The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea

Overview

Throughout American history, cities have been a powerful source of inspiration and energy, nourishing the spirit of invention and the world of intellect, and fueling movements for innovation and reform. In The Unfinished City, nationally renowned urban scholar Thomas Bender examines the source of Manhattan's influence over American life.

The Unfinished City traces the history of New York from its humble regional beginnings to its present global eminence. Bender contends that the...

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Overview

Throughout American history, cities have been a powerful source of inspiration and energy, nourishing the spirit of invention and the world of intellect, and fueling movements for innovation and reform. In The Unfinished City, nationally renowned urban scholar Thomas Bender examines the source of Manhattan's influence over American life.

The Unfinished City traces the history of New York from its humble regional beginnings to its present global eminence. Bender contends that the city took shape not only according to the grand designs of urban planners and business tycoons, but also in response to a welter of artistic visions, intellectual projects, and everyday demands of the millions of people who made the city home. Bender's story of urban development ranges from the streets of Times Square to the workshops of Thomas Edison, from the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In a tour that spans neighborhoods and centuries, The Unfinished City makes a powerful case for the enduring importance of cities in American life. For anyone who loves New York or values the limitless possibilities intrinsic in all cities, this book is an unparalleled guide to Manhattan's past and present.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Offers a thought-provoking perspective on the city’s historical development and the continuing efforts to finish the place.”
-The New York Times

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“Bender has an omnivorous intellect, and, whether he’s writing about Thomas Edison, the history of Washington Square, or modernist conceptions of the city, he has a knack for finding the telling anecdote and putting it in context. . . . This is a nuanced, convincing history, attuned to the difficulties and pleasures of city living.”
-The New Yorker

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“Bender’s essays are deeply engaged and committed to his project of reasserting a general public role for historians. . . . Many of the most arresting observations in this book derive, however, from close reading of particulars, notably the physical particulars and artistic representations of selected bits of New York City streetscape and architecture.”
-The American Historical Review

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“One of the strengths of this book is the way it uses photographs and illustrations as integral parts of the argument. . . . A learned, thoughtful, and incisive analysis of metropolitan culture.”
-The Journal of American History

