Emerging from the Ruins

Emerging from the Ruins

I’m going to focus on a distinctive landscape of ruins, an amazing, dreadful landscape that came to define the South Bronx, and for many people to define New York, for the last decades of the twentieth century. Those ruins were one of New York’s great negatives. I want to try to do what Hegel says: look the negative in the face.

The Cross Bronx Expressway, 1970 (Dan McCoy/Environmental Protection Agency via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: This is adapted from Marshall Berman’s last public lecture, delivered at the City College of New York on May 2, 2013. Marshall died on September 11, 2013.

Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.

Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

My city of ruins
My city of ruins
Come on rise up! Come on rise up!

Bruce Springsteen, from The Rising (2002)

I would like to begin with a little time travel: first, back to the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s—and particularly the South Bronx of the 1970s; then, back to the Bible, back to the sixth century BCE, back to the first destruction of Jerusalem, and the start of its renewal; then a final leap into a twenty-first-century Manhattan that is full of echoes of both. I’m not going to talk now about the horrors of 9/11, or of Boston, or about the vulnerability of New York Harbor. I pay homage to the people of those places. But I’m going to focus on a distinctive landscape of ruins, an amazing, dreadful landscape that came to define the South Bronx, and for many people to define New York, for the last decades of the twentieth century. Those ruins were one of New York’s great negatives. I want to try to do what Hegel says: look the negative in the face.

The ruin was a process. It began in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the center of the Bronx was blasted and bulldozed to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. But the ruin grew far beyond anything anyone could imagine. In the 1970s there were waves of fire; in a decade the Bronx lost more than 300,000 people. Life stabilized only at the century’s end. The Bronx is still New York’s poorest borough, but its vast empty spaces are full of people again. Its population has risen, close to its 1950 peak. We will focus on the years when it was down. I invented a word for this process: URBICIDE, the murder of a city. Did I really invent it? Once you said it, it seemed obvious enough. But how do people in a murdered city live?

In the early 1950s, we read that our neighborhood, and many other working-class immigrant neighborhoods very like it, had been chosen for destruction. People more than a few years younger than me can’t imagine a world without highways; clover-leaves are built-in, as much as anything green or glass or neon. They don’t know how many of the world’s grandest highways were built directly through the most densely settled and populated places. The South Bronx was one of those places. Sometime in the next few years, the papers said, hundreds of buildings were going to be torn down and thousands of people were going to be pushed out, to build a new highway. Officials said exact locations weren’t yet known. They also said we all should be grateful: we were being told early so we would have plenty of time to get out.

There was a big protest meeting at Taft High School, and my father took me. I said I couldn’t believe “our government” would do this. My father said governments had all sorts of people inside them. The one to watch out for was Robert Moses. Moses was in charge of many city and state agencies, and he knew how to manipulate federal money. He had a great radio voice (remember, these were “radio days”), and he would routinely say things like, “You don’t like it? It’s a big country. Go to the Rockies! Your friends don’t like it? Take them along.” Many accounts of the wreck of the Bronx may have placed too much stress on Moses because he was so flamboyantly vicious. But his projects got built because they expressed a total elite consensus, both on what to build and on how. The way to build was this: draw lines from point A to point B, obliterate everything in between. Moses knew how to do that.

In Robert Moses’s drive for total control—highways, bridges and tunnels, recreation, housing, not just the building but the planning—the question of what we needed, and when and where, was ignored

The man leading the fight against the highway had a name with a magic all its own: ROOSEVELT. He was F.D. Roosevelt, Jr., a congressman from the Upper East Side. I was thrilled by the name. My father took me to the big meeting at Taft. But the hero didn’t show up. He was supposed to speak at 7 p.m. Then they said his car was stuck downtown, but don’t worry, he’ll get in a cab. Other people came on, two guys played harmonicas. Then it was eight. My father said, “We’re going home. Roosevelt’s dead, we’re gonna have to move.”

