the great American desert

broadway trafficIt’s not likely an American will care what a Frenchman thinks of his city or town, and maybe even less likely that a New Yorker will.  This holds true in the respective mythologies of what a Frenchman thinks and whether a New Yorker cares, but I tend to think people everywhere deep down care about what people think of where they live.

At the end of this post are notes written by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre on his impressions of Manhattan.  I suppose New Yorkers don’ t care, but they are good insights into the city.  They have inspired me to write my own ideas following:

To many of my friends New York is the ‘greatest city in the world’ – perhaps because they live there and they care about what people think of where they live, their relative life successes etc.  Others leave it behind for quieter, less aggressive places.  I’m still trying – four years into my sojourn here – to formulate an opinion of what New York is (while trying hard to skirt the temptation of accepting populist memes – greatest in the world etc. )

So far I’m struck by three ideas of New York:  its density, its privatism and its shopping – you’ll see evidence of all three when you visit.  For me, the idea of New York’s density is well described by Rem Koolhaas in the 1980s:

Manhattanism is the one urbanistic ideology that has fed, from its conception, on the splendors and miseries of the metropolitan condition—hyper-density—without once losing faith in it as the basis for a desirable modern culture. Manhattan’s architecture is a paradigm for the exploitation of congestion.

In a sense New York has taken the idea of proximity which is an essential attribute of a city – to social life, markets, resources, creative capital – and ramped it up to such a degree that the place may actually begin to look like a city on steroids or to not feel like a city at all.

My second idea, privatism can be seen in the avenues of New York:  ten of them that run north- south, often six or eight lanes wide, teeming with aggressive yellow cabs, sinister black SUVs and 24 hour goods carrier trucks, and with hapless workers and tourists making their way in endless streams across the avenues with trepidation when lights say it’s alright to cross.  New York’s avenues are basically freeways; you won’t see anything like them in any other non American major city in the world.  Here, like in America at large, the car is king and the drivers in New York routinely bully pedestrians and cyclists with their speed, horns and aggression.  Why privatism?  Because the street is the public realm and the car is the ultimate  private space and in New York, unlike in many cities in the world, the private car trumps the public life of the street.

My third idea is shopping.  New York is a shopping Mecca; tourists come to Gotham for the museums, skyscrapers and restaurants, but unlike other tourist destinations, travelers come to shop.  The social critic H. L. Mencken is vicious in his description of New York as little more than a wholesale market:

New York: a wholesale district with an annex for entertaining the visiting trade.


Jean Paul Sartre came to New York as a reporter for Albert Camus’ journal in the 1940s and here are his reflections on the preeminent American city.  He found a non city;  one without focus; spaces which lead the gaze out to the horizon; lacking neighborhoods; pierced into ribbons by avenues.

He contrasts these observations of New York with an idea of European cities which he describes as round, without roads leading out.  Roads are not lines between points but places for interaction and life.

His is an interesting contrast:  a view of America even its old north eastern cities as places you drive through on your way to some frontier, a horizon, a better place perhaps; versus a view of old European cities as places that enshroud us, keep us, secure our interest, where we want to linger and talk and settle.

Here are Sartre’s notes on Manhattan:

I looked for New York and I could not find it. It seemed to retreat before me, like a phantom city, as I walked down an avenue that appeared coldly formal and without distinction.

In Spain, Italy, Germany, France, we find round cities, … which served … to protect …. to hide from them the inexorable presence of Nature. The cities in turn are divided into districts equally round … Streets bump into other streets; sealed at both ends, they give no sign of leading out of the city. They are more than just thoroughfares, they are social milieus; you pause there, meet others, drink, eat, and live there.

Thus my European, my myopic glance, advancing slowly and prying into everything, tried in vain to find something in New York to arrest it—anything, no matter what—a row of houses suddenly barring the way, the turning of a street, some house weathered and tanned by time. For New York is a city for the farsighted: there is nothing to focus upon except the vanishing point. My glance encountered only space. It slid over blocks of houses, all alike, and passed unchecked to the misty horizon.

it seemed to me from the very first a lengthwise city. All priorities are given to length. Traffic stands still in the side streets but rolls tirelessly on the avenues. How often do cab drivers, who willingly take passengers north and south, refuse flatly to drive them east and west! The side streets are hardly more than the outlines of the buildings between the avenues. The avenues pierce them, tear them apart, and speed toward the north. It was because of this that, a naive tourist, I sought for quartiers, a long time and in vain. In France these neighborhoods encircle and protect us: the rich neighborhood protects us from the envy of the poor; the poor neighborhood protects us from the disdain of the rich, just as the entire city protects us from Nature.

Jean Paul Sartre, The Great American Desert, 1946


2 Comments so far
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Interesting post. I’m not sure I agree with the neighbourhood comments though – It felt like there were neighbourhoods to me. Sure with big wide roads running through them at times – but still wee nooks and crannies of localism.
As for the squashing of everyone together – I wonder do people cope with the reality because they focus on the possibility (however unlikely it may be) that some day they’ll have a palatial penthouse.

Comment by blackwatertown

Yes – there are a lot of fantastic neighborhoods. In a way you could see them as springing up in spite of the way Manhattan was set up: relentlessly unforgiving grid modern environment. My point is that this is more likely than their flourishing as a logical result of a well built place.
Regarding coping, yes – this is a strong American belief: to not criticize – and to believe – the system and beneficiaries of the system because one day …

Comment by Peter Rudd

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