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New York Plays Itself: Brian Tochterman’s The Dying City

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.

In Thom Anderson’s documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), the history and culture of L.A. is narrated over film clips from other movies. For nearly three hours, this captivating documentary shows how Los Angeles, when it hasn’t “played itself” in the history of movies, has stood in for any number of locations and oftentimes for no place specific at all. The truth is, of course, that many cities, many towns, could be “any place at all.” L.A. just happens to be the city where most of the actors, directors, producers, and tech people live, where most of the major and minor studios are, and is so freaking huge and varied in architecture, geography, and even weather that it can serve as the location for many, many different plots. There are certain cities, though, that almost only ever play themselves, cities like New York, London, Paris. These cities are marked by their architecture so that they’re instantly identifiable and impossible to fake without digital trickery (see the Jackie Chan film Rumble in the Bronx [1995] to witness how pitifully Vancouver tries to stand in for Manhattan). These cities also represent romantic ideas of human diversity, artistic creation, industry, and food and history and perhaps that’s why they become the focus of worldwide sorrow when they’re bombed and attacked, probably why some want to use them as stages for barbarity. Terrorists, politicians, and people like you and me recognize that certain cities are more than just collections of buildings where lots of people work and live: they’re also symbols.

In The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear by Brian Tochterman (U of North Carolina P), we are given two symbolic views of New York City since World War II: 1) “Cosmopolis,” the archetypal “melting pot” attracting people from all over the world for nearly infinite definitions of “making it” and 2) “Necropolis,” city as graveyard, a dangerous cesspool of crime and corruption. We start in the first section of the book, “Highbrow versus Hard-Boiled” with two dichotomous literary visions of New York, the “highbrow” writings of E.B. White and the “hard-boiled” mysteries of Mickey Spillane.

Dying 02Although White wrote for The New Yorker and Harper’s among many other magazines in a career that stretched almost seventy years, Tochterman is interested in one now-famous essay that the author published in 1949 in Holiday, “Here Is New York.” The essay typifies what Tochterman refers to as the Cosmopolis view of New York. White tuned into the post-war anxiety wrought by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki even as he celebrated the uniqueness of New York as a nexus of creativity, activity, and immigration. Here and in other writings, White typified what Senator Ted Cruz recently disdained as “New York Values.” As Tochterman writes, “Defending privacy, diversity, and democracy proved a central theme in White’s commentary following the war” (24). Tochterman offers several examples of New York as Cosmopolis in popular culture: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), and the TV series That Girl (1966-1971) starring Marlo Thomas, all narratives that “highlighted New York as a site of opportunity, diversity, and liberation for middle-class whites, including women” (31).

Tochterman juxtaposes humanist, liberal White with the bleak, mid-century noir novels of Mickey Spillane, the ur-text of New York as Necropolis. He summarizes Spillane’s place in the cannon of mid-century noir thus:

Spillane’s unguarded representations of masculinity, femininity, and casual sex proved shocking and alluring to national audiences. Likewise, Spillane’s unguarded use of violence and vengeance transcended previous best sellers within the genre, as the writer had no qualms about murdering women in cold blood or meting out punishment to women, corrupt elites, and various low-lifes. In this sense, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, unlike his private detective predecessors, operated as a one-man wrecking crew motivated by revenge. Through these literary innovations, Spillane not only achieved great fame and wealth, he shaped and defined the political culture of the 1950s as he played off of it. (39)

Whereas White saw the density of New York, the diversity and even the loneliness of the city as virtues, Spillane saw these as the reasons for its decay, danger, degradation. “In Spillane’s New York, the volatile combination of privacy, extreme density, and physical decline foster madness and thus crime” (47). And just as White offered a springboard for popular (most often white) narratives of Cosmopolis, Spillane offered the blueprint for future vengeful (and white) regulators such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona (Dirty Harry [1971], Magnum Force [1973], The Enforcer [1976], Sudden Impact [1983] and The Dead Pool [1983]) and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series (1974-1994).

In the second section of the book, Tochterman moves from these literary depictions of New York to planning theory and competing attempts to “fix” and “preserve” the city. Robert Moses, the city planner, has had an arguably larger effect on post-war New York than any other unelected official and even most of the elected ones. Tochterman describes Moses as someone who “stood at the intersection of planning and publishing” (61), writing regularly for the New York Times Magazine and other publications in the 1950s. Tochterman argues that Moses used many of the tropes of Spillane’s Hammer novels, describing New York as vulnerable to sinking into the “abyss.” Hammer saw the ghetto as a “monster” that needed to be destroyed at whatever cost; likewise, Moses wrote of urban blight as a cancer that must be pursued and cut out. Readers of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies (2010) or those who have seen the PBS series based on that book will be reminded of similarly aggressive strategies pursued by American cancer doctors at mid-century, often with devastating consequences for their patients. Despite the damage that Moses might be doing to the city and particularly to its most vulnerable residents, much of his rhetoric adopted the aggressively masculine attitude of Spillane’s hero. Moses’ essay “Problems: Many – and a Program” published in the New York Times Magazine in 1953

was hard and vigorous, like his public personality, while his opponents were soft, effeminate, and lacking the bellicose temperament that allowed an accomplished “builder,” as he referred to himself, to get things done. In language befitting the masculine political culture of the era, Moses labeled those who threatened him “goo-goos” or “do-gooders,” infantilizing terms that constructed an image of critics as weak and childish and therefore impractical and idealistic. (69)

Contemporary Americans living in a country governed by another self-consciously masculine “builder” with contempt for those who disagree with him, a man who paints American cities with apocalyptic rhetoric, will feel a chill of recognition at this description.

