Cities, Jane Jacobs famously observed, offer "a problem in handling organized complexity." In her first and still most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, Jacobs argued that cities are not chaotic or irrational; they are essentially systems of interrelated variables collected in an organic whole. The challenge, she wrote, was to sense the patterns at work in the vast array of variables. Something similar could be said for writing about cities. How does one coax the thread of a narrative from the scrum and fray of urban life?
In Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, Michael Sorkin, an architect and critic, makes like Jacobs and immerses himself in the rhythms and patter of the street. He has shaped his book according to the contours of his daily stroll across a dozen or so blocks of Lower Manhattan, from the top floor of his five-story Greenwich Village walk-up to his office in TriBeCa. Walking, Sorkin writes, is "a natural armature for thinking sequentially," providing opportunities for heady musings on all manner of city life. Yet his peripatetic narrative is anything but linear. Proving there’s a raconteur in every flâneur, Sorkin unspools strands of free-floating observations about a scattered array of urban issues and gathers them into a loose weave along his path downtown. Any full accounting of his rambles would be impossible, but he manages to ruminate on landlord-tenant troubles, the 1811 Manhattan grid, historic preservation, the "ratio of tread to riser" on apartment stairs, elevator etiquette, zoning and housing codes, rent control, the theory of montage, green roofs, public art, crime, gentrification, traffic, urban renewal and public-private partnerships. He also takes diversions into the city thinking of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, Ebenezer Howard, Jacob Riis, Le Corbusier, Henri Lefebvre, the Walt Disney Company, the Situationists, the New Urbanists and, of course, Jane Jacobs. It’s a primer on what one might call the "New York school" of urbanism.
Sorkin is a congenial, sometimes irascible guide. Ever the Manhattanite, he lambastes oblivious SUV drivers, callous landlords and "Disneyfied" urban environments (an undying spark for his ire), but he is also aware of his own foibles, including his tendency to lapse into "high ethical mode." Sorkin’s musings–outrages and enthusiasms alike–converge around his sensitivity to the restless yet productive tension between the city’s role as both public sphere and commercial marketplace, and the intermingled chances city life offers for making meaning and making money. For Sorkin, the city’s hum and buzz is the sound of an endless "dialogue of desire and demand" and the pitched voices of "poets" and "bandits" jostling for each and every advantage.
The foremost poet in this dialogue is Jacobs. Her attention to the intricate weave of interaction–the "organized complexity"–that binds the social lives of streets and neighborhoods undergirds much of Sorkin’s book. Jacobs, Sorkin observes, "approached the city as a medium of exchange rather than a static artifact." It was "commerce, in every sense of that word," that she found at the heart of a healthy city. Sorkin prizes the social possibilities of this notion of exchange–the "intensified reciprocity" that has made cities such fertile ground for free association and expression. He finds this reciprocity at the heart of all the urban virtues he and Jacobs cherish: "mutuality, self-government, neighborliness, diversity, intimacy, convenience, contentment, and safety."