Interview: Brian Tochterman on the “Summer of Hell”

Brian Tochterman, author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear, talks with publicity director Gina Mahalek about what E.B. White, Mickey Spillane, Death Wish, hip-hop, and the “Summer of Hell” have in common.

cover photo for tochtermanGina Mahalek: Where are you from and how did you get interested in this topic?

Brian Tochterman: I grew up in the Midwest, Green Bay, Wisconsin to be exact, and on a whim I moved to New York City a few months after I graduated from college. You could say that, in some respects, I embodied the kind of dreamer that E.B. White wrote about in “Here is New York”—I wanted to work in film production. That proved a bit of a dead-end, and New York being New York, I needed a job if I wanted to stay. I worked for NYC Parks Department for a few years under Giuliani and Bloomberg before going to graduate school to study urban planning— an interest that grew out of my experience across the five boroughs.

Whenever I’d go back to Green Bay and run into family and old friends they’d ask, “Isn’t it scary living in New York?” I often heard that from people who had never been to New York. At that time, though, it was already the safest large city in the country. As I matriculated through graduate school, first in planning and then studying history, I became interested in how that image evolved. How could someone who never encountered a place assume such knowledge, and how could they be so wrong yet so convinced they are right? Of course, the answer is popular culture and its representations of the city. My father is a cop, so I’ve always been intrigued by crime and crime fears. Take a Midwest upbringing, add a move to the big city, mix in some cultural studies and graduate work in city planning and U.S. postwar history, and a touch of evil and voilà, you have the recipe for The Dying City.

GM: Where was New York City first portrayed as a city in decline and crisis? What did the novels of Mickey Spillane (and other pulp fiction) have to do with casting New York in a negative light? Why did these take hold?

BT: In some ways New York City has always had someone decrying its decay and decline, prophesying its death, or holding it up as some modern-day Sodom. There was a bit of a lull in this obsession, however, given the universal nature of how the Great Depression manifests itself and, of course, World War II as well. If anything, events in NYC, like the construction of the Empire State Building during the Depression and the magnificent public works constructed in part with New Deal funds, became symbols of hope for the possibilities of New York City after World War II. That hope carries over into the writings of E.B. White who sees the city as this burgeoning world capital after war, a future home to the United Nations, and the like.

Two things are interesting about this image after World War II, however. 1) The most powerful critics of postwar New York are homegrown —citizens of the very city that draws their ire, and 2) what should have been the city’s great Cold War fear—atomic destruction—sort of falls by the wayside and it’s replaced by this fear that the city will destroy itself. Of course, a cultural historian would argue that atomic anxiety manifests itself in anxiety about the sustainability of the city, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s remarkable how these other ailments at this time sort of overpower the fear of the bomb.

Mickey Spillane operates in that vein. He writes these sensational pulp novels that sell in the millions. He’s the bestselling author of the 1950s. And in these books the city has become this monster that needs to be tamed, and it needs to be tamed by this authoritarian vigilante —Mike Hammer— who circumvents the law and due process, to bring the dying city to heel. It’s Spillane, through this fantastic vision of New York, that really offers up a template for the purveyors of death and dread later on, and it reaches millions of Americans. His exploitative use of overt masculinity, vivid violence and free sexuality offered an escape from fears of the Cold War—communism, conformity, the atom bomb.

GM: Is this still the case today?

BT: Mickey Spillane has really fallen out of favor. He’s not read much today, and for the portion of the population that recognizes the name it likely comes from old Miller Lite commercials where he hocked or mocked his bravado. But he’d be right at home in our current political culture. The image of urban crime and the portrayal of the heroic vigilantism of Mike Hammer serves, whether intentionally or not, as the fantasies that the NRA and conceal-and-carry gun advocates proffer in our own time. Hammer is a private detective by license, but in the books he’s doing the work of the NYPD at no cost, standing his ground, shooting first and asking questions later with little to no retribution.

In some ways New York City has always had someone decrying its decay and decline, prophesying its death, or holding it up as some modern-day Sodom.
GM: You identify some keywords that signify New York’s decline. What are they and how did they become familiar?

BT: Spillane had his “monster” of a city, but he also spoke of a city with a tumor breeding in its belly. Robert Moses, in his writings, spoke of the cancer of the slums as well. These implied that death was imminent and Jane Jacobs didn’t beat around the bush in Death and Life of Great American Cities. In general, during the fifties, the declining, outdated physical environment was cast as the disease, with hints at those populations that inhabited declining neighborhoods. This was the beginning of white flight and new migrants —Puerto Ricans and African Americans arriving from the south—filled the vacuum left by suburbanization often settling in the so-called “slums” of New York.

In the 1960s, intellectuals, academics, columnists, and crime reporters see the city’s changing demography as the cause of death. Urban poverty is blamed on the culture of racial and ethnic minorities residing in New York City. The culture of poverty and urban decline is seen as pathological in the streets, and that pathology is rippling out to infect otherwise affluent neighborhoods with the “disease of apathy.” The urban crisis is a social and spiritual crisis, and the only way to tackle it is through escape or new forms of policing and “law and order.” “Broken windows,” the “underclass” —both of which define poverty by behavior —emerge as the vocabulary of decline and that later evolves into tropes like the “welfare queen” and other dog-whistles. These discourses emerge from niche journals of opinion, but high-profile crime reporting contributes as well. When films take up those narratives, then the dying New York becomes solidified in the popular imagination.

