The Magnetic City, By: Justin Davidson, Spiegel and Grau, 2017
Justin Davidson’s, “The Magnetic City,” purports to be a walking guide – like the wonderful “Paris Walks” book of the 80’s that got you poking around inside gates and down narrow alleys to discover fabulous hidden architectural and historical treasures. But it is much more than that. It is a beautifully written elegy to one citizen’s city and culture (perhaps the mirror image of J.D. Vance’s hillbilly one), a sophisticated series of essays of architectural criticism and an overview of contemporary ideas about city planning and development. It’s most important quality is its quiet, serious thoughtfulness about many issues where partisans can be highly polarized, the rhetoric is often hot and hyperbolic and there is mostly heat generated without much light. Davidson holds these questions up in his scrupulously careful hand, turning them slowly and examining them from a range of angles – all informed by a deep, deep knowledge of New York City history, literature, buildings and neighborhoods.
Davidson has done an astonishing amount of both walking and reading in and around New York City. The book is full of wonderful nuggets of information. It makes a grand walking companion in some of the city’s most economically and architecturally interesting neighborhoods – with a particular focus on downtown Manhattan. But it is also a fine companion for the armchair tourist. Davidson colorfully conjures up the places about which he writes – and his deeper goal is to talk about preservation, development, architectural quality, gentrification and the changing city.
What’s particularly remarkable about the book’s discussions, particularly the thematic chapters that Davidson calls “Interludes,” about streets, towers, glass and apartments, are their even-handedness. Davidson obviously cares deeply about these issues – but he’s no zealot: and that’s likely to upset some readers. I say, “great.” For example, preservationists in this town for the most part have a “take no prisoners approach” – you are either for them or against them. No one can doubt Davidson’s commitment to great design and public spaces – but he recognizes the tradeoffs and ironies that are inherent in the preservationist project. Not only does preservation of existing structures and neighborhoods inhibit economic growth, but it also makes building housing more expensive. Preservationists need to be wary of simply engaging in the protection and enhancement of property values of upper middle class neighborhoods, homeowners and the position of entitled rent stabilized tenants. It can be argued that such efforts contribute to the city’s economic inequality. One of the great ironies of the thinking and work of Jane Jacobs, as Davidson points out, is that the lively, diverse West Village she vehemently tried to protect now constitutes some of the most expensive residential property on the planet – in no small part due to her efforts and those of her preservationist followers.
A couple of notes about the book: it comes only in a paperback edition – which is handy for carrying around while walking. It includes clear maps and detailed walking instructions – along with a slew of archival photos. Since the best walking, most interesting architecture and biggest projects are almost entirely in Manhattan, the book only touches on Brooklyn and The Bronx and is largely Manhattan-centric. There are many walking tours of the neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island that readers might find interesting, but it would be difficult to find places that illustrate most of the points Davidson is trying to make.
[I should say that I know Justin well – and our paths as fellow residents of the People’s Republic of the Upper West Side cross frequently. When he is wearing his music critic hat, he is a much-esteemed professional colleague of my wife’s. In fact, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in Long Island’s Newsday. He went on from there to become the classical music critic of New York Magazine. While at New York he went back to Columbia to re-tool himself as the magazine’s architecture critic as well – and has been writing about the physical changes in the City in a longer format than a daily newspaper might allow for almost ten years. As the acknowledgement section of the book attests, he has immersed himself in the world of policy makers, real estate professionals and designers (among whom he has graciously included me – as well as in a lovely reference on page 150).
As a fellow Upper West Sider I particularly appreciated his evocation of the world of Isaac Beshevis Singer – remnants of which remained when I first moved to New York (but, unfortunately, not the cafeterias in which he is said to spend long afternoons drinking tea). To me, this is an important part of New York history, one that shaped my suburban teenage image of Manhattan – and that seems to be fading in memory.]
In the current political environment, his evenhandedness is critically important. This is tricky terrain. For years I was involved in the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and served on its professional law and streetscape committees (on the latter as co-chair). MAS was long led by Kent Barwick who was a master at balancing the organization’s role a fierce advocate for good design and preservation as leader of an organization with a board made up of prominent public citizens – including some from the design community and the real estate industry who had direct interests in the issues MAS was attempting to address. Early on in the Bloomberg administration this challenge to MAS became more acute, as senior members of the Mayor’s team had close relationships to MAS, and the Mayor’s policies were very much aligned with the Society’s objectives. Around that time MAS eliminated its professional committees and began to see itself as more of a “thought leader” and less of an advocate – in part abandoning litigation as tool to highlight issues and force policy outcomes it favored.
Many members of the law committee then took over the moribund shell of the historic City Club (including me), led by the able attorney Michael Gruen. It became quickly apparent that this group of lawyers were hammers who saw every issue of concern to the group as a nail subject to a lawsuit. I bowed out. In the name of preservation and the protection of public space the City Club filed suits bringing a halt to development in the parking lot at Shea Stadium and to the proposed mega-project on Pier 55 in Hudson River Park being led and funded by entertainment business titan Barry Diller. The City Club has taken an un-nuanced and uncompromising position regarding historic preservation and the commercial use of parks and other public facilities. For example, while I have concerns about the process by which the Pier 55 project was approved, it does represent a substantial potential investment in aging infrastructure and a big boost to the Hudson River Park, which struggles for operating and maintenance funds. There should have been a middle ground – but for now the project appears to be dead as a result of the Club’s successful legal challenge.
Litigation is a blunt instrument for policy making and one of the changes in public space management demonstrated by the success of Bryant Park is that commercial uses of public space can have significant benefits. Davidson makes the case well that these are issues of balance – and that each instance of proposed development or commercial use of public assets must be assessed on its merits. The characterization of developers as uniformly “greedy” and in opposition to the public interest is not only wrong, but also destructive. Real estate development is a risky business, often involving millions of dollars that people lose when projects fail. Many projects do fail. Bringing together the resources (financial and other) to make even a small project happen takes great patience and skill. Yes, the financial rewards can be large. But the reality is that since the real estate industry’s assets cannot be picked up and moved somewhere else the long-term interests of the industry are almost always aligned with the general public good. Davidson gets this.
Good policy-making and design in the public sphere are always questions of balance – physically, politically and economically. Davidson makes this case well – and carefully lays out the tradeoffs: between artistic integrity and the pedestrian experience and urban context; among the use of glass, masonry and steel; and between development and preservation. Yes, historic preservation is essential to the character of the city. The streetscape needs both high design structures and vernacular buildings. This is not a zero sum game – a growing city needs some of all of these elements. The Magnetic City is a great read, a useful guide and provides thought-provoking and important analysis of some of the most pressing issues facing the city.
*I happen to like New York, I happen to love this town
I like the city air, I like to drink of it
The more I see New York, the more I think of it
I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it
I happen to like New York
I like to go to Battery Park and watch the liners booming in
I often ask myself why should it be
That they come so far across the sea?
I suppose it’s because they all agree with me
They happen to like New York
Last Sunday afternoon, I took a trip to Hackensack
But after I gave Hackensack the once over
I took the next train back
I happen to like New York
And oh, the Easter Show at the Music Hall
A perfect delight
And oh, pastrami on rye at the Carnegie Deli
There’s joy in each pie
And Madison Square for a Friday night fight
Or a walk along Broadway to guest at the lights
And at Carnegie Hall where the atmosphere’s right
Life at the lights, at the night
I happen to like New York, I happen to love this burg
And when I have to give the world my last farewell
And the undertaker comes to ring my funeral bell
I don’t wanna go to heaven, don’t wanna go to [unverified]
I happen to like New York, I happen to like New York
I happen to like New York