Thousands of people were forced to move. Thousands more, like us, felt they had to. In the spring of 1955 we moved to West 237th Street, still in the Bronx, but on the 1 train. It was very green; there were the remains of forests. My sister and I missed the old neighborhood, but our parents were happy in the new one. They had a room of their own—we’d all slept in one bedroom before—and they would walk in the woods hand in hand. The whole episode would have been a perfectly ordinary “move to the suburbs,” at a time when millions of people were making that move—except that six months later, my father died of a heart attack. Our family crashed and plummeted. Our life was shattered, in a place where we hardly had a life. People even had a hard time getting to our new house, to mourn with us; mostly they didn’t come. I became obsessed forever with the destruction of cities.

In our old nabe, the expressway project got underway. Eventually my life also got underway. We had moved; I was going to Bronx Science, then to Columbia. But I kept going back. One big assembly point for construction was an overpass at the Grand Concourse and 174th Street. There was what was once a vest-pocket park, now a storage dump, that offered a spectacular view. It attracted many of Robert Moses’s victims. They were older than me, often involuntarily retired; their homes and jobs no longer existed. “That bastard,” they said, “we’ll get him someday.” Over the years, more and more road was blasted out, with tremendous craters; for the first time, in this very dense city—the South Bronx was the city at its densest—you could see for miles and miles, both east and west. Enormous equipment, steam shovels and bulldozers, huge trucks and rock-drills and pipes—stuff we’re used to today, but seemed from another planet then—were spread out where streets used to be. The view evoked the dazzling perspectives of Piranesi, which I was just learning to see in my fine arts course. One of the project’s ironies: it brought a new but real beauty into the Bronx even as it tore the Bronx apart. But this, of course, was only the first stage in the Bronx’s ruin. It left thousands of people feeling like victims, sometimes depressed, sometimes enraged, but always more helpless than they had thought they were. There would be more people like them down the road.

A decade later, movements arose against Moses, especially against his highways, and I played a small part in them. Jane Jacobs was the star; she generated forms of community protest that were central to the time we call “the Sixties.” But Moses had decades to build on an unprecedented scale. He could access immense amounts of federal money, move millions of bucks from project to project and department to department, without explaining himself or showing anybody “the books.” In his drive for total control—highways, bridges and tunnels, recreation, housing, not just the building but the planning—the question of what we needed, and when and where, was ignored. These activities were his, he had to create the whole package, he didn’t want to share. He oozed contempt for people who were “small,” who only thought of themselves and their lives. “Boardwalk businessmen and gossiping housewives” was one of his tags. Ironically, he led people to identify with those housewives and boardwalk businessmen. The 1960s halo around words like “community activism,” which finally stopped his megalomaniac planning, was a romance of the small. It helped many neighborhoods stay alive, but it came too late for the South Bronx.

After college I got a fellowship for two years in Oxford. In Europe, I continued to follow my obsession with city destruction. I got to know people who took me through neighborhoods in London that had been bombed by the Nazis; they talked about how people had—or hadn’t—recovered. I met some of the creators of the British Labour government’s welfare state and the first-ever National Health Service. I felt sick of America, but they were so passionate about how America, Roosevelt, the New Deal, the skyscrapers of New York, had inspired them. This made me think something that I can see, after a career as a teacher, is hard for a twenty-year-old to think: I thought, “My God, my parents were right.” I saw where I wanted to go. I wanted to keep studying for a while, but then I wanted a job in the public sector in New York. I loved the city; I wanted to grow old here, to teach kids from neighborhoods, to bring up my own kids here. But also I wanted to work for the public and work to give people an education that was their right. I was lucky: forty-six years ago I got a job here, at the City College of New York, and I haven’t let go.

I knew New York and all American cities were going to need help. Since the New Deal, Democrats have worked to give cities federal money while Republicans have worked to undermine them. In the late 1960s, the beat got more brutal. By Nixon’s formula, if cities were losing population—and, in the age of highways and suburbia, most of them were—they would lose money for police, fire, hospitals, mass transit, schools. The idea was to impoverish cities, while enriching the suburbs around them. This would nourish political extremes and polarize the country. I loved the late 1960s, but life got weird. Our supposedly conservative president was cultivating and proclaiming nihilism. As Patrick Buchanan, then a Nixon White House aide, put it: “If we tear the country in half, we can pick up the bigger half.”