Some critics in the fifties balked at this vision of cities as Necropolis. Tochterman cites a collection of essays published in 1958, The Exploding Metropolis edited by William H. Whyte, which challenged this perspective. Whyte wrote, “Everybody, it would seem, is for the rebuilding of cities…but this is not the same thing as liking cities” (80). Whyte and other writers argued that Moses and his ilk were actually abandoning cities in their creation of highways running into and out of them, shuttling people to work and back to the suburbs where they lived, displacing the poor and laboring classes in the tenements that had to make way for roads and centers of commerce. Jane Jacobs was the only female author in Whyte’s collection and her essay “Downtown is for People” became the foundation for her seminal text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Although Jacobs didn’t completely dispense with the language of Necropolis, she blamed the reasons for urban blight on contemporary city planners and their lack of consideration for city dwellers, not the dwellers themselves. As Tochterman writes, “She criticized the master planners’ ‘scale models and birds-eye views’ for ignoring pedestrian perspective of the city, and argued that the only way to see how a city functioned was to ‘get out and walk’” (81-82). Tochterman shows how Jacobs used the new Village Voice to mobilize in opposition to Moses’ attempts to bisect the Village’s Washington Square with a freeway ramp, moving from writing and theory to activism. Interestingly, Tochterman illustrates how Jacobs’ liberal activism could be used for conservative ends. The columnist William F. Buckley argued that Jacobs’ vision was a profoundly conservative one, that “a city should grow as it is disposed to grow, free of the superimpositions and the great allocations of the planners” (94). Of course, Buckley would have thought that private enterprise should take over this role, while Jacobs felt that the residents should be in on the planning. But which residents? Much of what Jacobs celebrated and argued passionately for at mid-century became what is now referred to as gentrification, a term with both positive and negative implications in the 21st century.

The third section, “The Other New York: Intellectuals in Necropolis, 1961-1967,” surveys the writings of the “New York Intellectuals,” writers at Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent. Tochterman separates the younger “vanguard” writers who “confronted New York City’s problems with pragmatic goals, while the rear guard [or older, more established writers] retreated into nostalgic portraits of Cosmopolis” (104). This is where the book starts to drag a little for me. As I read, I can’t help but wonder what are the connections between these various texts Tocherman analyzes – beyond subject matter (New York City) and various binaries (Cosmopolis/Necropolis, good/bad, conservative/liberal, white/multi-ethnic, etc.)? How do we get from the “highbrow” (really, middlebrow) commentary of White to the pulp exploitation of Spillane to planning theory to the New York Intellectuals of the sixties? How do we account for the variety of genre here and the likelihood that few of these texts shared readership with each other? At this late point in the book, I get the sense that the author chose a lens and then raised it to a handful of texts, but I am having more and more difficulty making connections between these texts.

The Out-of-Towners (1970)

The Out-of-Towners (1970)

The last section of the book, “Detour to Fun City” – not only changing genre, but also media – analyzes two different artistic movements in the ‘70s and ‘80s and redeems some of the muddier readings in the previous chapters. The title is taken from a quote from NYC mayor John Lindsay who said New York was “still a fun city” (145). To support this idea of Fun City, the mayor established the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater, and Broadcasting, still in operation today, “to encourage film production on the streets of New York, creating jobs and revenue for the city.” Ironically, this attempt at rejuvenating the city’s image, coinciding with the New Hollywood films of the time, would lead to projects like John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) with its prostitutes and hustlers and trash-strewn streets and Arthur Hiller’s dark comedy The Out of Towners (1970) with its muggings, strikes, rude citizens, and trash-strewn streets. One of New York’s own, Martin Scorsese, was among the best and bleakest of these new American filmmakers influenced by the movies that had been coming out of Europe since the war and he filmed the city in all its dirty, dangerous vitality in Mean Streets (1973) whose dark vision of Necropolis seemed to predict the near bankruptcy of the city only two years later and Taxi Driver (1976) that barbaric yawp that called an end to the New Hollywood era.

In Tochterman’s final chapter, “The Lure of Decay,” he shows the artists who embraced that vision of Necropolis and, counter-intuitively, turned it into a new Cosmopolis. In the decrepitude of the fallen city, the “white flight” to the suburbs of New Jersey and Long Island, artist types flocked to the cheap rents of Manhattan and art spaces popped up. Tochterman writes about CBGBs opening up in the East Village, a music venue for punk, New Wave, and postpunk bands (Talking Heads, Ramones, Patti Smith, et al.). Much of what Tochterman writes about in this chapter has been addressed in greater depth recently in Joan Hawkins’ Downtown Film & TV Culture 1975-2001 (see my review here: http://filmint.nu/?p=19038). One way Tochterman adds to that conversation is by addressing the importance of the graffiti and hip hop subcultures, how particularly the former was celebrated by writer Norman Mailer (The Faith of Graffitti) while at the same time treated like a scourge by politicians and the media which led to the infamous “broken windows” theory to justify cracking down on graffiti artists (followed by the death of Michael Stewart in police custody in 1983, the inspiration for the chokehold death of Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing [1989]). As police cracked down on these so-called “quality of life” infractions in the eighties, charges disproportionately affecting people of color and the poor, Tochterman shows, we were inundated with corporate romances (sometimes in the form of “cautionary tales” [198]) of white people making lots of money in New York: films like Wall Street (1987) and Working Girl (1988) and novels like Bright Lights, Big City (1984) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).

Overall, The Dying City is a compelling book with an engaging thesis. If at times, it is a struggle to connect its strands, it is as much a testament to the ambition behind the book as it is to any flaws in execution. It’s a first book and reads a little like a reworked dissertation, the chapters written at different times for different audiences. Still, The Dying City is worth checking out for anyone interested in the ways – physical, political, and conceptual – New York has changed since World War II and also what big, international cities mean in the postmodern age.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

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