Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Cut, the Breaks

“Like bebop before it, hip hop's politics was initially a politics of style that created an aural and stylistic community in response to the erosion of community with the postindustrial city.”

Greg Dimitriadis

“The word cut makes me think about roads and highways cutting across the landscape. Flying over major urban areas you see the countryside, and then slowly it becomes more geometric, with roads carved into the land. By the time you get to Manhattan or another center, you see all these geometric stratifications, layers of cuts. The urban planner Robert Moses leveled much of the Bronx to build highway systems. He sliced through what was then different layers of class.  Ghetto communities were much more affected by this road-building project than others were. That influenced how people viewed community, which affected hip hop music.”
Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky [a] 

...job cuts--service cuts--cut heat--cut water...

With little more than a good set of teeth , the beaver can stop a rushing stream, and transform meadow into wetland. But to an outside observer, her constant shuffling of twigs and gnawing of tree trunks, her diving and tail-slapping make for an amusing, though inscrutable performance. The break dancer works the same way on the architectonic body of Moloch, that god who hacked his way through the Bronx with a meat-axe. [1]

The South Bronx contains “the largest concentration of public housing anywhere in the country.” [2] Immense, severe, and artless; inimical to street life and devoid of informal public space, project towers worked to destroy the organic social networks that once contributed to the strength of communities. The projects turned inward from the grid like water beading on a glass surface, and whether purposeful or not, this atomization of space and isolation of the people within it worked steadfastly against political organization at the neighborhood level for years to come.  

The projects decimated the already unstable communities of the South Bronx by zoning against the life of the street and making strangers of neighbors. With joblessness and disinvestment, they helped to create a culture of despair, a “necropolis” where community had to be re-imagined before it could be re-formed. To imagine something else having known nothing else—this was the defining challenge of the post-assassinations generation. And it could not have happened in church basements, NOI mosques, or Black Panther headquarters as before, because the ground of community on which these institutions once seeded had been eroded. Instead, it was the more informal space of block parties and gymnasiums where young people rehearsed new ways of being, both individually and collectively, through the organic art forms of rapping, DJing, graffiti, and break dancing.
With these emergent arts, young people waged a war of symbolic communication against “the various mythological descriptions, both verbal and visual, laid upon them by those with the public power to describe.” [3]  Absent any ideological program, Bronx kids transmuted this experience of displacement into a set of aesthetic practices that were equal to the challenges of a post-apocalyptic world. “The cut,” “the breaks,” “bombing”—the hip hop lexicon echoed the catastrophe that befell the Bronx even as it proclaimed resilience.

Joel Dinerstein suggests that dancing and building represent opposite “poles of modernist engagement.” One faces the ground, and the other “the heavens.” [4] If so, then the emergence of break dancing from neighborhoods dominated by Corbusieran towers was more than incidental. In the projects, that landscape of brutal linearity cut from brick and stone, where the recent past was a growing heap of rubble, the ecstatic spins and thrusts of the dance couldn’t but be oppositional. Breaking is a way of getting down to get up. And at the margins of society, where the crosswinds of progress blow minds and bodies forever down, getting up is a marvelous thing.

Break dancing enacts through the body how the mind must move to hold its integrity against a pervasive madness. Here, there, everywhere—break dance is a multiplex war dance against an invisible enemy.

The cultural milieu of New York's postwar ghettoes is described—in the sense of “to trace the form or outline of,” and thus to contain and control—by the dance.

In the late 1980s, as hip hop's communications war broke out of the neighborhoods, emcees enfolded the creative spirit of the dance. Rap began to mentalize the operations of breaking in both style and content, so that the old practice of aligning rhymed words with the fourth beat gave way to the idea of 'flow,' and words came to be valued for their flexibility of meaning.  The message was no longer the sum of a verse, but a centerpoint weaving through the lines, and New York’s second wave delighted in multivalence and virtuosic wordplay.

This transmutation of breaking into rap corresponded, for better or worse, with the migration of the latter from street to store. Greg Dimitriadis writes that “The closure of rap's narrative structure has come as a parallell phenomenon to the increasing lack of space for live production and congregation.” [5] This adaptation to the fact of mechanical reproducibility also encouraged“work which bears and invites rereadings, which motions to future readings, as well as contemporary ones, [implying] a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language.” [6] The leap from the Furious Five's party raps to Wu-Tang's coded language speaks for itself:

I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies
and hypotheses can't define how I be droppin' these
mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits
tremendous, ultra-violet shine blinds forensics
I inspect you, through the future see millenium
Killa Bees sold fifty gold sixty platinum
Shacklin' the masses with drastic rap tactics
Graphic displays melt the steel like blacksmiths
Black Wu jackets queen Bees ease the guns in
Rumble with patrolmen, tear gas laced the function
Heads by the score take flight incite a war
Chicks hit the floor, diehard fans demand more
Behold the bold soldier, control the globe slowly
Proceeds to blow swingin' swords like Shinobi
Stomp grounds and pound footprints in solid rock
Wu got it locked, performin' live on your hottest block

- Inspectah Deck on “Triumph,” from Wu Tang Clan's Forever

The Cut

“Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it 'the way it really was.' It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger...The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes...[and] Only the historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And the enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” [7]

…breaking time open—breaking laws--breaking the tablets of the law...

Having to work in his old age on a typewriter, Nietzsche switched from essays to aphorisms. Conscious of his technologically occasioned change in style, he declared, “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” Something analogous happened to African-American music with the emergence of hip hop.

With the turntable, and then the sampler, rap realized an oppositional construction of time, and space. It is something closer to the Benjamin’s “messianic time” than the “homogenous, empty time” of modernity. And yet it emerges from modernity and battles dialectically with it, more urgently often than other postmodern arts because rap addresses an endangered 'we.'

Writing about rap usually privileges the lyric, but some of the best verses fall flat on paper. Rap is principally an oral form, and its potential for multivalence requires a specific kind of musical space to be realized, a space defined by participatory consciousness.

Like any ritual music built upon repetition and refrain, the hip hop instrumental tries to effect a receptive state in its listeners by folding space around a cipher. It is something like a magic circle in which the ordinary fabric of space-time is rent, where past moments are available to be mined like jewels from the depths of forgetting and stringed together on a necklace of sound. In this way, the past arises to invigorate, even redeem the present, and vice versa. And when the mix is tight, it seems that the agency lies as much with the raw material as with the artist. As if these “chipped flecks of forgotten soul gold,” no longer bound up within a closed work, begin to seek each other out, and complete each other through the artist's agency. [8] The DJ stacks transparent maps over each other to reveal correspondences across time.

The funk and soul years supply rap with its fractured spiritual center. Fractured because the sixties and early seventies marked the abrupt end of a certain kind of community, an embattled but strong community bound together by a sense of common purpose.

By salvaging the sonic traces of that time and place, rap engaged in what the Hasidim call tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” It provided a so-called lost generation with the cultural artillery to reclaim their parents’ losses. It rescued memory from the depths of forgetting, and put history in service of the living.

Carol Becker; Romi Crawford, Paul D. Miller. “An Interview with Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky—That Subliminal Kid.” Art Journal, Vol. 61, no. 1. (Spring 2002), p. 85.

1. Robert Moses, NYC's Construction Coordinator in the postwar years, was famously quoted as saying, “ “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” See Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, (New York: Vintage, 1975).

2. Jonnes, 118.

3. Martha Rosler in Mel Rosenthal's In the South Bronx of America, (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), 112.

4. Joel Dinerstein, Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African
American Culture between the World Wars (Amherst: Umass, 2003), 17.

