‘A way of learning from everything’: the rise of the city critic
Criticism of food and the arts has long flourished. In our increasingly urban world, perhaps city criticism should be recognised as distinct and necessary
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy, wrote EB White in his 1949 essay, Here Is New York.
White sizes up both the positive and negative potential of the teeming Manhattan with the familiarity of a native and the heightened awareness of a visitor. A longtime contributor to the New Yorker magazine, White also wrote the classic childrens book Charlottes Web and co-wrote the influential writing guide The Elements of Style. In Here Is New York, he takes that versatility further, giving us a new way of seeing the city in an early example of what we might today call city criticism.
Given how long weve relied on the work of critics on film, music, food, and much else besides, as well as the ever-increasing relevance of cities in our lives, its time we recognised city criticism as its own distinct category of writing. But what is city criticism or rather, what isnt it?
Despite dealing with the built environment, it isnt architecture criticism, not in the sense of treating structures like sculptures, indulging in a collective obsession with idiosyncratic starchitect buildings, writes Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. Architecture matters in city criticism only to the extent that it explores whats designed and built in the context of a broader narrative, writes Curbed urbanism editor Alissa Walker. Whats happening in the surrounding community, what political efforts hindered progress, and, conceding all those externalities, can the project still best serve the audience that it is intended to serve?
To Walker, city criticism isnt about buildings, but about people: a city critic must be someone whos going to all the public meetings and listening to what all the elected officials say, [but also] out in the city itself, riding buses, hanging out at coffee shops, talking to people about how that policy affects them.
Yet city criticism isnt reportage. Like movie or restaurant reviewers, city critics write from their own perspectives, in distinctive voices enriched by knowledge and experience, but wearing their erudition lightly. City critics understand that places reveal themselves through details encountered by chance, glimpsed and overheard.
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