New York, New York!

Urban Spaces, Dreamscapes, Contested Territories

by Sabine Sielke (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 233 Pages
Series: Transcription, Volume 8


Once a center of transatlantic cultural exchange and the avant-garde arts, New York City has transformed into a global metropolis. This book traces a shift that took shape as cultural practices and media underwent dramatic changes: it takes us from modernist visions of urban sublimity to postmodernist cityscapes; from Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge to the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds; from Mina Loy’s poetics to Klaus Nomi’s transgressive musical performances and Jem Cohen’s multimedia experiments; from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and the Magnum Photos portfolio to post-9/11 cinema and the photo blogs of the internet age. As we visit these urban spaces and dreamscapes, we enter territories that remain contested, dynamic locales in a city that keeps unfolding its transformative force.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editor
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • “New York, New York!”: Introduction
  • Envisioning Metropolis: New York as Seen, Imaged, and Imagined
  • “New York Israel” and the Poetry of Mina Loy
  • The Menace of the New: Mourning “The World of Tomorrow” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair
  • Walkers in the City: Literature, Film, and the Figure of the Flâneur in New York City
  • Magnum’s New York
  • New York, New Hollywood, Trauma: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver Revisited
  • Alien Voice Transformations: Klaus Nomi’s Appearance on the Scene of New York’s Subculture
  • Fresh Wounds, Old Heroes: 9/11 in American Cinema
  • Remediating the Capital of Photography: New York Daily Photo Blogs
  • New York – Global City?
  • Beautiful Catastrophe: A New York City Bibliography
  • Contributors
  • Series Index


“New York, New York!”: Introduction

Borrowing its headline from Frank Sinatra’s notorious song, New York, New York! Urban Spaces, Dreamscapes, Contested Territories wants to take you for a ride. This book invites you on a tour that explores a multi-dimensional cityscape as much as a media ecology in rapid transformation. In adapting the theme song “New York, New York” from Martin Scorsese’s 1977 movie of the same title, written for and first performed by Liza Minelli, we at the same time acknowledge entering a terrain that has been projected as paradoxical: The “city that doesn’t sleep” appears as both dreamscape and ultimate challenge. In New York “these little town blues are melting away” and everything seems possible for everyone: “if I can make it there,” runs the well-travelled line, “I’m gonna make it anywhere.”1

The conditional “if” grants that with all its openness and ‘colorful’ diversity New York City has always been a highly divisive terrain, projected in the American cultural imaginary as Promised Land and “city upon a hill” (cf. Dallmann 133) and as Sodom and Gomorrah. Put in terms of music, New York City is both Sinatra’s testing ground and “a jungle sometimes,” as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five insistently rapped in their 1982 tune “The Message,” a place that makes you “wonder” how you “keep from going under.” This very divisiveness, built into the nation’s very foundation and taking different shapes and forms at different times, has also been seen as the motor that keeps the city running – as a geopolitical locale, as an imaginary community, and, as I suggested elsewhere (Sielke 61-62), as a pars pro toto for the self-conception of ‘America’ at large, albeit a constantly changing one. New York City has undergone various transformations while always unfolding and reshaping its own transformative force. In the process, the city mutated from a Dutch settlement into a center of transatlantic cultural exchange – as both the entry port for European immigrants and a metropolis of avant-garde arts – into a global city with world-wide economic impact. To someone walking the city, though, as Heinz Ickstadt points out in his contribution to this volume, “experienced present and narrated or imaged past merge,” and the history of the city is not revealed “in chronological sequence but in spatial synchronicity” (17). ← 9 | 10 →

From our current viewpoint, the city of both Sinatra and Grandmaster Flash has already become a nostalgic memory of a time pre-Ed Koch and long gone by. Taking on his post as mayor of a “deindustrialized” New York in 1978 – when the city, as Jonathan Soffer puts it, “was filthy, dangerous, and nearly bankrupt” and “look[ed] like a war zone” (7, 1) – Koch is infamous for New York’s “precarious revival” (3) and clean-up, and for a law-and-order platform that Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle, the hero of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 movie Taxi Driver, would have applauded with a grin – it would have saved Bickle from having to take on the job all by himself. Koch devised a “formula for urban recovery, built on racial privilege, business confidence, and gentrification” (Soffer 8) – a formula that set the stage for decades to come.

As a result, New York City is a tourist mecca nowadays and a wonderfully safe destination for holiday weekends with the whole family as well as for student field trips. Hip-hop tours through the Bronx have become regular tourist fair – ours was the # 1 student attraction during a week-long sojourn in the city in March 2010. Many of the city’s ads promote its multiethnic make-up while websites such as “City of Memory” remediate a multicultural communal New York via digital technology: as palimpsest of different heritages, accessible in a mode of simultaneity. Concurrently, the “elevation of cultural consumption” has indeed “turn[ed] the metropolis into a museum of its own culture” (341), a development that was still no more than a threat for Thomas Bender in his 1987 study New York Intellect.

