The Intimate City: Walking New York
Michael Kimmelman | Penguin Random House | $30
Michael Kimmelman made his debut as The New York Times’ architecture critic in September 2011 with an earnest, well-meaning appraisal of Via Verde, a subsidized housing complex in the South Bronx by Dattner Architects. Both the tenor of the article and the architectural typology to which it was devoted hinted that change had reached the desk previously occupied by Nicolai Ouroussoff and Herbert Muschamp—the one a clout-chasing insubstantialist and the other a prideful partisan of pizzazz. Compared with such scribblers, Kimmelman practically cut the figure of a populist, larding his columns with little demotic morsels. In the Via Verde review, for instance, he casually noted his approval of the dollar slice, the Great Recession’s chief culinary innovation, offering a value proposition that has slipped of late. In between bites, he mulled over the essence of good architecture, which evidently comes down to curb appeal and righteous intent. Was this the commonsense criticism the Times had always lacked and would now provide?
In his decade-plus tenure, Kimmelman has reviewed as many buildings as Ouroussoff or Muschamp managed in a couple of years each, devoting a lot of his time to reportage and advocacy. Some within the discipline have perceived a reluctance on Kimmelman’s part to stick to his job description, writing him off as an interloper. But the contents of his Rolodex suggest otherwise. In The Intimate City, a new collection of walking tours he published in the Times during the height of the pandemic, Kimmelman enlists brand-name architects on strolls through New York neighborhoods. A handful of the expeditions were conducted virtually, owing to the strictures of lockdown. In one instance, he double-books guests, covering the same ground—Park Avenue’s midcentury mile—with Annabelle Selldorf and the engineer Guy Nordenson, who offer slightly differing but equally pat interpretations of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House. A few avenues to the west, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien lead him on a trot from Carnegie Hall, in whose attic block they once lived (it’s since been downzoned), to Lincoln Center, where one of their most high-profile projects, David Geffen Hall, opened in October. (In his write-up, Kimmelman ruefully remarks that Williams and Tsien’s new welcome center “could be mistaken for the reception desk at a Marriott.”)
Uptown, David Adjaye, a dyed-in-the-wool cosmopolitan who splits his time between New York, London, and Accra, Ghana, trains Kimmelman’s eye on the supple details of Harlem brownstones. Later, he idles by a “speaker’s corner” at 135th Street, a vacant overgrown lot where agitators and civic tribunes like Malcolm X once held forth on political matters of the day. On the East Side, Kimmelman and Deborah Berke set out from her Gracie Square co-op for a riverfront promenade that decks over FDR Drive. They share their admiration for Hell Gate Bridge, a limber rail viaduct that spans an impetuous tidal strait from which it derives its Stygian appellation. Kimmelman avoids making any Dantean allusions, just as he does when on a ramble with Claire Weisz (of the firm WXY) through the sinister gloam of the Financial District. The impulse might actually be forgiven in a book about cynosures navigating stretches of a city—global capital’s corrosive heart—“emptied” by an apocalyptic virus.
In March 2020, Kimmelman lightly dabbled in #doom for a photographic essay titled “The Great Empty.” COVID-19, he wrote at the time, “has made scarcity the necessary condition of humanity’s survival.” In the introduction to The Intimate City, Kimmelman recalls the pandemic’s earliest days and the general feeling of uncertainty that had permeated the newsroom and the city outside its walls. “I still had a job but I couldn’t do it as I had before,” he writes. “My work would need to be reimagined.”
As it transpired, 2020 would see Kimmelman’s most productive span to date as the paper’s architecture critic, publishing 30 or so articles, of which more than half consisted of the walking tours. The idea for these peregrinations came to him days into lockdown. Rather than stew in the gloom, he affected an equanimity of mind. As city life ground to a halt, his thoughts, he tells us, turned toward the spirit of bonhomie that sustained Londoners through the Blitz— in particular, the Beethoven sonatas pianist Myra Hess performed for the public at the National Gallery, amid bombing raids. The myth of the Blitz has a tenacious, borderline-pathological hold on prominent purveyors of cultural commentary; they conveniently forget that, when push came to shove, England’s elites abandoned their cities and working people who could not so easily abscond to country homes. The appearance of COVID-19 in New York triggered a similar dynamic, with the wealthy and powerful fanning out to second homes in the Hamptons, the Berkshires, Maine, Vermont.
