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Twenty Minutes in Manhattan

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About The Author

Michael Sorkin

Michael Sorkin is an architect and urban planner, and the author and editor of many books, including All Over the Map, Against the Wall, Exquisite Corpse, and Variations on a Theme Park (Hill and Wang, 1992). He lives in New York City.

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The walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to my studio in Tribeca takes about twenty minutes, depending on the route and on whether I stop for a coffee and the Times. Invariably, though, it begins with a trip down the stairs. The building I live in is a so-called Old Law tenement and was built in 1892, a date inscribed on the metal cornice that also carries the building’s name: Annabel Lee. Like most such tenements, ours is five stories high (a few are six, even seven), and I live with my wife, Joan, on the top floor.
The walk down is untaxing, but the walk back up the four and a half flights (including the stoop)—a total of seventy-two steps—can be enervating, especially when returning from the laundry with thirty-five pounds of newly washed clothes. (The ordeal of the upward schlep creates resistance, which tends to delays and larger loads—a vicious cycle.) On some evenings, following especially exhausting days, it seems that an extra flight has been inserted between the fourth floor and the fifth. There is something hypnotic about stair climbing, however, and as often as I find myself thinking I ought to be at the fourth floor when I am only at the third, I think I’ve only gotten to three when I’m actually arriving at four.
Stair climbing is excellent exercise if you do enough of it. I probably average twenty or so flights—around three hundred steps—a day. At .1 calorie per step (going down about .05), I am able to burn off a single chocolate bar a week. Where possible, I try to climb stairs but am often prevented not only by the height of buildings but by the fact that, in most of those with elevators, the stairs are treated as residual, there simply for emergencies. These enclosed stairwells are unpleasant places, frequently alarmed to prevent nonemergency use. By comparison, consider the fabulous stairwells of classic nineteenth-century Paris or Vienna apartments, whose broad flights wind around spacious interior courts. Although they sometimes hold tiny elevators, these open contraptions do not seal riders away but continuously include them in the life of the stairway.
These stairs do not simply add grandeur to apartment houses but serve as important social spaces, broad enough to allow stopping and conversing in mid-flight. Shared of necessity, they form a useful and gracious element of the collective environment. The generous dimensions of the stairs and courtyards (not to mention the open grillwork of the little elevators) mean that when one is on the stairs, the entire population of vertical travelers is visible or audible, promoting a sense of community within the building and giving a feeling of safety. Mysterious footfalls and unexpected meetings are easily modulated by the early sight of the approaching party. To get a sense of the character of such places, think of Ripley’s attempt—in Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley—to carry Freddie Miles’s carpet-wrapped body down the grand stair of a Roman apartment building (Matt Damon lugs Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie version of a few years ago).
There are very few New York City apartment houses with the kinds of inviting stairways one might find in the elegant buildings of the nineteenth-century European bourgeoisie. One reason for this is that although the poor and single men had long been housed collectively in tenements and rooming houses, respectable apartment buildings came relatively late to New York, where the proliferation of large blocks of “French flats” (inspired by a typical conjunction of economics and cachet) only took off after 1870. Whether because of the primacy of the elevator (not usefully invented until 1852), meanness of construction, spatial parsimony, or the reduction (and resulting enclosure) of staircases to emergency means of egress, our stairways do not register many entries in New York’s dictionary of urban glories. (“For two and a half months I did not see a stairway in America,” wrote Le Corbusier in 1937. “They are something that has been buried … hidden behind a door that you are not supposed to open.”) Most of the city’s great stairs—from the Metropolitan Museum to the New York Public Library to Federal Hall—are exterior, expressions of civic rather than domestic grandeur. In some buildings, the social celebration of the stair is displaced onto the elevator lobby: think of the Woolworth and the Chrysler Buildings and their rich ornamentation, something also found in many prewar apartment houses.
