I am very excited to be a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at New York Public Library in 2021-22. Oh how sweet it will be to back in the library, surrounded by books and fellow fellows!! And to spend time writing about this Culture City.

Culture City: The Rise of the Arts in New York

The consolidation of a municipal cultural policy in New York since the 1950s has shifted the debate about the role of the arts in the city from architecture and buildings to the outdoor environment; from established institutions to activities on the streets and subways; and from a time-bound rehearsed performance to the spectacles of the everyday. If Lincoln Center came to embody the importance of the arts in New York in this era, so too did Jane Jacobs’ “sidewalk ballet” and the common belief that the city’s most compelling attribute was its “theater of the streets.” This book explores how the arts became embedded in structure, policy, economy, streets, habits, schools, subways—and what it means to be a New Yorker.

In progress; photo “Hamlet,” 1964, Central Park (NYPL)

Borough Arts Councils

Where the arts occurred in New York City changed in the 1960s-70s. Grand cultural complexes such as Lincoln Center consolidated the performing arts of opera, symphony, theater, and ballet. Television brought the arts to family living rooms, much as radio had done starting in the 1920s. The opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center was broadcast in September 1962 with performances of Copland, Beethoven, and Mahler. And the arts moved outdoors, with Shakespeare in the Park and events on the plaza of Lincoln Center.

The arts also moved into neighborhoods.

Read more…

1 of 13 Art Exhibitions to View this Weekend!

‘VOICE OF MY CITY: JEROME ROBBINS AND NEW YORK’ at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (through March 30). The choreographer of “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof” was born a little over 100 years ago, but this exhibition is so much more than a centenary obligation; it’s an openhearted, deeply moving showcase of Robbins’s work, notes and diaries, full of the joy and anxiety of postwar Manhattan. Robbins, born Jerry Rabinowitz, made creditable paintings and drawings as a teenager, and in his 20s he hit it big with “Fancy Free,” set to a syncopated score by Leonard Bernstein, and evoked here through original footage and Robbins’s sketches of jumping and prancing seamen. He bullied dancers, and infuriated friends when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but his engrossing journals, rich with watercolors and watery notes to self, reveal the intense self-doubt that his choreography obscured. What Robbins loved most was New York, the city that was his muse and his helpmeet — and that has been transformed beyond recognition from the days of Jets and Sharks.” New York Times (7 March 2019)

Robbins’ New York Portraits

My remarks for the program on Robbins’ New York Portraits at the Library for the Performing Arts with Adrian Danchig-Waring, Justin Peck, and Ellen Bar.

The exhibition upstairs perhaps best reflects my thinking about the ties between Jerome Robbins and New York, but I thought I’d offer a few more specific to the study of New York. As I hope the exhibition proves, Robbins was quite the researcher, an observer of human habits and habitation. Since he lived his entire life in New York, inevitably that research included the city itself. In fact, I think artists such as Robbins deserve to be put alongside urban planners and policy makers, sociologists and architecture critics, for their ways of revealing how cities work. Read more…

More Robbins

The Robbins’ events continue: a discussion at the Gotham Center with Carol Oja on Bernstein and Robbins; a showing of snippets of Robbins’ dances on the theme of collaboration (with composer, dancer, camera, community); and a talk with Adrian Danchig-Waring and Justin Peck on Robbins’ New York Portraits. Come!

I never met Jerome Robbins but I feel like I’ve been living with him for the last few years. What he left behind–the letters, diaries, ballets, musicals, photographs, film footage–makes possible that conundrum. And this library and the extraordinary people who make it live have created a home for Robbins and for people like me. Read more…

New York on Canvas, Page, and Stage

I get to talk in public about one of my favorite subjects, the rise of New York as a capital of culture. Join me and Fran Leadon, Christoph Lindner, and Robert Slayton in a conversation moderated by Morris Dickstein. CUNY Graduate Center, April 30, 2018, 6:30pm; more info here.

Musicals and New York

I wrote a meditation on this theme for the new annual journal, Musical Theater Today, which came out last year. Working on the Robbins exhibition non-stop makes me think about all this all over again.

