Michael Kimmelman is that rare creature: a much-admired critic incapable of writing an unstylish sentence who also happens to be a damn good reporter. He became the chief art critic for The New York Times at an impossibly young age, and then, based in Berlin, covered politics and culture in Europe and the Middle East for several years. Since 2011, Kimmelman has been the paper’s architecture critic, where he has brilliantly expanded that job’s traditional portfolio to explore climate change, social justice, and what it means to be a community.

In his new book, The Intimate City, Kimmelman explores a score of New York City neighborhoods, always with a knowledgeable companion in tow to share expertise and bat around ideas. The reader feels like the luckiest of eavesdroppers, whether sitting in a comfortable chair or retracing the steps of Kimmelman, beautifully illustrated book in hand.

The Gaslight Poetry Cafe, on MacDougal Street, 1961.

JIM KELLY: In your new book, you provide guided tours of various parts of New York City, making the point that the city “is a collective undertaking, a shared responsibility,” manifested most notably during the pandemic by the resilience of its neighborhoods. You grew up in Greenwich Village, which as a child you viewed as “a small town that happened to be mobbed by tourists.” How has the Village changed since then, and has it changed for better or for worse?

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN: Streets and parks in the Village were filthy and not particularly safe. Starting in second grade, I devised circuitous routes home from P.S. 41 to avoid running into roving, hostile gangs of kids.

I don’t want to romanticize the old Village. But it was much more ethnically and economically diverse in the 60s and 70s. People living there weren’t all movie stars, hedge-fund managers, and N.Y.U. students. It was still a middle-class but also working-class neighborhood, still a magnet and haven for cultural and political outliers like my parents, an Italian neighborhood, a gay neighborhood, yes, also a smug, insular, self-righteous community of liberals, but to a kid growing up there, a place that still felt like a small town because I knew neighbors and shopkeepers, I played in friends’ backyards, my fourth-grade teacher lived in an apartment upstairs from me, the woman at the checkout counter at the Pioneer supermarket lived downstairs, and my aunt and uncle lived around the corner on MacDougal Street.

Getting one’s portrait made in the Village, circa 1955.

J.K.: We call anything south of 14th Street “downtown,” including the financial district, but so much of what gives New York its cultural life is in Midtown, and its best-known museums flank Central Park. If you define “downtown” in the words of that famed urban planner Petula Clark as the place where “the neon signs are pretty” and “the light’s so much brighter there,” the Theater District really should be our downtown. Did New York get it wrong?

M.K.: What makes New York great is that its cultural life comes from every single corner of the city—not just from Manhattan’s downtown, however you define it, but also from downtown Flushing and Mott Haven and Sugar Hill and Brownsville and you name it.

I suppose downtown Manhattan got its reputation partly because, as wealthier New Yorkers fled crowded, disease-ridden Lower Manhattan during the 18th and 19th centuries, the people left behind, occupying tenements and town houses, included immigrants and the creative classes. Also, stuffy New Yorkers and tourists “slummed” downtown in neighborhoods like Chinatown, where they felt they could do things they couldn’t do at home without being judged. And the geography of the streets retained something of the pre-grid chaos of the original colonial lanes and trails, which reinforced this sense of rule-breaking and freedom.

J.K.: Let’s, for argument’s sake, say downtown is a state of mind and not to be taken so literally as geography. How would you define that state of mind?

M.K.: Philip Glass once told me a story that I have not been able to confirm, but which I think may partly answer your question. He said that The New York Times in the old days decided it couldn’t cover all the art and music in the city. It had to draw the line somewhere. So it drew the line at 14th Street.

The poet Allen Ginsberg in Washington Square Park, 1966.

J.K.: Are there any cities in America that you especially admire for their downtowns? For all I know, the best downtown is in Cleveland.

