Wednesday, December 23, 2009
The Valley of Ashes
For the millions watching from afar, the crumbling, emptying, burning South Bronx becomes a stage of symbolic communication. It communicates because it must, but the message is scrambled and bound to be misunderstood. For the absent middle class who tour the urban maelstrom through newspapers, magazines, and movies, the disintegration of the South Bronx signals that big-city culture has no place in the future America. The city--or so they believe--had only ever been a place to leave.
It would be silly to blame the middle class for the ruination of the South Bronx. Yes, they turned their backs on the city, but the left-behinds would have done the same had they been given the choice. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the collapse of the inner city could have been prevented—could have been, if not for the power of a peculiarly middle-class social vision, which was actuated by governmental policy and the redirection of capital to the suburbs.
As a child of the Bronx, Marshall Berman asks “Why did it go? Did it have to go? Was there anything we could have done to keep it alive?” He concludes that there was not, because the younger people of the Bronx were “possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility.”  Where once it had sustained them, in the postwar years that dream worked against cities everywhere, and was as decisive an influence on the fate of the South Bronx as any quantifiable factor.
In the early twentieth century, New York was a place to escape to, not from. But in the prosperous postwar years, the big-city skyline looked suddenly small against the vast horizons that automobile culture was opening up. The future, people learned, was to be found in greener pastures.
For the young people of the Bronx, a trip to the 1939 New York World's Fair—“The World of Tomorrow” as it was called—was a means of imaginative participation in this new American order. “TIME TEARS ON” was the slogan greeting entrants to the grounds, and indeed, it promised the obliteration of their cramped little world. 
The centerpiece of the fair was a monumental obulusk called the Trylon, connected to a dome the size of a lesser moon, called the Perisphere. From ground level, visitors entered the Trylon and rode up a set of moving stairs called an escalator. Part way up the structure, visitors were deposited onto moving rings that glided into the Perisphere. Inside was an exhibit called “Democracity,” which the Official Guidebook described as the “symbol of a perfectly integrated, futuristic metropolis pulsing with life and rhythm and music.” Artificial stars in the upper half of the dome illuminated a miniature cityscape of white surfaces and smooth, curving forms, in which five pristine suburbs housing a half-million workers circled an austere commercial center. 
In a separate exhibit sponsored by General Motors, the postwar public works of Robert Moses were prophesied. Called “Futurama,” it was a thirty-six thousand square foot model of the auto manufacturer’s ideal America. The year was 1960, and the city had been reinvented as a collection of skyscrapers in the shape of cathode ray tubes, dispersed along spacious lots and criss-crossed with seven lane highways, on which the speed limit was one-hundred miles per hour. Green spaces abounded, and beyond the city limits was a Jeffersonian expanse of farms and meadows. Miraculously, slums and mills had vanished, along with the brick-and-mortar neighborhoods of A.D. 1940. 
The World's Fair popularized a social vision hatched by eccentric engineers and architects. It entranced a new generation of New Yorkers with its Apollonian clarity, and it is the silent actor in this story, the pull factor that can't be quantified.
1. Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 326.
2. See Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture Between the Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), 283.
3. David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meaning of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 371, 367; Thomas P. Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970 (New York: Penguin, 1989), 300-302.
4. Stanley Applebaum,ed., The New York World’s Fair, 1939/1940: In 155 Photographs by Richard Wurtz and Others (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), 20.
Image credit: Found at website "1939 New York World's Fair," (http://www.pmphoto.to/worlds_fair/index.htm) accessed December 23rd, 2009. From the website: "Trylon & Perisphere, courtesy Irene Nelson. Image captured from movie shot by her father Sea Captain Erik Manvall (1902-1987) and transferred to DVD by Johnny Riert (residents of Sweden)."