Interview with Sharon Zukin

First posted 24 July 2012 on


Naked City

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at CUNY Brooklyn College, New York. One of the United States’s most widely read sociologists, she has been an active participant for many years in public debates on cities.  Regeneration, and the place of culture in cities are particular interests. Her latest book is Naked City (OUP, 2010). She is interviewed here by Richard J. Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. The interview took place in a quiet alcove in in the University’s Playfair library on 11 June 2012.

R.W: To start with, if you could say something about your last book, The Naked City, which was very widely read. Looking back on that, what was that about, what was the main thing you wanted to say? 

S.Z: Just as the novelist, Paul Auster, has a New York trilogy, I think I as an urbanist have a New York trilogy. Naked City is the third instalment after Loft Living and the Cultures of Cities – the last instalment in my attempt to look back over thirty years of change in New York, from about 1980 to 2010, and to come to grips with the economic, social and cultural sources of change.  Some people say that New York City has lost its soul during the past thirty years, and to a certain degree I agree with that. There have been changes that have made New York more like other cities. Also, they have made New York a more expensive city and a less fascinating place. I was concerned to look back over the same area that I had researched for thirty years to try to understand better, and more deeply, the causes of these changes.

R.W: There is a word that you use in Naked City – and I think it is in the subtitle – ‘authenticity’.

S.Z: Yes, the A word.

R.W: The A word. That’s a word that gets used in lots of different contexts.  What do you mean by ‘authenticity’ in this urban context?

S.Z: I chose very deliberately to use the word ‘authenticity’ to talk about changes in New York.  I wanted the slipperyness of the term to allow people to understand that the city changes in ways that are both acceptable and not acceptable for both objective and subjective reasons, and our criteria for evaluating change in the city are both objective and subjective.  I wanted to come to grips with the constant changes in big cities which we experience as making them “inauthentic” and the necessity of adapting to the new people who come to the city all the time. New York, for example, is a city that regularly acknowledges its immigrant bases. Even the mayors talk about New York as an immigrant city. They are not ashamed of that.  And I wanted, simultaneously, to defend longtime residents’ right to stay in place against forces of eviction and newcomers’ right to establish their own places in the city.  So I chose a term, ‘authenticity’, that would include both origins in a very primeval sense, and new beginnings in the sense of constant change.

R.W: There are lots of examples of what you call ‘authentic’ spaces in the book. If you were to pick one of those, what would it be?

S.Z: It’s hard to say now. I used to answer by saying that ‘my neighbourhood’, which is Greenwich Village, is an authentic space, but Greenwich Village is very much beleaguered.  There are zoning rules and historic district designations that prevent wholesale demolitions and rebuilding in a monolithic skyscraper format. But the area has become much more expensive in recent years. There has been a huge influx of students at New York University, which is a very large, private university in this district. And during the past couple of years I have seen my neighbourhood shopping street, my little local high street, change into a service centre and restaurant mall for undergraduates.

R.W: Yes, a mall is, I think, a great word to describe what’s happened there.

S.Z: Very much so.  This transformation has occurred at the same time that the nearest public park, Union Square Park, has become a tremendously lively public space, much better used and more deeply used by the public than ever before.

R.W: Yes.

S.Z: Even though – and I write about this in the book – the public space of Union Square is managed by a private business association (which is called, because it carries out public functions of managing public space, a public-private partnership).  So I don’t know what authentic spaces are left in New York City. I’m hoping that the city as a whole still appears authentic.

R.W: Well, I think it certainly does.  My favourite authentic space you describe was the Hispanic food courts – food carts, I mean …

S.Z: Trucks.

R.W: Food trucks – and this is not actually in Manhattan, it’s in Brooklyn.  Is that culture still going on?

