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Q&A: Architecture critic Justin Davidson on 'Magnetic City,' his NYC walking guide

The New York critic and urbanist discusses more than a century of change—and resilience—in New York

In Magnetic City, Justin Davidson chronicles the development of the High Line and how it’s changed the fabric of West Chelsea.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

As one of New York City’s foremost archicritics, New York magazine’s Justin Davidson has been reporting on the changes throughout the five boroughs for just about a decade. That decade has been one of myriad shifts in the city—some huge, and some not so huge—as he chronicles in his new book, Magnetic City, which is released tomorrow by Spiegel & Grau.

But, as Davidson sees it, 21st-century New York City isn’t so different from the city of a century ago. Technology has advanced and the skyline has risen to new heights, but some things are fundamentally the same. “Despair and resilience are recurring motifs in the history of city that has regularly been battered, doubted, cursed, and loathed, only to battle its way back to glamour,” he writes in Magnetic City’s introduction—and indeed, the book’s seven walking tours (covering areas like the Upper West Side, the Financial District, and West Chelsea) show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Justin Davidson.
Ariella Budick

On the eve of the book’s release, Curbed chatted with Davidson about Magnetic City and that throughline of resilience and dynamism in New York City.

You’ve been writing for New York for a while now, but what led you to writing Magnetic City? Was it a natural extension of your columns?

I really actually had no intention of doing this, to be honest. But a friend of mine, who was on the PTA of my son's school, dragooned me into doing a couple of tours that she could auction off to parents… I would just pick a place and lead a couple dozen people around. We'd talk about the way the city was developing. And one of the parents who came on three successive years was Cindy Spiegel, who is the editor at Spiegel & Grau at Random House. After the third one, she said, "You know, I really love this, and you should turn it into a book. And you should do it for me."

I realized that I really loved doing these tours physically, but I also just love walking around the city—almost any city—and writing about it that way really aligned itself with the way I look at cities and the architecture in general. What better way than using the genre of a walking guide to discuss all of these different issues about the city?

It reads as much like a somewhat compact history of the city as it does a walking tour or guidebook, which is a really engaging approach.

What I found using the walking guide as a vehicle was that it forced me to do three things at once. One was to make a linear path through the city; literally something that would take you from Point A to Point B. The second was logical: I wanted to tell a number of stories that unfolded over time about the development of the city, each of which would have its chronological integrity. The third was thematic: I wanted to make sure that in each case, each one of these walks would actually tell a story about something, about some aspect of city life.

It was always important to me that the book reward not just readers using it as a guidebook, but also that you could be lying in bed in your apartment in Hong Kong, having been to New York once, and still get something rich out of reading the book.

You’ve crafted walking tours for seven different neighborhoods, like the Financial District and the South Bronx and Sugar Hill. How did you decide which ones to focus on?

Some suggested themselves to me. Obviously I couldn't cover the whole city, and there are plenty of large areas missing, but I wanted to get some geographical distribution.

For instance, the one about Sugar Hill and the South Bronx was really prompted by the reopening of High Bridge. That created a new geography, because it meant that people living in that part of the South Bronx had a new way of accessing Manhattan that they hadn't had in the decades since the bridge was closed. I realized the two neighborhoods I never thought of as close to each other actually are, and that they’re now reachable on foot or by bike without having to go all the way around. That connected them in my mind—then I was just thinking, "What do they have in common?"

The High Bridge
The High Bridge, which connects the Bronx to Manhattan and is one of the focial points of a tour in Magnetic City.
Jeff Reuben

What was the research process like for you, considering that New York City is a topic you’ve immersed yourself in for such a long time?

I had ideas of what I wanted to say, but to really ground that in the history [of the city] required really boning up on what that history was. New York is an incredibly well-documented city. What I found was that when I went looking for some specific piece of information … the great thing about New York is that whenever you have a question, you can find the answer. New York is so full of people commenting on the city, of experts who research every last little thing about it. There's nothing you can happen on that doesn't have its history of scholarship and commentary. I found that very exciting.

As you were researching, and comparing historical New York to the New York of today, was there anything you learned that surprised you?

All of the arguments that we have now have been had before. And in some ways, the terms are very similar, even [to the terms from] when the city was completely different. You see people in the 1840s discussing the way the city is developing and the role of money in shaping it, and I was really struck by how similar they are to conversations we have now.

Another was putting development of the city today in context. It feels like change is very fast, and the truism we live with [now] is that the pace of change is faster today than it ever has been. And it was kind of dramatic to realize how not true that is—New York in the 19th century was changing much, much faster. [For example,] there wasn't electricity, and so everything was dark. And then there was, and you had a city that was on a completely different schedule. The drama of those changes is so much more dramatic than anything we've experienced.

It’s the same thing with skyscrapers—there was a huge change in how buildings were constructed between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s, but not so much today.

That's partly because the skyscraper stopped evolving in New York. It was evolving elsewhere. If New York had remained at the forefront, it might have seemed more dramatic.

So many of the things you cover in Magnetic City—the rise of supertall towers, the changes to New York’s streets, and things like that—can be contentious, but you take a very measured approach. How do you balance the different sides of these hot-button issues?

I became aware of how passionate people have always been about New York. There's passion on all sides, and people who really love the city see very different things. The thing about the city—cities in general, and certainly the city of New York—is that all of those contradictory observations are true.

I also actively decided not to write a book with an argument, other than just a sort of advocacy for New York. I wanted it to be observational and explanatory and to help to enrich people's ideas of New York, to help people understand why the city is the way it is.

One of the big takeaways I got from the book, and maybe this is a bit obvious, is that New York City is constantly changing. What do you think the next phase is for the city?

I think that New York will continue to grow at a relatively slow pace. We think of it as growing dramatically in the last 20 years; in reality, the percentage growth is not that great compared to sort of the doubling and re-doubling and re-doubling again that it experienced at the end of the 19th century, or even a hundred years ago.

The immediate question is how it can cope with an affordability crisis. I wish I knew the answer, but I emphatically don't. I think that the solutions to the question are largely out of local control. I think we're talking about large-scale economic mechanisms and national, international policy.

The amazing thing about New York is its resilience. The trauma of de-industrialization was profound; New York went from being the largest manufacturing center in the world, and the largest shipping center in the world, to effectively closing all of those waterfront areas when containerization happened. The fact that New York even continues to exist and is at a peak population now goes counter to what anybody in the mid-’70s would have predicted.

And now those waterfront areas are some of New York’s most desirable real estate.

One of the other developments that is happening in even more recent years is the return of some manufacturing along the waterfront in a very deliberate way. A different kind of manufacturing, but we're now seeing a resurgent Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City, and Brooklyn Army Terminal. That’s pretty deliberate.

What do you hope that people take away from the book?

Whether people are visiting New York for the first time, or have only ever seen it on TV, or have lived here their whole lives, I would like people to be able to stand on a given street corner or walk down a block and have a sense of why it is the way it is. Everything has a history, and you can see that history embedded almost like a fossil or a series of archeological layers in the city that you're seeing in front of you.

Cities are as intriguing and mysterious as people, and this incredible composite of all of the millions of lives being lived, now and in the past … all these people leave their mark in interesting ways.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Davidson will be at several New York City events this week, including at the Museum of the City of New York tonight at 6:30 p.m.; powerHouse Arena April 19 at 7 p.m.; and the AIA Center for Architecture May 8 at 6 p.m.