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The Invention of “Gritty” New York

Where did nostalgia for gritty New York come from and what makes it so potent?

Nostalgia for “gritty” New York is so strong, it’s surprising that someone hasn’t started selling cans of “authentic NYC grit” in Times Square. Evidence of this nostalgia is everywhere, from Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York to David Simon’s The Deuce. But where did this nostalgia come from, and what makes it so potent? In this pair of interviews, New School professor Zed Adams discusses these topics and more with McLain Clutter, author of Imaginary Apparatus: New York City and Its Mediated Representation.

 

ZA: We are currently inundated with images of New York City. There are so many movies, TV shows, novels, and photo shoots set in NYC that people have started to write books about books about NYC. Imaginary Apparatus falls into this latter category, but it is unique in that you don’t just talk about patterns in how NYC is depicted, you talk about how depictions of NYC have transformed NYC itself. This is an intriguing turn, and I want to ask you about it: how does an image of NYC change NYC itself?

MC: My central argument is that images operate on the city in ways that are more indirect than simply being the direct result of designers or planners. Images of the city condition viewer expectations. These expectations then inform certain ideas of urban lifestyle that are subsequently brought back to the city through its citizens. In this way, I argue for more of an ecological relationship between city image, viewer/citizen, and the city itself than a model in which the city is directly designed to realize any singular image. And I argue that this ecological relationship is something that can be defined and engaged. We can start to swerve the machine if we can understand the workings of the mechanism.

The recent history of New York City illustrates this ecological relationship: since the mid-1980s the history of NYC is largely the history of a place that trades in its image. It’s always done that to an extent, but even more so in recent history. Like most postmodern cities, New York has lost its industrial base and other economic drivers that rooted it in its place, and it now relies on trading in its own image and in other immaterial economies. To make too-short of a complex argument: I think we can understand New York’s massive resurgence over the last 30 years, in part, as an effect of a lust for a certain kind of urban lifestyle that was deeply prefigured by the media representations of the city that started to emerge as a result of the legacy of policy initiated by the mayoral administration of John Lindsay [1966-1973]. Think of the amazing resurgence of Brooklyn as this über-hip, middle-class, gentrified place. All over the country there seems this desire for urban authenticity born from growing up around mediated images of New York.

ZA: The current image of NYC as an authentic, gritty place clearly owes much to 1970s movies such as The French Connection, Serpico, and Taxi Driver. One of the most surprising aspects of your book, though, is how you trace the history of the current image to an earlier stage, to an obscure government document from the late 1960s called The Plan for New York City. What was this plan, and how did it contribute to our image of NYC?

MC: The Plan for New York City was the first and only master plan for the city in New York City’s history, produced by the Lindsay administration in 1969. It was a document that the City Planning Commission was obligated to produce in order to continue to get federal funding for urban renewal programs, programs that the city badly needed at the time. Typical master plans for other cities included a lot of statistical analysis, projections for the future, and more detailed plans for implementation. Plans like those were not popular in the 1960s in NYC, due to the public backlash against top-down planning by Robert Moses and others. Lindsay’s plan avoided being a typical master plan while at the same time satisfying the requirements for federal funding. It was a kind of commercial for the city. More than half of the plan is made up of photographic essays that are meant to reintroduce readers to their own city and educate them about it through images.

ZA: What is significant about the plan’s use of images?

MC: I argue that the images are by far the most significant thing about the plan. The plan itself was never implemented, not that it had very many strategies or suggestions for implementation. Arguably, it was never really even meant to be implemented. The plan is really about the images, the photo-essays that are very directly meant to operate as a kind of media that communicated to the viewer and forged a tuned-in public consciousness. Their purpose was to offer a narrative of what New York City could be and what urban life in general could be, and to engage the viewers in that narrative. One recurrent theme throughout the plan is to portray the city as a kind of sublime and complex organic system, and show how the individual citizen has the means to engage in that system. But, overall, I think that the intended purpose of the plan’s images was to create an audience as such, rather than to communicate an explicit message to that audience. It was about fostering a certain kind of literacy amongst the public.

ZA: One of the most provocative ideas you propose is that this new media literacy created a new kind of New Yorker. Related to this, you argue that Lindsay’s Executive Order #10, which brought on-location filming back to NYC, created a new kind of urban subject more generally, both for the audiences of those films and for New Yorkers themselves.

