Twenty Minutes in Manhattan
by Michael Sorkin
University of Chicago Press, 272 pages, $27
Although it sounds like a contradiction in terms, Michael Sorkin has long been the bad boy of architectural criticism. As the house critic for The Village Voice in the 1980s, Sorkin mounted an unrelenting war on all things postmodern, wielding a brutal—and brutally fun—pen against Philip Johnson’s AT&T Headquarters (“The Seagram Building with ears” ), Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (“What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about architecture could fill a book. And indeed it has”), and then-New York Times critic Paul Goldberger (“the embodiment of the aesthetics of Yuppification”).
Many of Sorkin’s barbs were more ad hominem than ad aedificium, at least during his Voice days, but his writing has never been without moral content. He disdained postmodernism not on aesthetic grounds, but because he thought its obsession with style denied modernism’s instinct for human progress.
Sorkin left The Voice in 1989 to focus on teaching and his architectural practice, but he has never given up writing. Through columns and books he has taken controversial, often radical positions on everything from West Bank settlements to the Ground Zero rebuilding process (spoiler: He rails on both). Along the way he has developed, in fits and starts, an extended critique of the contemporary city, starting with his beloved New York, a critique he brings fully to bear in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan.
The book is a take-down disguised as a mash note. Twelve years in the making, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan follows Sorkin’s daily footborne commute from his Greenwich Village apartment to his Varick Street studio, with each chapter organized around a phase in his walk, from stairs to stoop to Washington Square and beyond. But the bulk of each chapter is loosely tethered—one minute Sorkin is discoursing on New York stoop culture; two paragraphs later he’s deep in the sands of Fire Island and the artificial perfection of Disneyland.
The Magic Kingdom is a recurring subject in Sorkin’s writing, his metaphor of choice for everything wrong with modern city living. As urban life becomes more and more a function of private development, he says, its uneven edges get sanded down; cities undergo “a narrowing of range, a flattening out in order to commodify the phenomenon” of urban life. “Times Square becomes a theme park meant to evoke—not New York—but ‘New York,’ a promoter’s fantasy bearing only the most marginal relationship to the history of the town.” Chelsea Piers replaces the neighborhood park, SoHo becomes a plein air mall. And like a theme park, full access to such quasi-public amenities is no longer a function of citizenship but wealth.
What Sorkin wants instead is a city built around the “spectacle of equity” founded on “access to both its places and possibilities.” He pours his loathing on Mike Bloomberg, actor-cum-King-of-Tribeca Robert DeNiro, and even Hollywood film sets, emblems of private possession overtaking public participation, while he praises volunteer cleanup programs and Jane Jacobs. Sorkin’s vision is refreshingly social-democratic; I imagine his heaven looks something like Amsterdam.
None of this is new, of course: Frederic Jameson, Marshall Berman, and dorms full of cultural studies majors have said much the same. But it bears repeating, particularly by Sorkin. Regardless of what you think of his ideas, it is hard not to like Sorkin’s writing—on trash day he leaves his house to find “a nearly continuous Jura of plastic sacks of garbage.”
The real problem with Twenty Minutes in Manhattan is that while Sorkin knows what he doesn’t like, it’s not clear what he would replace it with. He calls for “radical greening,” like rowhouse-top gardens connected via bridges, a la Old City Tunis, but then turns around and blasts the High Line—similar in design, and much more public—as a catalyst for high-end development that “will only further accelerate the departure of the remaining middle-class and poor populations.”
Sorkin presents a vague idea of a perfectly equitable city, but he is only occasionally aware that the very things that constitute a better, more engaged community—fewer cars, bigger trees, friendlier neighbors—are too often the things that drive up rents and narrow diversity. It is no coincidence that Sorkin’s beloved West Village is both exceedingly attractive socially and exceedingly prohibitive economically.
This contradiction may well explain the displaced viciousness with which Sorkin attacks the residents of Soho, Tribeca, and anywhere else he deems excessively riche or insufficiently engagé. Greenwich Village may feel bohemian in contrast to SoHo and Tribeca. But try telling that to the folks in East Harlem. After so many years of vitriol, Sorkin owes it to New York to show how to be a better city.