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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reading New York, April 8, 2005
What most interested me in this brilliant collection is Bender's periodization of New York cultural authority. In line with other works on New York, but more cleanly and clearly articulated and supported with well chosen facts, Bender identifies three cultural authorities loosely suceeding one another after the Revolution.

First, The Patrician as exemplified by De Witt Clinton as both a powerful politician who 'qualified' as an authority, and who was a member of and directed cultural institutions. Next, the Common Man came during the Jacksonian era where cultural authority was seized by the common man a la Whitman. During this period, Barnum's American Museum offered all citizens the opportunity to visually inspect a 'promiscuous' collection of artifacts and allowed them to decide on its significance and importance. Commercial values predominated and, at least early on, this approach was a renuciation of the patriciate.

Then came as the Civil War drew closer, the era of the 'Professional Authorities' such as F.L. Olmsted and Samuel F.B. Morse (who as founder of the National Academy of Design as a professional organization in 1826, an early example of the doings of the "metropolitan gentry' who endorsed and promoted the Professional Authority. Other examples include E.L. Godkin, founder of The Nation and who decried the 'large body of persons' taught by common schools, lyceum lectures, small colleges,newspapers "who firmly believe that they have reached in the matter of social, mental and moral culture, all that is attainable or desirable by anybody, and who, therefore, tackle all the problems of the day." The result he insisted was "a kind of mental and moral chaos," presumably of the middle class. The Metropolitan Gentry who founded the Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, established clear categories on its objects -- unlike Barnum's populist American Museum. One supposes we're still in the era of the Professional Authority and the Metropolitan Gentry here in New York. More's the pity.

Bender's periodization was of particular interest to me, but there is much more here than the historical, including architectural, cultural and political perspectives, all of which Bender intersects in fascinating and original ways. Highly readable and insightful.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderfully Inclusive and Broad-Ranging Look at the City, September 12, 2002
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Ricky Hunter (New York City, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
The Unifinished City (New York and the Metropolitan Idea) works as a series of independant essays (as it was written) but also pulls together beautifully as a major look at a city, specifically New York but more generically at cities in general in the book's final chapters. The author's, Thomas Bender, view is expansive and always intellectually sound as it ranges from architecture to Walt Whitman to cultural politics to Beat poets to democracy and to universities, and these are only a few of the ideas integrated smoothly into the book. Some of the concepts may be a little difficult for the uninitiated (myself, at times) but the writing is so smart and clear that the reader will fall into place quickly enough. A wonderful book and one of the best examinations of New York to be encountered.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the Critics: Kirkus Reviews, September 2, 2002
By A Customer
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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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stunning Collection, September 10, 2003
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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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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Classic, September 2, 2002
By A Customer
Whether you know nothing about New York, or think you know it all, this eloquent book will nourish your love and broaden your embrace of the City.
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The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea
The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea by Thomas Bender (Paperback - September 1, 2007)
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