S.Z: Yes it is.  And it’s really a story of how foodies shaped views of the space’s authenticity. The acceptance of the Latino food vendors, who come from a number of different Central American and South American countries by the broader public was conditioned by food blogs that began to appear on the Internet in the early 2000s. The Latinos had been selling food at the soccer fields in Red Hook, near the Brooklyn waterfront, since the 1970’s, at first very informally and then more formally as a cash & carry operation.  By the late 1990s or early 2000s, a lot of foodies from different ethnic and social backgrounds had become acquainted with the Salvadoran papusas and Mexican huaraches and all sorts of other dishes, and they began to talk and write about these foods.  So their tastes for exotic foods, or should I say for the authentic foods of the homelands of immigrants, drew a lot of other people, not immigrants and not Latinos, to Red Hook.  Meanwhile, Red Hook, which had been quite a dilapidated industrial port area and a working-class neighbourhood since the 1960s gradually began to pick up.  I can’t say Red Hook has been gentrified, but a small number of good restaurants owned by young chefs and bars and food shops opened there, and then finally, in 2009, a giant branch of Ikea, the Swedish modern furniture chain, opened on the waterfront.  So, you could almost see the neighbourhood of Red Hook caught in the vise of dependence on two types of globalisation: globalisation in a big way by Ikea, and globalisation in a small way by the Latino food vendors.

R.W: Mm.  I was just fascinated by this collision of two different kinds of globalisation – an unstable but fascinating situation – full of contradictions.

S.Z: Yes, it is really fascinating.  It’s probably the districts that are teetering on the jagged edges of underdevelopment and commercial globalisation that we find most interesting now. Probably that was also true of New York in the 1970s, when so many creative people moved to downtown locations and really thrived on these jagged edges – moving between security and danger.

R.W: Mm.  There’s a figure, a great figure, who runs all the way through the book, and that’s Jane Jacobs, the urbanist.  What does Jacobs, and her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, mean to you exactly?

S.Z: Jacobs is the iconic thinker and observer of cities, particularly US cities. She is the person who, against all odds in the mid twentieth century, extolled the messiness, the grittiness, the tentativeness, but also the firm friendships of city life.  When I say against all odds, I mean against the extreme pressure of suburbanisation in terms of investment of funds, building of infrastructure and movement of the middle class from the cities.  Suburbanisation was the strongest force changing the habitat of Americans in the last half of the twentieth century.  And against this huge, popular and elitist world of sentiment as well as against a growing crisis of capital disinvestment, Jacobs said that city life is the most real.  She didn’t use the word ‘authentic’, but she would have used the word ‘authentic’ if she were writing now.  Cities are the most authentic form of human life and Jacobs is the one who laid down the “authentic,” humane, social design principles that most urban planners in North America cherish today.

Remember, of course, she was writing in the North American context, where cities are young, where most cities are designed on a grid system, and where there are dramatic inflows and outflows of capital that from one year to the next create gigantic structures and just as suddenly demolish them. Jacobs praised the small blocks, the narrow streets, the small shopkeepers, the individuals and families who make up the social bonds of city life.  She aggressively promoted values of autonomy – community autonomy, I should say.  Not necessarily individual autonomy but community autonomy, and self-reliance from state intervention that we identify with communitarian politics, not with left-wing politics.  In the 1950s and early 1960s she fought successfully against the urban renewal plans of the state because she was a great mobiliser, together with many of her neighbours in the western part of Greenwich Village.  She fought the plans of the city government, articulated by Robert Moses, a bureaucrat and wielder of great public sector power and funds, from 1930 to 1960.  He had plans to demolish parts of Greenwich Village, as he had demolished parts of New York City, in order to build roads, highways for automobiles and trucks, and large public housing projects, generally making the city more modern and more efficient, but ultimately less coherent to the people living here.  So Jacobs is the iconic urban writer, against whom other urban writers must measure themselves – and so I did.

R.W: Do you model yourself on Jacobs?

S.Z: I appreciate her common sense and her iconoclasm, and I definitely admire her writing style. For an academic, it is extraordinary that ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jacobs’ master work from 1961, is written without a single footnote.

So, that’s what I aspire to – to write for ordinary people. I so deeply admire Jacobs’ writing ability and her ability to capture lived experience within a few telling anecdotes and phrases.

However, Jacobs’ ideals have been adopted by today’s government bureaucrats, so that everyone is a Jacobsite, in New York especially.  I suppose that everyone in her two adopted cities, New York – and Toronto, where she spent more of her time after the mid 1970s– has to say that they admire Jane Jacobs.  But from the point of view of gentrification, the very values that Jacobs espoused are the values that gentrifiers adopt to dislodge long-time residents who are poorer than they, and to impose their sense of social and aesthetic order on spaces. So the urban village ideals that Jacobs advocates, in fact become gentrifiers’ ideals and levers of power to displace long-time residents. On the other hand, another fetishisation of Jacobs’ ideals is accomplished by government bureaucrats who have re-zoned large areas of New York City since the beginning of the 2000s. They have re-zoned the avenues for high-rise, high-density construction of apartment houses, but they have maintained low-rise, low-density building heights on the side streets.  Paradoxically, this two-faced re-zoning has the effect of driving up property values because real estate developers are now interested in buying properties on the big avenues, to demolish existing structures and build high rises, usually luxury high rises, while the small townhouses on the side streets are taken by people who want to buy into this monopoly situation for beautiful small houses.