The Bronx in this period came to embody the smaller half. It plummeted. Here’s an example: violence. Life in the 1960s, and more or less continuously till the 1990s, grew more and more violent. New York now has about 500 homicides a year, more or less the amount it had in 1930, when the police began keeping track; but in the years around 1990, it had over 2,000. The Bronx was hit hardest. In about five years, it became the poorest borough, the most violent, the most doped up, the most afflicted with arson, the most homeless, the most undernourished, the most widely infected with a great range of diseases. Financially, by the 1970s it was “redlined”: on their maps, banks drew red lines around the areas they wouldn’t lend to, so landlords could not get loans to renovate their buildings. The South Bronx was on the wrong side of the line.

In the early 1970s, arson became a spectacular growth industry. Buildings throughout the borough were burned intentionally in an effort to recoup much of their lost value. In 1976 Roger Starr, city housing commissioner, later New York Times urban affairs editor, proposed a plan he called “Planned Shrinkage.” The city, he said, is divided into neighborhoods that were “productive” and others that were “unproductive,” a drag on the tax base. We have to eliminate the unproductive. This meant to “stop the Puerto Ricans and rural blacks from living in the city.” If we turn off water, electricity, sanitation, and stop making repairs when systems break, we can drive the unproductive out. In the past, the urban system took “ the peasant . . . and [turned him] into an industrial worker.” But now “there are no industrial jobs,” and it is our task to “keep [this man] a peasant.” We must “reverse the role of the city” as a world-historical force.

That year New York was pressed close to bankruptcy. Congress passed a bill to give the city a loan that would keep it solvent. President Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, eventually signed the bill. But first he said he was going to veto it; it didn’t matter to him what happened to New York, and he believed New York’s fate meant nothing to “the people of America.” The Daily News, a paper that had always supported Ford’s party, dramatized the moment in one of the great headlines in the history of mass media: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”

Around this time, something happened to me that had great impact on my life as a man and a teacher: I started reading the Bible again. I’ve never believed in any god. But I came to believe that if I was going to grow up, I had to find ways to connect the parts of my life: myself as an adult, with education and a PhD, with myself as a child, in a now-nonexistent part of the Bronx. The stories that haunted me then and that still haunt me are about cities. Biblical cities—Jerusalem, of course, but also the pagan cities that surround it, Tyre, Babylon, Damascus—are seen as always vulnerable, their existence tenuous. They can be great, but are not solid. They are always potential ruins. Those destroyed cities seem to have looked a lot like the 1970s South Bronx.

Here is the Book of Lamentations, from Jeremiah’s time, the late fifth century BCE, soon after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, in 587–586 BCE:

How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations! . . .
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her . . .
The roads to Zion mourn,
for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate . . .
Her foes have become the head;
her enemies prosper . . .
All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength. . . .
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”

From ancient times to today, the experience of seeing your city in ruins is one of the dreadful primal scenes: this is urbicide.

A great source of pain is the contrast of today with yesterday. “How lonely sits the city that was full of people.” The clashes of desolation and glory that are so vivid in the Bible felt close to home. In a country with a president who said the destruction of New York meant nothing, the question “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” was a question in current events.

Much of my work as a writer, over the past several decades, has been about what it means to be modern. My last chapter in All That Is Solid Melts into Air is on the Cross Bronx Expressway. But reading the Bible, I realized there were important things that modernism often left out. When I saw the Bronx in ruins, I saw how modern life, itself full of ruins and the terror of ruins, was still biblical. I didn’t think the Bible was special in offering divine solutions to human problems, but it was special in saying very clearly what the problems were. Modern rhetoric often talked as if mankind had transcended troubles that we really hadn’t transcended at all, that were still there for us to face.

