The City that Lost its Soul: New York City in “Naked City”

By Rachit Khaitan, IFMR Finance Foundation

In the early years of the twenty-first century, New York City lost its soul. Some people doubt that the city ever had a soul, because New York has always grown by shedding its past, tearing down old neighbourhoods and erecting new ones in their place, usually in a bare-faced struggle for financial gain. Others just shrug because, today, all big cities are erasing their gritty, bricks-and-mortar history to build a shiny vision of the future.

Sharon Zukin explores the notion of authenticity in a city that by placing a high premium on it is effectively destroying it. New York’s quest for authenticity might be seem contrary to the concept of “Manhattanization,” that signifies everything in a city that is not thought to be authentic: high-rise buildings that grow taller every year, dense crowds where no one knows your name, high prices for inferior living conditions, and intense competition to be in style. The city, however, presents a classic case of the conflict between its dwellers’ desire for authentic origins – a traditional, mythical desire for roots – and their new beginnings in terms of the continuous reinvention of communities with the physical fabric of the city constantly changing around them.

As bistros replace bodegas, cocktail bars morph out of old-style saloons, and neighbourhoods as a whole create a different kind of sociability, a city is left to hold on to its sense of authenticity by creating the experience of origins. By preserving historic buildings and districts, encouraging the development of small-scale boutiques and cafes, and branding neighbourhoods in terms of distinctive cultural identities, gentrified and hipster neighbourhoods of New York City today have become the models of urban experience. Zukin makes the case that this pursuit of authenticity, which is now a consciously chosen lifestyle and a means of consumption by the new urban middle class, is also fuel to the rising real estate values and the vast inflow of investment capital that ultimately displaces the original inhabitants – artists, mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, and homeless people – that lent New York its sense of authenticity to begin with.

How Brooklyn Became Cool

Zukin refers to the borough of Brooklyn to show how “uncommon” spaces or neighbourhoods with distinctive histories and traditions to show how origins and new beginnings create a sense of authenticity. Brooklyn underwent a major shift in its perception in the early 1990s from its sorry reputation of a place where factories were Dickensian sweatshops of dirt and squalor and social life was lived on the street to a new ethnically white, cosmopolitan image centred on the north side of the borough. The shift was characterized by a residential influx of rich people into an unlikely neighbourhood, a classic process of gentrification, but motivated by the “down and dirty” hipster culture more than other factors. This gritty and industrial appeal of neighbourhoods like Williamsburg stood in contrast to the bland homogeneity of corporate offices and suburban homes, and being a resident was a statement against Manhattanization and corporatism.

Brooklyn Heights; Image Source.

The story of Brooklyn also reflects the deliberate absence of economic involvement by private developers and public officials, who ignored manufacturers’ pleas for protection from landlords when they refused to renew their leases or dramatically raised their rent when they saw the new higher paying residents coming in. In fact, when the New York City Planning Commission rezoned 170 blocks in Williamsburg in 2005, they explicitly aimed to upscale the waterfront, riddling it of its remaining industrial uses and reclaiming the prime space for high-rise residential construction. The upscale real estate development that followed, shows not only the effects of capital investment and government policies, but also demonstrated the cultural power of the media and new middle-class consumer tastes. It produced a sense of Brooklyn’s authenticity that combines hipsters and new immigrants, lifestyle media and blogs, and the desire to become the next cultural destination and yearning for an urban village that disappeared after World War II. For each generation, though, the idea of Brooklyn’s authenticity shows an aspiration to connect the place where people live to a timeless urban experience.

Union Square and the Paradox of Space

Zukin refers to Union Square to explore her notion of “common” spaces such as public parks, streets, and community gardens characterized by a timeless ideal of authentic public space that is free and democratic. Where Union Square might appear as an endless arcade of possibilities, reflecting and refining city dwellers’ creative abilities to shape their own, spontaneous social place, it hides a paradox. The public space of Union Square is controlled by a private group of the biggest property owners in the neighbourhood, the Union Square Partnership, which carries out the public functions of financing, maintaining, and governing public space. Its main purpose is to keep the space clean and safe at a time when city government budgets are grasping for funds and city dwellers are repelled and frightened by the litter, odour, panhandling, and other nuisances they find when they step outside their front doors.

