“I ran away to Greenwich Village . . . where the people I met had sprung from their own brows”

Anatole Broyard, likely in the 1950s--"I was alienated from alienation."

In our discussion the other night, we didn’t get the opportunity to talk much about Anatole Broyard’s memoir of living in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. Before the moment’s left behind, I just wanted to draw your attention to one important element of his story that you might easily have missed. Continue Reading »

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“The great American epic of upward progress toward education, freedom, self-respect, and accomplishment”

The dust jacket fior the first edition of Smith's novel

That’s how New York Times reviewer Oliver Prescott described Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Continue Reading »

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“A New Kind of Urban Community”

Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General, standing before the UN General Assembly and Secretariat Buildings in the 1950s

As we discussed yesterday in class, one of the factors contributing to New York’s mid-twentieth-century renaissance were the massive construction projects that transformed the city’s landscape. These projects, which began in the LaGuardia years and continued during the mayoralty of Kenneth O’Dwyer, brought in huge sums of federal and state money for the development of highways, bridges, tunnels, and housing projects. Although it was financed mainly by UN funds, the construction of the United Nations complex on New York’s east side (1947-1952), in many respects epitomized these developments. Continue Reading »

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Unbelievable miniatures of the future

Tenements razed to make way for the Tilden Houses in 1958; Brownsville Houses are to right -- NYCHA archives

 

 

In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin describes the “uncanny” experience  of seeing new public housing projects planted amid the tenements he knew growing up.

Despite those fresh diagonal walks , with their trees and children’s sandboxes and Negro faces calmly at home with the white, so many of the old tenements have been left undisturbed on every side of the project, the streets beyond are so obviously just as they were when I grew up in them, that it is as if they had been ripped out of their original pattern and then pasted back in again behind the unbelievable miniatures of the future.

 

The photograph above, from the New York City Housing Authority archives (an invaluable resource!), gives an idea of what Kazin was thinking about.  Continue Reading »

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Welcome to New York

Andre Kertesz, East River Esplanade, 1948

Hi, and welcome to the Summer 2011 session of HUMS 639: New York City in the 1940s.  I’ll be putting up a more detailed syllabus shortly, but in the meantime, a little advance notice about what you’re about to get into if you’re registered for the course. Continue Reading »

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“Perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning . . . “

Cab Calloway in zoot suit

So Ralph Ellison speculated in 1943 in a piece he wrote for Negro Quarterly, the little magazine he edited at the time. “Much in Negro life remains a mystery,” Ellison remarked, pointing in particular to the newly emergent leisure styles of urban, working-class youth. The zoot suit and “the symmetrical frenzy of the Lindy Hop” might “conceal[] great potential power,” Ellison claimed. “If only Negro leaders would solve this riddle.”

As with his closely related remarks about bop or, in “Harlem is Nowhwere,” about apparently growing signs of crime and disorder in Harlem, those comments show Ellison grappling with some features of African-American life that seemed to him and to many of his contempories new and portentous–and, importantly, not to fit neatly into any of the ideological frameworks they had available. Continue Reading »

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Ellison and Bebop

Ted Croner, "New York" (1947)

Ellison was not an admirer of bebop. A trained musician himself, Ellison had grown up in Oklahoma where he’d become a great admirer of the “territory” bands–the traveling jazz groups that laid much of the foundation for swing. During the 30s and early 40s when he was living in Harlem, Ellison enjoyed the musical renaissance of big band, “hot” jazz and is said to have attended the Savoy Ballroom, where Chick Webb held forth and all the great African-American bands of the era appeared, two or three times a week. He became a friend and champion of musicians in Count Basie’s band.

So, when bop appeared on the scene, unsurprisingly it was not to his taste Continue Reading »

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Some temporary images in re Fearing, Mills, and Moses

Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)

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The Disappearing City

Frank Lloyd Wright, Esplanade, Florida Southern College, Lakeland, FL

What kind of architect is Guy Haines? “What’s known as modern,” he says to Bruno when they first meet? (23) And other comments suggest that Guy is part of the movement of modernist architects that would do much to remake the American metropolis in the decades after World War II. Continue Reading »

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“Frequently as a rat has orgasms”

Highsmith in the early 1940s

The U.S. has produced many a weird, misanthropic writer. But Patricia Highsmith, who happens to have shared a birthday with Edgar Allan Poe, belongs high on anyone’s list of the strange and disturbing. As Terry Castle writes in the superb essay pasted in below, Highsmith once commented that creepy ideas came to her as “frequently as a rat has orgasms.”

In other words, I suppose, often. Continue Reading »

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