Justin Davidson strolls through history as well as architecture in “Magnetic City: A Walking Companion to New York” (Spiegel & Grau, 236 pp., $22 paper), his atmospheric guide to seven New York City neighborhoods. Davidson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his music criticism at Newsday, also uses his walks as a springboard for thematic musings: the financial district reminds him that New York is a “City of Money”; a promenade along 42nd Street from the New York Public Library to the United Nations reveals a “City of Ideals.” Now the architecture and classical music critic at New York magazine, Davidson spoke in a recent conversation (edited for length and clarity) about capturing the texture of urban life in print.
You’re the son of native New Yorkers, but you grew up in Rome and came to live here in your 20s. Does that give you a different perspective on the city?
Although we spoke English at home and I thought of myself as an American, when I got here I realized that I had spent a grand total of six or seven weeks in the States in my life — mostly summers in Great Neck, where I watched “Star Trek” and discovered sugared cereal. Growing up in Rome, I had a teacher who made me aware of the questions that are interesting to ask about cities. The main one is, stand here and look around: Why is it like this? Why did this neighborhood develop in this way? Why are the windows bricked up here and not there? It’s a lot like a mystery, and walking around can be like a detective looking for clues. The answer is almost always complicated and has a lot to do with history.
You show a cycle of destruction and renewal recurring over and over in New York. Were you aware of that before you began writing this book?
My first intensive experience of writing about architecture was in the wake of 9/11. I was writing mostly about music for Newsday, but I had always written about other things, especially in the summer when the music scene went a little quiet. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center was a very big story, and the paper had some really good reporters covering the political and logistical aspects, but there wasn’t anybody dealing with it in architectural terms. It was fascinating to watch the process of the city rebuilding itself after a blow.
Your walking tours trace neighborhoods and buildings from origins to current uses. Why did you take this approach?
I wanted to emulate the complicated experience of walking through the city. To me, buildings are not static objects; they’re part of these complex layers that make being in the city so wonderful. If I was trying to get across one central aspect of the urban experience, it’s that sense that the past and the present and the future are all intertwined. That’s a great strength of cities as they age; lives get layered on top of them. In a 100-year-old building, you’re living with ghosts, a place where people you don’t know have had all kinds of hopes and traumas and joys. That’s even more true in public space; you share it with the people who are there right now, but you’re also sharing it with the millions of people who have done the same things in the past and who will in the future.
The physical format is unusual, too, with walking directions in the margins rather than incorporated into the text.
I wanted this book to work as a walking tour, and I think the audiobook will help, because people can move around while listening, and you can download the maps as PDFs. But it was really important to me that you could read this like any other book; you could be sitting in your bedroom, and if you have visited New York or have some feeling for New York, you would have a rich reading experience. So I didn’t want to break it up visually with the directions. The beautiful thing about separating them out — which I had very little to do with but am very appreciative of — is that in order to do this the margins are fairly wide, and we could use those margins for photos and captions. That actually determined the layout of the book, the way it flows. For me, the urban experience is about both being in and moving through the city, so this seemed like a good way to do it.