Sorkin
Reaktion Books, $27.00

In his recent book, architect, urbanist, and New Yorker Michael Sorkin invites the reader to take a walk with him from his fifth-floor Greenwich Village apartment to his studio in Tribeca. Written over a period of more than a dozen years, the book is much more than a description of this 20-minute experience; it is a summation of Sorkin’s thinking on cities; it is a chart of the 21st-century transformations of New York; it is an appreciation of the street and the fine-grain qualities of cities everywhere; and it is a highly personal account of the city that he and millions of others call home.

Each chapter marks a different location in Sorkin’s southerly walk, from the stoop of the building he dubs the “Annabel Lee” near Washington Square to the elevator of his Hudson Street studio and his subsequent studio space on Varick Street further north. Each realm of social interaction is a looping mix of descriptions, recollections, histories, critiques, and explications, with the tangential offshoots always returning to the walk, as if to acknowledge and elevate the importance of the individual’s experience in the city, both physically and mentally. Crossing the street illuminates theories of psychogeography and the philosophy of Michel de Certeau. Pigeon control in one paragraph gives way to the “phallocracy of skyscraping” in the next.

A circuitous path in the first chapter (The Stairs) leads from the 5th-century Greek architect Hippodamus of Miletus to the Manhattan gridiron plan’s shaping of apartment buildings and tenements like the Annabel Lee. Sorkin links the unrelenting grid of the city to parceling of land, zoning codes, and ultimately the location and construction of stairways. The reader senses the impact of bureaucratic policies that take their own circuitous route from the law books to the hallways of an apartment building—one of many illustrations of the myriad contested interests and interactions that unfold every day.

Peppered with subjects that would be at home in an introductory survey course (Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Jacob Riis’ muckraking, Oscar Newman’s “defensible space”), the book appeals to the general reader. And indeed, the author’s constant rebounding between direct experience and urban musings, along with his conversational tone, seem aimed to reach a broader audience.

For professionals and educators involved in architecture and urban design, Sorkin treads familiar ground. Still, the book’s value lies in Sorkin’s point of view: his familiar but marginal “on the ground” thinking rooted in the civic-mindedness of Jane Jacobs, and the 1960s counterculture’s embrace of diversity and choice, anathema to many of the subjects he ruminates upon. The book becomes, in its combination of experience and history, a repository for what Sorkin holds dear about the city and its production.

A few ideas stand out from this lovely mess: the city or body as a metaphor for the urban environment; and the importance of participation over possession. The latter topic arises near the end of the book in a critique of the Trump Soho, where the celebrity developer and design team took advantage of zoning loopholes to create a residential tower in a lowscale manufacturing district. Defended by the Bloomberg administration, the tower makes Manhattan just another consumable, in this case by people able to afford $3,000 per square foot apartments they occupy only a portion of the year.

Democratic participation—à la Jacobs’ battles with Robert Moses—was usurped in favor of trickledown economics, where catering to the rich purportedly leads to benefits for those below. Sorkin’s city/body metaphor, on the other hand, sees the urban environment and the body’s wants and needs working symbiotically, not set aside in favor of profit. These two ideas relate to Sorkin’s vision of the city as an ongoing project, an ever-changing aggregate of elements that create the world we inhabit.

Ideas and ideals aside, what’s most engaging about Sorkin’s text are the personal anecdotes. New Yorkers will surely sympathize with a long rant against his landlord, the frustrations of navigating sidewalks littered with people blindly texting, or the memorable grumble, “I look forward to spitting on the first [Subaru Tribeca SUV] I see and yelling ‘asshole’ at the driver.” Lacking illustrations, the book is nevertheless highly visual, thanks to Sorkin’s colorful stories and precise descriptions of the journey.