The early literature of urbicide is a literature of ordeal. The ancient Jews, like the Greeks, traced urbicide to their gods. But Jewish writers ask another question that is harder to find in Greek culture (Euripides’s Trojan Women is a rare exception): Were the gods right to do such a thing? Or were they wrong? Some Jewish writers think the people are being punished; they were bad and they deserve to suffer. Others think it is an outrage, a violation of the laws of decency by “the judge of all the earth”—this is Abraham, protesting against God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet Amos discovers God is planning to kill all the Jews. He confronts him and says, “But Israel is so small”; he seems to make God ashamed of himself. Job protests, too, but God blows him away.

The prophets indict God but also indict the Jews, their own people. Not only do they worship pagan gods (remember that “golden idol”), they all run after money, honors, pleasure, success, and stain their hands with the people’s blood. The rich lay house to house, field to field, so there is no place for the poor in what is supposed to be their own land. Meanwhile, all the poor people seem to want is to imitate the rich, to change places and enslave their enslavers. People of every rank, from high to low, oppress and ruin. They forget their covenants, not only with God, but with each other.

When I saw the Bronx in ruins, I saw how modern life, itself full of ruins and the terror of ruins, was still biblical.

This is the beginning of social criticism and one of the beginnings of democratic thought. Most ancient literature on democracy comes from Athens. But the Bible is also a primary source. The prophets horrify us with visions of destroyed cities. But then they rain magical poetry down on us and make us believe we can change the world. Take a song by Second Isaiah, a song read every Yom Kippur. He is singing to people who feel imprisoned, even if they also are economically doing well. He says they can do morally better: liberate the captives, open the prisons, share your clothes, feed the hungry, satisfy the desire of the afflicted. Acts of empathy will bind people together and give them the collective power to rebuild their ruins, “to raise the foundations of many generations.” Till the 1970s I never noticed the urban ending of this song: “And you will be called the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

Meanwhile, the demos of the Bronx was finding voices. One voice was the explosion of graffiti on our subways. I loved it! The kids who made it were thrown into a public transit system that was far more broken down than today’s. They told the world, “We are not helpless; we can make this world colorful, exuberant, exciting.” I was thrilled. I took my mother to the 149th Street subway stop, near where we had lived, with a good view of the trains. She was a very reserved woman, but she said, “It’s a rainbow, in a place where who would expect one?”

Another voice was the musical and poetic language called rap. On the subway platform at Columbus Circle, one day in the early 1970s, I heard it for the first time. A kid of high school age, with a recorded drum track on two small speakers in the background, was shouting the story of his life. (I gave him a dollar.) The South Bronx was an early center for rap—”Old School,” my older son Eli told me. I felt that seeing the burning and reading the Bible made me more receptive to it. The massive ruins, the melodic sacrifice, the no-nonsense dead seriousness of it made it real for me. More people started doing it, the background music got more melodic and was defined by what they called “samples” from earlier records. Rap developed fast. Some of its best numbers were dialogues, between the present and the past, between kids and their parents. It was exciting cultural production, coming straight out of neighborhoods that were condemned as “unproductive.”

When I came to CCNY, our college had a beautiful South Campus—the old nineteenth-century convent of “Convent Avenue”—the home of “liberal arts.” Where did it go? At the end of the 1970s, CCNY tore it down. But first, before the work of destruction, every Thursday, in club hours, from noon to 2 p.m., in front of our bell tower, a disc jockey would set up, scratch a million records to create a background, and there would be an open mic for people to get up and rap. Some of the rapping was male-chauvinist gross, some just silly, but some was luminous and brilliant, and it was doing just what I was trying to teach my students to do, stretching language to grasp and envelop reality. There were a few teachers who got up and rapped. I envied them; I knew I couldn’t make the rhymes.

At first, the rap audience was small and local. But the sound got around. The first international hit was “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, released in the Reagan Summer of 1982.