MC: The argument of the book is that these two groups of people — New Yorkers and media audiences — become complexly interrelated. You have this city that’s a mess, and that defies conventional planning in light of citizen activism against the kind of top-down governmental action for which Robert Moses was emblematic. This was all at a moment when figures like Jane Jacobs became prominent for advocating a more bottom-up, people-centered urban development process. The idea of typical master plan was simply untenable. At the same time, the city had to produce a master plan, because without a plan it would have lost all kinds of federal funding. Meanwhile, media in general was assuming a larger cultural valence. Lindsay’s planning commission exploited this conjuncture. The documents and media artifacts they produced sought to tune in the citizen and somehow enable change through that citizen. My argument is that the Lindsay administration was trying to shape a certain kind of urban-subject-as-audience. It then becomes coincidental that that audience happened to intermingle with the audience that was seeing New York in movies and television much more than they had before, again as a result of Lindsay’s policies. The citizenry that was being tutored to engage their own city through media was seeing that city through the products of Hollywood industry while the Planning Commission, I argue, was actually thinking about the city as a proto-cinematic artifact. The expectations of this new audience member/citizen could then be met in different ways, since the city itself was becoming more image-like with each passing year. The argument is that the audience member and New York citizen came together.

ZA: How successful do you think that was?

MC: I think that it’s been extraordinarily successful. This gets back to some of my misgivings about the outcome of all this. I think New Yorkers are now more than ever living out a script that they’ve internalized through media exposure, though whether or not that makes one a citizen is now the question.

ZA: It seems like the internalization of the image of NYC as a locus of authenticity has been really successful in the consumer domain, but less so in the political domain, in terms of producing citizens that are actually participating in the governance of the city.

MC: I agree. I think that this is where the didactic mission of Mayor Lindsay’s administration failed. They really wanted to wield media. They were like PBS people. They wanted to create a different, more engaged type of citizen. The last chapter of the book tries to put a point on that ambition. That chapter details a project for Times Square that was never built, called The City at 42nd St.

The design for this project was incredibly ambitious. It was meant to take up nearly four city-blocks. Imagine something of that size straddling 42nd Street and Times Square! Everything within those blocks was going to be connected by bridges and tunnels so that you’d never have to actually go outside this microcosm of a city, this massive interior urbanism. The interior of The City at 42nd St. would have looked like a stage-set production of the exterior of the actual area around 42nd Street at that time. It would have been very Disney-esque. Inside, there would have been theaters, media production studios, media events, and even an extension of the Garment District. It would have internalized the things that were thought to be vital to the urban ecology of Times Square, in order to create a sort of interior, live-stage set-piece of exactly what was supposed to exist in the exterior. It was like a petri dish in which they could balance the ecology of the city by producing the citizen that would then go out and cure the actual Times Square. That sounds absurd, but it was their actual, stated goal, which is kind of amazing. The project was designed to go all the way up to John Portman’s Times Square hotel, which is why the book ends there. Portman’s hotel is the only part of the project that was actually built, so it serves as a telling fragment for what the entire project was supposed to be.

This project is actually the clearest moment where you can see exactly how the members of the Lindsay’s Planning Commission were interested in using media to create a certain kind of audience member/citizen that would then go out and cure the urban ecology of the city.

ZA: One way to take what you’re saying about Lindsay administration’s vision of NYC would be to say that whereas the paradigmatic city dweller of the nineteenth century was the flâneur, the quintessential city dweller of the twentieth century was the movie spectator. How do you think the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law, which created legal protections for historic buildings, contributed to turning NYC into a movie set?

MC: I think that the establishment of the New York Landmarks Preservation Committee was an attempt not necessarily to celebrate but to at least find value in the urban grit. They dealt with places that were blighted and falling off of the cultural radar. Their work was really important, and yet, even then, the media was pretty instrumental in making it visible. For example, it wasn’t until the media made the public re-see Penn Station, through documentaries like Gordan Hyatt’s Our Vanishing Legacy, that it was suddenly lamented as being lost. It was only then that activists really started coming to its defense.

There’s something about the grit and patina of the city as it’s revealed through the aesthetic techniques of film-makers that drew on a desire for authenticity amongst audiences. It’s exactly that same kind of desire that led people to find value in the historic aspects of New York City. What you see in all of these cases is an alignment of cultural sensibilities. There was a newly emergent sense of the value of authenticity.

