At the Review, we recently decided to refocus and invite articles pertaining to a specific subject each issue. This month, in our November issue, we selected the idea of the city. Such a concept is, by definition, ambiguous. There are as many conceptions of what defines a city as there are cities. Our city, New York, invites such intense identification from its residents (particularly transplants, like most of us are) that the pursuit of becoming an authentic “New Yorker” has become a minor obsession. “I [heart] New York,” read the endless tee-shirts. But does New York love us back?
The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård muses in A Death in the Family that:
“In the same way that the heart does not care which life it beats for, the city does not care who fulfills its various functions. When everyone who moves around the city today is dead, in a hundred and fifty years, say, the sound of people’s comings and goings, following the same old patterns, will still ring out. The only new thing will be the faces of those who perform these functions, although not that new because they will resemble us.”
Presented with our devotion, the city has little to offer us but indifference. Nonetheless, we strive to be worthy of its respect through our hardened canniness and sprezzatura, our studied indifference. This month’s articles, read in this light, should be interpreted as love letters of sorts, addressed to the city as platonic ideal (or less than ideal, as some of our writers will demonstrate).
We begin with a book review by Krishna Kulkarni. In his analysis of Pascal Menoret's Joyriding in Riyadh, he questions the often complex motivations behind supposedly counter-culture joyriding. Kulkarni notes the dimensions by which it both challenges and reinforces older power structures, defying simple categorisation. In her article on the self-immolation, in 1963, of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, Eliza Lambert also replaces his actions in their cultural context. Quang Duc's protest against the repressive American-backed South Vietnamese government gained a new resonance through a photo taken by Malcolm Browne, disseminated by the Associated Press to cities across America. But Lambert shows us that something crucial was lost in translation. Another act of protest, the Occupy Wall Street movement at Zuccotti Park in 2011, finds its mirror in the Paris Commune of 1871 in an editorial by Philip Tsuei. What can we learn from historical insurrections, and their idealistic utopianism? What is it about urban spaces that fosters hopes of self-governance? Michael DeLuca, in his photoessay on privately-owned public spaces in New York, explains how Zuccotti Park came to be through an astute history of zoning regulations. Are New Yorkers being conned through easily abused skyscraper zoning concessions?
As Hera Syed shows in her article on the Kalafa system of labor relations in the Gulf, construction workers are even more vulnerable to exploitation. The rapid construction of cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, filled with structures like the still-unfinished Burj Khalifa (which will be the tallest in the world) depends on inadequate wages and the confiscation of foreign workers' passports. Many of us at NYU were made aware of these horrific conditions by the revelation, in a 2014 New York Times exposé by Ariel Kaminer and Sean O'Driscoll, that NYU's Abu Dhabi campus was itself built on the backs of abused migrant laborers. And so, all roads lead to New York. Will you understand our city any better, having read this month's articles? Probably. But the city-as-concept, chosen by our editors as our overarching theme, remains illusory.