Union Square; Image Source

More importantly, however, it works to raise property values in and around the square, a prerequisite of which is the eviction of the homeless people sleeping on park benches, cleaning up the graffiti on walls, and providing basic services of street cleaning, trash collecting. On one hand, the public gains the use of a clean, safe space, and on the other, loses control over it. The very idea of private management betrays the public’s trust in that private organizations control public spaces more severely than government dares to do and these control strategies consequently exclude socio-economic groups such as homeless people, push-cart vendors, and street artists. Privatized public space, in other words, tends to reinforce social inequality. It makes the centres of cities more like the premier privately owned public space of our time, the shopping mall: clean, safe, and predictable.

The Crisis of Authenticity

Zukin’s work explores other uncommon and common spaces such as Harlem, the East Village, and Red Hook to find that though people think authenticity refers to a neighbourhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses their own anxieties how places change. She argues that the shift that New York saw from the 1950s isn’t just a structural shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society or the result of a periodic boom in investment and construction, but a paradigm shift from a city of production to a city of consumption, and from a resigned acceptance of decline to a surprising disillusionment with growth.

Calling these changes “gentrification” minimizes and oversimplifies the collective investment that is at stake. Real estate developers, joint partnerships between the public and private sectors, and community organizations have led organized efforts to transform gritty streets, old loft buildings, and former docklands to gold. Together capital investment and consumer culture encouraged both city governments and city dwellers to think they could have it all: a post-industrial revolution with no human costs, both a corporate city and a new urban village. New Yorkers experience the conflict between the corporate city and the urban village as a crisis of authenticity.


“Triumph of the City” – Why cities are our greatest invention

By Vishnu Prasad, IFMR Finance Foundation

This post is a continuation of our blog series on “Cities in Books“. In this seres we put across posts that reflect on how cities are portrayed in books and relate them from an urbanisation perspective.

Edward Glaeser’s compelling book “Triumph of the city” is part-history of cities and why they thrive or decline and part-travelogue that takes us through urban streetscapes around the world; but above all, it’s a personal ode to the city.

The book’s central point is that humans are an urban species who do wonders when they collaborate. Cities facilitate this collaboration and enable the joint production of knowledge through free flow of ideas. Throughout history, cities have been engines of innovation and progress. Ancient Athens, a prosperous trading town attracted the best minds from war torn Asia Minor. This first generation of migrants and the influence of their ideas on friends and students led to a remarkable time in history that witnessed the birth of Western philosophy, drama and history. Great ideas flourished when artists and scholars lived in close proximity, exchanging ideas freely.

In a world where rapid growth is leading to dire environmental impacts, the book also suggests that high density living in cities is the path to a greener future.

There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital

If there is one common thread that links successful cities across the world even today, it is their ability (like Ancient Greece’s) to attract smart people and to enable them to work collaboratively. Successful cities around the world follow this process. When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, it faced enormous challenges- the diminutive state was surrounded by two antagonistic neighbours: Malaysia and Indonesia, it had no natural resources and no natural sources of food or water. As Glaeser puts it, “In the 1960s, Singapore was a poor shantytown where indoor toilets were a rarity. (Yet) Today, Singapore is a glistening First World City with one of the highest per capita GDPs on earth.” What produced this remarkable transformation? Glaeser attributes this success to a host of factors including rule of law, low levels of corruption and excellent infrastructure. But most importantly, Singapore invested in education- in the 1960s the average adult in Singapore had less years of schooling than her counterparts in Lesotho or Paraguay. By 1995, school kids from Singapore were outperforming other countries in the Test of International Math and Science. The creation of high quality home-grown human capital pushed Singapore to the forefront of electronics, biomedical production and finance.

Similarly, Bangalore owes much of its economic success to investment in education. In the early 1900s, Sir Mokshagudam Visvesvaraya’s efforts led to the establishment of University of Mysore and Bangalore’s engineering college, which bears his name. High human capital and a pro-business government brought industries like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Heavy Electricals to Bangalore. It is the same virtuous cycle, in which firms are attracted by high human capital and workers are drawn by these firms, which had led to Bangalore’s domination in the IT sector.

