Book Review: Twenty Minutes in Manhattan

Michael Sorkin takes readers on a discursive, curmudgeonly stroll through the city.

The architect and urbanist Michael Sorkin covers an impressive amount of ground in the titular walk of Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, using the blocks from his West Village apartment to his Tribeca office as seeds for his musings on the city. The route itself is really just a loose framing device for tangentially-connected topics, but Sorkin’s conversation is compelling — even if you do sometimes find yourself blinking and wondering, “Wait, how did we get onto the subject of text-messaging?” (Or globalization, or modernism, or cinematography…)

The journey begins on the apartment stairs, where Sorkin launches a history of elevators, skyways, and the challenges of making a city handicapped-accessible; then the building stoop, sparking memories of Jane Jacobs and observations on neighborly behavior. Arriving in Soho prompts a lament about gentrification; crossing Canal Street, a look at how different modes of transportation can coexist in a crowded city. Shifting verb tenses helps keep things interesting: Sorkin alternately expounds on the tenements that were, the Lower Manhattan Expressway that might have been, the social networks of the Village that exist now, and the green-roofed paradise that the city could become.

Throughout it all, Sorkin’s tone is conversational and intimate, which makes for an easy read and personalizes the book’s big-picture issues. But although it’s nice to feel like you’re strolling by Sorkin’s side engrossed in conversation, you might find yourself tempted to lag a few paces behind him whenever he loses his temper–at cab drivers, at people who cut him off on the sidewalk, at his landlord, at production assistants who ask him to cross the street so as not to disturb filming, at people who use their cell phones in the elevator, and at any of a number of other disparate, frequent targets. Sorkin’s ire can only partially be pinned on lofty concerns over the future of city life; he’s also an incorrigible curmudgeon.

To the extent that the bones he picks are philosophical rather than personal, though, Sorkin’s most consistent themes are populism and a fierce protectiveness of “authentic” New York. In Sorkin’s eyes, his landlords are “foot soldiers” for a system devoted to maintaining class hierarchies, and the catering tables set out for filming crews represent “abundance for a few, illusory trickledown for the rest,” telling the public: “None for you!” Sorkin’s also leery of how New York’s role as a backdrop in those films contributes to its Disneyfication, and by the same token, of architecture that hews too self-consciously to a romanticized city past.

The personal lens of Twenty Minutes ultimately limits its import, since it’s not clear how widely shared Sorkin’s interpretations are. (Like the proverbial tree in the forest, if no one else perceives private catering tables as a slight, then has a slight occurred?) But on balance, Sorkin’s subjectivity is an asset, keeping Twenty Minutes lively and thought-provoking. Not to mention: Would anyone really trust the ruminations of a self-styled New York expert were he not obstinate, curmudgeonly, and opinionated?

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