The stairs in Annabel Lee are a series of straight runs. That is, they go from floor to floor without doubling back every half flight. This is not necessarily the most compact layout for a staircase, as it often requires not just landings at each end but a corridor to walk back along to the beginning of the next flight. Efficiency depends on the number of entrances that are served on each floor: in Annabel Lee the layout is economical. To my eyes (and legs) the straight run is more elegant and enjoyable to ascend, especially when it is part of a single system of stair and corridor that brings people directly to their front doors. There’s also less twisting and turning—fewer discrete flights—and from the bottom of each flight there’s a clear view of the next objective.
For me, New York’s best stairs are those in five- and six-story industrial loft buildings from the latter half of the nineteenth century, where the runs are not simply straight but continuous. There’s a high concentration of these in SoHo, where many buildings have straight runs that rise, pausing only for landings, as far as they can before the depth of the building forces them to switch back. Although they answer to an original use logic—a broad, continuous stair is clearly an easier environment for carrying unwieldy objects—these wide stairways, ascending uninterrupted for four, even five stories, are among the most beautiful and dramatic architectural spaces the city has: an ambulatory signature. Along with cast-iron facades, skylit first-story extensions into rear yards, and metal sidewalks embedded with circular glass lenses to illuminate basements below, these stairs are part of a tectonic “loft” vocabulary that is both singular and crucial to New York’s architectural memory chest.
These elements can be retrieved for contemporary use. A particularly beautiful example of a long straight-run stair is at Baker House, a dormitory at MIT designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the late 1940s. Glazed on one side and narrowing slightly as it climbs, the stair provides a wonderful space of circulation and sociability. The narrowing is both functional and artistic, acknowledging that a stair is likely to be used by a smaller number of people as it rises and forcing the perspective narrowing of the long view upward. A variation of this continuous run is the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum, New York’s highest achievement in the interior rise, although some argue that the pleasures of circulation trump the logic of displaying works of art.
The possibility of including such stairways in buildings depends on their size. A standard formula for calculating the dimensions of interior stairs is riser plus tread equals seventeen or seventeen and a half inches. Assuming a tread of ten inches and a riser of seven and a half inches, sixteen stairs (exactly the number in my building) are required to ascend ten feet (a reasonable floor-to-floor dimension for an apartment), and the length of a flight is a little over thirteen feet (treads often extend slightly over risers), not including the landings at the top and the bottom, which bring the grand total to about twenty feet. A straight run of five stories would therefore need about ninety feet of building depth, longer for higher floor heights, like those found in most loft buildings.
Architecture is produced at the intersection of art and property, and this is one of the many reasons it so legibly records the history of communal life. The famous gridiron plan of Manhattan—laid out with sanguine optimism by city commissioners in 1811 and extended in 1835—divided the island from the then-existing settlement boundary in Greenwich Village all the way to its northern tip into blocks of two hundred by six to eight hundred feet. These blocks were in turn divided into lots of twenty-five by a hundred feet, which at a stroke became the basic increment of both ownership and construction, forcefully conducing the character of the city. The typical row house of the day occupied half its lot, yielding a building of twenty-five by fifty feet (typically with a side hall and stair and rooms facing either front or back) and a rear yard of more or less the same dimensions. This resulted in blocks with rows of twenty-four to twenty-eight houses.
The conceptual origins of the gridiron plan remain somewhat mysterious, although grids have a long history in urbanism, dating back to the Babylonians and Egyptians. Perhaps the first to identify the grid as an explicitly rational, socially organizing order was a Greek, Hippodamus of Miletus, a fifth-century B.C. planner, mathematician, and philosopher discussed by Aristotle. Hippodamus pioneered not simply geometrical urban organization but also ideas about neighborhood dimensions, zoning by use (sacred, public, private), the importance of central places (the agora), and the idea of a city’s ideal scale and population. Plans attributed to him include Miletus, Piraeus, and Rhodes.
