Posts Tagged ‘Kim Phillips-Fein’

New York: Our Fear City

June 3, 2017

Over the past several years, I have learned much about the history of SoHo writing this blog. I am, however, just beginning to understand the complex historical context in which our neighborhood developed. It did not, after all, appear in a vacuum.

Just this week, I began reading Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, an excellent new book by Kim Phillips-Fein, historian and friend of SMP. The book takes an in-depth look at New York in the mid-1970’s, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, as well as the aftermath of the austerity plan that would eventually bring our fair city back to life. Kevin Baker of The Guardian says of the time:

New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s is surely one of the weirdest moments in the history of the city – indeed, of the United States. It was a time when the wholesale disintegration of the largest city in the most powerful nation on earth seemed entirely possible. A time when the American president, Gerald Ford – egged on by his young chief of staff, one Donald Rumsfeld – sought not to succour New York but to deliberately shame and humble it, and perhaps even replace it as the world’s leading financial centre.

This moment provides an important context for what was unfolding in SoHo at the time. It was, I think, the decline of fiscal-crisis New York and the very real possibility of “wholesale disintegration,” a we-have-nothing-to-lose attitude, that allowed creative centers such as SoHo to flourish unchecked. Phillips-Fein elaborates on this idea in her book:

Even the stirrings of creativity and resilience [in New York City], … were very closely linked to—indeed, were made possible by—the poverty of the city. The artists and musicians who clustered in the cheap apartments of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side mocked the commercialization of art, adopting an aesthetic that flaunted the absence of money. “No Wave” art, music, and film were defined by their low production budgets; they relied on urban disinvestment, sustained by the low rents of lofts, warehouses, apartments that no one else wanted. In downtown lofts that had once housed small manufacturers artists decorated makeshift theaters with old furniture, abandoned commercial signs, tossed-out tinsel, crutches, and children’s toys to perform works that were half confession, half provocation. (p. 54)

(click on images to enlarge)

The title of the book, Phillips-Fein explains, alludes to the pamphlet “Welcome to Fear City”:

The book was named for the Committee on Public Safety pamphlet, which itself seems to be an ironic twist on Lindsay’s “Fun City” – although I meant to suggest that “fear” in the city has to do with many more political issues (ie, it’s not just fear of crime and violence) and that that fear, among elite groups, winds up making possible many changes that would have been almost unimaginable otherwise.

The pamphlet, whose subtitle is “A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York,” sports a creepy drawing of a hooded scull on its cover. It was produced and distributed by the Council for Public Safety, a group of uniformed service unions that included the police offices, fire fighters, and corrections officers. Although circulation of the pamphlet was halted soon after it began, the tourists who did receive a copy as they entered New York through JFK must have been tempted to immediately return from whence they came.

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