Review by 'The Economist' - 1/12/02
Visitors are used to hearing that New York has little in common with the rest of America. Yet just one shot of its extraordinary skyline can still tell you that you are in a land of dreams and ambition more quickly than the image of any other American city.
Ever since movie makers first started filming there more than 100 years ago, and even after the industry fled west not long afterwards, New York has kept its hold on them. It has haunted their thoughts, and through them our imagination. When it became too tiresome and expensive actually to make movies there, ersatz Manhattans were created in loving detail on the backlots of Hollywood studios, authentic to the last deli-counter, fire hydrant, El track and brownstone stoop. Not that their vision of the city was always soaring or upbeat. When in "Celluloid Skyline", a new book on New York in the movies, James Sanders points to the half-buried Statue of Liberty in "Planet of the Apes" or to the ruined city in "Armageddon", most of us can picture the dismal scene. New York on screen has represented the American dream and the American nightmare. That conflict is reflected in four other books on New York, some published before September 11th and some afterwards. While nobody could have predicted the nature of the catastrophe visited on the city, the idea that it was galloping hubristically towards disaster is an old one, in print as well as on screen.
Ever since the first skyscrapers were erected at the end of the 19th century, doubts have lingered about their safety. In "Downtown", a scholarly history of the business districts of New York and other American cities from 1880 to 1950, Robert Fogelson records concerns about the risks posed by fire, especially to those trapped on the upper floors, and the danger that the tallest buildings might collapse if corrosion ate into their steel frames. Some, too, thought they looked unsightly, turning the New York skyline into "a horribly jagged sierra". But in a city driven by the urge to expand in all directions, with entrepreneurs constitutionally opposed to all forms of regulation, it was impossible to exert effective control.
Proliferating skyscrapers became the most distinctive American contribution to architecture. Rarely have they been viewed as just an efficient way of squeezing office space into a restricted area and maximising returns on the investment. Rather, they symbolise man's domination of his environment, tangible trophies of a world where everything seems possible given self-belief and a ready source of capital. Though a latecomer to the game, Manhattan, with its restricted space and a bedrock of hard mica schist, was the perfect place to achieve immortality by building as high as physics would allow.
F.W. Woolworth was the first businessman to erect a true skyscraper to commemorate himself, and in 1929 Al Smith, a former governor of New York, sought to outreach him. "How many millions might a man be willing to spend to raise his ego a quarter mile high? How much to lay claim to the heart and soul of New York City?" asks Mitchell Pacelle in "Empire", his deadpan account of the still unresolved struggle for control of Smith's creation, the Empire State Building. The drama of ambition, vanity and hubris could be set nowhere but in a city where the drive for status and celebrity seems to override reason. The cast includes Donald Trump, Leona Helmsley and the late Hideki Yokoi, an erratic Japanese tycoon with a family of feuding children. Their bluster, temperamental outbursts, one-line putdowns and endless deviousness, all meticulously recorded by Mr Pacelle, seem to owe more to an overwritten Hollywood screenplay than to life. But in New York of all places no one is surprised by the narrowness of the line between the real and the incredible.
In "Wild Nights" Anne Matthews makes the familiar strange by applying a naturalist's eye to the concrete jungle. She assembles a remarkable cast of local fauna--coyotes, herons, parrots, falcons, racoons, sea turtles and wild turkeys to name a few--which turn out to share their habitat with unsuspecting urbanites. New York must be doing something right to have attracted so many animals, and in such variety. But the environment has its hazards. At the very start, Ms Matthews vividly describes the World Trade Centre's fatal attraction: every morning on the pavement you could find dead or injured birds that had crashed into--or exhausted themselves flying round--the towers. When at the end she turns to the city's human side, she foresees conflict between rich and poor, as well as ecological disaster brought on by greed and stupidity.
Oddly, New York, once you pierce its iconic crust, is perhaps the least suitable place to make a strike against those aspects of American life that the September terrorists affected to despise. Far from being a repository of prejudice and cultural imperialism, it has for two centuries provided a home, a living and a means of expression for millions of immigrants of many nationalities and faiths. The ten academic studies in "New Immigrants in New York" describe how today's new citizens--among them Jews from Russia, Muslims from West Africa, Christians from the Caribbean--have changed the city, and how it has changed them. By 1999, about a third of New Yorkers were born abroad, and the proportion is climbing as longstanding residents continue to move out to the suburbs. The volume's editor, Nancy Foner, foresees a further increase in immigration, especially from Asia and the Caribbean.
Nobody can be strictly held to predictions about New York made before the attacks. Mr Fogelson was optimistic about the future of its downtown area because it is one of the few in America that retain substantial residential as well as commercial districts; but the atrocity might make it a less desirable place to live. Some past predictions have stood up. Mr Fogelson includes a forecast from New York World, drawn in December 1900, of how Manhattan would appear in 1999. It showed a group of skyscrapers which, though differing in detail from what was built, included two massive matching towers approximating to the late World Trade Centre.
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