According to Frederick Law Olmsted, the origins of the New York grid were somewhat less conceptually ambitious: “There seems to be good authority for the story that the system … was hit upon by the chance occurrence of a mason’s sieve near a map of the ground to be laid out. It was taken up and placed upon the map, and the question being asked ‘what do you want better than that?’ no one was able to answer.” Criticism of the grid and its difficulties was voiced from the start. Olmsted himself noted several problems that arose from the fixed dimensions of the city’s blocks: the impossibility of producing sites for very large buildings and campuses; issues of daylighting; the difficulty of creating systems of formal and symbolic hierarchy within the field of uniformity. This last reflects an earlier criticism by Pierre L’Enfant of a proposal by Thomas Jefferson (for whom the right angle was Enlightenment itself) for laying out the new city of Washington as a pure grid.
The 1811 plan for Manhattan created a number of problems that persist intractably to this day. For example, the lack of alleyways—like those found in Chicago or Los Angeles—has meant that waste collection and deliveries must all take place from the street. And the east-west orientation of the blocks, while logical for creating lower densities away from the more trafficked north-south avenues, means that direct sunlight can only come through the narrow southern side of each row house, although, since the grid is rotated 29 degrees to the northeast to align with the island’s own lie parallel to the Hudson River, early morning sun can enter on the north (east). Finally, the long and narrow dimensions of the twenty-five-foot lots—logical for row houses—are deeply problematic for apartment buildings, which, in order to accommodate several units to the floor, must be considerably longer than a single-family house.
In the hundred years following the 1811 plan, New York’s population (excluding Brooklyn, which did not become part of the city until 1898, when it was itself a city of a million) burgeoned by three million. Houses were transformed into tenements—multiple dwellings—which eventually came to occupy the entire depth of each lot, sometimes even backing directly onto adjoining buildings. The worst of these tenements were the so-called railroad type, in which rooms—as many as eighteen per floor—were simply strung together along a central stair. Because they were party-wall construction (row houses share a wall with their neighbors on either side), and because backyards were virtually eliminated, this meant that only two of the rooms—those facing the street—had direct access to light and air. Certain so-called improved tenements did feature tiny air shafts in the middle of the building, but their impact was negligible.
The effects of bad housing had been observed for some time by both private and public bodies: the state legislature produced a report decrying conditions as early as 1857, although with no immediate results. In 1865, the Citizens’ Association of New York published an enormous study that reported that close to 500,000 of the 700,000 residents of New York were jammed into fifteen thousand substandard tenement houses. A mid-century spate of fires, epidemics, and riots underlined the physical and social risks of poorly built, unsanitary, and overcrowded housing, and in 1866 the legislature passed a comprehensive construction code. This was followed, in 1867, by the Tenement House Act, which, for the first time, set standards for multiple dwellings. These included better protection against fire (including fire escapes) and minimal sanitation: one water closet for every twenty tenants.
The 1867 law was revised in 1879 to require that a tenement cover no more than 65 percent of its lot, that any “back buildings”—buildings constructed in rear yards, sometimes inches away from adjacent structures—receive light and air, and that more WCs be provided. Lax enforcement of the law (yet another chapter in the long history of collusion of public and private interests that has so shaped the city) resulted in the proliferation of a formal compromise, the “dumbbell” or “Old Law” tenement, of which our Annabel Lee is a fine example. The dumbbell moniker reflects the plan of the building, pinched in the middle to allow an air shaft on each side.
When dumbbells are lined up on a block, the pairing of neighboring shafts yields a larger, shared shaft that brings some light and air into the middle rooms of the building. Over sixty thousand such buildings were constructed between 1880 and 1900, a year in which approximately 65 percent of the city’s 3.4 million people lived in tenements, the vast majority in “Old Law” types.
The “Old Law” was itself supplanted by the state Tenement House Act of 1901, which remains the legal framework for low-rise housing construction in New York. Although it increased allowable lot coverage to 70 percent, the tenement act demanded strict enforcement to curb illegal excesses. Most important morphologically, it substantially enlarged the required dimensions of air shafts, transforming them into something closer to courtyards. The law also harmonized the height of buildings with both the width of the streets they faced and the dimensions of the courtyards they produced. It required every room to have a window and every apartment to have running water and a toilet, and it mandated construction and egress requirements to protect tenants from fire.
