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The Atlantic Magazine

Thrive Or Jive

Gentrification and Its Discontents
By Benjamin Schwarz

Michael Sorkin, an architect and critic, and Sharon Zukin, an urban sociologist, have each written what they describe as books about contemporary New York City — but that's putting things far too broadly.

Zukin's Naked City does make forays into the white-hot center of hipness, Brooklyn's Williamsburg, and to rapidly gentrifying Harlem. But the bulk of her book, and all of Sorkin's Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, is confined to fine-grained observations of the streets and neighborhoods within roughly 20 blocks of their apartments in Greenwich Village — that is, west to the Village's Meatpacking District and new Gold Coast along West Street, east to the fringes of Alphabet City, north to Union Square, and south to SoHo and Tribeca.

This area today is in every sense rarefied, and for most of its history was in crucial ways set apart from the rest of Manhattan, which to some extent leaped beyond it. Still, the precedent for using the Village to draw lessons and issue prescriptions about New York generally, and indeed urban life writ large, was of course sanctified in 1961 by that doughty urban observer and community activist, Jane Jacobs. She largely formed her conclusions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities — the ur-text for contemporary writing about urban life and the most influential American book ever written about cities — by closely reading the neighborhood life around her house on Hudson Street (about six blocks from Sorkin's apartment and, by my reckoning, about 10 from Zukin's; it's all a bit clubby).

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Nancy's Comment:

The durable debate over what makes American cities live or die is well-served by Schwarz and commenters. However, missing here is consideration of the infrastructure that makes cities possible: the electric grid, mass transit, sanitation, water, and sewer/sewage treatment. Coming from an urban sustainability perspective, it looks like the gentrification of the West Village has as much to do with opening the waterfront to recreation and recreational views made possible by the end of NYC as a major port AND by the system of sewage treatment plants that cleaned up its foul and filthy harbor. Of course, the sewage treatment plant that serves the West Village is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the upstream sewage plant that's done so much to improve the Hudson River is in West Harlem. The West Village, unlike the East Village at 14th Street, never was home to a power plant either.

Today, with concerns about climate change and the knowledge that buildings are the major consumer of electric power in NYC, demands for more equitable distribution of necessary, if unloved, infrastructure as well as reducing our appetite for electricity and our carbon footprint, could keep waterfront neighborhoods around the city above the waterline.