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A Work in Progress

Thomas Bender
The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea
The New Press, 2002

Because one of our Founding Theorists called New York City “a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature,” any discussion of the nature of cities should begin with the enemies of the metropolitan. Thomas Bender doesn’t quote this particular nasty comment from Thomas Jefferson, but he does cite several others; and he also serves up a range of similar disses from Winthrop, Franklin, and Tocqueville. The American animus towards the metropolis is indeed fundamental. Jefferson’s vision of the yeoman farmer, plow in one hand, Locke in the other, as the quintessence of American democracy left little room for city slickers. New York, that hurly-burly port whose streets were mired with shit, loose pigs, prostitutes, and foreigners (by 1640, 18 different languages were spoken here), clearly didn’t fit into the grand Jeffersonian plan.

And it still doesn’t, the rush of goodwill following September 11th notwithstanding. As a metropolis, New York City, the city of immigrants, Mammon, and “creative destruction,” is more than just a part of America. Fundamentalists loathe it either for its godlessness, or for its receptivity to other gods (think Sodom, Babylon, Rome). Entirely too large and heterogeneously anarchic to morally police, the metropolis is beyond the flame of the witchburners. Little wonder outcasts, freethinkers, and homosexuals flock here.

The anti-Semite’s “rootless cosmopolitan” is most at home in the metropolis. The racist’s worst nightmare comes true here, as red, yellow, brown, black and all the tones of pale mingle and mate. The reactionary tied to what is “natural” hates the metropolis for its constant mutability, for the old being swallowed by the new. The lines between slave and freeman, servant and master, native-born and immigrant, blur and overlap: the bastard becomes a dandy; the son of a peasant becomes bishop or mayor; the well-born woman shunned by her own ends up a seamstress. Even more mythically, chickenhawk Horatio Alger gets chased out of Boston and comes here to turn the bootstrapping lad into the great American success story.

More bureaucratic, and even more insidious, were the planners, politicians, and corporations who channeled the post-WWII white middle class to suburbs with massive housing subsidies, the destruction of public transportation, and the national highway system that built the suburbs. Robert Moses and his ilk surely had it in for the metropolitan.

And what about those devious motherfuckers piloting jets into the World Trade Center? It goes without saying that although the metropolis is by its nature a perfect place to hide, it is also the anti-modernist’s antithesis. All fundamentalists fear the promiscuity that is the basis of metropolitanism. And this promiscuity is far more than sexual. It is economic, cultural, geographical, and political. It is the unrestricted exchange of humanity, our values, ideas, dreams, money, and, yes, certainly, of our bodies as well.

What, then, is the metropolitan? It is highly differentiated, multi-centered and regional, but with ambiguous boundaries, and hugely influential far beyond its geographic spread; it is neither city nor nation, but something in-between and yet something larger than both because of its worldliness; and, incorporating the great range of the world, it includes all the troubles of the world, condensed, such as growing inequalities, NIMBY turf wars, and community isolation. Above all, though, it is a public space, one fiercely contested yet full of the give and take of democracy. At least that’s how it should be.

Thomas Bender nowhere defines the “metropolitan idea” in a succinct, quotable sentence or two because his whole book is a definition by example. A handsomely designed collection of essays, the book is multidisciplinary in vision, taking the root of the word essay, which means “to try,” seriously. No one can cover the entire city, and even writing about individual boroughs are a life’s work, but Bender gives it the old college try. A professor of history and the humanities at New York University, Bender has taught and lived here for nearly thirty years. The Unfinished City has a valedictory flavor, the fruit of many years of reflection and experience. It is celebratory and even optimistic, things sometimes in limited supply amidst the cynicism and overweening irony of the present era. Most of the pieces read like lectures, moving from the abstract to the concrete with an ease that belies their good-writing-is-good-thinking formula. Evidently, the author has rejected the academic trends towards obscurantism, theorization, and argot. Let’s hope that the institutional reason for this is because, for all of its controversial expansion in the Village, NYU is still very much of the metropolis, where intercourse is key.

Writing about art, representation, modernity, innovation, globalization, citizenship, intellectuals, universities, urban politics, and public culture, to name some of his subjects, Bender ranges far and wide. His piece on skyscrapers and the skyline reveals the horizontal orientation of New Yorkers well into the late nineteenth century. The vertical is something relatively new, but it’s so standard now we think everybody has always thought of Manhattan as an up-down and north-south place. But the 1811 street grid was specifically designed on the east-west axis to get people to the formerly important riverfronts, and the earliest skyscrapers were discussed and even pictured in terms of their length and bulk, not their height.

In a couple of essays, Bender draws parallels between our own time and the 1890s, when robber barons rode the juggernaut of unrestricted capital and the metropolis was under assault. “They were intensely aware of the dramatic revolution in technologies of communication,” he says of those who lived through the earlier era, noting:

The movement of capital was global, as was the movement of people. And anyone who could travel would witness the internationalization of western urban culture, from principles of urban design, to architecture, and to the manifestations of commercial culture— the same domains in which cultural globalizations reveals itself most powerfully today.

Then, as now, the metropolis provides a counter-example, the place where the public can come together to be “the most emphatic protest of local interests against the organization of society without reference to place,” as political scientist Delos F. Wilcox put it in 1906. But of course, unless we struggle for the right to this protest, we won’t achieve anything. Wilcox’s early version of “think globally, act locally,” reminds us that the struggle against neo-liberalism is far from sui generis.

The central notion of Bender’s book is that New York is always unfinished. On a physical level, the place has continuously been destroyed and rebuilt. Fires in the 18th and 19th centuries burned down large proportions of Manhattan. One Liberty Plaza, damaged in the September 11th attack, rises above the site of the old Singer Tower, which was until last year the largest skyscraper (47 stories/612 feet) ever demolished. And of course, Old Penn Station was sent to the knackers’ yard in the Meadowlands. The next new Penn Station, however, promises to replace the current bowel of a complex that blights the underground under Madison Square Garden. But this unfinishedness is far more than architectural. Unlike many cities of Europe, New York isn’t frozen in place or in our minds. It’s not a sinking Venice or a timeless Paris. Thankfully, it’s also neither Disneyland (except for Times Square), Ye Olde Colonial Williamsburg, mall, cul-de-sacked suburb, nor nightmarish edge city like the behemoths rising on the western side of the Hudson across from lower Manhattan. This continuity of process has much in it to condemn, like the demolition of history, but it also offers much to praise. For if it is still un-done, then there is hope that it can be put together.

The continuous revision of the NYC is, in Bender’s felicitous comparison, like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The first edition of 1855 was slim, but over time it expanded into the sprawling deathbed edition, overflowing with the poet’s huge appetite for all that the enemies of metropolitan despise. In some sense, all American poets since Whitman have been adding to Leaves of Grass. And now we metropolitans are all poets, adding, editing, re-imaging the parts and the whole, not wanting to complete New York because it yet lives. Except for the introduction, all of these essays were written before September 11th. But because the author has such a good sense of the city, Bender’s work today reads as an essential exploration and defense (as in “a good offense”) of our New York. He reminds us why we live here.

Matthew Wills lives in Park Slope. His book reviews have appeared in American Book Review, In These Times, and You can find out about his tours of Prospect Park at


Matthew Wills

Wills is a contributing writer and reporter for the Brooklyn Rail.


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