These provisions fixed the vocabulary for virtually all subsequent codes and zoning in the city, not simply by their focus on safety, hygiene, and “quality of life,” but by their clear insistence on the reciprocity of public and private realms. The “New Law” described the simultaneous duties of a building both to the production of the space of the public street and to the space of its own private interiors. The definition of these spatial obligations was mediated through the management of the city’s light and air, the conservation and deployment of the very matter out of which building was produced and which building, in turn, annihilated. As we shall see, this institutionalization of the idea of a trade-off negotiated between private and public benefit remains foundational for the way we plan.
Because Annabel Lee is now configured with two apartments per floor, there is no need for a fire escape on the front facade: the law requires two means of egress for each apartment, which is satisfied at our place by the stair and a fire escape in the back. The fire escape—a familiar element of New York’s historic architectural prosody—is a kind of appliance, grafted to buildings as an afterthought and bemoaned by aesthetes from the get-go. Fire escapes, though, have saved thousands of lives and provided millions with balconies on the cheap. Despite the ubiquity of air-conditioning, heat waves still drive many to seek cooler air by using them as living or sleeping space. These metal balconies are joined vertically by metal stairs, which—because the descent must be close to straight down due to the small size of each balcony—are actually closer to ladders, minimally constructed and steeply pitched. In contrast to fire escapes, outdoor stairs—because they are less protected and more subject to the elements—are less steep than those inside: even Annabel Lee’s stoop is more gently proportioned than its staircase.
A comfortable ratio of tread to riser is crucial to the comfort of the walk upstairs as well as to the ease with which one can enjoy alternative styles of climbing—taking two steps at a time, for example. Classical architecture (not to mention the compact but vertical traditional houses of the Dutch where the pitch can be even greater) generally had a steeper ratio than ours—1:1, yielding an angle of 45 degrees, a considerably harder climb and a sometimes frightening descent. Some years ago, Joan and I visited Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán. We climbed one of the pyramids on an external staircase that was close to 60 degrees (taking its angle from that of the pyramid). Going up was strenuous but not that difficult. When we reached the top, however, the view back down was so precipitous that Joan was paralyzed with fear. We returned to earth only with much backward climbing, anxiety, and holding tight to a chain laid on the stairs for security.
Although this particular stairway did not frighten me, I did feel tremendous anxiety when I climbed the stairs of one of the towers of Antoni Gaudí’s church of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, an experience never to be repeated. This is a very narrow spiral staircase, in stone, protected only by a very low baluster, lower than a typical handrail. The higher one ascends, the more dramatic—and scary—the view. My memories of my own terror are vivid, pressed against the inside wall, fearful that one of the crowd descending would slip or bump against me, causing a fatal tumble to the stone floor below.
Notwithstanding such terrors, the circular stair has both the elegance of a spiral and the compact form of a cylinder, and one might logically expect to see more of them. But a spiral stair is made up of a series of wedge-shaped treads (the circle is sliced like a pie) that—because of their irregularity—pose increased hazards to the climber. As a result, the spiral staircase (although sometimes used internally in individual apartments) cannot be counted against the legal (hence economic) requirement for escape stairs and is thus a relative rarity in New York.
The symbolic weight of stairs is embodied in both their form and their magnitude. The grand stair has long been a marker of consequence and ceremony. The stair at the Paris Opéra (feebly imitated at the high-kitsch Met) is both grand and doubled, and one ascends either by the right side or by the left to arrive at the upper foyer. The astonishing interweaving double helix of the stair at the Château de Blois in the Loire valley—thought to be modeled on a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci—is surely top ten. Of course, the grandeur often diminishes as the height rises. In vertical circulation systems based on leg power, privilege resides at lower levels. In Renaissance palazzi the piano nobile (our second floor) was traditionally the most consequential level of a building, holding its most imposing rooms. Elevated from the ground to provide appropriate detachment and a view of life in the street, this floor was loftier in proportion than those below. The parlor floor is the bourgeois version, and New York brownstones are typical, with their impressive external stairs leading to the receiving rooms a level above the street.
