Naked city – a review

A frequent theme in this blog’s exploration of creativity has been the significance of place. In one post (Creative regions 16 Jan 2012) I drew attention to some of the academic research available on the subject.

That post refers specifically to research in Europe. Probably the most important body of research, however, comes from America – thanks to scholars such as Richard Florida and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett.

One such scholar is Sharon Zukin, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, whose publications include Loft living: culture and capital in urban change (1989) and The culture of cities (1995). That I came upon her excellent Naked city is thanks to that incomparable discovery tool for bibliophiles, Topping and Company of Ely.

Naked city is not, in fact, primarily about the creative industries. It is, rather, a study of changing land use and lifestyles in various parts of New York. The principal characters in the book are Brooklyn, Harlem, East Village, Union Square, Red Hook, and assorted community gardens. Then again, in telling the stories of those places, the creative industries play a not insignificant part.

Indeed, it occurs to me that the book in effect deconstructs the definition of ‘creative industry’ (what counts? cooking and eating (a recurrent theme of the book, especially in the chapter on Red Hook)? gardening?).

Naked city provides a thoughtful prolonged report-cum-meditation of relationships between land use, politics and planning, business and capital, demography and social life. The essence of the book is evident in this paragraph from the book’s conclusion:

The new urban middle class has led the way to a form of consumption that is both motivational and aspirational and feeds into the political and economic motors of urban change. The motivational desire for a looser lifestyle of the late 1960s and 1970s, which we can picture as thrift-shop chic, joined dialectically with the aspirational desire for ‘authentic’ goods of the 1980s and 1990s, such as brownstone townhouses and lofts, to produce a widespread model of how to consume the city’s authenticity. Call it the New York model, for this city’s neighborhoods and institutions, starting with SoHo and BIDs [Business Improvement Districts], have created some of the world’s most influential examples.

Note that word ‘authenticity’. The sub-title of Naked city is The death and life of authentic urban places. Zukin is interested in the way we conceive authenticity and the role that plays in urban life.

I am not sure that theme is wholly ‘there’ for the reader (as opposed to the author). Certainly it wasn’t for this reader: I found that when the words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ popped up, I thought ‘Oh, yes, there’s this authenticity theme’: it didn’t, for me, ever function as central to the interest of the book.

I don’t think that constitutes a criticism in the way that the author might think it might. I found Zukin’s studies of places in any case sensitive, sufficiently vivid, and thought-provoking.

Indeed, I caught myself on a number of occasions wondering if this book constituted a rare example of that popular desideratum, the perfect book. It isn’t, in fact, that. The photographs are too few, too small, and too dark. The cartography is inadequate: the single main map occupies only half a page and does not even indicate the location of such key places in the book as Red Hook.

Zukin has provided Oxford University Press with a great text: the publishers have not done it justice. Don’t let that stop you reading it.


2 Responses to “Naked city – a review”

  1. […] my review of Sharon Zukin, Naked City (13 Dec 2012) I caught myself “wondering if [Zukin's] book constituted a rare example of […]

  2. […] reviews of books about New York, by Elizabeth Currid (24th and 31st January 2013) and Sharon Zukin (13th December […]

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