- The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear by Brian Tochterman
I recall preparing to move to New York City to begin graduate school about twenty years ago. Having grown up in a small Midwestern town, and not being well traveled, I was nervous and quite unprepared for Gotham. I was not mollified when, upon hearing of my plans, a friend of my father's ventured that "Someone just blow New York up, and start over again." It was meant as mordant humor, of course (and I soon discovered that he'd never been to New York City, either). Still, it begged the question: Where did this insane quip come from?
Brian Tochterman, an assistant professor of sustainable development at Northland College, has an answer. In The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear, he argues that various cultural narratives combined to give the impression that New York City was in its death throes. Journalists, pulp fiction writers, academics, urban planners, and popular filmmakers all said, in various ways, that Gotham was ungovernable. New York became associated with seediness, violent crime, drug epidemics, and moral rot. Furthermore, Tochterman says, when these racialized, sensationalistic, and pessimistic narratives were stewed together, they fueled anti-urban attitudes that undermined the possibility of statist interventions that he thinks would have been salutary. Instead, New York City got "neoliberalism," which emerges as a great bogeyman in this book. (The word is used frequently, and often pejoratively, but is never adequately defined.)
The Dying City is a solid first book by an energetic scholar, and it has much to recommend it. Tochterman scrutinizes a wide range of material with a probing intelligence. He writes as perceptively about E.B. White's famous essay "This is New York" (1949) as he does Mickey Spillane's lowbrow crime novels. He reveals surprising commonalities in the outlooks of two of New York's most famous postwar urban planners, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses (who of course are often pitted against one another). We learn how conservatives, who were bent upon highlighting the "urban pathologies" of a depraved "underclass," found ammunition in Michael Harrington's powerful socialist critique, The Other America (1962). Tochterman also provides skillful close readings of popular films like Midnight Cowboy (1969), Joe (1970) and Taxi Driver (1976), which portrayed Manhattan as a haven for scammers, lowlifes, and psychopaths. Finally, he argues [End Page 1447] that these cinematic portrayals of crime, decay, and disorder ended up fueling an unlikely cultural renaissance, which was spearheaded by young, ambitious, creative types—graffiti artists, postpunk rockers, and early hip hop pioneers.
I have three critiques. First, Tochterman makes far too little of the fact that crime and urban blight truly reached epidemic proportions in New York City. It's too simplistic to suggest that cultural producers were just lazily and sensationally ginning up people's negative feelings. Consider Dick Schapp and Jimmy Breslin's "Lonely Crimes" series, which ran in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965. Tochterman argues that Schapp and Breslin were unduly obsessed with "moral decay wrought by slum life" (135). But it might just as easily be argued that they were powerfully prescient. Beginning in 1963, so-called index crimes (murder, rape, robbery, burglary, assault, larceny, auto theft and arson) all began rising sharply, and the trend continued (more or less steadily) for about thirty years. The breakdowns of liberalism since the 1960s became everywhere apparent in New York City, and they seemed to never let up. Frightening and disorderly behavior ran riot, affecting public transportation, schools, business districts, and the public's morale. Furthermore, between 1972 and 1982, New Yorkers suffered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of jobs evaporated, while crucial city services were curtailed or cut altogether. People were afraid to leave their homes at night, or to ride the subway. Fourteen percent of New Yorkers, in 1976, were on welfare. There is no denying that writers and politicians frequently stigmatized poor minorities...