Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects

Adventures in Social Democracy in NYC and DC

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Pub Date 11 Jun 2024 | Archive Date Not set

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A walk through the remnants of a social democratic America, and an argument about its future.

In the 1960s, a novel ideology about cities, and what was best for them, emerged in New York. Pushing against the state planning of the time, it held that cities were at their best when they were driven from the bottom-up and when organic, unplanned processes were allowed to run their course, in a spontaneous "ballet of the street". Cities were at their worst, however, when the state stepped in, demolishing lively old neighbourhoods and erecting giant, sterile, empty "projects". This book uses the method of this ideology — walking — to test how true it actually is about the "capital of the twentieth century", New York City, with a brief interlude in the capital, Washington DC.

The "projects" that are walked in this book range from cultural complexes in Manhattan to New Deal-era public housing developments in Brooklyn, Harlem and Queens, from the social experiment of Roosevelt Island to Communist housing co-operatives in the Bronx, from the union-driven rebuilding of the Lower East Side to DC's magnificent Metro. For all their many flaws, they prove that Americans could, in fact, plan and build fragments of a better society, which survive and sometimes thrive today in one of the unequal places on earth. Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects takes a hard look at these enclaves, and asks what a new generation of American socialists might be able to learn from them.
A walk through the remnants of a social democratic America, and an argument about its future.

In the 1960s, a novel ideology about cities, and what was best for them, emerged in New York. Pushing...

Advance Praise

"Hatherley goes West — into the Great Satan — armed with sarcasm, Socialism, sturdy shoes. He takes on the New York Ideology and its sacred cows. He celebrates a little-known fact: New York has more cheap public housing than anywhere else in North America. As always, he's a skewer and a seer."

--- Sukhdev Sandhu, author of Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night

"I've been involved with New York City for over 60 years, but reading this made me feel as if I'd just gotten off the bus from Rubeville. Hatherley lays out the great social-democratic city-state that flourished in the 1950s and '60s, only to be ravaged by private interests in the following decades. It filled me with retroactive pride." 

--- Lucy Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

"Hatherley goes West — into the Great Satan — armed with sarcasm, Socialism, sturdy shoes. He takes on the New York Ideology and its sacred cows. He celebrates a little-known fact: New York has more...

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Featured Reviews

The book is a travelog of the author's time in the United States, primarily in New York City, but also in DC. The author's aim is architectural criticism, but from a street side perspective, a sort of waggish interpretation of Jane Jacobs' beliefs about cities. But the memoirist element is substantial, a sort of diary of someone not as accustomed to doing as much walking wandering out in "the Great Satan" and casting shade everywhere.

The book starts with a more general discussion of the author's interpretations of New York City architecture, then briefly looks at the subway, before turning to the philosophical core of the book: public housing. The author considers the public housing developments in New York City as something that gives lie to what we could call both right and left urbanism and urban planning, to government projects in general, and most specifically to social democratic plans. This includes public-private or private development...sometimes. The book has something of a consistency problem, a lot of what seems like post hoc reasoning or different sections that I could not reconcile.

Anyway, these developments are on the whole successful, and sometimes their peril in losing their public elements are the proof of their success, since they are more desirable than market-created apartments, and generally the best places to live in NYC and preserve the city's class and racial diversity on the whole.

The author goes as far as to support the concept of 'slum clearance,' usually treated in the modern world as racist, arguing it was not disruptive, and the discontent arising out of it was about not getting a piece of the new development. I though we had a term for when elites use the levers of government to shape a neighborhood to suit them at the cost of the current residents, but I assume the counter-argument would be that only capital can gentrify.

The author visits the DC metro and writes a tragicomic tale of his journey there and around there. His point is to look at a public project specifically considered a great success.

The book then returns to New York City, and begins to focus on a concept that has come up repeatedly in the book of the ills of the New Deal and in general how U.S. Socialists have tended sell out the (less racist) U.S. Communists, falling for the better being the enemy of the good. Is is treated as something still going on in political life today, and something where the history around certain housing projects provides the best examples. This as a concept has come up already, but the end of book starts to hammer on it.

I think that some of the examples are quite striking in proving the author's point, or at least shocking the conscious. But as an argument, it relies on counterfactuals.

Overall, the architectural criticism is insightful. The history here is good in rounding out the history of housing in the U.S., though I think that its geographical limits may create misleading results. The author thinks that they are justified, both in a travelog sense, but also in the sense that he considers New York City to be the only place that has yet to tear down all of its housing developments. Still, the history is detailed enough.

I think that the DC section is the strongest as an argument. It suffers from the same weaknesses as the rest of the book, but is where the author's argument is clearest in its application. And the Mean Girl act is de rigueur for whatever the Dirtbag Left is now.

The paradox of this book is that it is person-centric, but not people-centric. Despite talking about Delaney and designing the book to be a take down of Jacobs, there are no humans here. Or rather, they are strictly in the abstract. The section on Queensbridge feels particularly bad in this regard, in its jubilant praise for its cultural cache as a violent place that great art came from, followed by flip observations of the people there.

I can get particular as to why this section annoys me so much, namely that it annoyed me in the same way that Jane Jacobs annoyed me. The author focuses on public space as critical to the project, and talks about how well that public space was used. Jane Jacobs, in Death and Life of American Cites, does the same thing, about similar spaces, except to the opposite description of the space as unused or dangerous. Both or neither of the observations could be true; both could have alternate causalities than the space itself, which the author uses as a punchline; neither gives voice to the residents.

However, this becomes one of those exercises in judging a book by its context. As a polemic, stating a position for debate, and taking Refuge in Audacity I love it, and want more like it, making other arguments. It feels much more honest than some of the three card monte that I read in purported history.

My thanks to the author, Owen Hatherley, for writing the book and to the publisher, Repeater Books, for making the ARC available to me.

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This is another fine book from Owen Hatherley at the intersection of architecture, housing and socialism. It‘s a travelogue of his visits to New York mainly - he also travels by train to Washington DC - in which he walks through areas where various collectivist housing projects (in the broadest sense) endure. It‘s typically informative, witty and opinionated- Marshall Berman comes out of it very well, Jane Jacobs rather less so. How is Hatherley so prolific? I think it’s because he relies solely on his knowledge, research and eyes. What he doesn’t do is talk to anyone as he walks through the projects. And that’s what I wanted some of by the end of what is quite a short book - some other voices, differently informed and local. Of course, that would have been a different book and we should probably be content that Hatherley keeps producing the books he does.

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