Book Reviews


New York, New York: Unimaginable, sometimes almost uninhabitable; and without question, the Greatest City on Earth.

By Eric Alterman

Tagged New York City

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation By Thomas Dyja • Simon and Schuster • 2021 • 544 pages • $30

The situation is… so bad, it’s good.” To those who looked at just about anything in New York City during the 1970s; a time when almost everything appeared to be either dirty, decrepit, dysfunctional, dangerous, corrupt, or all of these at once, those words spoken by William “Holly” Whyte, the former marine who became an urban planner, qualified as an inspiration. The “badness” of New York City and its governance in the 1970s almost defies the scope of one’s imagination. It was the nadir of a combination of the decadence of big-city machine governance and fiscally undisciplined liberalism; the combination that, together with unrepentant racism, elected and reelected Ronald Reagan.

It’s one of the signal achievements of Thomas Dyja’s New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation that it manages to capture the state of the city on a granular as well as a conceptual level, and then go on to explain how New York became a place from which so many people wished to flee (if given the opportunity) to one where so many people are eager to live (if only they could afford it).

Dyja, the author of three novels and two previous books of non-fiction, has written a history that covers so many aspects of the life of the city over a 40-year period that it’s impossible to narrow the story down to just the few that mattered. Unlike Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles, New York is not a company town, and myriad mini-fiefdoms coexist simultaneously. Different people ruled different roosts at different moments. There are the bankers, the bureaucrats, the politicians and pundits, artists, musicians, Mafia dons, “Mad men,” community organizers and neighborhood organizations, foundations, magazine editors and media moguls, and of course hucksters of every imaginable stripe, but especially those in real estate, including one particular “short-fingered vulgarian,” as Spy used to call Donald Trump back when he was merely an entertaining annoyance.

Even with its problems and occasional crises, this is a city that was literally unimaginable from the one I experienced as a teenager in the 1970s.

What, if anything, ties this almost unimaginable, sometimes almost uninhabitable mess together is, at bottom, one phenomenon: people with guts, ambition, and imagination hooking up with people with money and ambitions of their own. These ambitions were often contradictory, and the results sometimes combustible. But somehow, it works, or at least it does for now. The other night, my partner and I took the #7 train to the newish, clean subway station at 34th Street and Eleventh Avenue on Manhattan’s far west side (not so long ago, an area no normal person would visit for any reason), had dinner in the brand new Hudson Yards, and walked down the beautifully planted and relatively new High Line to the new version of City Winery on the 15th Street Pier next door to the really, really new “Little Island” where a full (and fully vaccinated) house enjoyed a wonderful Asleep at the Wheel concert. When it was over, we hopped a $50 Lyft back home to the Upper West Side—a neighborhood Dyja describes as “offer[ing] a return to upper-middle-class domesticity with a diversity not found on the East Side; a Lifestyle that let[s] you eat your cake and consider it a mitzvah.” Once home, we walked our dog, alone in the dark, in a reasonably clean, decently maintained Riverside Park, and never once felt a moment of menace. One hears a great deal about an alleged violent crime resurgence in the city, but I see no evidence of it at all on the Upper West Side and am decidedly suspicious of the candidates and local news stations that hype a story the statistics do not support. Whatever; even with its genuine problems and occasional crises, this is still a city that was literally unimaginable from the one I experienced as a teenager growing up in the 1970s.

Dyja’s story has a cast of hundreds, but nobody looms larger in it than Edward Irving Koch. Many of us remember only the sour, whining, and often-racist figure of his third term and post-mayoralty. But he likely saved the city. Koch was a man of many contradictions: boastful, insecure, dedicated in (almost) equal measure to the betterment of the city and to his endless, nearly Trumpian need for constant praise. Elected mayor in 1977 as a liberal reformer from Greenwich Village, but one who leaned on more conservative outer-borough voters to defeat Mario Cuomo in a runoff, Koch took office at a moment when the city’s finances were just bobbing their head above the water. He juggled multiple constituencies to put the city on a path first to recovery and eventually near-solvency. He did it by cutting deal after deal with whoever was the most powerful person in the room, oftentimes by convincing them they had goals of which they were themselves unaware. Ironically, his greatest contribution was to the betterment of the housing stock in previously all-but abandoned neighborhoods, one of the few accomplishments, real or imagined, he did not brag about much, perhaps because it would have appeared that he was overly concerned with the kinds of people liberals are always talking about. Over time, Koch grew more and more conservative, combative, and egomaniacal. He needlessly baited and insulted the city’s civil rights leaders and gave Black people the strong impression that they should just shut up and accept their fate. As with Willie Sutton and the banks, Koch went where the money was. “The old climate was that profit was evil,” he said. “I have created the impression, ‘We love you if you are rich.’” And that impression, along with dogged commitment to improving the ways the city did business and kept track of the money it spent, managed to turn around what many people had long ago concluded to be a lost cause. In the process it gave life to a newer, chastened form of big-city liberalism.

Dyja begins his story on Valentine’s Day 1978, on what was officially “I Love New York” Day; the day the city launched its then almost comically inappropriate slogan for a city on life support by virtually every imaginable measure. Dyja describes a city that had seen some 63,000 fires in the South Bronx in the previous two years. Heavily graffitied subway cars “stunk of pot and piss; dense black scribbles over the windows and walls,” as “bundled riders winced at the graffiti, at the smell, at the parade of annoyance and threat that was daily life in New York circa 1978: track fires and dog shit, bad reception and cockroaches . . . .” The deranged serial killer who called himself “Son of Sam” and had captured the imagination of the city’s then-vibrant tabloids only one year earlier was not so far off when he wrote to the New York Post, “Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C., which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood.” Saul Bellow had implied much the same thing, in far greater length, in 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It was a time when around 6.8 million New Yorkers, a million fewer than had lived in the city ten years earlier, hustled past “mounds and mounds of uncollected garbage bags”; their government unresponsive; their parks unusable; their neighborhoods unsafe and with little hope but for more of the same with some bullshit Madison Avenue slogan, designed somehow to pretend that the future would be any less hellish than the present.

But if almost everyone felt that way, then almost everyone was wrong. Somehow, in a million ways, large and small, the city got off the canvas and started slugging away at the forces that had previously appeared to be inexorable. The Bad/Good situation led to a massive spark of artistic creativity in sketchy neighborhoods like the dirty, dangerous East Village, where punk musicians and proto-hip-hop scenesters were literally reinventing our notion of what music could be with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, and eventually the MTV-friendly commercial superstars Blondie and Talking Heads, leading the way. They crossed paths with the likes of the artists Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf, and Richard Prince, among many others. “Over it all,” Dyja writes, “reigned the spirit of Andy Warhol, ambiguous essence of everything cool in New York.” Meanwhile, uptown in the Bronx, the undeniably infectious urban poetry of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five led the way, sending out “The Message” of rap to Black and white kids alike.

Dyja identifies a few big themes that help to keep the reader focused on where he’s taking us. He paints the Koch era as “the Renaissance; after brutal Retrenchment came dazzling, greedy years that spiraled back down amid crack, AIDS, and a social gout of too much too fast.” This was followed by the David Dinkins administration, under the city’s first and (until next January) only Black mayor, an interregnum when the city’s liberal traditions were left “battered but laid the foundation for the safe streets and dotcom excess of Rudy Giuliani’s Reformation in the ’90s.” Both Koch and Giuliani made race relations far more poisonous than they needed to be. The former insisted that “my experience with Blacks is that they’re basically anti-Semitic.” The latter, as a candidate, participated in a racist near-riot of police aimed at his Black opponent, Mayor Dinkins. Rudy’s policy shop was largely farmed out to the right-wing hucksters at the Manhattan Institute with an eye toward the screaming headlines of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire deity of data, managed to somehow worsen racial matters with this irrational commitment to a “stop-and-frisk” policy that was not only unconstitutional but far outlived whatever usefulness it may have had in preventing crime, while it simultaneously ruined the lives of countless young men of color forced into the sticky arms of a heartless legal “justice” system that well-to-do white kids never encountered. To the wealthy, however, and most definitely in the all-but-unquestioned narrative of the media elite, Bloomberg turned City Hall into a remarkably well-functioning machine, “reimagining New York to look very much like him: visionary and strategic, driven by data and good taste, rich beyond measure, and fatally detached from those it left behind.” Dyja sums up his story with the observation that, by the end of Bloomberg’s third term on New Year’s Eve 2013, the city had “experienced the most dramatic peacetime transformation of a city since Haussmann rebuilt Paris, greener and safer than it had ever been, from Bryant Park’s lawn and the blocks of tidy homes across the South Bronx to the million-dollar brownstones in Bed-Stuy.” Altogether, he notes, “some 3.6 million immigrants had come through since 1978, and 1.5 million—the entire population of Philadelphia—stayed. City Hall was solvent.”

