A review from Environment and Planning, Volume 35.5
Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape
Reviewed by Peter Adey, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales
It must be very difficult to write a book like Empire City. New York has had so much written about it that at first it might seem difficult to imagine how something different could be said about its history. Furthermore, New York City's position within the national and indeed global media serves to saturate us continually with imagery of the New York landscape. For a book to stand out from this writable ocean of imagery requires something very special for academic and popular audiences. I believe Empire City does both.
The recent film Gangs of New York starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis centres around the early chaos of mid-19th-century New York City, offering a window into David M Scobey's text. Primitive gang warfare was driven by corrupt political systems, vast class differences, and massive Irish immigration, and culminated in the draft riots of 1863 that mark the dawn of an emerging United States. As a result, Gangs of New York works to expose a story told beyond the usual temporal limits of popular New York history. Similarly, Scobey concentrates on this period (the mid-century boom) because of a "nexus of cultural values, design ideals and political action" (page 3) that he argues came to fore. He calls this nexus 'bourgeois urbanism'. Weaved in and out with the history of the real-estate market, public institutions, and cultural values Scobey renders an image of New York fashioned by elites and market forces.
If there were any concern that Scobey might not fire the imagination like a feature film, I can assure you that Scobey does his best not to disappoint. The book is lavishly illustrated with sumptuous prints of the New York landscape. Taken from magazines such as Harpers Weekly they add to the atmosphere created by Scobey's warm and relaxed writing style. And being a hardcover at around €30 ($40) the book does not present bad value for money.
The book begins by painting the background to the relationship between the city and the nation. Reminiscent of the Turner thesis, Manifest Destiny, and westward expansion, Scobey presents an argument that connects the development of New York to the development of the nation embodied within the ideological values of select elites. Chapter 2 then situates the text in the mid-century boom. For Scobey, the increasing flows of capital, goods, and people into New York helped stimulate the massive transitions within the urban geography of the city. His innovative reading of the bird's eye lithographs of the period highlights the prophecy making that was occurring. To them, Scobey argues, the landscape was plastic; to he moulded into their vision.
Chapter 3 follows approaches such as Elizabeth Blackmar's (1989) and explores the importance of the real-estate market in framing urban growth. Scobey argues that the real-estate market had a standardizing and disciplining effect on land values and land use. Not to mention the cognitive regime enforced by publications such as the Real Estate Record, Scobey's deliberate and detailed analysis finds: "the constituting of land as real estate [was] not only the originating moment in New York's history, but the very engine of its progress" (page 91). Rather than present the argument that the imposition of the real-estate market onto space occurred unopposed, the text goes on to explore the social and environmental problems or frictions of space in chapter 4. This, for the elite, constituted a moral geography they were at pains to resolve.
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 outline some of the attempts made by bourgeois urbanists to correct the moral disorder of the city and impose their utopian vision. This, for Scobey, took the shape of particular built forms such as the Brooklyn Bridge, which symbolized modern capitalism and public order. Through particular case studies such as Central Park and street developments, Scobey illustrates how a moral order was to be stewarded by several forms of urban design and environmentalism. Though examples such as Central Park have been well chewed in the literature, Scobey provides an interesting slant on the regulation of mobility and vision that the park planners and stewards allowed. Mobility was perceived as a social barometer. It was believed that, by controlling urban movements, specific moral values could be adorned by the working masses as well as the reinforcement of class differences.
Tracing New York's development to the agency of the few can also be seen within Robert A. Caro's (1975) biography of Robert Moses, which perhaps stands out as the most extreme example. Others have labelled New York an 'authored landscape' (Samuels, 1979). But to Scobey's credit his lucid account is able to disentangle a story of elites from the powerful market forces that they shaped and were shaped by. His account is powerful and highlights a key period in New York's history hut perhaps he needs to explain further why this is so important. How these foundations were then carried through to the next period in New York City's development would have provided a useful extra chapter to the text. Some may also like a theory chapter as is the case in so many academic texts. This said, Empire City is interesting, well written, and beautifully printed. A lovely addition to any bookshelf.