In addition to the Landmarks Preservation Law, Lindsay’s Urban Design Group began creating policy to preserve not only buildings but also whole neighborhoods called “special zoning districts.” This was how Mulberry St. was saved, along with a number of other downtown areas. In a sense, the Urban Design Group was interested in scenography more than anything else, the sort of thin façade that gives one an almost proto-cinematic experience when walking down the street. It is this scenographic experience that I think aligns with the desire for urban authenticity I mentioned before. I rely and build upon Slavoj Žižek’s work on this topic. During the twentieth century, American culture became facile and more suburban, at least for a certain privileged segment of the middle-class. But simultaneously life grew divested of a sense of authenticity, or, in Žižek’s formulation, the Lacanian real — a profound and unattainable authenticity for which we all hold an insatiable desire. The twentieth century also witnessed a swell of catastrophic events like war, social unrest, terrorism. Žižek suggests that our desire for the real, for the authentic, is reflected in our insatiable appetite for these kinds of topics in a range of media. We mistake the real for its mediatic effect, but this effect fails to satiate our desires. I propose that we can extend Žižek’s analysis to discuss our desire for authenticity in the proto-cinematic, scenographic experience of buildings and neighborhoods saved through Landmarks Preservation and special district zoning. Urban economics also plays into this, as Sharon Zukin discusses in her books Loft Living and Naked City. The marketing of neighborhoods like Soho and Williamsburg as authentic was calculated on the part of the landowners and the real estate industry.

ZA: I wonder, then, if the demolition of Penn Station, for example, doesn’t have a symbolic significance. It signifies the end of an era in which architecture, in itself, is expressive of an image of the city. The Landmarks Preservation Law and The Plan for New York City mark the beginning of a new era in which media representations of New York come to take on the role of shaping the image of the city. This aligns with one of the most significant transitions that you trace in the book, from architecture being one of the primary forces in shaping our experience of the city to media representations coming to do the same thing. You then take a further step, and propose that the city’s architecture has itself become a media representation of the city. Can you say something about this history?

MC: I think this is all tied-up with architecture’s role as a medium of representation. Recurrent throughout architectural history is the theorization of architecture as a semiotic device, wherein buildings communicate, encode meaning, cultural norms, and represent the public. Look at a building in New York like the U.S. Custom House. There’s an etiquette to that building that has a representational agenda. It’s meant to represent ideas beyond itself, and to communicate to its audience certain cultural mores.

More recently, buildings like the Seagram Building have been discussed as media artifacts by theorists like Reinhold Martin, as tacitly articulating a transition from a linguistic to mediatic paradigm. My own analysis of this building goes back to William Whyte. He was asked by the Planning Commission to study how best to revise the 1961 Zoning Resolution that incentivized developers to include plazas in building proposals. Looking for plazas that worked well, Whyte turned to the Seagram as an exemplar. I became really interested in his method of analysis, which entailed the use of both video and handheld photography. My argument is that what he observed there has to do with the very precise way in which the plaza works. It works to create a space of removal from the city. It’s a kind of negative space carved out of the city wherein one can remove oneself from the surrounding metropolis and look out on it as if it were a kind of motion-image. In the book I go through Whyte’s descriptions of how people went to sit in the plaza in order to describe an alignment between their experience there and how the audience member has been theorized in the cinema by a range of film theorists. There’s this idea that film allows one to kind of lose oneself, to remove oneself from corporeal reality, and to dive into the image. There are some similarities between that and how Whyte describes the experience of people in the plaza at the Seagram. Again, he describes a space of removal where you could lose corporeal reality and engage the surrounding environment as image, where you become a citizen-spectator.

Reciprocally, I build on Whyte’s descriptions to argue that the plaza also becomes a stage, and that occupants become one of these New Yorkers who have been so thoroughly exposed to media representations of the city that it’s impossible not to assume a certain persona or character type crossing through the space as others look on. I talk about this in relation to Whyte’s idea of the social ethic and the Protestant ethic, and its relationship, for him at least, to the death of American society and the triumph of the corporation over the individual. There’s a moment in his work where he talks about a tactic for survival in the social ethic that involves becoming a kind of actor. In this light, one might check into the Seagram Building, pretending to be an organization man, while actually just playing a role in order to obscure one’s underlying individuality. I think that Whyte’s ideas to this effect colored his analysis of the way people interact in the plaza at the Seagram.

ZA: So, on your account, there’s a kind of playfulness to the way in which New Yorkers come to inhabit spaces like the plaza of the Seagram Building, and this playfulness relates to a postmodern dimension to your story that I want to ask you about. On a standard account, the history of postmodern architecture in NYC begins with buildings from the early ’80s like Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building. In your story, however, the history of postmodernism in NYC begins much earlier, and invokes theme parks like Disneyland and NYC’s own Freedomland, which are postmodern in the sense that they rely heavily on the representational uses of facades to invoke playful historical allusions. Is there a sense in which we can think of the historic districts in the city as postmodern theme parks?

