As America’s most notorious metropolis, New York City is home to sights, sounds, and stories that maintain timeless messages even as the city grows ever-higher and constantly denser, updating its modern look alongside its old foundations. The city acts as a synecdoche for the nation, namely the proclaimed melting pot ideal that is America. Throughout the city’s history, it has often been the central port of entry for immigrants, many of whom chose to remain on the island and surrounding boroughs. These permanent waves of new culture, language, and ideas makes for a vibrant, lively, and often conflicted city.
Welcome to The Breadcrumb Trail, the Freeman/Lozier Library’s Media Advisory Blog. This month we will be exploring the urban jungle of America’s most famous city, New York City, in books, films, and music.
The conflict between natives and immigrants is an integral part of the nation’s history, and goes back to the city’s early history with the first influx of Irish immigrants who were often seen as interlopers who took jobs from native New Yorkers and diluted the American way of life. This era is captured in Gangs of New York, directed by native New Yorker Martin Scorsese who almost exclusively sets his stories in his hometown. The film was loosely adapted by Scorsese from a 1927 history of the city which describes the battles over territory in the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan between gangs of immigrants and nativists with such colorful names as the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and the Bowery Boys. Focusing on the turmoil in the streets among the underclass citizens and stretching up to the corruption of city hall, Gangs of New York portrays the burgeoning days of democracy as a bloody affair between the haves and the have-nots.
The story’s central characters are the nativist William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, leader of the Bowery Boys gang whose mission is to keep jobs, land, and political influence in the hands of those born on U.S. soil, and Amsterdam Vallon, the orphaned son of an Irish immigrant priest who becomes involved in the gang life in an effort to better his situation. As Amsterdam rises through the ranks, he becomes protégé to Cutting. Their relationship is underlaid with tension as it was Cutting who killed Amsterdam’s father, though Cutting does not recognize him. Amsterdam seeks his revenge on Bill the Butcher, who becomes informed of Vallon’s identity through a betrayal by his friend. The feud between the two plays out to the historic background of New York’s political corruption and the Civil War draft riots. Scorsese’s replication of the buildings, clothing, and accents from the 1800s Manhattan give the viewer a glimpse into the messy history of the city and its inhabitants.
For those interested in a more modern look at race relations in New York City, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is essential viewing. Taking place over the course of the hottest day of the year in a Brooklyn neighborhood, the story follows Mookie, a pizza delivery boy played by Lee, and his encounters with the denizens of his slice of the city including his girlfriend and son, the Italian family who owns the pizza store, a group of older men who act as a Greek chorus, and friends who provide levity or conflict.
Part comedy, part drama, the main conflict comes from a disagreement between Buggin’ Out, a brash young black man, and Sal, the proud Italian owner of the pizza shop. The restaurant’s wall of fame features portraits of famous Italian-Americans, a fact Buggin’ Out takes umbrage with, pointing out that all Sal’s customers are black. As the heat rises alongside the tensions in the pizza shop, tragedy breaks out and chaos erupts. Sal and Mookie are left to question what caused the destruction and how to pick up the pieces.
Spike Lee’s film takes an unflinching look at racism, going so far as to include a montage of characters saying slurs directly into the camera in an effort to bring this reality to bear on viewers without mediation through narrative. Almost all the dialogue of the film centers around differences or similarities across racial divides, and ultimately reflects on two of the most important civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and their opposing stances toward how progress can be made through pacifism or violence. Despite being released in 1989, the film is as relevant as ever to today’s race relations in America.
In a similar vein, Ann Petry’s The Street tells the story of a young mother determined to rise above the horrid conditions of the ubiquitous street that destroyed so many lives she has known. Where Do the Right Thing explores racial and ethnic divides among cultural lines, The Street delves into the economic differences between black and white, cramped city and sprawling countryside. Despite her residence on 116th street in Harlem, she always keeps her mind set on a brighter future, which is always dependent on one thing – money.
The novel’s heroine, Lutie Johnson, travels in worlds both hostile and welcoming, from the skyscrapers of downtown and private neighborhoods in Connecticut where white eyes make her other, to Jamaica, Queens and the streets of Harlem, where life is harsh, but it is home. The pressures of inequality are manifested in Lutie’s meagre apartment. What once began as a refuge from living with her father and his girlfriend after leaving her husband becomes a stultifying space that threatens to close in upon her. Lutie is torn between making plans for the future and the inability to see any way to fulfill those plans without money. Finally she finds a path off the dreaded street after meeting a man with a job for her – singing in a casino late at night. But it seems too good to be true, and the man seems to have ulterior motives.
The theme of dissatisfaction with one’s station in life recurs throughout the novel, including characters such as Lutie’s superintendent Jones and his girlfriend Min, the madame who lives in her building, and her own son Bub. Brighter futures taunt them all, but there is always some obstacle to their realization.
The themes of racial tension, addiction, strained relationships, urban violence, and rising above it all are essential elements in hip hop, the music genre founded on the streets of New York. Reflecting the hard streets with harsh drum patterns and honest lyrics about the struggle to survive while overcoming the situation by turning it into something artistic, hip hop has always been about life in the urban jungle, even when it moved to the sprawling West coast. The renaissance of East coast hip hop can be traced back to a few artists, including the Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., and Mobb Deep, who moved away from the funk and dance-oriented West coast feel toward darker, grittier textures, but consistently listed among the best rap albums of all time is Nas’s 1994 debut Illmatic.
With stark descriptions of street life, housing projects, and corner boys, Illmatic tells simple yet effective tales of poverty and disillusionment in the Queens suburb of New York. Nas’s lyrics and delivery come close to jazz poetry with complex rhythms, rhymes, and themes. Musically the album captures both the sounds of the city and the history of hip hop within its harsh beats and wide-ranging samples including funk, jazz, pop, rock, and rap. Released when only 21, Illmatic chronicles Nas’s youth experiences involving gangs, addiction, relationships, and family, all shaped by the neighborhood he grew up in.
Where a rap album like Illmatic is stylistically and temporally similar to Do the Right Thing, fans of The Street might prefer a jazz album of the era. New York City is renown for its jazz clubs, giving opportunities to see stars before they were big as well as experience them at the height of their fame in an intimate setting, many of which have remained largely unchanged since the mid-20th century. One of the most popular clubs is Birdland, named after saxophonist Charlie Parker. Opening in 1949, it has hosted the most famous jazz musicians from a wide range of styles from big band to jazz fusion. It was also the locale for a number of live recordings, notably drummer Art Blakey’s band who recorded several performances there. Released in three volumes, A Night at Birdland gives an authentic feel of a New York jazz club in the 1950s, complete with an MC and scattered talk and praise from the audience.
If you are looking for a quicker, more superficial take on the city, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, provides a night in the life of a 1980s executive as he traverses dense Manhattan seeking anything stimulating to keep his mind off of his troubles. Uniquely written in the second person, the novel puts you in the commercial environment of fashion shows, vapid parties, and advertisement-ridden streets. The novel’s commentary on the superficial yuppie lifestyle works by employing brand names and unimaginative interactions, while hinting at something darker that the insipidness attempts to cover. The effort to be aloof comes undone as the nameless narrator finds himself disgusted with his friends and alone to contemplate life as the night ends and dawn breaks. A slice of life from the 80s, Bright Lights, Big City, gives the reader a glimpse into metropolitan Manhattan as a whirlwind of distraction, an effort at escape that doesn’t succeed in the end.
In addition to influential hip hop and jazz scenes, New York is also known for its role in launching the punk scene in America. Several punk and new wave bands in the 70s and 80s got their start at Manhattan’s CBGB, originally a Country and Bluegrass club that moved toward harder, alternative sounds. Closely associated with CBGB and Manhattan was the short-lived, yet highly influential band Television. Fans of McInerney’s novel will enjoy Television’s album, Marquee Moon, which also explores the nocturnal Manhattan but with a more romantic, sentimental mood. Rather than a cynical view of the lights that illuminate the night, Television views the nightlife as a magical landscape of boundless possibilities, while still maintaining a cool, detached air critical to living in the bustling city.
New York City is referred to as the “city that never sleeps,” promising some kind of activity day or night. Where Bright Lights, Big City exposes the hollowness of the constant motion of the city, Seinfeld attempts to expose nothing, instead finding humor in the emptiness of the city and life in general. Touted as the “show about nothing,” Seinfeld has been called the greatest sitcom of all time, running from 1989 to 1998, starring the eponymous Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian, and his ensemble of misfit friends as they get into hijinks throughout the city. The show is largely set in the Upper West Side in Jerry’s apartment and the coffee shop they constantly inhabit. For those looking for a glimpse into the city without too much insight into the human condition, Seinfeld, provides the ideal venue.
New York City is known for its characters, music and art scenes, and iconic skyline, and the stories that come out of the five boroughs reflect the uniqueness of the area while being definitively American. Whether discussing the deeper issues that divide the nation or the existential ideas that unite us all, New York City can provide the backdrop for nearly any story. The city can play an integral role in the characters’ development or it can stand in for any varied situation necessary. For those who can’t travel there in person, there are innumerable works of art that can transport anyone there for a brief vacation.