- City Memory, City History:Urban Nostalgia, The Colossus of New York, and Late-Twentieth-Century Historical Fiction
No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.… You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.Colson Whitehead, "City Limits"
I take my epigraph from the opening essay of Colson Whitehead's 2003 collection, The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. The passage and the essay it appears in offer a suggestive, because counterintuitive, account of urban identity at the turn of the twenty-first century: they propose that while our sense of urban belonging may register in many ways—through the familiarity of daily routines, through communities of work and leisure, and through the spaces in which we gather—we acquire a truly urban identity at the moment we react to change by remembering a vanished city. Whitehead's formulation suggests that we rethink how cities work on the people who live there; his account of how memory constitutes urban identity presses us in particular to reconsider the importance of both loss and the past for urban life. For just as the forward-looking side of modernity generates nostalgia, or the desire for a fantasized past, as its twin, the urban culture that [End Page 810] seems to exemplify modernity also depends upon a fantasy of a lost city.1
It is customary to define the modern city by its newness and in so doing to make that newness an emblem of modernity as a whole. Modern life has been theorized as a constant encounter with change; in this view, cities are exemplary modern social spaces because of the speed with which they are transformed. As a result, cultural observers since Charles Baudelaire and Georg Simmel have defined urban experience as quintessentially a response to the new: when we live in the city, we celebrate its novelty or, alternatively, try to stave off its shocks and disruptions.2 The Colossus of New York reminds us that we need to recast our ideas of how urban novelty works. It suggests, surprisingly, that the core of urban experience lies not on the face but on the reverse side of this constant change. In this account, which evokes an alternative tradition of urban discourse, being a city dweller is as much about the old as the new.3 More precisely, the city's constant novelty matters most for the way it generates a perpetually vanishing past. Thus while urban change makes us confront the new, such change still more importantly causes us to inhabit a world by definition gone; it guarantees that we see a city that is no longer there. In reframing the city in this way, Colossus shows how urban transformations tie us in the most ordinary, repetitive manner to lost places and their emergence in memory. It suggests that a study of the city and its representations must by definition be a study of the rhetoric of loss and of the forms of remembering that shape the way we think about and in cities. [End Page 811]
To write about cities haunted by loss, and in particular to focus on the function of loss in writing about New York City, as I will do here, inevitably evokes the specter of September 11, 2001. The catastrophic loss of 9/11 itself lies beyond the range of my discussion, and my essay does not seek to dissolve the trauma and mourning of that attack into a generalized structure of urban absence. However, it strikes me as significant that the language of loss circulated around cities—and in particular around urban public space and buildings—long before the events of 9/11 demanded it. As a result, there is a strange rhetorical echo between the mourning prompted by the destruction of 2001 and the already existing desire to mourn buildings torn down in the flux of real-estate redevelopment across the centuries. This echo raises an interesting question about our customary ways...