M.K.: Oh my God, there are so many great downtowns all across America! I’m still dreaming about the corned-beef sandwich I ate at Slyman’s in Cleveland. We did what we could to destroy downtowns during the last century, for all sorts of racist, technocratic, greedy reasons, with urban renewal and redlining and highways and mortgage-interest deductions, and because the American Dream was supposedly a single-family house in the suburbs—but working people and younger generations have helped revive downtowns because they like walkable, lively streets and diverse urban neighborhoods. The threats now are rising rents and gentrification. The fate of downtown America is one of the great, evolving stories of the early 21st century.

J.K.: No city worth its history has not seen its neighborhoods wax and wane over the decades, with some taking on the same downtown sensibility of the Village of your youth. Would it be fair to say that Brooklyn’s Williamsburg is New York’s new downtown?

Philip Glass once said that The New York Times in the old days decided it couldn’t cover all the art and music in the city. It had to draw the line somewhere. So it drew the line at 14th Street.

M.K.: No! It’s another wealthy enclave now with a Hasidic district. But you’re right about the waxing and waning. Cities and neighborhoods are living organisms: they change, evolve. Healthy ones do, anyway. If what you’re asking is for another New York community today with a strong cultural and creative identity, and which isn’t insanely wealthy, then I suppose I would be looking at neighborhoods like Harlem and Crown Heights and Jackson Heights and Mott Haven.

The Bitter End Café, on Bleecker Street, circa 1967.

J.K.: Is it possible to build a downtown from scratch, in the sense that you retain the feeling of a village where you can live and work but with cultural and dining options right outside the door? I am thinking of Hudson Yards, with its office towers, apartments, restaurants, and the Shed—its performing-arts space.

M.K.: You’re clearly trying to gaslight me, Jim. Hudson Yards?! It is the antithesis of a downtown. There are a few nice restaurants, and I saw a show in the Shed the other night that was great. But it’s basically a gated office park that turns its back on the rest of the city, with a shopping mall, now awaiting a casino. There are plenty of from-scratch “downtowns” that have been cooked up in America, including places like Seaside in Florida. Some are lovely. But a true downtown is something that grows naturally, over time—it’s not just a bunch of buildings and shops.

J.K.: You lived in Berlin for several years and have traveled extensively around the world. Have you ever been to a place that reminded you of Greenwich Village, with its deep sense of bohemia?

M.K.: There were laid-back aspects of Berlin that reminded me of the Village. Now Berlin is also becoming a target of real-estate investors. The Village is often described as a quasi-European neighborhood because of its bohemian reputation and its tourists and cafés and winding streets, but I know this baffles many Europeans because, architecturally, physically, the Village is really nothing like Paris or Lisbon or Copenhagen—or Rio or Mexico City or Tokyo or Marrakech, for that matter.

That said, nearly every great city I have been to, from Tel Aviv to Ramallah to Baghdad to Berlin to Melbourne to Santiago, has some bohemian quarter. It’s part of a healthy urban DNA. Like-minded people can find each other in a city. That’s the virtue of cosmopolitanism.

The streets of the Village, 1961.

J.K.: I believe you now live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. If you did not live there, where would you live instead?

M.K.: I fantasize about other cities I love, like L.A. and Marseille and Tokyo.

When I was growing up, I went every week to a piano lesson on the Upper West Side just off Central Park West, studiously avoiding Columbus Avenue because I didn’t want to get mugged—it was a very different place back then—and I would also go with my family for Thanksgiving to the rambling, overstuffed apartment of a crazy aunt and uncle (psychoanalysts, naturally), who lived on West End Avenue. To a Village kid, the neighborhood felt far away, like the suburbs. Now I appreciate it, and our children love it, and, as bourgeois and clichéd as it is, I count myself lucky to live there.

I still think of myself as a Villager at the same time, and I often imagine living in other parts of the city because, in the course of my work, I am constantly discovering new neighborhoods. New York is just infinite.

Michael Kimmelman’s The Intimate City: Walking New York will be published on November 29 by Penguin Press

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL