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June 2, 2008

New York's golden age

A very brief stop in Manhattan last Friday prompted some thoughts about what New York City represents. Between 1920 and 1960, the apogee of American civilization was built in that place, or so I would argue.

I acknowledge some bias, because New York formed both of my parents. These days, I especially think of my father in connection with the city. He lived almost half of his life there and it shaped his identity. Much of the time that I spent in New York, from my early childhood until recent years, was with him; and he was a nostalgic person who would often reminisce about his youth. One of the last times I saw him in reasonably good health was last spring, when we walked together all the way from the Upper West Side to the Metropolitan Museum.

But even adjusting for my prejudices, I think New York City in the mid-20th century was a splendid achievement that embodied some (not all) of the best qualities of the United States as a whole. We could start with high culture: New York was the world's center of modernism in painting, music, architecture, poetry, and fiction after the Second World War. New York's high culture had diverse sources, including the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, the Harlem Renaissance, the uptown galleries, the old magazines and publishing houses (privately owned and not out to maximize profit), academic programs at Columbia and The New School--among other universities, the clusters of exiled Europeans, and well-endowed "establishment" institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera.

A second layer was commercial culture, for it was private capital that erected the Chrysler Building, lit the lights of Time Square, published The New York Times and New Yorker magazine, and put on Broadway shows. And third--not below the others but on a par with them--were the city's various vernacular cultures: the lower-middle-class secular Jewish Brooklyn that nourished my Dad plus many others, including Spanish Harlem, the Irish-Catholic neighborhoods, the African American church, and on and on.

Culture does not make a civilization, but New York had the other essential components as well. Its institutions, although certainly imperfect, were impressive. The public schools, for example, enrolled around one million students and had a high reputation. City University represented another huge and successful foray into public education. The subways, the parks, and the harbor worked well--notwithstanding inequality, segregation, and corruption that were inexcusable but less destructive than we have seen in other times and places. New York developed impressive leaders--TR, FDR, LaGuardia--who were both disciplined and inspired by a tough and engaged citizenry. There were elites and masses, insiders and outsiders, but these relationships were dynamic and flexible.

I don't want to exaggerate or romanticize, but I suppose I have in the back of my mind a rather pessimistic account of how human beings live together in large numbers. It ought to be possible to surpass the model of New York City ca. 1950, but we have rarely done so.

Finally, I don't mean to suggest that the city is entirely in decline. There are respects in which it has improved. But I think the magic balance has been gone since the harbor shed hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs, the schools went into crisis, and the yuppies took over Bohemia. The most wonderful parts of New York today are either legacies of the mid-20th-century city or reprises of its spirit. For instance, the mix of immigrant communities in today's Queens seems a worthy successor of Brooklyn in the 1930s.

June 2, 2008 4:05 PM | category: cities | Comments


"Culture does not make a civilization"

Interesting statement because I recalled what somebody else wrote: "Culture depends on civilization - not the other way around".

June 2, 2008 5:58 PM | Comments (1) | posted by airth10

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