5. Greg Dimitriadis, “Hip Hop: From Live Performance to Mediated Narrative,” in Murray Forman and Anthony Neal's That's the Joint!: the Hip-Hop Studies Reader (Routledge, 2004).

6. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993), xiv.

7. Benjamin, “On...History,” Thesis VI.

8. Sampling as “songcraft from chipped flecks of forgotten soul gold.” See Nelson George, “Sample This,” in Forman and Neal's That's the Joint!, 504-9.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Weaver's: A Short Interview with Rammellzee

“We control your icons. We wrote them on your trains those big gigantic rolling pages...”

-Rammellzee, interview, Style Wars 2004 edition.

I first heard of The Rammellzee through my friend Chuck Galli, who interviewed him for a paper titled “Hip-Hop Futurism: Remixing Afrofuturism and the Hermeneutics of Identity.” Chuck directed me to Zee's website, where can be found the cryptic treatise/equation that the artist's name embodies, as well as some sculptural representations of the godheads who, as Zee sees it, fight for the domination of language.

Rammellzee has been active since the late seventies. As a member of that founding generation, he was and remains uniquely sensitive to the power of symbols and signifiers to generate and destroy worlds. Hip hop is a war of symbolic communication, and like a savant or kabbalist, Zee understands alphanumeric units not as pure abstractions, but as souls, and soldiers:

The letters are weapons. Instead of Orson Wells stating that...the books will be burnt. The books will stay there. The letters have left the page. And once it went up the letter had better be ready to fly.

-Rammellzee, Style Wars 2004 edition.

So, here is the interview:

[SC] You seem to have a unique understanding of language and its hidden powers.  And I am curious how you would describe your relationship to language, whether as a sculptor, emcee, whatever...

[RZ] The "Weaver's" have it! ZeeOut.

[SC] The Weaver's!? Who are the Weaver's, Zee?

[RZ] We are...and the others that migrated from the burnt out, bulletins, schools, fuzz,death. ZeeOut.

[SC] That reminds me of a verse I wrote once,

'Learn to weave, and time will bend for you,
it is a different art from drawing lines.'

Hard to put a finger on, but 'weaving' involves a different kind of consciousness than 'delineation,' which is the mode in which man-made environments, texts, works of art are usually built and experienced.  

And the tension between the two, as when an artist weaves over linear surfaces or spaces, as with subway graffiti and certain styles of rap, can be explosive.  What do you think?

[RZ] As like in the Gothics or the webs Futurism. z.

[SC] You know, language has been standardized to an amazing degree in the past few hundred years, thanks to the extension of public education, bureaucracy, communications networks.  But language, if left to its own devices, evolves very quickly, as evidenced by the many 'bastard' dialects that branched off from Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire.  

"Standard English" is basically a closed system.  There are rules of grammar, spelling, even pronunciation...which prevent us from changing it in any lasting way.  But there are some people who the forces of standardization do not reach--the young people of the old South Bronx, for example. And my question is, do you think this apparent disadvantage can sometimes free people to innovate or even restructure language?

[RZ] Due to the fact that in hip-hop or rap music, which are definitely 2 different things. Hip-Hop is for fun, rap is a mug shot for gangsters and war and pimps. Both are always business men or wombed-man. Emotionally it is impossible for the subject as slanguage. For if a white man can act like a black man but has forgotten that letters themselves were once racists by volume and diction. A black man thinks he owns A-Z and this rhythmic culture now noticed by the white man, makes the white man look impotent since Gutenberg's printing press and the Clergy.
White man thinks he has invented something called respect by disavowing the language of our language tree by thinking that the black man regurgitated from white man's indo-european germanic dialects.

[SC] People have probably asked you this before, but what do you think was the role of the five percenters in the development of hip hop culture?  Especially maybe from 1974-79, what you describe as “a war era, where knowledge formed about by itself through the body, in the dark, underground.”

[RZ] There was none. It was about Math and the Mapamatics of the body.

[SC] Where were you during the blackout of 1977?

