I was stupid . . . New York meant freedom to me.—Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence (1993)
In a key moment in Martin Scorsese’s taxi driver (1976), the taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), picks up a new customer, Senator and presidential hopeful Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). When Travis recognizes Palantine, the latter asks, “What is the one thing about this country that bugs you most?” After some hesitation, Travis answers:
Well, whatever it is, he [the president] should clean up this city here because this city here is like an open sewer, you know. It’s full of filth and scum. Sometimes I can hardly take it. Whoever becomes the president should just really clean it up, know what I mean? Sometimes I go out and I smell it. I get headaches it’s so bad, you know. It’s like . . . they just never go away, you know. It’s like the president should clean up this whole mess here. He should just flush it right down the fucking toilet.1
This moment may be the film’s most obvious reference to New York City’s decay in the mid-1970s. Taxi Driver was shot during a strike of the garbage disposal workers, when the city was literally engulfed in trash. More generally, Scorsese has commented thus:
When you live in a city, there’s a constant sense that the buildings are getting old, things are breaking down, the bridges and the subway need repairing. At the same time society is in a state of decay; the police force are not doing their job in allowing prostitution on the streets, and who knows if they’re feeding off it and making money out of it.
The decay Scorsese and Taxi Driver are referring to is historically specific, rooted in New York City’s postwar decline. While Taxi Driver chronicles Travis’s excessive response to the perceived decline of the city, perhaps more fundamentally, the decline of the city seems to engender the decline of the male hero—Travis’s inability to function in individual, collective, and heteronormative terms.
The contours of New York City’s postwar decline—and its more recent redevelopment—are fairly well known. The crisis fully emerged in the late 1960s, although it had been a while in the making, and it took multiple forms. It may have started with the crisis of urban planning, more specifically in postwar suburban euphoria, and Robert Moses’s notorious plans to build elevated expressways through New York City (including one going east–west across Manhattan) in order to facilitate suburbanization (Burns and Sanders 517). These plans were stopped, not least because of the engagement of Jane Jacobs, who in 1961 published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argued for neighborhood control, as well as economic and social diversity, shifting [End Page 67] the issue from large-scale planning to block power. Nonetheless, it hardly presented a large-scale solution, if only because of additional urban transformations and crises, such as the race riots of 1964 and the influx of immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere that accompanied the deindustrialization of the city, which pushed blue-collar jobs toward the outer boroughs (Beauregard; Glazer and Moyhinan). In 1958, 27 percent of New York State’s jobs were still in manufacturing; in 1993, it was a slim 8.6 percent. A disproportionate number of these job losses (three out of five) occurred in the city (Fitch 23). This crisis culminated in 1975—the year Taxi Driver was released—when President Ford refused federal aid to New York, a city on the brink of bankruptcy. On the morning of 30 October 1975, New Yorkers awoke to a newspaper headline occupying the entire front page of the New York Daily News: “Ford to City: Drop Dead” (Burns and Sanders 550).
The early instances of this long-term postwar decline have been examined by Edward Dimendberg, who has persuasively argued that in the 1940s and 50s, film noir articulated complex forms of nostalgia for “older urban forms” (7) and anxiety about “late modernity and its distinctive spatiality” (6). It...