*   *   *
This dialogue of desire and demand is a central generator of architectural form, and every legal formulation produces both its poets and its bandits. In general, the default is the economic max-out with a minimum level of compliance. The history of safety regulations can be easily read in shifting architectural forms. In New York one sometimes sees what appear to be small balconies that join adjacent apartments. These are an updated form of fire escape dating from a code revision in the 1960s, designed to allow tenants to pass from one side of a fireproof barrier to the other, thereby satisfying the two-means-of-egress requirement. A similar piece of economic and architectural ingenuity is found in the “scissor” stair. This invention places two straight-run flights within a single shaft in the form of a series of Xs. The two staircases are entered from opposite sides of the fireproof enclosure and separated by a vertical fireproof wall. People descend in opposing directions, crossing paths in the middle of each flight a few inches from each other behind the dividing wall. Since 9/11, this arrangement has been called into question. It is now generally agreed that had the staircases in the World Trade Center been more widely separated, many more would have survived, and the building code has been revised to reflect this thinking. The scissor stair will become obsolete.
Beyond matters of safety, the health benefits of stairs—and of walking in general—are no joke. The federal Centers for Disease Control now reports that the epidemics of obesity and diabetes that plague the United States are, in part, the direct consequence of a system of architecture and planning in which our every movement is via some mechanical conveyance—a car, a plane, a train, or an elevator. In the culture of sprawl—as well as in our contemporary formulation of historic links between status and indolence—walking is reduced to a leisure activity. Mechanical, cellular, non-bodily, nonsocial means of circulation reciprocally contribute to contemporary forms of alienation, to the “bowling alone” syndrome, the conduct of lives in quiet parallel. To the engineers who design these systems, though, the body is simply a somewhat sensitive device (to temperature, moisture, noise, acceleration and deceleration, decor) to be packed and moved as efficiently as possible by mechanical distribution engines.
Twenty-four years in Annabel Lee have offered me an abundant opportunity for precise empirical research into the physiological effects of stair climbing, and I have concluded that five stories is a genuinely reasonable limit for a walk-up apartment, certainly for those of us in middle age. Historically, this general limit has shaped the vertical dimension of most cities. There are many exceptions. Sana’a in Yemen and Genoa, Italy, for example, have historic cores that are measurably higher. Some of the Yemeni buildings—walk-up skyscrapers built of mud—have as many as ten stories. Despite such variations, cities have thrived for millennia within approximately the same range of heights—from about ten to eighty feet. This is as true of the insulae of ancient Rome as of the pueblos of the Southwest, or even the longtangs of Shanghai, all dense multiple dwellings. It is a mistake to reflexively identify height with density. The “small town” of Somerville, Massachusetts, has long been among the densest American municipalities, and Los Angeles—the quintessential city of sprawl—now has a higher average density than New York.
The logic of this low scale is the product of the limits of comfortable vertical movement under human power, the desire for a proximate relation to the ground, and available construction technology. Trabeated systems—the post-and-beam method that still characterizes most building construction—are limited by the strength, availability, and wieldy-ness of the materials they employ. Wood, stone, and brick are all highly constrained in one way or another. Imagine trying to build a post-and-beam building out of stone, something like Stonehenge or Karnak. To produce such structures, enormous labor energy is required for quarrying, carving, transporting, and erecting. We still don’t know how the Egyptians built the pyramids—not post-and-beam buildings, but huge piles of stone—although we do know that each took many decades, required thousands of slave laborers, and yielded almost no usable interior space.
Annabel Lee has a structure of brick and wood. Its four exterior walls are brick, solid where it abuts the neighboring party wall and with openings at front and back and down the air shaft for windows and doors. Brick is a material that works well vertically (it is strong in compression) but is more problematic horizontally. Bricks can be used for horizontal spans in the form of arches (or domes), but these are inefficient dimensionally. Adding the height of arches running from side to side in Annabel Lee—assuming they were to spring from above head height—would result in the building being at least 50 percent taller to yield the same number of stories and would require considerable additional time, resources, and skill to produce. The interior of the building—its walls and floors—is constructed of wood, which, while having the advantage of being light, easy to cut and join, and cheap, is, of course, not fireproof. The use of wood for structural purposes is now almost nil in Manhattan.
