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Twenty Minutes in Manhattan Hardcover – June 30, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Architecture critic and CUNY professor Sorkin (Against the Wall: Israel's Barrier to Peace) sets out with the simple task of narrating the daily commute from his Greenwich Village apartment to his studio in Tribeca. The result, a book of essays that's both memoir and sociohistorical study, is anything but pedestrian. Sorkin covers a range of material, from the history of NYC tenement laws to the sociological ramifications of Disneyland to his own battle with an avaricious landlord. Taking the torch from late urban activist Jane Jacobs, Sorkin discusses the ideological function of the urban neighborhood and its citizens, particularly as an antidote to the commercializing, gentrifying, homoginizing effects of capitalism. Historical and architectural details are considered at length; the Washington Square arch, for example, was "erected to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of George Washington's inaugural," but later used by Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan "to declare the independence of the 'Republic of Greenwich Village.'" Sorkin also profiles current residents like his elderly neighbor Jane, "an active presence at the community garden" who once "propelled herself from her chair to thwart a mugging across the street." Delightful and informative, this romp will please anyone with affection for the big city.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
null (John Hill Architect's Newspaper)
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Sorkin is an architect, urban designer, and professor at the City University of New York. He's well known both as a designer and as an architecture critic. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan uses the route of his walk from home in Greenwich Village to his studio in Tribeca as a foil to talk about New York City, about architecture as a human enterprise, and about the state of our cities and ourselves as social beings. The book alternates brilliantly from close attention to details -- stairs, windows, shops, airplane bathrooms, someone appearing to run from a policeman -- to discussion of how the design of cities reflects political structures and in return alters politics and participation.
Sorkin writes from a left-wing perspective and is a mostly unabashed critic of money and power. I say "mostly" because he is also clearly aware of the fact that better design costs money, and creates neighborhoods (like SoHo, Tribeca, and increasingly the Village itself) where people with money are drawn and push others out. He not prescribe answers but seems to hope instead to increase our awareness and attention. It is almost a modern coda to Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), whom he admires and discusses throughout.
As I read it, I found myself drawn more and more to look at buildings, at stoops, at railings, at intersections, and yes, even at the other people on the sidewalk around the city. I hope it helps you do the same.
My fellow New Yorkers often gripe about the "Disneyfication" of Times Square; how the area has lost its character. I often take this opinion to task. I tell them it's just nostalgia for their youth that they actually miss. Can they honestly tell me that they mourn the loss of the junkies, muggers, and prostitutes that harrassed or even threatened them as they walked from their offices to the Port Authority or the Times Square subway station? While I am not thrilled about the development of 42nd Street, it is an actual improvement.
But the neighborhoods, buildings and lifestyles that Sorkin describes was never as bad as Time Square. While they had their seedier sides, the Village, SoHo and Tribeca were never as crime-infested as Hell's Kitchen and Times Square had been. These "improvements" downtown were unnecessary, intrusive and downright destructive. And Sorkin, like many other New Yorkers, worry about these changes, the obvious catering to real estate developers, and the boring, boring, boring effects of globalizing places that are fiercely loyal to their uniqueness. Sorkin is quite justified in mourning the loss of the Jane Jacobses of this City. Enough of my pontificating.
The book itself is what I expected from Michael Sorkin. The analyses are supported by facts, the opinions are justified by well-reasoned logic, and the style ranges from near-tragic mourning to laugh-out-loud wit. The final sections, especially where he stumbles upon a movie set or two and when he encounters the ubiquitous stroller-pushing yuppies, are brilliantly funny.
This is no easy book to read, and I will not claim to have understood all of the architectural, sociological aspects of it. In this regard, I am reminded of Mark Kingwell's Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams (Icons of America), also a serious investigation of the architectural, social and cultural significance of what people think about when they think about New York City. It is also a book that I cannot claim to fully grasp. No matter. What I did understand of Sorkin's "Twenty Minutes in Manhattan" was fascinating and hard to argue with. Sorkin is reminding us that we must remain vigilant to the changes, the "rehabilitating", the "improvements" being made to these--and other--neighborhoods of New York. Improvement can be deadly.
Sorkin digresses constantly into discussions that can get abstract, and he does not keep a secret of his politics. But he never repeats himself. This book only feels casual and rambling (like going on a stroll.) It's actually carefully planned and artfully constructed (like something by an architect.) The reader might think Sorkin is only chatting on his way to work, but Sorkin got there way ahead of you, and has sweated over these pages until they felt inspired, and improvised.
Like a pleasant stroll, this book is full of views. Sorkin's are fair and encyclopedically informed. He sharply critiques the mistakes of Corbusier and fellow modernists, but makes you understand their motivations and ambitions. He juxtaposes Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses as antagonists but not opposites, with complex and sometimes mirrored legacies. He even-handedly spreads blame among landlords and tenants, developers and activists, regulators and entrepreneurs. (That's actually not quite true, but he presents them all as recognizable and rounded human beings.) His proposals at first seem outlandish but then weirdly make sense. He is often very, very funny.
I liked this book more and more as I kept reading it, and like it even more as I look back. Like a great walk, it is too short.