“The walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to my studio in Tribeca takes about twenty minutes, depending upon the route and whether I stop for a coffee and the Times. Invariably, it begins with a trip down the stairs.” – Michael Sorkin.
Michael Sorkin (1948 – 2020)
A renowned architect, urbanist, theorist, author, and educator, Sorkin studied architecture at Harvard and MIT. For a decade, he wrote about architecture in the well-known New York weekly, “Village Voice”, among others, like the Architectural Record and the Architectural Review. His ongoing academic work and essays are noteworthy, with the publication of 20 books, including Exquisite Corpse, Some Assembly Required, Wiggle, and All Over the Map. His writing features the social and political consequences of architecture and urban planning projects. He also lectured at several universities, including Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell.
Michael Sorkin’s book is a descriptive guide of his 20-minute walk from his apartment to his office, written as a product of scenic and reflective contemplation. While trailing across Manhattan’s blocks, the book develops into Sorkin’s observations regarding the city’s physical changes and social encounters. Sorkin’s stroll takes the reader on a sardonic journey around the area, past residents, neighbourhood businesses, historic buildings, and forgotten streets. Because the book is an excursion about urbanism, architecture, and cities, as well as their symbiotic associations, the chapters are organised in terms of the stages of the walk.
The first chapter is called ‘The Stair’ and is the longest of all. Here Sorkin begins from his apartment, which he names Annabel Lee, which is located in Greenwich Village, a boho district in New York City. The apartment becomes a backdrop to a look at the history of the city’s early residential zoning restrictions and the advent of the widespread elevator-less walk-up. He also talks about the trials of making a city handicapped-accessible, reminiscences of Jane Jacobs, and observations on neighbourly behaviour.
Further talking about his walk-through of Soho and Tribeca, he delves into the topic of gentrification, where Soho is the prime example of out-of-control gentrification. Gentrification gives rise to many economic problems, but modifications in the architectural capacity fall short without social, legal, and economic modifications. He talks about the historical timeline of conversational cues in the city like – artists, galleries, boutiques, and the disappearance of the artists, also the lawyers, etc., and further concludes that even gentrification has also led to the recuperation of the beautiful parts of the city. Throughout the book, his tone is conversational and anecdotal, almost as if he is guiding a tour of the neighbourhoods through time.
Further, the topic of urbanisation comes, where Sorkin is very realistic and blunt. He mentions that the planet’s future is at stake, and the growth rate is 1 million people per week. Jane Jacobs is an important muse and often shows up in the book in conversations about cities. Subsequently, in one of Sorkin’s discussions regarding the needs and development of old and new cities, “the only antidote to the endless growth of existing cities is new cities. So I am sort of on both sides of this issue; I am very much in favour of planning; I think we need to think about new cities, I think we need to conserve old cities, and one of the useful aspects of J Jacob’s work is that she gives a whole series of criteria which are not simply applicable to historical circumstances but which can become criteria from thinking about the way we design new cities the way we intervene in spaces that are quite unlike Greenwich village.”
He also quotes urbanist Henri Lefebvre about cities – “the obvious and less important way is that a city should be accessible, you know that people should be able to roam the city in freedom, have access to its pleasures and its different quarters.”
Sorkin’s writing is highly observational and educating. He also talked about the 197A plan, which allowed community districts, and community planning boards, to create plans for their future development. Concerning this plan, his studio also worked on a non-profit project. The proposal for an area called Manhattanville is counter to Columbia University’s redevelopment. The university’s proposal contradicts the 197A plan and yet was approved by the city council.
He also believed that architects and planners have a tremendous role in terms of raising expectations and illustrating possibilities to non-architects. The chapter on Canal Street examines in detail Robert Moses‘ plans for lower Manhattan, of which only a portion was ultimately carried out. He also talks about the street being inhospitable to walk on because of the inefficiency of signals.
Finally, in the afterword of the book, the writer Michael Sorkin talks about the changes in the city after 9/11, which affects and doesn’t affect him at the same time. Talking about changes as scars, he mentions Trump’s Soho, a 45-story hotel, as a bland glass box. The final curtain falls, with a last anecdote about the rapid changes and improvements in the neighbourhood and at Annabel Lee.