Owen Hatherley’s Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects asks “what a new generation of American socialists might learn” from New York and Washington, D.C.

Jacobsians and Jacobins

Owen Hatherley’s Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects asks “what a new generation of American socialists might learn” from New York and Washington, D.C.

11 Hoyt and Brooklyn Tower (Owen Hatherley)

Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects: Adventures in Social Democracy in NYC and DC by Owen Hatherley | Repeater Books | $16.95

Describing oneself as a flâneur is a good way to impress, and potentially alienate, strangers at dinner parties. The word connotes a subject of modernity that emerged from the Third Industrial Revolution when a new class of (predominantly male) Parisians had excess leisure time for sauntering their Haussmannian city’s cobblestone streets, churning over all the new art and fashion in the windows. Charles Baudelaire was a flâneur, and so was Walter Benjamin. An insomniac, Baudelaire often found himself traversing Paris at night when everyone was asleep, alone with his restless thoughts about where the world was headed. 

In The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City, Matthew Beaumont recently revisited the flâneur’s place in the post-industrial metropolis; and The Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros (translated by John Howe) did the same. Now, with his latest book, Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects, architecture critic Owen Hatherley enters this echelon by asking “what a new generation of American socialists might learn” from strolling New York City and Washington, D.C. For Hatherley, the potential for discovery doesn’t lie in beatific fin de siecle spectacles of bygone urbanism, but rather in the stories embedded in 20th-century designs for government-backed public housing, cooperatives, cultural venues, and transit infrastructure.

(Courtesy Repeater Books)

In the title, Hatherley’s definition of what constitutes a “project” isn’t how the word is myopically understood in the U.S. Here, “project” describes public housing, but also Rockefeller Center and Lincoln Center; basically anything that was built either fully or partially with government assistance. Hatherley seeks to challenge the negative connotations surrounding government-backed “projects” while remaining critical of urban renewal à la John D. Rockefeller and Robert Moses. He also tries to arrive at an understanding of what he calls the “New York Ideology”—Rem Koolhaas and Madelon Vriesendorp followed a similar pursuit in Delirious New York 46 years ago.

black and white photograph of Co-operative Village by Owen Hatherley
Co-operative Village (Courtesy Owen Hatherley)

Walking the Streets

Hatherley’s book (co-edited by former AN editor Samuel Medina) analyzes New York with boots on the ground following precedent from: Michael Kimmelman’s The Intimate City (2022), Justin Davidson’s Magnetic City (2017), Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City (), Paul Goldberger’s A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan, and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities(). 

While Kimmelman, Davidson, Goldberger, Jacobs, and Glaeser’s books are to the political center and right, respectively, Hatherley’s text has more in common with magnum opuses by New Left philosophers like The Suburbanization of New York, Michael Sorkin’s Variations on a Theme Park and Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, and of course Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air

All these classics about New York are good, Hatherley said, but what about Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue—a 1999 ethnography which documented the social lives of gay porn theaters in Times Square? What about songs by Nas, Mobb Deep, and GZA about Queensbridge Houses and Staten Island? What can we learn today from these voices who went underrepresented in essential 20th-century treatises about modern New York? 

Chrysler Building
Chrysler Building (Courtesy Owen Hatherley)

If Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan launches from the fifth floor of the late New Yorker’s Greenwich Village walk-up, the Londonor Owen Hatherley’s journey begins (and ends) at JFK Airport. While standing on the subway platform in Queens after his arrival, awaiting his train to Manhattan, Hatherley critiques the tragic state of infrastructure investment in the United States, and the lack thereof. The book’s opening employs a classic literary device: “the stranger in a strange land.” This places Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects in the same vein as Franz Kafka’s Amerika but also Delirious New York, or maybe even Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz: “He was standing at the bus stop. The punishment begins.”

The first chapters walk us through Manhattan’s greatest hits: It’s filled with Hatherley’s ruminations on I. M. Pei’s University Village on Houston Street, Louis Sullivan’s Bayard Building, Washington Square Park, Raymond Hood and Wallace Harrison’s Rockefeller Center, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s addition to Lincoln Center, Al Smith Houses, the “proto-Stalinist” towers that line Central Park, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, etc. etc.

