Book Review Preview: The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

By John Shapiro

William B. Helmreich, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2016).

Did you know that…

  • Barak Obama once lived in Park Slope. So did Al Capone.
  • Bushwick’s unconstrained graffiti art is really a changing exhibit managed by a collective.
  • In Gerritsen Beach, a favorite pastime is giving wrong directions to outsiders.

Such facts are dispersed throughout William B. Helmreich’s first contribution to his intended Nobody Knows series for New York City’s boroughs, expanding on his successful The New York That Nobody Knows. For each of 44 neighborhoods, Helmreich reports on his observations from and conversations while walking 816 miles through Brooklyn. Read it one neighborhood at a time before making a visit, and it is a guide book. Read it cover-to-cover as I did, and you realize the thoroughness with which Helmreich describes the people and condition of Brooklyn in the 2010s, at the height of the Brooklyn hype.  As is the case for the WPA Guide to New York City of the 1930s: while the reportage will become dated, it will enjoy a second life as an historical record.

As a local city planner, I can vouch for his accuracy—though there are places where the common wisdom he retells is incomplete, the urbanism story goes unreported, and he might have delved deeper into the community development movement, which originated here. But as a fourth-generation Brooklynite, I say fuhgeddaboudit: If you love walking cities, buy the book.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

John Shapiro, Professor, Pratt Institute

 

Book Review Preview: Space and Pluralism

By Anne B. Shlay

Stefano Moroni and David Weberman (eds.), Space and Pluralism: Can Contemporary Cities be Places of Tolerance? (New York, NY: Central European University Press, 2016).

Spaces and Pluralism is a tough read that speaks to issues that have plagued humanity for centuries but have intensified in recent years.  It asks “can contemporary cities be places of tolerance?”

The book is a collection of essays, case studies and research articles from many points of view including philosophy, planning, political science, design, geography, social theory, anthropology, and urban studies.  It asks basic and important definitional questions: what is pluralism, what is public and private space, how place is created from space, is tolerance culturally specific, how does private property interfere with tolerance, what can be expected from design and planning, what are human rights for space collectively and individually, and how does space exclude, separate and control particular social groups?

The two major concepts explored are pluralism and tolerance.  This idea of the good is central: not that there is right or wrong or winners and losers but that different perceptions are good whether they are good or bad.  Tolerance entails “mutual tolerance of the other” (p.8).  A pluralist approach to space encompasses the idea that different ideas of what is good exists and that we should accept and tolerate these differences.

Space and Pluralism recognizes that one cannot theorize about tolerance without talking about space.  Race, ethnicity, gender, class and more are grounded in space.  Tolerance and intolerance are spatial.  Human rights are spatial.  How can one even begin to understand human conflict without incorporating space as a key dimension? This focus on space may be the best feature of this book.

Spaces and Pluralism would be a useful addition to graduates courses associated with the fields of urban and global studies.  It will generate debate, frustration and hope over the possibility of tolerance and the role that designers can play in fostering understanding.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Anne B. Shlay
Georgia State University
ashlay@gsu.edu