Walkers in the City
November 27, 2022
By: Robert Sullivan
At the outset of the Covid-19 lockdown, Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, invited various architects, urban planners, writers and other experts to suggest walking tours of New York City, hoping that the itineraries would offer “examples of how the city remains beautiful, inspiring, uplifting.” Within days, the first account of what would ultimately be 17 walks was published, a conversation between a critic and a thinker, set within a particular area of the city. Now those walks, plus three more, have been assembled into a collection, “The Intimate City,” each chapter a geographic memoir: streetscape-jogged annotations on history, infrastructure, planning and combinations thereof, complemented by photos, many from the original series. “I was on the lookout,” Kimmelman says in his introduction, “for stories, both intimate and about the city, that I thought seasoned, savvy New Yorkers might find surprising — tidbits of history, law, technology or gossip I hadn’t heard myself, or that revealed something about the people who were telling the stories.”
“The Intimate City” is a joyful miscellany of people seeing things in the urban landscape, the streets alive with remembrances and ideas even when those streets are relatively empty of people. Thomas J. Campanella, a professor of city planning at Cornell, points out the spot in Brooklyn Heights where W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee lived in the 1940s, before the house was demolished to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Guy Nordenson, the renowned structural engineer, notes the enormous pendulum dampers inside 432 Park Avenue, an 85-story pencil tower: The pendulums soften the force of the wind that causes the stacked luxury condos to sway. The writer Daniel Okrent reminds us that before “Saturday Night Live” broadcast from Rockefeller Center, the developers piped in laughing gas to a floor of one building in the complex, hoping to lure dentists.
In many of Kimmelman’s conversations, architecture refers less to the design of buildings than to how built spaces are used. When David Adjaye, the Harlem-based architect who designed the Studio Museum, passes the front of the Hotel Theresa, he pictures the guests interacting outside: Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, chatting with Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “It was another Speakers’ Corner,” Adjaye says. Kate Orff, whose landscape architecture firm, SCAPE, designed a wave-reducing oyster reef now being implemented off Staten Island, as well as green space for Amazon’s new Virginia headquarters, toured her Queens neighborhood with Kimmelman, saying, “For me, Forest Hills doesn’t feel like a housing development as much as it feels like a landscape with housing in it.”
Kimmelman’s own recollections of growing up in Greenwich Village dovetail with the historical insights of Andrew Dolkart, an architectural historian and the co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, which aims to increase public awareness of local sites important to L.G.B.T.Q. history. When activists applied to have the Stonewall Inn listed on the National Register, Dolkart reports, they sought the designation for adjoining streets — which also figured in the 1969 uprising for L.G.B.T.Q. rights — at the same time, and were advised to follow guidelines for registering Civil War battlefields.
Though “The Intimate City” visits four of the five boroughs (it skips Staten Island), it is centered on Manhattan. It refers to Native Americans only as the earliest residents of Manhattan, despite the fact that Native American construction workers helped build both World Trade Centers and vast swaths of the modern skyline. A walk through the Bronx that was not featured in The Times is led by Monxo López, the co-founder of the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards, a community land trust. Amid all the lockdown-era enthusiasm about New York’s resilience — “I suspected, no matter what misery was coming, that the city would endure and even prosper,” Kimmelman recalls — López’s view of his community’s future is practical. His organization seeks to remove lots from the speculative real estate market, so that the neighborhood’s residents can retain a stake in its development. “The Bronx is not about consumption,” says López. “It’s about community.”
Covid’s devastating impact in the area of López’s tour suggests that New York City didn’t just come back; it never stopped being what it was, and, in the process, the most vulnerable died or became more vulnerable. The pandemic — with its quickly constructed hospitals, neighborhood-level mutual aid, and relief (if temporary) for rising rents — showed us another way to build the city in the future.
Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor at A Public Space, and has just completed a book on 19th-century Western survey photography.