The relative homogeneity of building—and city making—in different cultures is the result of their social organization (large buildings and enclosures are the product of the need for large gatherings), their economic possibilities (only a very rich and powerful Church could produce the cathedrals), their available material and technological resources (very little timber construction is to be seen in desert cultures), and their styles of living (portable tepees and tents are logical if you’re involved in seasonal migration). The same is true today. New York builds within an essentially narrow range of configurations, materials, and structural systems, its limits set by culture, technology, and economics: small apartments in high-rise buildings result from extremely high costs for land and construction, a growing predominance of non-nuclear-family living arrangements, and a legal framework that continuously negotiates the bar of bulk upward.
In the nineteenth century, industrialization and the social relations it produced rapidly transformed the urban pattern not simply upward but outward, and the dramatic horizontal expansion of cities was the outcome of a reciprocating meeting of technology, economic innovation, and reconfigured social life. The horizontal city would not be possible without the railroad (and the car), much as the vertical city would not be without the elevator and Bessemer steel. The modern bureaucracies that occupy our tall buildings would themselves be impossible without a new division of labor, without new forms of organizing capital, without easy means of mass communication, and without urbanisms of concentration (for their centralized operations) and division (to provide living places for their owners and managers at a distance from their workplaces and workers). Factories required huge sites, easy access to transportation and materials, abundant energy, and a nearby source of disciplined labor.
The “dark satanic mills” of the British Industrial Revolution radically remade urban forms and paradigms. They created the modern city’s literal circumstances: giant factories; tangles of rail lines; miles of cramped, homogeneous worker housing; the noise, heat, and filth produced by massive amounts of coal burning to drive their steam engines. These direct effects reproduced themselves across the whole landscape, driving mines, other factories, railways, and downstream pollution as well as the demise of rural economies, the growth of new habits of consumption, and the further reification of class. They also remade the idea of the city in two ways that continue to dominate urban planning and its ideology.
Until the nineteenth century, virtually all cities were “all use” environments. Craft-scale production was typically carried out in a workshop below the home of the craftsperson, which often also served as the site of exchange. To be sure, there have always been districts in cities—concentrations of the poor and minorities, of particular trades, of large markets, sacred precincts, spaces of power. The primary division was between the city and its hinterland, between urban and rural or agricultural space. But industrialization produced a new working class always at risk of growing restive and gave rise to the need to separate that class from the more hospitable climes inhabited by the rich beneficiaries of their labor as well as to locate it efficiently in areas where its relationship to factories and to spaces of their potential expansion could be exploited.
The simultaneous—and interconnected—rise of industrialism, with its giant sites and increasingly specialized division of labor, and of reformist regulatory legislation, with its public bureaucracies of enforcement, fundamentally redescribed the city. Although the first truly comprehensive zoning law in the United States was the 1916 New York City act, which harmonized restrictions on both use and form, the idea of official regulation of obnoxious or dangerous uses had been around for centuries. By the late seventeenth century, Boston had laws requiring fireproof construction and governing the locations of slaughterhouses, tallow makers, and stills. New York City had even earlier restrictions on pigpens and privies, and similar statutory forms of spatial organization by use were, by the nineteenth century, part of the legal order of virtually every American town and city. A casual glance at the current New York City zoning law—which residually restricts abattoirs, dye works, rope makers, and other anachronisms—offers both a history of the regulation of obnoxious uses and an archaeology of deindustrialization.