MC Mellie Mel takes us on a tour of the neighborhood: “Broken glass everywhere, people pissing in the streets like they just don’t care; I can’t stand the pain, can’t stand the noise, got no money in my pocket so I got no choice.” Myriad horrors are packed into a couple of minutes: aggressive rats, aggressive junkies, nice girls turned into addicts and whores; kids burned out before the age of ten who want to grow up to be drug dealers, who may be the only people they know who command respect; their big brothers, who grow fast from kids to unemployed to hired killers to the dead. The rapper shouts at a handsome dead boy: how could he have been so dumb? “You lived so fast and died so young.” He sees the self-destructive idiocy of his homies, but also their human dignity. He asks what’s wrong with them, but doesn’t settle for easy answers—not even the answer that they are victims, though he makes it clear they are. Sounds of the concrete jungle erupt, sirens, everybody ordered to freeze. But even here in the Bronx, as in the Bible, surprising things can happen:

They pushed that girl in front of the train,
Took her to a doctor, sewed her arm on again
Stabbed that man right in his heart,
Gave him a transplant for a brand new start.

Some people are maimed by violence, yet they get help and live. “The Message” became an instant classic, a breakthrough for the whole genre. Suddenly there were people everywhere who wanted to listen to New York’s rap and create their own.

So what’s the message? That social disintegration and existential desperation can be sources of life and creative energy. A generation of kids broke out of poverty and ghetto isolation and became sophisticated New Yorkers. Some of them, like some writers of the Bible, got to a place where they could imagine not only freedom for themselves, but freedom for everybody: for the girl pushed in front of the train, for the man stabbed through the heart. Not only had their suffering not destroyed their idealism; in some mysterious way, it had created idealism. They could tell the world, we come from ruins, but we are not ruined. Their capacity for soul-making in the midst of horror gave the city a new aura, a new tincture of bright lights. They succeeded in the task Hegel defined two hundred years ago: if we can “look the negative in the face and live with it,” we can achieve a “magical power” and “convert the negative into being.” They, and New York with them, in the midst of falling apart, found ways to rise. A rainbow, where who would expect one?

New York is so different today. The stream of fire has stopped. The Fire Department is still busy, but arson isn’t the source of profit that it was for years. The left had always insisted that the landlords were setting the fires, or letting their buildings burn, in exchange for insurance money. John Lindsay established the Mayor’s Task Force Against Arson, which issued pamphlets about “fire accelerants,” a word I’d never heard, and “the ecology of fire”: an apartment is on fire; if engines come in ten minutes, the fire won’t spread; if there is no help for half an hour, the whole block can go. The left found a surprising ally: the insurance industry. At the start of the 1980s, the insurance companies said they had strong evidence of “human participation” in tenement fires, and they weren’t going to pay them off anymore. Then something that looked like magic happened. Magic formula: No Payments, No Fires.

In the last year of payment, the Bronx lost something like 1,200 buildings; in the first year of nonpayment, it lost something like ten. It was a thrill to be able to think about fire as a human problem and to stop feeling that the Bronx was caught up in a process of cosmic disintegration.

The next big difference was the decline in violence. The explosion of violence that began in the 1960s and that went on until the 1990s was reversed. I spoke of this earlier on. In the early 1990s, the death count was five times what is today, close to 2,500. The rise seemed endless and inexorable; people felt helpless. Then, in cities all over America, a downward curve opened up, and life got safer. Every politician in office, all over the country, took personal credit. In New York, since the administration of David Dinkins, whoever has been mayor, life has got safer. There are at least two generations who didn’t do something big that their fathers and their big brothers had done. Do you remember the 1960s phrase, “Picking up the gun”? Well, we’ve had two generations who didn’t pick up the gun, who didn’t start shooting. And thousands of live people, young and not so young anymore, who at ’60s-to-’90s death rates would be dead. Does this story have a hero? Yes, those kids: they chose life. How? Why? Can anybody say? It’s a mystery but for once a benign mystery. Kids still get hurt, but now they get to live. Something has happened that neither I nor anyone I knew imagined—something we need to celebrate: a metropolitan life with a level of dread that’s subsiding.