Cities are green

Glaeser finds that in the US, households living in areas with more than ten thousand people per sq. mile use half the gas used by a household in an area with density of fewer than one thousand people per sq. mile. Increased density of neighbourhoods reduces the average distance to shopping markets, groceries and schools. Increased density also permits the growth of public transportation, which are much more energy efficient. For example, public transport in New York emits 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide per trip, a tenth of the emissions produced from an average car trip. Interestingly, there are also intra-city differences in emissions. Suburban households consume 300 gallons more of gas and 27% more electricity than an urban household.

A household in America’s greenest city, San Diego emits 60% less carbon than its counterpart in Memphis, America’s brownest city. So why aren’t more people living in San Diego? The answer is that housing restrictions in Coastal California have led to an under-supply of houses, pushing prices up. Legislation protecting the environment requires any large construction in the state to undertake an environment impact review. In 2008, California generated more reviews that the rest of the US. These impact reviews add costs and delays to new construction, making them more expensive. Glaeser argues that these reviews take a narrow view of impact on the environment. Prohibiting construction in California shifts it to browner areas that are less energy efficient, magnifying the impact on the environment.

The book cautions against India and China following similar misguided environmental policies that create an anti-urban bias. As millions shift from hinterlands to cities, “their decisions about land use will have a huge impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions. If they live at high densities and use public transit, then the whole world will benefit. If they sprawl, then we will all suffer from higher energy costs and higher carbon emissions. One important reason the West must shrink its own carbon footprint is to reduce the hypocrisy of telling India and China to be greener while driving our SUVs to the mall.

Flat World, Tall City

Glaeser finds abundant examples of misguided anti-urban policies in rapidly urbanizing countries. Following tenets of British urban planning, in 1991 Mumbai capped Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for most of the city at 1.33. This meant that in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, buildings could have an average height of one and a third stories. A city as populous as Mumbai should build taller. “An abundance of close and connected vertical real estate would decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a 21st century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space.” Thus, the book argues that building taller to ensure higher densities is the way forward for cities in India and China.

The inexorable march of the city

In recent years, some critics have argued that improvements in information technology will obliterate advantages of urban living. However, as the book says, “a few decades of high technology can’t trump millions of years of evolution. Connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal or a smile or a kiss…whether in London’s ornate orchards or Rio’s fractious favelas or the dusty workspaces of Dharavi, our culture, our prosperity and our freedom are all ultimately gifts of people living, working, and thinking together – the ultimate triumph of the city.


The outbreak that enabled urbanisation: London in “The Ghost Map”

By Anand Sahasranaman, IFMR Finance Foundation

This post marks the beginning of our new blog series “Cities in Books“. In this series we will put across posts that reflect on how cities are portrayed in books and relate them from an urbanisation perspective.

“It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers.”

Thus begins ‘The Ghost Map’, Steven Johnson’s brilliant book on the London cholera outbreak of 1854. The book, on the one hand, is a medical thriller that follows its two protagonists – the physician John Snow and clergymen Henry Whitehead –  as they use reason and evidence to overturn the prevailing orthodoxy on the understanding of communicable diseases and in the process, found the science of modern epidemiology in what is still considered a seminal event in the field of public health.

Simultaneously, the book is also remarkable for its view of the epidemic as a consequence of urbanisation and the response to it as one of the defining milestones that made long-term urbanisation and high density growth sustainable prospects. In making this argument, Johnson starts off by providing us a visceral portrait of London circa 1854, to lay out the background on which the story unfolds. Sample this edited fragment about the scavenger economy of London:

“Just the names [of the scavengers] alone read like some zoological catalogue: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen. They were the London underclasses, at least a hundred thousand strong. So immense were their numbers that had the scavengers broken off and formed their own city, it would have been the fifth-largest in all of England…

Early risers […] would see the toshers wading through the muck of low tide, […] their oversized pockets filled with stray bits of copper recovered from the water’s edge. […] Beside them fluttered the mud-larks, often children, dressed in tatters and content to scavenge all the waste that the toshers rejects as below their standard: lumps of coal, old wood, scraps of rope.

Above the river, in the streets of the city, the pure-finders eked out a living by collecting dog-shit […] while bone-pickers foraged for carcasses of any stripe. Below ground, in a growing network of tunnels beneath London’s streets, the sewer-hunters slogged through the flowing waste of the metropolis. Every few months, an unusually dense pocked of methane gas would be ignited by one of their kerosene lamps and the hapless soul would be incinerated twenty feet below ground, in a river of raw sewage.