[RZ] Madison Avenue. Zee OUT.

A Quick Intro

These pages explore the relationship between youth culture and the built environment of the South Bronx of the mid-to-late 1970s.  My initial thesis was that the experience of shock and displacement that characterized life in the poorest sections of the borough also informed the aesthetics of rap, graffiti, and break dancing.  Free from any anxiety of influence, early hip hop was unique among twentieth-century arts movements for its ability to re-present the here-and-now mimetically, ecstatically, and to transcend the banality of ghettoized life thereby.  
As it happens, the here-and-now of the old South Bronx was a dystopia of epic proportions, as well as a kind of allegory for all kinds of modern/postmodern crises both political and personal. “It is as if the Bronx,” writes Marshall Berman, “in the depths of its disintegration, came to symbolize the twentieth-century world.” [1.]  In recognition of this, I also consider what the lower borough’s collapse meant, if anything, to the metropolis and the nation.     
In a few posts, especially "The Spectacle of the Ruins," "The Valley of Ashes" and "Back Story / the Cross-Bronx Expressway," I discuss the postwar history of the borough leading up to the emergence of hip hop. Readers interested to know more might want to start with Jill Jonnes' South Bronx Rising and Evelyn Gonzalez's The Bronx.

[1] Marshall Berman in his introduction to New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, ed. Marshall Berman and Brian Berger (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 19.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thoughts on Wild Style

"In some cases, when a people are freed from their past they are given an opportunity to start anew. Hip-hop, like its African American creators, is born of this newfound independence. It is our generation's opportunity to start from scratch."

- Saul Williams in The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip hop

I saw Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style back-to-back with The Fire Next Door, the documentary noted on a previous post. Both are rich in footage of the old South Bronx, but those environs read very differently from one film to the next.  Fire Next Door documents the arson epidemic and the deadly mix of social/political problems of which fire was the most graphic symptom. The ruins as presented by Moyers call to mind the words scrawled on a project wall in Camilo Vergara's photo essay The New American Ghetto: "Help Me, Motherfucker."  

Those same ruins fill the frames of the proto-hip hop musical Wild Style, but they appear transfigured, charged with a strange power, outside of quotidian time and its imperatives.

Miles of burnt-out buildings and rubble heaps where kids played obliviously, '80 blocks' from midtown glitz--for sure, that was a failure of civilization, a failure specifically of American civilization to uphold its professed values, and people should know about it.

Nonetheless, the kids who actually lived that experience implicitly resisted the victim label that postwar liberalism stamped upon them. This was the constructive flipside of youth's conceit, and it informed the spirit of early hip hop culture.

Grandmaster Caz:

"Look past the garbage, over the trains,
under the ruins, through the remains,
around the crime and pollution,
and tell me, where I fit in,
South Bronx, New York,
that's where I dwell,
and to a lot of people its a living hell,
full of frustration and poverty,
but wait, that's not how it looks to me,
its a challenge, an opportunity,
to rise above the stink and debris,
you gotta start with nothing and then you build..."

- "South Bronx Subway Rap," Wild Style soundtrack

Wild Style condenses that youthful energy like a great poem, and re-presents the South Bronx as an enchanted place, however fraught with danger.  Look past, over, under, through, around...


To parallel the material disinvestment that occurred the South Bronx in the sixties came a disinvestment--for the middle classes at least--of meanings, memories, and the emotional attachments that make buildings more than just brick and mortar.  To outsiders and emigres, the South Bronx became a hieroglyph, a tabula of forms without any certain function, a grid-map of places without names.

The wasteland that remained presented itself as an invitation to creatively-minded kids--to  inscribe new meanings onto the artifacts of a vanished civilization; to re-arrange, re-mix, or break them.  This was the context of hip hop's development, "a challenge, an opportunity" to re-claim the uniquely human power to name, the lack of which normally renders the poor invisible. Seizing this power,  the progenitors of hip hop opened a site of revolutionary possibilities, and created art from within that void at the very center of civilization.

