Inside of the 181 Street Station in New York City, credit: Al Green
N. K. Jemisin’s The World We Make tells a story of a City Hopeful guided by identity, change, and belonging. In this second book of The Great Cities duology, Jemisin continues the story of New York City’s fight to become a living city. Her plans to make the series a trilogy were cut short as some of her plots were “stolen by reality,” as noted in an interview with Arfie Ghedi. The city’s character was changing as she was writing it, and many of her plots about heightened racism and xenophobia too eerily mimicked what we were seeing in real-time. You’ll notice how difficult it is to parse between the “fictional” events in the book and what is real. However, it is not too late for us to learn these lessons: there are values that help protect cities and others that implode a city’s sense of self, and there is a difference between finding control and belonging.
When a city awakens and an avatar is chosen, they get special new powers borne by the social constructs their residents have created. These constructs help protect and sustain the city’s identity, and from them, we can distill the values that make each place unique. Jemisin ascribes values to NYC through something Bronca (the Bronx) says: “New York cannot remain New York if it loses its art, its diversity, its welcome of outsiders, its daring”.1 Several of the borough’s avatars are artists (although Bronca points out they’re not all artists because this core NYC identity seems to be declining) and everyone except Aislyn (Staten Island) is Black, Indigenous, or an immigrant person of color. They dedicate their lives–both physically, by putting their bodies on the line and energetically, through a reluctant dive into electoral politics–in pursuit of a better city. They turn neighborly interactions and art into weapons against The Enemy.
Jemisin highlights other values through opposition in the form of a multiversal entity called The Enemy, which actively attacks cities before they can realize their full potential. The Enemy preys on the fear of different people and new ideas, and it intentionally deconstructs the process of cities metamorphosing into avatars. The Enemy targets one borough and caters to her fearful tendencies in order to splinter the group and weaken NYC as a whole. The Enemy takes advantage of Aislyn’s need to maintain her own immediate comfort over other people’s wellbeing and endeavors to solve the messiness by politely sucking out Staten Island residents’ souls. The unbounded creativity of humans threatens The Enemy’s existence, so it tries to control it by eliminating difference itself, morphing people into mindless shells that don’t talk to each other about anything.
It is inevitable that cities change over time, so it becomes necessary to disentangle the organic grassroots type from the top-down change that is meant to exclude and control. In a sci-fi dramatized take on reality, Jemisin illustrates how the Enemy funnels its money and power through sneaky ties with government, nonprofits, and corporations to kill the city with a thousand cuts. It attacks Brooklyn through an eminent domain loophole to turn over her family’s brownstone to a nonprofit; and it sends ICE, posing as the NYPD, to Queens’ home after she gets fired from her H1-B visa-sponsoring corporate job. Bronca describes the change she sees with NYC in the last 40 or so years as spiritual and intentional: “We were the center of the world for [art], creating new genres and even new ways of thinking on the regular… now we’re best known for overpriced real estate and money laundering”.2 Brooklyn blames this rapid gentrification on former Mayor Giuliani’s decades-long broken windows policy and predatory policing. He undermined rent stabilization and evicted or foreclosed entire neighborhoods of people of color “to please his base of landlords and businesspeople.”
With constant change–both natural demographic shifts and calculated top-down real estate grabs–comes complicated questions of who gets to define the city. It helps to distill guiding values and differentiate between ideals of control vs belonging. Jemisin says in an interview with Marie Doyon that “there is homogenization at the core” of rapid gentrification and colonization. The Enemy controls city residents by further enforcing a racial hierarchy and making everyone choose a side: either try to assimilate to whiteness and benefit, or act in solidarity with those systematically oppressed. Manny the avatar originally comes from outside the city, but he chooses to become Manhattan and use his resources to support the other boroughs wholeheartedly. He never aims to control NYC’s future for his own gain over others. Instead, his values complement the city’s: centering people at the margins and fighting racist and xenophobic attacks. He ultimately finds a sense of belonging through mutual choosing; he chooses to become Manhattan and it chooses him to stay.
N. K. Jemisin reminds us in her interview with Ghedi that we need a world where the energy of everyday interactions creates a place that might not be “all sweetness and light, but people learn to live together.” Community power doesn’t come from a lack of difference; it comes from a collective agreement to make it work within the chaos. There is always an alternative to a fear-based solution that values social control or domination, despite what a loud minority tries to tell us. Jemisin doesn’t idolize cities as perfect, but her Great Cities series instills hope that we have the power to make the world as we want by embodying the values that make us stronger together. Her book inspires a few guiding questions to keep reflecting on as we do just that: In what ways do I find belonging and hope where I live? When examining the principles behind various city plans and policies, how can we ensure they center the margins and live up to NYC’s values? And what values can I embody that will cultivate a city that remains diverse, creative, and welcoming?
1. N. K. Jemisin, The World We Make (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2022), 165.
2. Ibid, 55.
Katie Zhang is dedicated to housing justice and liberatory, healing-centered practice. She works as a Housing Specialist at Womankind, does research for the Undesign the Redline exhibit, and is pursuing a Master’s in Urban Planning at Hunter College. Katies owes her organizing roots to Queens and is grateful to have made her home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.