Neo-Catastrophism

Eric Klinenberg

  • The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea by Thomas Bender
    New Press, 287 pp, US $30.00, September 2002, ISBN 1 56584 736 9
  • Dead Cities: and Other Tales by Mike Davis
    New Press, 448 pp, US $16.95, October 2003, ISBN 1 56584 844 6

In the 1990s New York was the capital city of America’s economic boom: now it is the epicentre of urban insecurity. The city is familiar with crisis, however, and no one could say it had surrendered to the new and old dangers it faces. Although disaster experts warn that a dirty bomb could result in the evacuation of millions of panicked residents and require the demolition of contaminated buildings and streets, the demand for real estate continues to escalate and housing prices are higher than they were in 2001. After 11 September, architecture critics warned that the age of the skyscraper had ended, yet dozens of new highrises are under construction and whichever design is ultimately chosen for the new Trade Center complex, it will surely feature one of the world’s tallest buildings. City Hall has slashed social assistance programmes, closed fire stations, raised train and bus fares and introduced hefty property and income tax increases to eliminate a projected $5 or $6 billion budget deficit, but local leaders are still proposing to use public money to build new athletic stadiums as part of a bid for the 2012 Olympics. Is New York in denial or is it simply entering another stage of what the historian Max Page sees as a continuous process of creative destruction, refusing to let any obstacle block its path?

Thomas Bender and Mike Davis are two of America’s leading urban scholars. Bender is a cultural historian known for his accounts of the intellectual and aesthetic life of US cities, and for tracing the distinctively metropolitan influences on American arts, letters and politics. He has been living and studying in New York for nearly three decades, and was at home writing on 11 September. The Unfinished City is prefaced by a note about the disaster that nicely captures Bender’s civic humanism: ‘However tragic, the event had its inspiriting moments. Those who gave their lives seeking to save others, and those many who in various ways expressed their solidarity with the victims and the rescue workers all honoured themselves and the city.’ Davis wants none of this. As America’s most incendiary urban critic – part political ecologist, part historical materialist, part radical ironist – he has been a relentless chronicler of social violence, racial domination and environmental devastation since the Reagan Presidency, consistently exposing the underside of neo-liberal American culture and politics (in Ecology of Fear he called the opulent 1990s the ‘funeral decade’), particularly in California and the new South-West. In Dead Cities he carries his scalpel from London to Hawaii to New Zealand, but makes his first incision in Manhattan. The preface, ‘The Flames of New York’, expresses his familiar apocalyptic sensibility, suggesting that New York has become a ‘black utopia’, a place where skyscrapers collapse into infernos and the repressed roots of urban fear return with spectacular fury. ‘It’s conceivable that bin Laden et al have put a silver stake in the heart of the “downtown revival” in New York and elsewhere. The traditional central city . . . is not dead yet, but the pulse is weakening.’

Bender is particularly concerned about the dangers of political fragmentation and parochialism, the absence of city-wide deliberative institutions and the ascendancy of market values; and he worries that the old terms used to describe places – urban and suburban, centre and periphery – have lost their meaning in an age of sprawl and globalisation. But included in the book are earlier essays designed to illustrate the dynamic and resilient character of New York’s distinctive culture, not to catalogue its social problems or speculate about its demise. The result is at once a native intellectual’s tour of Manhattan’s iconic buildings, paintings and neighbourhoods (there are 54 illustrations alongside the text), and a history of the way different generations of artists, architects and scholars have represented the city.

Bender begins in Washington Square, reminding us that the vibrant public park of today’s Greenwich Village ‘was born in death’, serving as a potter’s field for the indigent and criminal classes between the cholera epidemic of 1798 and 1828, when the Square officially opened. Remarkably, the Village and the Square resisted both the massive commercial and residential development of Manhattan during the 19th century and the vertiginous high-rise construction of the 20th. The city’s elite raced uptown to build apartment buildings and townhouses, largely skipping over the area, and, after the elevated railroads went up in 1869, the middle classes, too, leapfrogged the Village. The wide avenues and numbered streets that reorganised the city bypassed the Square and its environs, leaving behind an ‘isolated’ and ‘old New York’ of small apartment buildings, intimate clubs and winding, named streets. The Village would ultimately become famous as an incubator of Modern and Postmodern cultural experimentation, but its aesthetic and political achievements emerged out of local struggles against Manhattan’s modernisation.

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