There is so much to the story that space does not allow me to delve into. There was the horrific era of crack and AIDS; the orb and scepter of cultural czardom passing from Warhol to Tina Brown. (“Buxom and sensibly bobbed,” he writes, “Tina wielded her deft, cinematic editorial chops—and Si’s deep pockets—to produce what she called ‘sophisticated boom boom’; ‘We give intellectuals movie star treatment,’ she wrote, ‘and movie stars an intellectual sheen.’”)

Naturally Dyja does not leave out sports, though he focuses—the like the present-day New York Times—largely on the plutocratic and profoundly unlovable Yankees. There’s a much better story to be told about the Mets, and I’m using up valuable space in this review to tell you to read, whether you are a Mets fan or not, Devin Gordon’s often hysterical history of the team, So Many Ways to Lose. I have not read such sly, knowing, magazine-style prose since the heyday of Pauline Kael. While the Mets may “hold the MLB record for being bad the most times in a single season,” he writes, “badness is not what defines the Mets as a franchise. There is a difference between being bad and being gifted at losing, and this distinction holds the key to understanding the true magic of the New York Mets.”

The Mets are not just garden-variety losers, like the pathetic Cleveland Browns, or Detroit Lions, or even, until this year, the Knicks, (“an iconic franchise that has been held captive and waterboarded for decades by the worst owner in sports,”) or even the Jets (“the Mets sapped of charm—bright orange and blue turned carsick green”).

What the Mets specialize in, even when winning, is being awful in such “amazing” ways that they make their fans feel special for the unique forms of torture they suffer, while at the same time toying with their hopes. As Gordon puts it, “The mental state of your standard-issue Mets fan is to be simultaneously certain of humiliating defeat and pretty darn sure there’s a miracle brewing.” And “if choosing to live like this seems crazy to you, or masochistic, or maybe sort of pitiful, first of all, duh, but second of all, that just proves you don’t have what it takes to be one of us.” The Mets gave away their greatest and most beloved player, and my childhood hero, Tom Seaver, twice. They traded away Nolan Ryan for a guy who could not even play the position they needed him for and stunk up the joint. Another excellent pitcher, Bob Ojeda, chopped off the top of his own finger with hedge clippers. In 2006, they threw away the greatest catch in post-season history—(see under “Chavez, Endy”) when their best hitter, Carlos Beltran, struck out (looking!) on three goddam pitches, in the bottom of the ninth, in the seventh game with the tying run on second. Then, 13 years later, they “hired that guy, the curveball watcher, to manage the team, and weeks later it turned out he was among the masterminds of baseball’s biggest cheating scandal since the 1919 Black Sox.” (Like Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci, Beltran was out before he began.)

“What about the Yankees?”, you ask? Don’t New Yorkers have the choice of rooting for a winner? “Donald Trump grew up in Queens,” Gordon writes, “and at some point he decided he was a Yankees fan. I rest my case.”
Not shockingly, the Mets’ previous owner, who lost his fortune to the Bernie Madoff scam, sold the team to the SAC Capital billionaire Steve Cohen, who had just completed seven years of a government investigation for some sort of financial shenanigans the rest of us would not understand. Cohen was never charged, but he was barred from doing business for two years. He’s not exactly Ivan Boesky, but Mets fans—this one included—won’t care so long as the team starts to win again.

The same can be said with respect to our new official-mayor-to-be, Democratic candidate Eric Adams, a Black, ex-police captain, ex-Republican conservative, contemporary deal-making machine pol. Adams won his race largely on stoking fear about crime and the potential return of pre-Renaissance New York. That was largely nonsense, but the fear of that frightful moment lives on in conservative rhetoric and outer-borough electioneering. As both the past 40 years and this past Democratic primary prove, big-city liberalism is not nearly so liberal as the so-called “liberal media” would have us believe. Adams is, in many ways, a throwback to the bad-old days of purely machine politics. What’s changed is the composition of the machine. Thanks to the Renaissance, it’s undergirded by middle-class Black homeowners and aspirational immigrants from all over the world. The deals he will have to cut to stay popular will be reinforced by the fiscal discipline of data-driven budgets and performance measurements. With luck, the wounds of the poisonous race relations exploited and encouraged by Koch and Giuliani will continue to heal, and we will continue our unbroken reign as the Greatest—one might even say “Baddest”—City on Earth.

Read more about New York City

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and writes the “Altercation” newsletter for The American Prospect. His most recent book is Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse (Basic, 2020).

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