But Kimmelman’s so-called “cicerones” stayed put, at least until work picked up again and construction sites reopened. If we’re to infer from the billings of their respective offices, not to mention zip codes, Berke, Weisz, David Rockwell—who, in his tour of Broadway theaters, dispenses some (welcome) wisdom about the metropolitan virtue of artifice—and Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, who take Kimmelman on a footslog from Brooklyn Heights to their Hudson Square office, rode out quarantine in comfort. That the top-ranking architectural authority at the nation’s paper of record should do the same does not deal a serious blow to the progressive persona he has cultivated over the years. He has repeatedly used his station to champion subsidized housing, an unpopular opinion among his fellow Times writers, particularly the gormless market idolizers who stalk its op-ed pages. In his follow-up to the Via Verde column, Kimmelman seemed genuinely energized by his visit to the Zuccotti Park encampment, with its “general assemblies,” makeshift kitchen and library, and other crusty, communalistic accoutrements. “It was obvious to me watching the crowd coalesce over several days that consensus emerges urbanistically,” he wrote.
It’s curious, then, that the urban conflagrations of the summer of 2020 don’t figure in Kimmelman’s book. Following the murder of George Floyd, riots broke out in American cities and threatened to escalate into a general uprising. The threat, though a momentary one, made itself known in boarded-up storefronts across New York. Protesters pounded the pavement, taking over streets and public plazas. Hazy, arguably unserious proposals for radical social transformation—namely, defunding the police—were given a public standing like never before. Soon the maintainers of order brought down the cudgel, and a Democratic mayor called for a citywide cooling-off period. Where was Kimmelman? Missing from Intimate City is the intimacy of crowds many times larger and more diverse than the brood he encountered at Zuccotti Park years ago.
The protests put right-thinking liberal pundits on the back foot, partly because the movement challenged their faith in Dr. Fauci and the social distancing measures his office had crusaded for just months prior. But they also instantly nullified the forecasting of a morbid series of “deaths,” most ludicrously that of New York. Looking back on that moment, Kimmelman writes that he “avoided prognosticating.” Instead, in a prudential act of stewardship, he would remind his readers of “the glory of the city” by walking it, observing, with the help of guides, its most indelible features and ascertaining—in some cases by means of inference—how they came to be.
This archaeological agenda at times strays far from notions of the urbanity Intimate City commemorates. Two jaunts with Eric Sanderson, an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, bracket the collection and reconstruct antediluvian New York. Mannahatta, the Lenape word for the area that would become Lower Manhattan, once supported 55 ecosystems, while the salty marshland of Mentipathe would ultimately recede beneath the concrete hulk of a baseball diamond (the old Yankee Stadium). A few maps and charts would have been useful. The colloquies with Sanderson give rise to the marketing copy on the book’s back cover, which alleges that Kimmelman’s saunters take in “some 540 million years of history.” They also inspire the corniest joke heard on this side of MacDougal Street, about the residual glacial rock that underpins (and sometimes irrupts through) the five boroughs:
Sanderson: You know what geologists say.
Kimmelman: No, I don’t.
Sanderson: The Bronx is gneiss, Manhattan is schist.
Monxo López, a curator, activist, and steward of a South Bronx community land trust, tends to agree. On a paseo through Mott Haven, he tells Kimmelman about “the burning years,” an ominous reference to the 1970s and the pyrophilia of landlords who, along with city planners, gave up on the investment-scarce neighborhood and “cut their losses by burning down their own buildings to cash in on insurance policies.” In the face of this great betrayal, residents reacted by stoking the flames higher. Now gentrification has arrived in the area, but the struggles to beat back developers, along with homegrown initiatives like the pocket finca Kimmelman visits, have forged strong community bonds, says López. He employs the analytical model of the center-periphery—with Manhattan typically seen as the former—only to turn it on its head: “To people here, Mott Haven is the center.”
I would have thought Kimmelman would feel right at home in this center of things. But his Intimate City is filled with the same hobnobbing his precursors indulged in. Can we really expect the cultural mandarin to play the role of the activist? Not without first setting our expectations.