The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear

The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear

The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear

The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear


In this eye-opening cultural history, Brian Tochterman examines competing narratives that shaped post-World War II New York City. As a sense of crisis rose in American cities during the 1960s and 1970s, a period defined by suburban growth and deindustrialization, no city was viewed as in its death throes more than New York. Feeding this narrative of the dying city was a wide range of representations in film, literature, and the popular press--representations that ironically would not have been produced if not for a city full of productive possibilities as well as challenges. Tochterman reveals how elite culture producers, planners and theorists, and elected officials drew on and perpetuated the fear of death to press for a new urban vision.

It was this narrative of New York as the dying city, Tochterman argues, that contributed to a burgeoning and broad anti-urban political culture hostile to state intervention on behalf of cities and citizens. Ultimately, the author shows that New York's decline--and the decline of American cities in general--was in part a self-fulfilling prophecy bolstered by urban fear and the new political culture nourished by it.


In July 1975, with the threat of bankruptcy looming, the New York Times asked eighteen “urban experts,” mostly prominent economists, social scientists, and theorists, “What should be done to solve New York City’s dilemma?” Since 1969 the city had lost nearly 500,000 jobs, and twice as many middleclass taxpayers had left New York in the decade prior. the city’s woes were indicative of broader trends, as the national economy foundered as a result of geopolitical conflict with countries in Southeast and Middle East Asia, deindustrialization, and the fitful transition to a postindustrial order at home. in this context, New York’s generous social democracy, structured around inclusive unionized public employment and equal access to public services, struggled to survive. in the spring of 1975, as Saigon fell, New York effectively defaulted on its debts, unable to pay its bills and with nary a willing lender.

The state intervened, keeping the city afloat through limited bailouts in the first half of the year and later establishing the Municipal Assistance Corporation to control the city’s finances. in October 1975, New York City would turn to the federal government for additional support, culminating in a public shaming on the part of President Gerald Ford and the infamous, period-defining Daily News headline, ford to CITY: drop dead. Citing New York as the exemplar of problematic management, economist Robert Zevin diagnosed the state of the city in the promptly assembled examination of the calamity, The Fiscal Crisis of American Cities (1977): “New York’s virtual default confirms long apparent trends: a collapsing private economy, a growing and perversely smothering public economy, a city whose populace and government had rapidly decreasing control over its political economy. New York is not quite dead, but death is clearly inevitable.” Such was the prevailing narrative of the city by the 1970s.

The “urban experts” willing to “advise, castigate and console the city on its problems” in the pages of the Times offered a few key prescriptions. But no respondent, not even renowned architect Buckminster Fuller, could articulate a holistic vision of a thriving future metropolis as prophets and planners like Robert Moses had a mere quarter-century earlier. Some . . .

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