Due to the city’s long, complex historical trajectory, images of and writing on New York City abound, as is made plain evident by our New York bibliography at the end of this book, compiled by Björn Bosserhoff and certainly not meant to be comprehensive. Why then yet another book on this overexposed metropolis? There are at least two answers to this question. The first concerns the particular focus of this book which traces a shift of our sense of New York that has taken shape as cultural practices and media themselves underwent dramatic changes. The essays collected here take us from modernist visions of urban sublimity to postmodernist cityscapes; from Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge to the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds; from Mina Loy’s poetics to Klaus Nomi’s transgressive musical performances and Jem Cohen’s multimedia experiments; from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and the Magnum Photos portfolio to post-9/11 cinema and the photo blogs of the internet age. As we visit these dynamic locales, we enter territories that remain contested and mutable in part because they are being remembered, envisioned, and foreseen by way of an ever-shifting media ecology.

The second answer to the question ‘why this book?’ foregrounds matters of perspective in yet another way. For New York, New York! not only maps mediations and remediations of a space that is at the same time geopolitical and local, material and imaginary. The essays collected here also trace a long-standing and ← 10 | 11 → intense transatlantic cooperation between scholars and students of North American Studies. In fact, this book has evolved from a series of projects initiated and organized by the North American Studies Program at the University of Bonn over a considerable period of time. New York City became a particular focus of our research with the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermaths. From this context, various publications evolved.2

Some of the contributions to this collection go back directly to a lecture series which was part of the 2004 Biennale Bonn and co-organized with the city of Bonn and its theater. One got primed by a seminar for bachelor students whose grand finale was a one-week field trip to New York, undertaken by a small group of colleagues in our program with 30 bachelor students in March 2010. While individual students eventually returned to New York City to stay (and are in fact “making it there”), others, like Nico Völker, have capitalized on New York cultures in their graduate and post-graduate research and participate in this publication project. And in part because this collection results from an intense and long-lasting collaboration, its ten contributions weave an interconnected network with nodes around locales, texts and films, images and concepts that individual authors reengage in kaleidoscopic fashion.

In his essay “Envisioning Metropolis: New York as Seen, Imaged, and Imagined,” Heinz Ickstadt starts off this book’s journey by “mapping New York’s literary neighborhoods,” areas through which we can walk as if strolling “through chapters of cultural history” (17). Yet telling the “literary history of New York as a history of urban regionalism,” Ickstadt underlines, means telling only “half the story.” Instead, as his readings convincingly show, it is the literature and art of an “urban sublime” that reaches out “to grasp New York as a whole, the city’s essence: its energy and latent spiritual form” (22). Ickstadt traces variations of this sublimity, the specter of an America “still in the making” (28; the expression is Alfred Stieglitz’s) and “its eventual collapse” (30), from Crane and John Dos Passos to the “abstract geographies” of postmodern fiction (38) and the “new fictional space[s] of a metropolitan in-between” (36). Post-9/11, some of these texts revitalize the “transcendent dynamic city of the modernists” (34) from an ironic distance. Both the complexity and the wide-angled scope of this argument make Heinz Ickstadt’s essay a multi-dimensional ← 11 | 12 → point of entry which several contributions return to from their own particular perspective.

Cristanne Miller’s essay “‘New York Israel’ and the Poetry of Mina Loy” intervenes into the ongoing debate on how matters of race and ethnicity have impacted on both modernist cultural practice and our shifting conceptions of modernism. Miller’s focus on Jewish immigrant writers in New York City challenges the dominant revisionist view that has privileged African-American modernity. Highlighting the significance of a cosmopolitan ethnic modernism of the “new Jew” (49), Miller makes an argument to which “location is key”: “the particular circumstances of the Lower East Side in New York in the 1910s,” Miller holds, “give rise to particularly strong associations of the ‘modern’ with immigrant Jewishness” (50). While scholarship has been preoccupied with contemporaneous anti-Semitic sentiments, Miller reevaluates the multiple affiliations and ties Jewish writers, artists, and editors developed with each other and with their New York contemporaries. Capitalizing on the work of Mina Loy, her essay outlines how the “inflections of Eastern and Southern Europe” stimulated the creative innovations of an evolving new poetry (54), how an African-American idiom left its imprint on modernist writing by Jews, and how, in turn, such hybrid tonality has encouraged other modernists to make similar moves.

Evidently, modernist poetry made in New York City is a medium of aesthetic innovation as much as a mode of memory for complex processes of marginalization and “mongrelism,” to use a term that was common at the time (see Miller 53 ff.). This ambivalent tonality of the newness and “nowness” characteristic of New York City is central to Sarah Wasserman’s reflections on “The Menace of the New: Mourning ‘The World of Tomorrow’ at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.” Tracing what the author calls “the singular blend of optimism and melancholy, inspired by the 1939 New York World’s Fair” and revisited in E. L. Doctorow’s 1985 novel World’s Fair and its preoccupation with the ephemeral, this essay exemplifies how the sustainable sense of New York City “as a locus of all that is new and promising” builds, at a moment between Great Depression and Second World War, on an unsustainable “mirage made material” (76). In this way, Wasserman’s analysis of how the 1939 Fair staged a utopian future “mourned at the very moment of its emergence” (65) exposes the amount of nostalgic longing and grief that inhabit imagined futures that never come to be.