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The New Yorker
This collection of essays takes as its central theme the idea that New York is a city whose "very essence is to be continually in the making." New Yorkers have tended to resist elaborate city planning, and yet top-down decision-making has been responsible for some of the city's great treasures (like Central Park). The tension between those two approaches to urban life -- between, as it were, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses -- has shaped New York since the eighteenth century. Bender has an omnivorous intellect, and, whether he's writing about Thomas Edison, the history of Washington Square, or modernist conceptions of the city, he has a knack for finding the telling anecdote and putting it in context. The political essays at the book's end are disappointingly vague, but on balance this is a nuanced, convincing history, attuned to the difficulties and pleasures of city living.
Library Journal
Bender (history, New York Univ.; Rethinking American History in a Global Age) examines the political and cultural story of New York City from its creation as a Dutch trading post in the 16th century to its present status as a world-class metropolis. In Bender's account, the city seems "unfinished" when compared with such classic urban models as Paris or Vienna, but its comparative lack of physical and institutional completeness is also its strength: New York is famously a home of skyscrapers but "nonetheless prizes small brick and brownstone houses"; it is known for its midtown grid but also its grid-confounding "greensward" of Central Park. It is a center of money-making and reform. "There is not and there is not to be a final truth about itself," Bender observes. Not necessarily following the path of the European models, New York was unwilling to pursue any single line of development, whether in its physical shape or its social organization. As an icon of modernity, New York necessarily must always be changing, "re-inventing itself," and therefore incomplete. Unlike recent fuller histories such as Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace's Gotham, Bender's is a thematic history of the city that argues powerfully for the importance of the American urban ideal. The writing is dense but also inspired. Recommended for urban studies collections in academic libraries.-Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Bender (history, New York U.), in a series of 14 essays, explores issues of metropolitan culture as it developed in New York City. He discusses how places and built features of the city such as Washington Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the skyscraper reveal key transformations in the scale of metropolitan space and the character of culture. The social organization of metropolitan life is examined through explorations of art, intellectual pursuits, and public culture. Finally, the political history of cities and New York is discussed with reference to relations between cities and regions and the nature of cities in the era of globalization. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Collection of distinct but companionable articles by Bender (Humanities/NYU) assessing New York City as a multiplicity of public places and institutions in flux and very much sui generis. New York, the author finds, sits outside the metropolitan idea. Unlike Paris or Vienna, it has not assumed national centrality and leadership in political and cultural matters; it doesn't realize and standardize the best hopes for the American polity. This, he figures, is because the city is continually in the making: unresolved, or resolved only temporarily. In its physical development and social organization it refuses a single logic, preferring a self-fashioned pluralism that is pragmatic, unpredictable, nonhierarchical. "The center has never held firmly in New York," Bender writes. "It has been continually undermined by fragmentation of the elite and by manifold rebellions." That has consequences for better and worse. Aspiringly democratic, polyvalent, and vibrant in architecture, politics, and art, the city is a place where, as Virgil Thomson observed, one group could argue "esthetics with intelligence and politics with a passion" while the other discussed "esthetics with passion and politics with intelligence." But New York lacks an image of itself as a collectivity; it has no representative institutions and lacks a civic culture in which "the public space is the terrain of the public as visual representation, while institutions provide a place for representative political deliberation." Bender (Intellect and Public Life, not reviewed, etc.) brings wide-ranging curiosity, literacy, and experience in urban matters to the question of New York, from the iconography of the Brooklyn Bridge and its rolein urban reconfiguration to the dialectical relationship between the city's horizontal, civic impulses and its vertical, corporate ones. There are persistent issues, including the city's racial divisions, but "New York's character is to be incomplete." A meaty and satisfying look at a great city, its multiple environments, and their unending transformations. (b&w photos throughout)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814799963
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 287
  • Sales rank: 1,399,721
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Bender is University Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction: The Unfinished Metropolis
Pt. I Icons of Transformation 1
1 Washington Square in the Growing City 3
2 Brooklyn Bridge 15
3 Skyscraper and Skyline 27
Pt. II Art, Intellect, and Public Culture 55
4 Public Culture and Metropolitan Modernity 57
5 Democracy and Cultural Authority 69
6 Metropolitanism and the Spirit of Invention 81
7 Modernist Aesthetics and Urban Politics 101
8 The Arts and the World of Intellect 133
9 The University and the City 149
Pt. III Politics 165
10 Cities and American Political Culture 167
11 New York as a Center of Difference 185
12 Cities and Citizenship 199
13 The New Metropolitanism 219
14 Cities, Nations, and Globalization 239
Credits 255
Notes 257
Index 277
About the Author 288
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2003

    Scholarly and Passionate

    This compilation of essays about the culture, history, and concept of New York City is both thought-provoking and passionate. But be warned: this is no Introduction to New York History 101 book, and definitely should not find itself on the top of any coffee table. This is a studious and sophisticated account of Gotham's fluid and, as the title states, unending role in the modern world's intellectual and cultural history. Fortunately, Professor Bender's ideas are clearly and reasonably presented, making for smooth reading. One of the major riffs throughout the pieces is that because New York City was relieved of the duty of being the nation's capital, and because of the new talent and diversity that free market capitalism attracts and needs, the city has always been at the forefront of America's and the world's aesthetic and technological development. These elements also make the city so chimeric that it's never the same city from one day to the next. (Unfortunately, the events of 9/11/01 would seem to refute this. Those terrorists and their backers saw the city as the fixed center of America's wealth, greed, and power. Professor Bender's introduction acknowledges that the effects to New York of that day are still unknowable.) This critical examination into the world that is New York is not only testimony its greatness, but also to the pride and passion Professor Bender has for it.

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