I began by talking about the destruction of cities. Now we’ve moved into what Jay-Z has called the “Empire State of Mind.” So I will end with one of the Bible’s Empire States of Mind, the story of King Solomon and his Jerusalem. The story is basically told in the first book of Kings, chapters 4 to 11. And it is told in a fascinating voice, important in the history of narratology, the voice of a narrator who feels in awe of Solomon yet is easily scandalized by him and his various policies. The dualism of this voice, surprising in the Bible, prefigures the dualistic voice of the Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway. Here again, the biblical and the modern converge.

It was a thrill to be able to think about fire as a human problem and to stop feeling that the Bronx was caught up in a process of cosmic disintegration.

Solomon, the first known Jewish intellectual, is famous for what the Bible calls his “largeness of mind.” He lectures on the nature of plants, birds, and beasts, creatures of the field; he creates hundreds of proverbs and songs; he attracts a new kind of audience, for both his songs and his ideas. Many of his ideas are about the city. He works to create a city that will be multicultural and cosmopolitan. He wants the Jews to be at home there, by learning to enlarge themselves. His city fills up with diverse people, and those people are meant to interact. The Bible highlights the sexuality of his vision: he loves many women, especially “loves many foreign women.” He marries some, takes others as girlfriends, and insists on bringing them all, along with their entourages and dressers and gods, into Jerusalem. He enters an intimate alliance with the glamorous Queen of Sheba; he “answers all her questions” and fathers her child. He gets close to Israel’s ex-enemy Egypt, makes many deals with the Pharaoh, and marries his daughter. Sexual awakening is one of the ways this city rises, and he grasps the way sexual feeling can be a cosmopolitan force. Solomon’s “largeness of mind” connects him with King Hiram of Tyre (Lebanon). They create a labor army, where thousands of Jews go to Tyre every year to learn construction skills, and thousands of Lebanese come to Jerusalem. In the new city, Jews and foreigners are at ease with each other. The Jews have traveled and been around; there are foreign men with construction skills, sexy foreign women, enormous building projects, and an abundance of gods. The king builds a great and gorgeous temple for Yahweh, with cedars from Lebanon, but he also builds temples for “those women.”

The story line of Kings is so overcrowded, it’s hard to keep track. The narrator complains, there’s so much going on, Solomon can’t love God “wholeheartedly.” This is a crucial word. The new Jerusalem opens up a whole new layer of human problems. We are in a fluid world, full of lush possibilities. Religions, jobs, marriages, all forms of life feel like open questions. In this atmosphere, can anybody be “wholehearted” about anything? Cosmopolitan culture, when it thrives, is scary. But it is also thrilling, and the people love it: “Judah and Israel prospered, as many as the sand on the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.” The Bible takes place in an age of monarchy; happiness depends on the ruler. If his successors are petty crooks, as Solomon’s are, the whole country falls apart.

Modern times are different in our feeling for democracy, our prejudice in its favor, our belief that it is a source of collective strength. Some of this is prefigured in the Bible. Here is Jeremiah, on the “New Covenant.” God tells him, “I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts.” This is a new course for God: to promote the people. But it can’t happen unless the people understand it, unless they know they are political subjects now. Education is one way to show them. See this grand building, this terrific room, all built from the bedrock they dug up when they dug the New York subways? CCNY is here so people can come up, so they can grow up smart as well as handsome, so they can learn to make new covenants and do new things. We’re here for them, but also for our whole cosmopolitan city. We want their learning to be collective learning. Our students have the right to this, but really our whole city has the right to it. It has the right, whether it knows it or not; it has the right, whether it wants it or not.

New York has a tradition of great dreams. Its urbicidal ruins felt like a cosmic mockery of them all. And yet, by the end of the twentieth century, our city of ruins turned out to be a place where people coming from everywhere were working together. Even as New York fell apart, it rose. People looked into each other’s eyes, learned to know each other face to face. If they could get that far, what else can they build?

Marshall Berman was Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York and a long-time member of Dissent’s editorial board. He was the author, among other books, of All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Adventures in Marxism, and On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square.