It’s easy to read this bit and say: “I know these buildings like the back of my hand. What more is there to learn about them?” And herein lies the crux: Hatherley’s wit and self-deprecating humor makes walking through the pages with him quite fun, even if readers may be intimately familiar with the spaces he’s describing. “Certainly by the point I left [Rockefeller Center] and walked in the direction of Downtown, I had temporarily ceased being an English smartarse and given myself entirely to the cityscape. At one point, I found myself without thinking literally skipping down Broadway,” he said, challenging us to drop our pretenses and skip along with him. 

But this foray isn’t all convivial. Hatherley doesn’t shy away from lower Manhattan’s more nasty items, like Harvey Wiley Corbett’s Manhattan Detention Center and Urbahn Associates’ Criminal Court: “Here, you realize, is a country that really likes prisons.” The author pulls no punches when he refers to Thom Mayne’s Cooper Union building as “overbearing digital trash” and laments that just one-tenth of the budget set aside for Calatrava’s World Trade Center “could have built an entire Metro system in China or Spain.”

Williamsburg Houses photograph by Owen Hatherley
Williamsburg Houses (Courtesy Owen Hatherley)

Walking the Projects

While the first few chapters render New York’s insatiable appetite for capitalist excess manifest in its architecture, the belly of the book pays tribute to its more ethical building stock: public housing and cooperatives. This half nods to the city’s unsung proletarian heroes that fought hard for affordable housing like Herman Jessor and Abraham Kazan of the United Housing Foundation; poet Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League; and the Marxist-Leninist sect I Wor Kuen and Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE).

The belly of the book sweeps us off our feet from the big hits to deep cuts: Roosevelt Island by Josep Lluís Sert, Queensbridge Houses by W.F.R. Ballard, Herman Jessor’s Co-operative Village in the Lower East Side, and the more contemporary Via Verde by Dattner Architects all have cameos. The latter half of the book also takes a quick detour in Washington, D.C. where the author applauds Harry Weese’s METRO, marvels at I. M. Pei’s Federalist Brutalism, and contemplates Luigi Morretti’s Watergate Hotel. 

Back in New York, Hatherley shared “If I had to live anywhere in this frustrating city, it would be here,” referring to Williamsburg Houses and its “Brooklyn Constructivism.” He also gives us small snippets about his opinions on more contemporary buildings like SHoP’s Brooklyn Tower and Studio Gang’s 11 Hoyt, both “projects” being heavily subsidized by the local government in the form of tax breaks. “[Supertalls] may have helped to make a new generation of socialists,” Hatherley pondered.

Washington, D.C. METRO
Harry Weese’s METRO (Owen Hatherley)

Learning from London

As a Londonor, Hatherley employs his own lived experiences watching neoliberalism take hold of the U.K. At several intervals, he calls into question the future of New York’s public housing stock thanks to the PACT/RAD program and its haunting similarity to Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 Housing Act. There’s a similar anxiety in Gillian Slovo’s new play, Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors, which recently debuted at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Clearly, our British cousins are trying to tell us something about the Faustian bargain of privatization.

Indeed, Owen Hatherley’s Walking the Streets/Walking the Projects reminds us that New York City’s vast swaths of public and cooperatively-owned housing should be cherished, and defended. The fact that one in every eleven New Yorkers lives in public housing is very special considering the country’s perpetually diminishing welfare state. At the same time, the book also raises important questions for readers sympathetic with the Green New Deal and its ambitious housing program. As was the case in FDR’s New Deal, and later LBJ’s Great Society—where the federal government poured billions of dollars into the most impoverished parts of the country—all social reforms in the U.S. are only possible by the copious amounts of wealth that the nation has accrued by brute force and colonization. What are the ethics of funding social welfare programs on this bloody foundation?

view of The Bronx
The Bronx (Courtesy Owen Hatherley)

After putting down the book, questions abound: What exactly is the New York Ideology that the author so frequently alludes to? Hatherley never really tells you what he means by the euphemism but does give some context clues. To my understanding, the New York Ideology is a strange brew of Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, Amiri Baraka, Marshall Berman, John Rockefeller, and others from across the political spectrum that clash and mold the city into what it is today. It’s a dialectical way of understanding how, in perhaps the most anti-Communist nation on earth, New York City has been able to build a robust public housing network and welfare state, albeit a dwindling one—a “state within a state” to quote the author. 

All of this is meant to provide a roadmap for the “young socialists of America” in search of a “usable past” to draw from. Now it’s on us to put its teachings into praxis.