MC: Yes. Christine Boyer wrote this beautiful book called The City of Collective Memory in which she analyzes several places in New York, including a particularly good analysis of the South Street Seaport, with exactly what you’re saying in mind. NYC is a historic city but it has also been explicitly restaged as a theme park version of itself. In my book, I similarly discuss how The City at 42nd St. was very much intended to be a theme park of the city surrounding it. When Ed Koch rejected the project, he said something like, “In New York we like seltzer and not orange juice,” which was a reference to Disney World. You could say that Ed Koch wanted to prevent The City at 42nd St. from being built because he had internalized an image of “authentic” NYC.

ZA: It seems like the rise of Los Angeles as a competitor to NYC, along with the simultaneous emergence of Disneyland and Disney World as global tourist destinations is precisely the point at which the Taxi Driver image of NYC becomes so seductive, as well as being the point at which it becomes impossible to build new themed environments in NYC from scratch. The themed environments that we now have in NYC are all created out of historical materials.

MC: Agreed. I want to go back to the postmodern architecture thing. One thing that’s really historically interesting to look at is that, while most postmodern architecture would have its heyday after the period we’re discussing, a lot of the key players were already involved. During the 1970s there was a divide in the clubby world of academic architecture between two groups that were called the “Whites” and the “Greys.” These were basically the two ideological camps in elitist architectural discourse at that time. Of course, they only pretended to be each other’s enemies when in fact they were all friends. On one end of the spectrum you had the Whites, who included people like Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and John Hejduk. These people were championed by Colin Rowe who was the Dean up at Cornell. At least through Rowe’s theorization, they were all really interested in taking aspects of Corbusian modernism as a new pattern-language for liberal democracy. They basically thought that the social project of modernism didn’t work, but we can still take the modernist code and restage it in a cultural context. On the other end, you had the Greys, who were people like Robert Venturi, Jaquelin Robertson, and Charles Moore. These were the people who would go on to be the primary figures in postmodernist architecture in this country. Richard Weinstein, who I talk about in the book in relation to The City at 42nd St., was also in this group. The architects who went on to be the intellectual champions of this kind of sensibility were already directly involved in the projects we’ve been talking about, and also in planning the city. Many of these architects were actually employed by various offices in NYC during the Lindsay mayoral tenure. I didn’t know that when I started writing, but they also all came from Yale, where Venturi had his famous Learning from Las Vegas studio. All of these figures came through Lindsay’s Planning Commission in a really formative way.

ZA: Do you see any connection between the experience of working with Lindsay to create a new image for the city and the roots of postmodernist architecture in NYC?

MC: Definitely, though I wouldn’t be comfortable arguing for any simple causality going either way. It’s not as if they just came from Yale, went to NYC, and then started applying their ideas to the Planning Commission out of nowhere. I do think, however, that they were all participating in a shared cultural moment. They learned from actually looking at these places that were starting to be preserved. They learned how to apply new values to these historic districts, and I think that was certainly important for their eventual transition to postmodern architecture. They had a kind of back and forth with the city itself.

ZA: Another factor in how the image of the city was transformed during the ’70s is a new genre of NYC movies that emerges, one that we might call “The NYC Western.” I’m thinking of movies like Coogan’s Bluff, Death Wish, and Fort Apache, The Bronx. These films take features of the Western and transport them in NYC, and I wonder if that didn’t also have the effect of transferring the audience’s positive associations with the West onto NYC as well. Do you think Lindsay or anyone in his administration could’ve anticipated how filmic depictions of the run-down parts of NYC could transform how audiences viewed the grittiness of NYC?

MC: I think that it’s just serendipity. I would imagine that everyone was a bit surprised that the decaying city had a kind of allure, that the patina struck this desire for a certain kind of authenticity in our society. I mean, the thing about Lindsay was that he was a liberal Republican, something that doesn’t really exist anymore. He was socially liberal, but he was also completely convinced that the market could solve problems. I think what you’re saying is kind of an example of this. Personally, I am not a liberal Republican. I believe in strict market control, frankly, but I still think that what you’re talking about is a result of him having those politics. I think this is a case of film executives taking two things that people already liked, Westerns and NYC, and combining them. Capitalism will produce these things because audiences will buy them. This is the apparatus theory of cinema in action. I imagine the film executives saying things like, “Well, you know what’s even better than chocolate? Chocolate on chocolate!”