London’s underground market for scavenging had its own order of rank and privilege, and near the top were the night-soil men […] City landlords hired the men to remove the “night soil” from the overflowing cesspools of their buildings.”

With a population of 2.4 million people as per the 1851 census, and grossly inadequate infrastructure, London was “drowning in its own filth”. Great numbers of people living closer to each other in unsanitary conditions – the ingredients for the spread of cholera bacterium were optimal.

A growing city with infrastructure unable to keep pace with population, generating tremendous quantities of waste and sewage, and scavenger economies built around the waste – these are themes that resonate across many developing country metropolises even today. London’s transformation to a global city with good quality infrastructure therefore can be seen as a beacon of hope for these cities as they confront their infrastructure and public service challenges, but with the added complexity in most cases of much higher populations than London in 1854– in some cities like Mumbai and Delhi, an order of magnitude greater. However, the technologies and solutions available at present to tackle civic problems at scale also provide these cities tremendous opportunity to drive change much faster than London in 1854 was able to.

Having established that London in 1854 was rife with conditions for the spread of cholera, Johnson then describes the untiring work of Snow and Whitehead in fighting against the prevailing orthodoxy of the ‘miasma’ theory, which held that diseases such as cholera were caused by bad air and smells. Based on their scientific approach of collecting data on where deaths had occurred, mapping this data and comparing this with areas which were considered to be ridden by ‘miasma’, they were able to conclusively prove that the ‘miasma’ theory could not explain the deaths caused by the epidemic. They were also able to prove that it was the water from the pump located at Broad Street that caused the spread of the disease. The maps developed by Snow were critical in clinching the case for the water-borne theory.

“When Snow set out to do the second version of the map was to create a Voronoi diagram using the thirteen pumps as points. He would diagram a cell that showed the exact subsection of addresses on the map that were closer to the Broad Street pump than they were to any other pump. But these distances were to be calculated on foot-traffic terms, not the abstract distances of Euclidean geometry. […]

And so the second version of the map […] included a slightly odd, wandering line that circumscribed the centre of the outbreak, roughly in the shape of a square with five or six areas jutting out, like small peninsulas, into the surrounding neighbourhood. This was the area encompassing all those residents for whom the quickest trip for water was to the Broad Street pump. Superimposed over the black bars that marked each death, the amorphous shape took on sudden clarity: each peninsula extended out to embrace another distinct cluster of deaths. Beyond the circumference of the cell, the black bars quickly disappeared.”

Dr.Snow’s Map

Modern epidemiology was born out of this map. What is striking is the fact that the physical mapping of the spread of an outbreak enabled the detection of its source. Today, we see wide application of maps in understanding many different types of urban issues, and this owes in substantial measure to John Snow’s maps of the cholera outbreak.

Additionally, Johnson also argues that the very nature of ‘urban’ London was crucial to Snow and Whitehead making their breakthrough.

“And it was precisely [Snow and Whitehead’s] metropolitan connection that made this solution possible: two strangers of different backgrounds, joined by circumstance and proximity, sharing valuable information and expertise in the public space of the great city. The Broad Street case was certainly a triumph of epidemiology, and scientific reasoning, and information design. But it was also a triumph of urbanism”

The lasting consequence of the cholera outbreak Johnson posits is the fact that public health authorities oriented themselves towards the new science. What this meant was that there was a new focus on creating infrastructure that enabled the supply of clean water and the removal of sewage to create sanitary, hygienic cities. In the long view, Johnson argues, it is this change that has enabled (and will continue to enable) the trends of increasing urbanisation and denser cities while ensuring health and safety for citizens.

“Establishing sanitary water supplies and waste removal systems became the central infrastructure projects of every industrialised city on the planet. […] The changes ushered in by the sewer system were manifold: fish retuned to the Thames; the stench abated; drinking water became markedly more appetizing. But one change stood out above all the others. In all the years since Henry Whitehead helped track down the Old Ford reservoir contamination in 1866, London has not experienced a single outbreak of cholera. The battle between metropolis and microbe was over, and the metropolis had won.”