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. I wasn’t just drawn to it for its first edition qualities—with its textured cloth cover and tattered jacket it was a piece of material history to behold. I was taken by the inscription within: “Just a little reminder that N.Y. and I are waiting for you. [Signed] N. R. N. Christmas 1949.” At the time I was starting anew in an unfamiliar place, committing myself to a doctorate program for the next five or six years. The decision to leave New York, a city where I had created and nurtured my post-baccalaureate life, was difficult to say the least, and this inscription instilled hope that someone or something still awaited me in NYC if everything in Minneapolis fell apart.
Fast forward several years and the inscription would take on a new meaning for me. In just one sentence, it clearly invokes White’s key theme of urban resilience through cycles of migration. The scribe was most likely a migrant in their own right, one who moved to New York in the postwar era and embraced it with “the intense excitement of first love,” as White puts it. There is also a sense of anticipation in the voice—we’re waiting for you—and an optimism tied to reunion but also future achievement. The author, generating “heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company,” had reached their destination and was in the process of achieving their goal. Only one piece, perhaps, was missing.
But what of the recipient of this gift? How did a first edition copy of Here is New York end up in this used bookstore in the Midwest. Did they take a pass on the invitation to go to New York? Or were they inspired by the words of White to take a chance on the city? Perhaps they reunited with N. R. N., but later said good-bye to all that. From there the book commenced its journey into the hands of others, including my own. This latter scenario recalls the sensibility of so many narratives about New York in the postwar era. For the young migrant, as White illustrated, New York City was intoxicating and alluring, and that energy fostered its cosmopolitan exceptionalism.
But New York didn’t age well for critics of White’s station and vintage. “I was writing about a city that has all but disappeared,” he said in 1968. “When I return to New York these days, I look around and cry ‘Where am I?’—like a frightened child.” But he was delighted to entertain a letter late in life from a young fan of the book. As he replied, “It is heartening to see . . . that New York still has the power to enchant and inspire the youth. When a city loses that, it will have lost all that is worthwhile in a city.”
Brian Tochterman is assistant professor of sustainable community development at Northland College.