ZA: Is there anything else that you think contributed to the change of NYC’s grittiness from being a good thing to a bad thing, anything else that contributed to the rather striking inversion in how grittiness is valued?

MC: I think it also involves a certain middle-class audience that’s probably very racially slanted. One way we can think about this is as the result of massive white flight to the suburbs and the anesthetized environment that many middle-class people were living in at that time. We can think about the suburbs as a place with a depravity of qualities, especially later during the ’80s and ’90s. It was in contrast to those kinds of environments that the desire for authenticity arose. I think also that the aesthetic qualities that filmmakers and cinematographers were bringing into their movies during this time played a role. The way that Midnight Cowboy and Serpico were shot and the wealth of aesthetic material that filmmakers found in in the city were profoundly influential in unlocking the seductions of authenticity in the city’s blighted conditions.

ZA: This strikes me as similar to a dialectic that you see play out with regard to realism in art, in that one dimension of realism seems to involve doing the opposite of what the previous generation of artists did. For example, when documentaries from the 1930s to the 1950s tend to have an overarching narrator that tells you what to think about what you’re seeing, in the ’60s cinéma vérité documentaries come out that don’t have any narration at all, and this makes them seem much more realistic than the previous generation. It’s the contrast with the previous generation that’s key. In your book, the relevant contrasts are between urban life and suburban life, and between the predominance of movies about New York that were filmed on sets in L.A. and movies that are actually shot on-location in New York.

MC: I’ve recently driven through some inner-ring suburbs in different places and there’s the same kind of nostalgia and sense of authenticity in these environments now. They are the new opposite.

ZA: I wouldn’t be surprised if we now begin to see movies and television shows that aim for realism being set in the suburbs.

MC: You already see something like that with shows like Stranger Things. That show articulates what I mean perfectly. It portrays this amazing suburban atmosphere from the ’80s that we all sort of remember, if only in a subliminal way.

ZA: It seems like the nostalgic desire for an “authentic” past knows no limits. What do you think are some of the most pernicious aspects of this desire for authenticity?

MC: I agree with Christine Boyer’s critique of spaces like South Street Seaport. She thinks that the idea of city as spectacle papers over difference, and that it deploys scenographic confections that distract us from social reality. I think it does have these effects. I think that urban space should be a space for citizens. Urban space is where citizens are engaged, and it’s in that context that they participate in society at large. I am worried that this layer of spectacle across our city really distracts us from the social reality that’s unfolding. That underlies my skepticism about the desire for authenticity, and my realism and my pragmatism imply that there isn’t really anything underneath the spectacle. You can’t just peel the spectacle away and find something genuine underneath, like Walter Benjamin arguably wanted. It’s wrong to think that there’s some reality there that will stop gentrification or curb the real-estate market or anything like that. Instead, we just have to learn how to work within the current context.

What I’m talking about when I express caution about some of these narratives about authenticity is reflected in the way that many theorists and cultural critics talk about how the allure of authenticity feeds into the entrapments of the postmodern city. The kind of material that I’m discussing here is really familiar to and well-covered by many theorists and cultural critics, but it’s almost always a dead-end. They tend to produce these totalizing narratives that don’t offer any hope of escape or redemption. I’m an architect and an urbanist and so, while I agree with these thinkers on an ideological level, I still want to approach these problems as contexts in which we need to find operable possibilities for growth and change. Merely stating the problem and one’s own staunch ideological resistance to it isn’t satisfying for me. I’m more interested in trying to find lateral strategies, and in understanding the system’s mechanisms in order to subvert them.

ZA: It’s great to hear you express skepticism about Walter Benjamin’s views in this context, because he seemed to think that a shift in perception was enough to bring about a revolutionary change in politics, that merely re-training the eye would be enough to bring about a new kind of politically-engaged citizen. In the context of your book, his views all sound eerily similar to the Lindsay administration’s plan for the city. And we’ve all seen what’s become of Greenwich Village and SoHo in the wake of that plan! More generally, it seems like one of the main problems with our contemporary obsession with “gritty” NYC is that it’s all at the level of appearances: it hasn’t led to public policies that actually support economically and socially diverse neighborhoods. Much like their jeans, people today seem to prefer their cities to be artificially distressed.  

Thank you so much for doing this interview. For people who have read your book, but are interested in reading more about the topics that you discuss, are there some more books that you would recommend?

MC: I would definitely read Utopia’s Ghost by Reinhold Martin. Another good complement to my book is Manhattan Atmospheres by David Gissen, which also covers New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, I’d recommend Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft.

 

Zed Adams is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

McLain Clutter is Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.

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