Since the consolidation of the five-borough city in 1898, New York has produced only one comprehensive plan, and it was never adopted. Zoning by use and density continues to be the primary default for the organization of the city and the main medium of urban planning. Although classic zoning retains relevance for the isolation of uses that are genuinely incompatible, for the management of densities, and for certain broad strokes of urban character, today’s postindustrial economy (at least in the “developed” world) offers the opportunity to dramatically rethink the segregating basis for zoning. As production becomes increasingly clean and knowledge-based, as our urban economies tip dramatically to service industries, as racism and ethnic animosities ebb, and as the model of mixed use becomes more and more persuasive and visible, cities are in a position to dramatically rethink zoning as a medium for leveraging and usefully complicating difference, rather than simply isolating it.
The enormous transformations brought by the industrial city produced another by-product: the dramatic growth of the culture of reform and the consolidation of the discipline and instruments of modern planning. Critics ranged from revolutionaries like Friedrich Engels, whose description of the conditions of the Manchester working class remains unsurpassed, to sentimental architectural observers like A. W. N. Pugin, who lamented the disappearance of the traditional townscape and its stable (if hardly egalitarian) social relations. In the United States, urban reform flourished in a muckraking critical tradition that included Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives, Lincoln Steffens of The Shame of the Cities, and many others, like those in the settlement house movement pioneered by Jane Addams. Movements for improved public health, sanitation, asylums, prisons, poorhouses, working conditions, and wages, not to mention the struggles for the abolition of slavery, for universal suffrage, for immigrant rights, and for a more equitable distribution of wealth, arose. Much of what they campaigned for is now part of the mental furniture of New Yorkers.
All of this activity was motivated not simply by the desperate conditions of the city’s tenements but by a deeper therapeutic impulse that is one of the hallmarks of the politics of modernity. In the wake of Enlightenment rationalism and its ideas of the perfectibility of human life—so important to the intellectual formation of America’s founders—the country underwent a debate not simply about curing disease but about “curing” criminality, insanity, and a multitude of nonconforming behaviors through the creation of exemplary environments. The whole American experiment can be seen as a medium for erasing, or at least managing, deviancy, for subsuming difference under a new and tolerant—or homogenizing—norm.
One such deviation with special meaning in New York was—and is—the differing linguistic and social habits of the immigrants who came to dominate the city’s population by the mid–nineteenth century. Among New York’s elites, these immigrants were increasingly seen as the sources of crime, disease, disorder (especially after the great draft riot of 1863), and—as the century progressed—a radical politics that threatened the stability of traditional institutions and power. Housing reform, then, was the product of a genuine altruism combined with a scientific effort to control the spread of disease both among citizens and to the established body politic. Olmsted was a leader in this spatialized mission civilisatrice and argued for the potential of cities and their spaces of collective recreation to produce health, longevity, and neighborliness.
Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who rose to become a leading newspaper reporter and pioneer photographer and for whom his friend Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker,” typified the ambiguous situation of reformism, its simultaneous compassion and contempt for those it sought to “elevate.” How the Other Half Lives is both a withering indictment of the slums and a Cook’s tour of racist attitudes directed against those living there. Here is the “Chinaman”: “Ages of senseless idolatry, a mere grub-worship, have left him without the essential qualities for appreciating the gentle teachings of a faith whose motive and unselfish spirit are alike beyond his grasp … Stealth and secretiveness are as much part of the Chinaman in New York as the catlike tread of his felt shoes … He is by nature as clean as the cat, which he resembles in his traits of cruel cunning, and savage fury when aroused. His business, as his domestic life, shuns the light … The average Chinaman, the police will tell you, would rather gamble than eat any day.”
As to the Jews: “Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account … It is surprising to see how strong the instinct of dollars and cents is in [Jewish children] … But abuse and ridicule are not weapons to fight the Israelite with. He pockets them quietly with the rent and bides his time. He knows from experience, both sweet and bitter, that all things come to those who wait, including the houses and lands of their persecutors.” Riis applies this same fine sociology to Italians, Irish, blacks, Bohemians, Germans, and the other objects of his Christian charity. I wonder how much of my animus to my own landlord (of whom, more later) is the self-hating residue of my own encounter with such attitudes.

Copyright © 2009, 2013 by Michael Sorkin

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