Heinz Ickstadt’s argument highlights the degree to which experiencing New York City is a process of vision and envisioning as well as of walking, covering ground, and mapping. Zooming in on the figure of the flâneur, Anthony Kinik picks up on these reflections on vision and walking to revisit New York’s streets, however, by way of a term closely associated with modern bourgeois culture and European urbanity. Tracing the history of the concept from its emergence in the early nineteenth century to Walter Benjamin’s “palimpsestic” figure and its surrealist versions, Kinik shows how closely flâneurie has been tied to ← 12 | 13 → emerging technologies of photography and film. Moving from Paris and Berlin to New York, the author follows the city stroller in American peripatetic literature from Walt Whitman and Alfred Kazin to Philip Lopate and the films of Jem Cohen. Central to what Kinik calls the “Brooklyn School” of flâneurie and the “flâneur aesthetic” in literature, photography, and film is a view from directions which capture a New York City that has yet been “unseen” (94).

Steven Hoelscher’s contribution “Magnum’s New York” explores yet another paradox in our perception of New York City: Despite its iconic visual quality and predominant status within the history of photography, the multi-dimensional scope of the city remains hard to picture (103). The author makes the argument that “by approaching it repeatedly and from numerous angles, some photographers have been particularly successful at visualizing New York’s multiple realities” (103). Among these influential ways of photographing the city belong, as Hoelscher argues, the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Magnum Photos, the cooperative that Cartier-Bresson helped to found: Combining photojournalism with politics and art, this work projects New York City with “all its rough edges and as a place deeply felt” (106). The analog photographs of Bruce Davidson, Chien-Chi Chang, and Thomas Hoepker, Hoelscher shows, operate with a both critical and empathic engagement that has made Magnum photography stand out even as our increasingly complex media ecologies transform rapidly.

My own essay “New York, New Hollywood, Trauma: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver Revisited” interrogates the work of a filmmaker who envisions New York City as deeply enmeshed with the rest of America – and the world – by way of media history. I reenter this space from two directions: first, by way of the concept of trauma which has transformed our cinematic memory of a New Hollywood classic that downplays its protagonist’s (and America’s) experience of the Vietnam War. Second, I reengage Scorsese’s iconic film as both profoundly embedded in the urban landscapes and ethnic communities of New York City and informed by a hybrid aesthetics that pays tribute to American noir, the classic Western, and European auteur cinema. Exploring how trauma has turned into a figure of revision and how film and trauma relate, I argue that Taxi Driver hints at trauma with its hallucinatory aesthetics: Transforming into film syntax the operations by which trauma supposedly works, including flashbacks, nightmares, and other serial phenomena, the film enacts “traumatic” dimensions of US-American history and acknowledges that engaging trauma engages us, repeatedly, in failed reading acts.

The contribution of musicologist and media studies scholar Bettina Schlüter takes our attention from vision to voice and maps another dimension of a metropolitan environment that “systematically” produces “new phenomena,” “sudden appearances and […] equally sudden disappearances” (149). Schlüter’s essay “Alien Voice Transformations: Klaus Nomi’s Appearance on the Scene of New York’s Subculture” discusses Nomi as a phenomenon that exemplifies a ← 13 | 14 → potential for “innovation and publicity […] so deeply rooted in the culture of New York […] that deviations from established norms themselves quickly become established and institutionalized” (149). Accordingly, as Schlüter convincingly argues, Nomi’s vocal performances unfold a soundscape “structurally linked” to the city (148), forming an “aesthetic corollary” of late 1970s and 80s New York subculture (157). Eclectic, postmodernist, and often pompous, Nomi’s musical remixes and androgynous stage impersonations transpose the city’s social and ethnic diversity onto the scene of multiply converging cultural margins and blur established genre and gender boundaries long before queerness got appropriated into the mainstream.

While there is certainly no agreement in the assessment of the events of September 11, 2001, and their global impact to be had, we may agree that 9/11 has considerably changed our perception of New York City and reframed the very pictures forming in our minds when we hear those three words. Responsible for this process of superimposition are both the loop of iconic images, projecting and circulating the view of the burning towers globally from September 11 onward, and the pictures produced, at least in part, as reverberations of these images and their complex aftermath.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
Globalisierung Globalization New York City in der Literatur New York City in der Malerei New York City in der Fotografie New York City im Film New York City im World Wide Web
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 233 pp., 5 coloured fig., 63 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Sabine Sielke (Volume editor)

Sabine Sielke is Chair of North American Literature and Culture and Director of the North American Studies Program and the German-Canadian Centre at the University of Bonn. Her research ranges from US-American poetry and poetics to the crossroads between cultural studies and the sciences.


Title: New York, New York!
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236 pages