A.O. Scott writes that Wild Style "captures the utopian glimmerings of an era that is generally remembered as the darkest in the modern history of New York."  Indeed, the beauty of the movement that the film represents was its ability not to efface but to deflect that darkness, to relate to it as the mud in which creative genius seeded.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hip Hop: La Musica de Las Ruinas

This essay, which I wrote in late 2007 for a Spanish composition class, was the seedling of the South Bronx research project. The main issue that I am wrestling with now, that is, the dialectic between the arts and the built environment, is introduced here. It's a bit reductionist, but still holds up pretty well...

Hip Hop: La Música de las Ruinas

A veces, la conexión entre la música y el paisaje es inequívoco: la guitarra reggae, con su sonido fresco y aireado, es el corolario natural de las brisas de las islas; las canciones roncas de los cléricos musulmanes, que llenan el espacio, sugieren el desierto vasto. En el hip hop, sin embargo, la marca del ambiente es menos clara. Pues es un género globalizado que ha sido extendido y recreado en casi todas partes. Mientras que algunas artes son inseperables de sus lugares de origen, el hip hop es muy plástico, y se adapta a una variedad de contextos culturales. Quizás es porque el ambiente de donde el rap vino (los barrios neoyorquinos) y la experiencia histórica que lo formó (el deteriorio de esos mismos barrios) reflejan un proceso global.
En Nueva York, durante los los sesentas y setentas, una generación de urbanistas puso sus tijeras en el mapa del barrio como si fueran dioses sastres. Los planes de renovación urbana resultaron en la demolición de barrios enteros, los cuales fueron sustituidos por viviendas públicas feas. Autopistas nuevas cortaron en trozos comunidades viejas. Fue un patrón nacional: entre 1949 y 1973, la renovación urbana destrosó unos 1,600 barrios afroamericanos [1]. Para los setentas, un sonido inédito emergió de estos lugares, el cual reflejó la fragmentación del ambiente urbano, y la monotonía de la vida en las viviendas nuevas. El sentido de choque y paralysis—el estético de interrupción (tan psicológica como geográfica) crearon el género del hip hop como el corolario del ambiente.
Paul D. Miller, autor y artista de música electrónica, introdujo la noción del “corte” como manera de entender la cultura global, y el hip hop en particular:

“La palabra “corte” me hace pensar sobre las carreteras y autopistas que cortan a través del paisaje. Cuando se va en avión sobre las areas urbanas principales, se ve el campo, y entonces, poco a poco se hace mas geométrico, con calles talladas en la tierra. Cuando se llega al Manhattan o otro centro, se ve muchos estratos geométricos, capas de cortes. El urbanista Robert Moses arrasó con mucho del Bronx para construir sistemas de autopistas. Cortó a través de lo que eran, antes, estratos diferentes de clases. Guetos fueron mucho más afectados por este proyecto de carreteras que otras comunidades. Eso influyó como la gente miraba a la comunidad, lo cual afectó a la música hip hop” [2].

Es decir, la fragmentación del espacio físico informó el sonido del hip hop—la repetición de la batería, las melodías simples y crudas, y el elemento de choque—todos son los productos orgánicos de un ambiente gastado.
Además, ese ambiente no es único. En el 2007, por la primera vez, la mayoría de la población del mundo vivirá en ciudades; y la mayoría de esas ciudades son como los barrios descuidados de Nueva York [3]. Por eso, no es sorpresa que la banda que toca mientras el mundo entero baila hacía el borde del abismo, toca hip hop.

1. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It. One World/Ballantine Books, June 2004.

