The Broadsheet | Lower Manhattan’s Local News | April 15, 2020
A Friend and Comrade of the Late Architect Recalls Battles Waged on Behalf of the Community
Tribeca resident, professor, architect, and critic Michael Sorkin died on March 26 from the coronavirus. You might have seen the tributes pouring in from the architectural world. A chorus of accolades attested to Michael’s astonishing career and accomplishments, among them authoring 18 highly regarded books, being awarded multiple prizes and fellowships, writing criticism for the Village Voice, The Nation, and founding Terreform, a non-profit that published books on urban research.
Unbeknownst to many, Michael was also our neighbor and a fellow comrade-in-arms for Tribeca’s historic districts. I first met him when he moved to the corner of Chambers and Broadway in Tribeca, from Greenwich Village (where he documented his walk to work in the wonderful book of essays, “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan”).
On hearing our story, he willingly lent his authority to the cause of preservation in Tribeca. He did so at a time when many architects ran away from preservation: Mayor Bill de Blasio had made it seem that preservation was at odds with housing, a notion Michael thought ridiculous. He quickly agreed to host our first fundraising event at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, where we screened the film, “The Human Scale,” about the Danish Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehls.
Michael had our sold-out crowd laughing in no time. Later, he came arm-in-arm with me to a meeting with the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to push the cause of Tribeca’s historic district expansion. There, Michael amiably tolerated the bowing and scraping that the staff gave to him, and without any preparation he eloquently ad-libbed our case, leaving the rest of us figuring we’d won the day. When that turned out not to be true, when our posse was treated contemptuously by the Chair, we left the building both furious and despondent. Michael cheerfully seized my arm and said: “The only thing to do now is write. Get cracking.” Sure enough, less than a month later, there was his new column on gentrification and preservation in The Nation that featured our meeting.
His emails were always full of good cheer and urgings on, which I have no doubt he did for his vast network of allies, friends and students. “Must crush these density absolutists!” he would write, or he’d sign off emails with the old Che Guevara salute “Hasta la victoria siempre!” Or sometimes, when there was something to be done, he’d say, “Standing by!” When discussing the idea of a new kind of democratic, neighborhood improvement district, he wrote “All in favor of the Tribeca Soviet! Let’s booze and schmooze!”
In our eventual court case against the LPC, Tribeca Trust produced a slide show that compared photos of buildings inside our historic districts with other buildings just outside those boundaries. Michael took one look and offered up an affidavit in support of our cause, again without the slightest hesitation. He wrote: “the uncanny ‘separated-at-birth’ quality of the paired presentations of comparable buildings is — in each and every instance — completely persuasive to me and an entirely compelling argument for the expansion of the district.” Other architects around the City, even those on our board, were terrified of fighting the LPC and would have nothing to do with the lawsuit. But Michael Sorkin was unafraid. In that affidavit for the courts he also wrote:
“I can state that Tribeca – and its surrounding neighborhoods — are among the most ‘at risk’ for the loss of an architecture and an aura that is unique not just in New York, but in the world. This singular neighborhood is irreplaceable and can — because of the very specificity of its historic origins — never be recuperated if lost. To fail to protect this brilliant and beloved environment is nothing less than vandalism.”
He went on to criticize LPC:
“In a number of instances, the buildings that lie outside of the district are superior to those within. I cannot stress enough the way in which the document I’ve reviewed establishes what would appear to be a completely arbitrary policy of valuation that preserves one building by an important architect but excludes another of identical — or better — quality…. The current district [does] not simply impose these entirely whimsical distinctions in setting its boundaries but also ignores what should be a primary motive and rationale of such a place: a sense of historic continuity and ensemble…. Tribeca and downtown are rapidly losing not simply buildings of individual importance but the remnant textures of its variegated earlier scales. Indeed, these neighborhoods are consequential as a near-miraculous collection of both styles and scales, reflecting a mosaic of urban paradigms and practices that found different modes of coherence from the earliest nineteenth century to the middle of the 20th. I strongly urge this Court to act to direct the LPC to reverse its decision of last June, and to, instead, come up with a set of guidelines to facilitate a reasoned decision on the Trust’s application.”
Michael was eloquent about just about everything. His urbanist writings in the Jane Jacobs tradition are what made his renown. And the generosity with which he used that renown to lend a hand everywhere gave courage to all on the front lines, myself included. There was the fight over air-rights transfers at St. John’s Terminal. Michael wrote scathingly about it in a now-famous column in The Nation that took on the lack of regulation of air rights transfers more generally. He came with me and others to testify at the City Planning Commission against over-scaled development in Harlem. He used his wit to write about the need for homeless shelters, about bad zoning, and about real estate corruption. With Michael Sorkin’s death, we Tribecans and New Yorkers have truly lost a great ally. He was a brilliant intellectual force that combined erudition, wit, and humor — all, dedicated to his keen sense of justice. He will not be forgotten. Until victory, always, Michael.