GM: What role did films, like Mean Streets, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy, and The Out of Towners, to name a few, play in New York’s enduring image as a dirty, gritty, gruff and often violent city? How did this come to be?

BT: Those films arise out of a perfect storm in the late-1960s and early-1970s. First you have the reality of the city in this period. Crime is on the rise, and crime fears are exponentially rising. Population is in decline, businesses are leaving, which puts a strain on tax revenue and thus the city’s infrastructure and generous social welfare system are compromised. The city conjures an austere, gray, soot-stained image. Second, you have an active response on the part of the city to counteract that image. John Lindsay, who becomes mayor in 1966, seeks to subsidize film and television production in the city to create job opportunities but also to market New York as “Fun City.” (Most films and television shows prior to the late 1960s “set” in New York were shot in Los Angeles.) And lastly, this coincides with the emergence of the New Hollywood or Movie Brat film period. Young filmmakers, influenced by foreign films digested in formal film schools, begin testing the limits of American filmmaking. Regulations are loosened in regards to sex, violence, and dialogue, and film operates under a new guise of realism. Much of this was happening in Los Angeles, but several New York filmmakers are a part of this, most notably Martin Scorsese.

The location of most of these films was not “Fun City.” Instead they highlighted a dying city filled with a variety of inconveniences of urban life including random violent crime. New York becomes this city to escape to for greater opportunity in the south and west. In Midnight Cowboy, the main character achieves his goal of moving to New York only to be mugged by reality. Eventually he finds his way to Miami for a new life and greater opportunity. Film culture in this period also became a place to highlight new modes of policing as the vigilante reemerged as asolution to urban crime. Dirty Harry, shot in San Francisco, is perhaps the most famous example, but in New York you had vigilantes in Taxi Driver, the less-remembered youth culture flick Joe, and most glaringly in the Death Wish franchise. As with Mickey Spillane, Death Wish made a hero out of a character who foregoes due process in favor of shooting first.

GM: Didn’t punk rock and hip-hop play into this, as well?

BT: To an extent, but that kind of homegrown culture was more the effect than the cause. Excepting films like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets, some of the most exploitive crisis movies were made by filmmakers from elsewhere. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby said Death Wish was a film made by “tourists,” and in fact its director, Michael Winner, was English. With white flight and business flight, New York City was left with a vacuum, and in that vacuum you had citizens forced to stay or willing to remain and those, and there were many, lured by decay and the dying city. It’s in this vacuum that one discovers the true essence of “Fun City.” Hip-hop origins in the Bronx are very public—it happens at street parties and rec centers, and the message is about carving out a space in the dying city and bringing together homegrown artists not only in DJing and MCing but in graffiti and dancing as well.

The punk scene on the Bowery was very much a product of context, where cheap rents and squatting in old tenements converge with a burgeoning art scene in nearby SoHo to foster this hip new junction at CBGBs. Both hip-hop and punk utilized the tropes of the dying city, but it’s far more tongue-in-cheek. It was more about thumbing their noses at —challenging really —the establishment and their forecasts of decline and death.

In the end, these movements are quite successful in shifting the narrative of New York, so in the 1980s you have films like Desperately Seeking Susan, Wild Style, and Times Square that highlight what’s happening uptown and downtown, developing a new image of “Fun City.” Of course, by then New York’s political and economic situation has changed, and those—for lack of a better term—organic changes have been co-opted and branded by the establishment, ushering in a period of unprecedented growth, or what many refer to as a renaissance or rebirth, that continues through today.

GM: Do you see instances of New York being portrayed as “The Dying City” today?

BT: I live in a small city in a very rural region, so I see firsthand how the crisis narrative has transferred from cities in the postwar era to rural communities today. That’s where you hear about dying cities and towns today, and you see how municipalities employ growth strategies with limited success, often borrowing ideas from once-dead cities that managed to turn it around. But yes, there are hints of an ailing New York City in our time. For one, I just have to go on my Twitter feed to see images from the “Summer of Hell” and its symbols of deferred maintenance in transit delays and backups—it’s a scene straight out of The Out of Towners.

Where the dying city is most critical, however, is how New York is becoming a victim of its own success. Hyper-gentrification and the polarization of wealth within the landscape, particularly in respect to housing, make it extremely difficult for long-term residents to find housing upon displacement or shifting rents, not to mention to allow space for the intrepid migrants with a dream who reinvigorate the city and keep it fresh, as E.B. White wrote seventy years ago. Everyday it seems—highlighted in the work of local bloggers like Jeremiah Moss—there are stories about some neighborhood institution vanishing due to exorbitant rent increases, which in the long-term will destroy opportunities for independent small business development. This was where I see fears about the dying city, and, from my personal perspective, it’s a very convincing argument.

Brian Tochterman is assistant professor of sustainable community development at Northland College. Read his past blog posts for more on The Dying City