2. Carol Becker; Romi Crawford, Paul D. Miller. “An Interview with Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky—That Subliminal Kid.” Art Journal, Vol. 61, no. 1. (Spring 2002), p. 85. El texto original: “The word cut makes me think about roads and highways cutting across the landscape. Flying over major urban areas you see the countryside, and then slowly it becomes more geometric, with roads carved into the land. By the time you get to Manhattan or another center, you see all these geometric stratifications, layers of cuts. The urban planner Robert Moses leveled much of the Bronx to build highway systems. He sliced through what was then different layers of class. Ghetto communities were much more affected by this road-building project than others were. That influenced how people viewed community, which affected hip hop music.”

3. United Nations Population Fund. “Urbanization: A Majority in Cities.” Website: (Accessed November 2006).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Back Story / The Cross-Bronx Expressway

The South Bronx showed signs of distress from the thirties onwards: disinvestment, the loss of industry, ethnic tensions, and an absence of owner-occupied housing each exerted an adverse influence. With the forties and fifties came the clustering of low-income, racially segregated housing in already fading neighborhoods; the precipitous influx of poor Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans, a heroin epidemic, an increase in gang violence, and the proliferation of cheap suburban houses to speed the departure of the white middle class. And as Marshall Berman argues, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway from 1948 to 1963 turned problems into pathologies, to all but seal the fate of the area.
What became the South Bronx after the war was a series of boom neighborhoods before it: Mott Haven, Melrose, Morrisania, and Hunts Point-Crotona Park East had all been swallowed by the grid by the 1920s, and welcomed upwardly mobile Jews escaping the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. [1] But as fast as the district swelled, its middle class residents found incentives to move on, including new transit lines that tied the city to areas farther north in the 1920s, and the simultaneous shift of Bronx civic and cultural life westward to the lower Grand Concourse.
Those of means began to move, while working-class families stayed behind, to be joined by a culturally distinct and generally poorer wave of Puerto Ricans and African Americans whose numbers steadily rose throughout the forties. [2]
Buildings languished as capital shifted to the suburbs. The few new structures built in the 1930s, including a community health center and a sewage treatment plant, did little to enhance neighborhood prestige. And by 1940, local banks and federal lenders alike had redlined the entire South Bronx, which came to be known as the poorest, oldest, and least fashionable section of the borough. Sixty-six percent of relief cases were concentrated there, and the Bronx Board of Trade recommended the area for three of four proposed low-rent public housing projects, thus cementing its reputation as a new slum. [3]
“By the 1940’s,” Evelyn Gonzalez concludes, “the South Bronx no longer met middle class expectations.” People aspired to own their homes, but in the South Bronx, rental apartments comprised ninety percent of all dwellings, and wartime rent controls (which remained in place for decades after) dissuaded tenants from becoming landlords. Instead of anchoring families, therefore, the neighborhoods seemed designed to promote transiency. [4]
Directly north of Morrisania, the East Tremont neighborhood marked the informal boundary line between slums and not-slums. With corroding pipes and few elevators, its housing was not the best in the city, but for the quality of its schools, parks, and recreation centers; the neighborhood “had held” in the forties against the forces at work to its west and south, and this in spite of having rents as low as the Lower East Side or Harlem. While the southern neighborhoods experienced a steady population transfer in the 1940s, trading Jews for African Americans and Puerto Ricans, East Tremont diversified, retaining much of its existing population while absorbing newcomers slowly and, as some argue, successfully. In Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), Cele Cohen, a former resident of East Tremont recalls, “We used to have negro children over for dinner, and they used to have my daughter over. To tell the truth, we didn’t think that way—you know, the way it is now—then.” [5]
Whether all white residents were as gracious is doubtful, but through interviews with former residents, Robert Caro makes a strong case that “the neighborhood was holding just fine,” and in fact provided a crucial service to the city as an “urban staging area,” where migrants new to city life could transition within the framework of a stable, ethnically diverse community. [6] Contrast this to the high-rise public housing built after the war, which served to informally segregate the poorest New Yorkers from the city’s civic and cultural life. “If the city was going to endure,” Caro argues, neighborhoods like East Tremont were going to have to endure. And if left alone, this neighborhood would.” [7]
Sadly, we will never know, for a destructive force not rivaled by any to come before it was due to arrive, or rather fall on top of, East Tremont in 1948: the Cross-Bronx Expressway. And whereas the neighborhood’s pre-exisitng troubles were the fault of no one and everyone at once—brought on by cultural and racial attitudes, disinvestment, and age—the proposal to dig a six-lane wide, seven-mile long ditch through the heart of the borough was a deliberate plan “made finally on all levels of government, to sacrifice the poor and middle class, the communities in change as well as the stable communities of the mid-Bronx, to the arrogant dreams of engineers, politicians, and real estate developers.” [8]
