Review- Zipp, “Manhattan Projects”

Samuel Zipp, “Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York” (2010) – Another book from my comps list I haven’t actually read until now… I’m not sure how to judge it because I have all the spatial sense of a dead horseshoe crab. I admire architects in much the same way I admire mathematicians and pole vaulters, as people who might as well be doing magic as far as my abilities to do the same go.

I guess I better judge based on the historical narrative, then, because architectural details are lost on me. In that, the book is fine, though a tad thesis-heavy: major urban renewal projects in Manhattan were influenced by the Cold War, in that planners wanted both to prove they could do (x planning task) better than the Soviets and as they sought to make New York the capital of 20th century modernity. This is true of the UN HQ, the Stuyvesant Town housing project, Lincoln Center, and the East Harlem housing projects. All of these are “superblocks,” lifted out of the street grid on oversized plots of land and one way or another isolated from the rest of the city to form self-contained units. All of them were major top-down projects that made heavy use of eminent domain to clear out slums in order to make these modernist utopian constructions.

All of them faced resistance, along an accelerating course- less for the UN HQ and then steadily more until the East Harlem projects got caught up in years of political fighting. In part, this was the resistance of people displaced from these “slums,” in part it was other people resisting the divisive results of slum clearance and new building in terms of race and class. The Stuyvesant Town apartments were only desegregated after a protracted fight, and the drive to rebuild the city in general entailed breaking up some of the city’s more racially diverse neighborhoods and kicking thousands of people, disproportionately black and Puerto Rican, out of their homes.

The usual story is that urban critic Jane Jacobs came along and curbed the abuses of “high modernist” superblock neighborhood-destroying city planning in favor of more human-scaled, mixed-use development strategies. But Zipp shows it was much more complex than that. Well before Jacobs, there were those arguing for the value of messy-seeming urban arrangements. Moreover, the equation (city rebuilding support = racism and classism) always and everywhere wasn’t right, either. There was widespread support for rebuilding the city’s housing stock among working-class, poor, and communities of color in New York in the late 1940s- their housing stock was generally dilapidated, after all. Most of them just wanted improvements within their communities, not getting bulldozed out of the way, but they didn’t share the nostalgic aspect of the vulgar Jacobs-ism, which has foisted on us the “creative city,” with its “mixed” use of luxury condos and the kind of coffee shops luxury condo dwellers like. All in all, a solid book, as far as my non-expert, spatially-challenged self can tell. ****

Review- Zipp, “Manhattan Projects”

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