R.W: And Jacobs has been very useful for real estate development.

S.Z:  Yes.

R.W: What do you think – and this is to bring things up to date – what do you think she would have made of the ‘occupy’ movement?  What did you make of it?

S.Z: I don’t know what Jacobs would say. I hope she would support the ‘occupy’ movements around the world and relish the challenges to power that ‘occupy’ represents.  But Jacobs herself was not someone who attacked state power or the power of capitalists.  When I re-read ‘Death and Life’ a few years ago before I wrote ‘Naked City’, I was surprised to see something that I had not truly noted the first time or even the second time I read the book – that Jacobs’ main target is urban planners. Urban planners usually don’t have much power in the U.S. They work for government or they work for real estate developers, but you never find accusations against the rapacity of real estate developers or bankers in her book and you don’t really find much involvement with government.  In fact, as I said a few moments ago, Jacobs herself was a communitarian in her politics.  She shied away from reliance on the aid of the state, particularly on zoning, because she didn’t trust the state.  But I really don’t know whether she was, what can I say, left wing or right wing, whether she was anti-Stalinist and therefore didn’t trust the state, or whether she was just a conservative American and didn’t trust Franklin Roosevelt. Or perhaps the atypical concentration of power in urban planner Robert Moses’s hands struck her as a greater problem than the power of banks or private-sector real estate developers’ power.

R.W: I sometimes think – I sometimes think the latter, you know, with occupiers.  I wonder if she would have been out on the street telling them to clean up their tents. But it’s an interesting question. Before we started, there was one term that I asked you to comment on, and I just want to return to that. The term is ‘citizenship’, which you said, in your context, had not been very useful.  If you could just say that again, explain what the difficulty was there.

S.Z: Scholars around the world have joined with political activists to speak of citizenship being the general framework of human rights and a more equitable access to resources.  In the US I think we have a legalistic understanding of citizenship, for the most part. Academics, of course, use citizenship to talk with other academics around the world about social rights. But most ordinary men and women in the United States think of citizenship in terms of documents – documents to be able to live and work in the United States. So citizenship, for me, reflects the concerns of my undergraduates and their families, many of whom are immigrants. Citizenship for me is a legal category.It is not the same as talking about social rights or the right to the city; it’s a legal understanding of national citizenship.

R.W: That’s very interesting because I think that some of the audience will be thinking that citizenship might be a big enough term to incorporate the right of the city, and it could be citizenship made from below.

S.Z: In Latin America this is very much part of the term, I understand that, and again, my friends and colleagues, who are also social scientists, use citizenship to speak to a global audience about rights. Perhaps I’m being too provincial about this, but I just haven’t had occasion in my work to use ‘citizenship’ in that way.

R.W: Well, I think that in itself is very interesting.  Let’s just have the last question then, which is very simple. If you were advising somebody who was interested in cities now, maybe thinking about writing about them, studying them or whatever, what would you advise them to look at?

S.Z: I became an urbanist by accident because I was assigned to teach urban sociology courses when I was just starting out as a young assistant professor.  But I have been happy writing about cities because cities really are cauldrons of democracy. Cities are the places where the most basic clashes of social rights occur now – the right to a job, the right to shelter, the right to have food. Cities are just so fundamentally places of challenge that I think there is nothing more satisfying than shaping your life in cities. Not only that, but cities are the gates to tremendous migrations of population; they really are mixing grounds, places where values clash.  I won’t say that cities are places of freedom, but they are places where people try to make freedom, and cities always have a very basic character of diversity. This is what I so deeply appreciate about city life.

R.W: Are there any particular cities that you have visited recently that you would say you would really like to know more about?

S.Z: Well, I don’t think it’s a secret that New York is my favourite city, but I particularly like big cities. I like a lot of hustle and bustle in cities.  And I’m afraid that I probably prefer the most environmentally challenged cities, wherever they are in the world.

Originally published on


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