- Mobility in Immigrant New York
When we think about popular entertainment as ethnic amusement in immigrant New York City, we read geographically, entwining culture in the social production of space. At its best, scholarship on amusement in turn-of-the-century New York has been exemplary materialist history, situating diverse performance forms in leisure practices, built environments, and market conditions. At the same time, entertainments like vaudeville were not just in the city, they were also "the voice of the city," in Robert Snyder's words: "as loud, brassy, and quintessentially New York as the sound of a subway train roaring into Times Square" (xiv). This tension between the city as material place and as concept cuts through the so-called spatial turn in social theory. For Edward Soja, postmodern geography redresses "an overdeveloped historical contextualization of social life" and its "implicit subordination of space to time" by theorizing "social being actively emplaced in space and time" (136, 140). This desire to coordinate a "simultaneously historical and geographical materialism" (137) informs two recent books about ethnic performance in immigrant New York, Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880–1924 (2008) by Esther Romeyn and The Immigrant Scene: Ethnic Amusements in New York, 1880–1920 (2008) by Sabine Haenni.
In many ways, our understanding of the 40 years that define both books has been dominated by metaphors of time—developments, transformations, a turn of the century—so that specific encounters with modernization have been most meaningful when they clarify the emergence of something like modern America. Shifting these familiar narratives toward a horizontal axis, where identity formation or cultural production signifies primarily in [End Page 392] relation to the logic of urban space, the books emphasize synchronically the unstable and unpredictable street-level experience of modernization in immigrant New York. For Romeyn, the space of New York City becomes, like Walter Benjamin's Paris Arcades, a virtual site for speculating about the formation of a modern middle-class identity. Seen in terms of New York City space, rather than as a function of an inevitable historical development, ethnic performance appears not as the Other of white American identity, but rather as its performative embodiment.
Similarly, Haenni stresses how congested urban space creates a desire for circulation that suffuses social experience and cultural production in New York City. However, rather than connect this spatial logic to the formation of modern white subjectivity, Haenni uses it to rethink the place of ethnic performance in the history of mass culture. Neither isolated enclaves nor agents of assimilation or homogenization, immigrant theaters and, later, depictions of New York City in early Hollywood cinema, were, like the "mobile metropolis," sites of heterogeneity and exchange (27). Although The Immigrant Scene offers evidence to support Romeyn's analysis of circulation and white privilege, Haenni stops short of reading space through to a particular identity. Together, the books highlight Romeyn's investment ultimately in mapping the city space and underscore Haenni's refusal to do so. As Romeyn points out, modern New York City "defeats organicist, holistic interpretations of culture, identity, and continuity" and so it conceptualizes not just the experience of modernity, but also our more ordinary postmodern skepticisms that doubt attempts to totalize, binarize, or simplify (xi). What it means to negotiate these dislocations geographically—in modern New York City or in a cultural history of modern New York City—has to do with mobility.
In the introduction to Street Scenes, Romeyn invokes Benjamin's flâneur: street-level experience in the modern city "externalizes bourgeois interiority" and derails attempts to map, settle, or intellectualize urban multiplicity (xvii). To the extent that immigrant New York becomes Romeyn's Paris Arcades, Benjamin's fascination with surfaces, or physiognomy, becomes explicitly racialized. If, for Benjamin, "urban space … functioned as the counterpoint of the cozy intérieur, the metaphorical private space of interiorized bourgeois essence" (xvii), then in turn-of-the-century New York City, encounters with "exteriority" were...