The mastermind behind the Cross-Bronx was City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses, who conceived of it as a way to remove through traffic from the city's narrow and congested streets by connecting the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in the east with the George Washington Bridge over the Harlem River in the west. To do so, the expressway would need to burrow through miles of high-density streets, sewers, water and utility mains “numbering in the hundreds,” a subway line, three railroads, and five elevated transit lines. [9] But as ambitious, as Faustian, as the expressway plan may have been, it was only one of several cross-city super-roads on Moses' drafting table in the mid-forties which, all told, would graft “more than a hundred miles” of asphalt onto the urban grid. Moses biographer Robert Caro helps to put the scope of the thing in perspective: “...lump together all the superhighways in existence in the all the cities on earth in 1945, and their mileage would not add up to as many miles as Robert Moses was planning to build in one city.” [10]
Moses first publicized the plan in the February-March 1944 edition of Bronxboro, the magazine of the Bronx Board of Trade. A year later, in the same paper, he proclaimed that “its effects on the borough will be enormous, and few people outside the public officials involved can visualize the future which these and other postwar improvements will usher in.” [11]
But in Bronx neighborhoods where few families owned cars, where subways, buses, and leg muscles “defined the flow of [people's] lives,” the future must have felt like a steamroller crushing heads. Gotham's Dr. Faust understood as much, and even delighted in the dramatic spectacle of worlds collapsing. “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” he would later say, “you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” [12]
When a route was chosen in 1944, a route through blocks of solid apartment buildings, the expressway plan was met with vocal resistance in the neighborhoods that lined its future path. Over thirty civic, religious, and veterans' organizations united to form the “Cross-Bronx Citizens' Protective Association” in early 1946, and rallied around the issue of New York's housing shortage, which land clearance for the road would only exacerbate. [13] “Instead of homes,” the group argued, “our public officials are cramming highways down the throats of our veterans.” [14]
In East Tremont, the first eviction notices arrived in December, 1952. With “no funding in sight,” and no legal powers of enforcement, Moses ordered tenants to vacate within ninety days, “to shake'em up a little and get'em moving,” as one staffer recalls. And with county, city, state, and federal officials all in bed with Moses, most residents felt that they had no recourse. Most began to move. A steady stream of eviction notices masquerading as court orders helped to expedite the process, so that by 1955, all the buildings to which the city had taken title stood empty. [15]
Staffed by friends of Moses, the city's Real Estate Bureau was appointed to relocate tenants “in an orderly manner,”but did virtually nothing save to scare its charges away with the issue of imperious letters and the withdrawal of services. When 159 East Tremont buildings were transferred to the city in January 1954, heat and hot water were “almost simultaneously” cut off. Trash accumulated, “halls got dirty,”and empty units were left unguarded. By night, vandals, vagrants, and addicts took over, leaving scratch marks on the doors of remaining tenants. By day, demolition crews performed rough surgery on half-empty buildings. In Caro's The Power Broker, resident Lillian Edelstein remembers that “as soon as the top floor of a building was empty, they'd start tearing the roof and the top stories, even. While people were still living in it, they were tearing it down around their heads!.” [16]
Since the war, many Bronx families had been kept in place by the city's rent-stabilization law, and the only apartments at costs comparable to their own were to be found in the crumbling streets of poverty-stricken Harlem. Unwilling to “move down,” but priced out of the suburbs, the least affluent simply moved “from one condemned building to another” along the route of the coming expressway, enduring a chronic and deliberate lack of services, and getting slapped with rent hikes from landlords trying to recoup their losses. [17]
Five years lapsed between the last evictions and the completion of the East Tremont section of the Cross-Bronx (896), five years during which the neighborhood was rocked by dynamite blasting and shrouded in rock dust. On Southern Boulevard and Marmion, stores were cordoned off and deprived of customers. As Marshall Berman recalls, the Bathgate Avenue open market, “still flourishing in the late 1950s, was decimated; a year after the road came through, what was left went up in smoke.” Walls and ceilings cracked in buildings full of people, while “unsealed vacant stores and disemboweled buildings adrift in rubbish and broken glass became play spots for local children.” [18]
When a road is cut through the Amazon, the sudden infusion of harsh, unmitigated sunlight begins to kill the surrounding vegetation, and the devastation spreads deep into the ecosystem. A comparable thing happened in the Bronx when the blight of buildings abandoned along the Cross-Bronx invited crime, vagrancy, ruination, and then further abandonment in the streets beyond. In East Tremont, the 3,000 people living right up against the road moved first, to be followed by the other 7,000 who were their neighbors, and so on. A border vacuum if ever there was one, the highway “turned potential long-range entropy into a sudden inexorable catastrophe.” [19]
Catastrophe—”It was a catastrophe for the people up here,” recalled Bronxite historian John McNamara. Indeed, though many of the South Bronx's longtime residents defied postwar trends and stayed put, the incidental effect of the Cross-Bronx Expressway was to send the holdouts running for the hills, and only the oldest and poorest resigned to being “engulfed by the pursuing slum.” [20]

