September 23, 2007Habitats | Washington Square
The Guilt of Having a Good ThingBy CELIA BARBOURONE way or another, New York City exacts a price for the privilege of living in it. If you aren’t shelling out an exorbitant pile of cash for your home, then you’re probably paying in some other way — by compromising your comfort, safety or values, for example.Richard Sennett, the sociologist, is no exception. He and his wife, Saskia Sassen, a scholar of globalism, inhabit a picturesque former carriage house on a cobblestone alleyway just off Washington Square Park.
Their monthly rent for the two-story, 1,200-square-foot house, which is owned by New York University, is below market rates. But in the 28 years since Mr. Sennett first moved in, there’s always been a hidden cost.
First it was the drug addicts who used his doorway as a crash pad. Now it’s the guilt of living in what he describes as a “gated community.” Indeed, signs posted at either end of the alley forbid pedestrians from entering between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
“That’s a terrible irony for me,” said Mr. Sennett, a professor at N.Y.U. and the London School of Economics, “because I’ve written about the evils of gated communities. But I’m not a sufficiently moral person to abandon this house. And that,” he said with a laugh, “is a moral failing.”
It would be difficult for Mr. Sennett and Ms. Sassen, who is the Helen and Thomas Lynd professor of sociology at Columbia University and a professor at the London School of Economics, to avoid such failings completely. They have published more than 20 books and 100 articles between them, on everything from immigration (her) to architecture (him), and there are countless points of overlap between their work and their lives. For starters, they live in, and write about, cities.
Until this year, when Ms. Sassen gave up a chair at the University of Chicago to return to Columbia, the couple inhabited three “global cities” — a term that happens to have been coined by Ms. Sassen (whose book “The Global City” was published in 1991). They would spend six months in London followed by six months divided between New York and Chicago. “It seems so much more reasonable to be in just two cities,” Ms. Sassen said. “It’s terribly cozy.”
Her most recent book, “Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages,” was published by Princeton University Press last year.
“I am nomadic,” admitted Ms. Sassen, who was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Argentina and Italy and speaks six languages fluently. “I make myself at home wherever I go.” For her, “home” means one thing: “a place where I can work.”
“When I go to giant conferences,” she said, “I go to the press room. All I need is coffee, a computer table and people who will just leave you alone. My work is my anchor. It is how I keep the rhythm of my daily life.”
Mr. Sennett, meanwhile, prefers to write at a neat, trim desk tucked into one corner of the house’s grandest space, a double-height living room on the second floor that is illuminated by casement windows and a skylight as wide as the room.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life in this room,” Mr. Sennett said. “I’ve written all my books here, and I’ve had the experience for a long time of this light. And the silence, which is so rare.”
Mr. Sennett, who grew up in a Chicago housing project and describes himself as a creature of habit, originally found it difficult to divide his time between New York and London.
“It’s taken me about 12 years to arrive at the point where I feel skilled at living internationally,” he said. “We were constantly struggling with trivial things like ‘That book is in New York City.’ ”
Now, he said, “we divide up our clothes so that 50 percent are in London and 50 percent in New York.” He also admitted — sheepishly — to owning duplicates of favorite items. “I have a cello here and a cello in London, which may seem over the top. But after 9/11 it became so difficult to travel with my cello.”
Mr. Sennett practices every day and plays regularly with informal chamber groups in both cities; he was forced to abandon a career as a classical musician in his 20s, when acute carpal tunnel syndrome led to a botched operation.
Ms. Sassen met Mr. Sennett when she became a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities, which he had founded. She was impressed when she heard him give a talk with Michel Foucault and later was invited to dinner at Mr. Sennett’s house, where she had a delightful time talking — in Spanish — to Jorge Luis Borges, another guest. Mr. Sennett, meanwhile, served a magnificent meal. Preparing food, Mr. Sennett said, “is something I love.”
“I do all the cooking,” he added. “All the shopping. All the cleaning. My wife is worse than incompetent. She stares at an egg — she’s a professor at Columbia, and she stares at an egg as if she’s never seen such an object. She loves to eat. But the kitchen is my domain.”
Mr. Sennett’s next book, “The Craftsman,” will be published by Yale University Press next year. “It’s a book about the relation between doing things physically, with your hands, and thinking,” he said. “We’re losing that connection between physical and mental skills. Even the most abstract kinds of thinking, like mathematics, draw on something physical.”
For Mr. Sennett, doing something physical is a way to find balance. Four days after touching down at Kennedy Airport earlier this month, he gave a dinner party for 10 people. He served figs and serrano ham, followed by slow-roasted mallards with wild rice.
The next morning, Ms. Sassen flew off to a conference in Mexico City. “I like a good comfortable plane ride,” she said.
Mr. Sennett stayed home. He wrote every morning, practiced his cello and caught up with friends. “I don’t really feel anymore that I’m moving from one culture to another, because I’ve made a set of friends in both places,” he said. “Over time those friends have crossed, so a lot of my friends in London have become friends with my friends in New York and vice versa. I guess that’s globalization, isn’t it? On a personal level.”