- Imagining New York City: Literature, Urbanism, and the Visual Arts, 1890–1940 by Christoph Lindner
Ever since it surged skyward at the turn of the twentieth century, energized by massive waves of immigration, the semi-controlled chaos of New York has inspired endless artistic interpretation, and no end of critical effort to explain its magical attraction. Reconsidering the modernist heyday of urban cultural production, Christoph Linder tries to step back and grasp the big picture. The conclusion to this lucid, compact, and well-illustrated book succinctly sums up his approach: “Part I of [Imagining New York City] argues that the modern skyline of New York is distinguished in the urban imaginary by a dynamic, unresolved tension between the sublime (as aesthetic encounter grounded in wonder) and the uncanny (as the familiar rendered newly strange). Part II argues that the modern sidewalk—and its rearticulation in spaces like the slum, the El, and the subway—gave rise to a street culture dominated by speed, movement, [End Page 488] and dislocation” (198). For Lindner, skyscraper and sidewalk function simultaneously as both material constructs and idea-generating entities; together thing and thought create a complex cognitive mapping, an “urban imaginary” that springs to mind whenever “New York City” is named. Artists, writers, photographers, movie-makers, architects, visitors, residents—all have contributed toward making the city something more than itself, a compound of awe and revulsion, suspicion and cliché, excitement and dread. Moreover, their myriad, contradictory reactions to the city in its great moment of pre-eminent modernity, 1890–1940, still influence how we deal with the global city of today: “[B]oth the hovering other-worldliness of the skyline and the mobile, performative practices of the sidewalk belong to a broad set of interrelating spatial and cultural dynamics that, together, generated modern New York as both a place and an idea, and that continue even now to shape this endlessly mutable city” (198).
Skyline and street; tensions, dynamics, places, ideas; the value of the past to understand the present. Because it tries to encompass everything in two hundred pages, this book is not going to please everyone. It should be most attractive to New York neophytes, since its macro-level of analysis provides a few simple yet capacious categories in which to locate an image or parse a verbal description. Taking pains to cover some of the most important prior studies, Lindner revisits the theories of now classic urban critics (Veblen, Mumford, Jacobs, Simmel, Benjamin, de Certeau, etc.) and reexamines some of the best-known representations of New York (by Howells, Riis, Stieglitz, James, Crane, Sloan, Bellows, etc.). For those unfamiliar with the terrain, Imagining New York City offers a carefully crafted introduction to Manhattanized modernity. Even for those already steeped in this lore, Lindner provides a reliable if predicable review text, enlivened by astute analyses of more recent developments, such as the High Line and the Fresh Kills park project.
Imagining New York City gives an insightful tour of the main theories about the artistic appeal and effect of New York City during the modern era, moving in textbook fashion from period ideas to recent scholarship to (mostly) well-chosen examples of iconic artworks. Along the way, there’s intelligent discussion of skyscraper style and technology, the disparate views of architects and immigrants, the iconic quality of the Singer Building and the Flatiron, the way that early cinema portrayed the skyline, an extended consideration of Hugh Ferris’s architectural fantasies, and the complicated emotional and analytic response to the World Trade Center’s presence and destruction. That’s in the first part; the second part takes up the psychological and economic nature of the Manhattan grid plan; cinema, sidewalk behavior and the male gaze; department stores, Dreiser, and commodity fetishism; how pleasure-oriented street-walking and window shopping differ from street-life in impoverished neighborhoods; and how the El and the subway participate in and yet frustrate the dream of a diverse, democratic city. There’s a lot of...