1. Evelyn Gonzalez, The Bronx (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004), 94; Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York, Vintage Books, 1975), 851.

2. The city’s African American population was 450,000 before the war, 800,000 after. Sixty percent joined the relief rolls during the Great Depression. See Jill Jones, South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2002), 98; Gonzalez, 97.

3. Gonzalez, Bronx, 106, 149, 102; The spots the Board of Trade recommended were “ between the factory district and 138th Street in Mott Haven; from 165th Street to Tremont Avenue in Morrisania and Claremont; and nearby the Longwood Avenue, Kelly, and Fox streets juncture in Hunts Pont.” See Gonzalez, 107.

4. Ibid., 109, 97, 109; Jonnes, 103.

5. Caro, Power Broker, 851, 857, 856, 857.

6. Ibid., 857.

7. Ibid., 859.

8. Grace Paley, introduction to In the South Bronx of America, Mel Rosenthal (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), 11. Paley, born in 1922, grew up in the South Bronx.

9. Jonnes, Bronx Rising, 120-121.

10. Caro, 839.

11. Bronxboro, 2-3, 1945. Found in Jonnes, 119-120.

12. Caro, 849.

13. According to Caro, the city's postwar vacancy rate was “a habitual 1 percent.” P. 855.

14. Jonnes, 121.

15. Caro, 862, 882; Jonnes, 122.

16. Caro, 880-81; Jones 122; Caro, 860-61; Gonzalez, 116; Caro, 882.

17. Ibid., 861.

18. Ibid., 896, 877,887; Jonnes, 123; Berman, 293; Jonnes, 123.

19. Berman, All That is Solid.

20. Matt Sedensky, “Bronx Up Close: Decades Later, Doing the Cross-Bronx Expressway Right,” New York Times, 7 October, 2001, p.728; Gonzalez, 147.

Image credit: I took that picture in Fall 2009. You can do what you want with it.

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.” [1] 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. [2]
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. [3]
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. [4]
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," ( 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)."