Today we have another guest post by Brian L. Tochterman, author of The Dying City:Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear. In this eye-opening cultural history, Brian Tochterman examines competing narratives that shaped post–World War II New York City. As a sense of crisis rose in American cities during the 1960s and 1970s, a period defined by suburban growth and deindustrialization, no city was viewed as in its death throes more than New York. Feeding this narrative of the dying city was a wide range of representations in film, literature, and the popular press–representations that ironically would not have been produced if not for a city full of productive possibilities as well as challenges. Tochterman reveals how elite culture producers, planners and theorists, and elected officials drew on and perpetuated the fear of death to press for a new urban vision.
It was this narrative of New York as the dying city, Tochterman argues, that contributed to a burgeoning and broad anti-urban political culture hostile to state intervention on behalf of cities and citizens. Ultimately, the author shows that New York’s decline–and the decline of American cities in general–was in part a self-fulfilling prophecy bolstered by urban fear and the new political culture nourished by it.
In New York City’s larger bookstores, like the Strand (“home to 18 miles of books”) near Union Square, there’s always a table devoted to the eight million stories from the naked city’s past. It’s where you go to grab a copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York, Luc Sante’s Low Life, or Weegee’s The Naked City. And there’s always a stack of E. B. White’s Here is New York, typically the 1999 edition featuring a young White on the cover and an introduction by his stepson Roger Angell. The slim book with a little over sixty pages offers a tiny window onto New York City in the summer 1948, but its observations, gleaned from White’s active participation in city life, seem to endure among transients and recent arrivals.
I bought my copy used at a bookstore in Minneapolis—I’m fairly certain that it was the iconic Book House in Dinkytown before it became a Starbucks—after I had left New York for the first time. It’s a first edition that once possessed the original dust jacket, a photographic cover featuring the title in red san serif block lettering hovering over the greyscale skyscrapers of mid-century Midtown as viewed from the bird’s eye.Continue Reading Brian L. Tochterman: A Telling Inscription