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The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea

5.0 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0814799963
ISBN-10: 0814799965
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Editorial Reviews

From 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 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From 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.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 287 pages
  • Publisher: NYU Press (September 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0814799965
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814799963
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,384,278 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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By A Customer on September 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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