- City Pictures
New York has always been the ultimate modern city, more than an example, or a case study, for any theory of modernity. Looking at it in the twenty-first century, however, the great city of the twentieth century seems peculiarly outmoded, like the gigantic monument of a time already passed. In order to study the contradictions of our time, we have to direct our attention elsewhere it seems, to Dubai, Shanghai, or Kinshasa, for example. Yet as important as this might be, New York is still a focal point when it comes to understanding the heritage of modernity. Mixed Use, Manhattan, an exhibition curated by Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp for the Reina Sophia in Madrid last year and now documented in a carefully edited catalog,1 was committed to this heritage and to what it demands of us if we think of modernity as an unfinished project. To be true to this project, one could learn here, means to open it up for criticism. Yet, to emancipate modernity’s potential for its critical self-transformation requires a sensibility for the cracks and ruptures that can be recorded at its margins.
It is not by chance, then, that the exhibition focused on the 1970s, a time when the deindustrialization of New York City had reached its peak. Large areas of Manhattan had turned into dysfunctional half-ruined places, thereby ruining its utopian image as a whole. Manhattan, the symbol of a confident and [End Page 151] progressive modernity, was shattered to the degree that the ideal of a unitary city in which each element had its clearly defined function fell apart. The recession left disintegrated neighborhoods behind, defined only through varying degrees of decay. But this crisis—as hard as it doubtless was for those who had lost their jobs and homes at the same moment that social services were drastically reduced—also exposed a different understanding of the city, one coming from below, from “mixed usages” of the urban environment. The crisis that New York City went through in the early 1970s was also a krisis—a turning point—in the definition of modern urban life. One could say that this crisis made the structural tension explicit that Michel de Certeau detected between the perspective of modern urban planning with its “scopic drive,” its will to transform the city into a transparent text, on the one hand, and the fragmentary perspectives of its inhabitants, on the other hand, whose practices “write” the city in a way that do not add up to a readable text or even totally evade the panoptic concept of the city.2 Especially Lower Manhattan set the stage for these practices to appear. Abandoned from its original use value, the area became the exemplary place where the lived, embodied spatiality produced by its mixed usages could come to the fore as such and be read as a counterclaim to the homogenization and control implied by the panoptic perspective on urban space.
This claim was both political and aesthetic. The ruins of Lower Manhattan attracted subcultures as well as artists. One main point of this attraction surely was the potentiality of the area, at the same time desolate and promising, its hauntingly beautiful and grandiose emptiness waiting to be filled with new forms of life. There was a certain enthusiasm in cruising the city’s ripped backsides for a different life, a feeling that everything is possible, thereby expanding the meaning of cruising from a sexual practice to an attitude toward the city at large. “[O]ne point of cruising,” Douglas Crimp writes in the catalog, “is feeling yourself alone and anonymous in the city, feeling that the city belongs to you, to you and maybe a chanced-on someone else like you—like you at least in an exploration of the empty city. . . . Can the city become just ours for this moment?”3...