Edgar Allan Poe saw crowds. The French poet Baudelaire saw the flâneur, a wandering observer. The dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins saw alienation. As a young, ambitious man in New York, Robbins wrote drafts and drafts of possible scenarios for the stage. All of them are about struggle. Young artists, full of dreams and anxiety, squeezed in two rooms in a brownstone in the west ’50s. A man asking for money on the subway to feed his family. Another homeless man pinched awake by a hard squeeze on his finger by a merciless cop. A woman hurrying past men huddled on the side of the building, their gazes searing her legs, thighs, and buttocks. Read more…

Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York

In the ballets Fancy Free, Age of Anxiety, and Glass Pieces, and especially the musical and film West Side Story, the choreographer and director Jerome Robbins created indelible images of New York. This exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of his birthday and charts his insatiable quest to understand, depict, and belong in the city—his home and his muse.

On view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center from September 26, 2018 to March 30, 2019; a digital version of the exhibition is available here. Photo NY Export: Opus Jazz (NYCB).

Research for all

As a member of the Advisory Board of the research libraries of the New York Public Library, I got an early view of the new plans to renovate the Schwarzman building at 42nd Street. This renovation follows years of debate about the fate of the building, particularly a plan that gutted the research purpose of the building and turned it over to circulating collections. The outcry was vociferous enough that it caused a complete reversal—a re-dedication to research as the primary function of that building. Still, figuring out how “research” works in the age of Google in a building that is also a primary tourist destination and is devoted to remaining accessible to all requires some fine-tuned thinking. I think this plan is a good step forward in meeting those goals. (Summary of renovation in this WSJ article, including a quote from me.)

It is the 60th anniversary of the musical and 2018 marks the centenary of the births of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. So a German crew has been filming me all week for an upcoming documentary on West Side Story–which included riding through Manhattan in a 1952 cab! And this weekend I’ll be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival about A Place for Us. West Side Story lives.

West Side Story at 60

The Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center is hosting a celebration of West Side Story, sixty years after its debut. See documents from the show’s creations, sing along to your favorite songs, and listen to some folks talk about the show (including me). Tuesday, September 19, 7pm.

Mod in the Park

The dancer-choreographer Netta Yerushalmy has undertaken a project right up my historian’s alley: she is re-imagining the work of modernist choreographers such as Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, and Vaslav Nijinsky. Even more up my alley: she’s pairing the dance with on-stage commentary from scholarly folk. There’s a conversation about it all at Madison Square Park on August 12, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.

Creating City People

New York City just released its first cultural plan. My response (published in Public Seminar).

Last week the city released its much-awaited cultural plan. The Department of Cultural Affairs undertook an unprecedented year-long process of surveying New Yorkers about arts and culture in New York, about what worked and what did not in the city’s creative life. Not surprisingly, equity and inclusion were repeated refrains: the arts and culture sector does not fully reflect the city’s diversity, and geography and cost restrict full access to the arts. Read more…

Martin Segal: Dollars and Joy

I’m back in the archives going through the papers of Martin Segal. Few in the arts might know Segal now but his legacies are everywhere: in the Martin E. Segal Theatre at CUNY, the Lincoln Center awards in his name that support rising artists, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center itself which he co-founded. But those legacies are only the most obvious. He was central to the arts in New York for over fifty years—and not just as a financial supporter. Segal served on the board of major institutions (MOMA, City Center); chaired Lincoln Center Inc. for five years; conceived and started the International Festival of the Arts; and consolidated the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. He was a part of almost every endeavor that I have been studying over the last couple of years. Read more…

The Lower East Side has long been an object of fascination for those who study New York. It has been a location for bohemia, from the early 20th century to the Beats and punks; waves of immigration from Europe and migrations from Puerto Rico; and, most recently, a focus for the dynamics of urban housing, real estate speculation, and gentrification. Amy Starecheski’s Ours to Lose looks at the intersection of these topics in the squatting movement that has flourished there since the 1980s. Read more…

Together, in NYC and the Obits

Trisha Brown (choreographer), David Rockefeller (banker and philanthropist), Jimmy Breslin (journalist), and Bob Silvers (founding editor of the New York Review of Books): shakers and makers of arts and culture in postwar New York all gone in the last few days. None were young; all were vital. It’s a reminder of an era of a dizzying pendulum swing, roughly from the 1960s to the 1990s, in a city defined by extremes – from the wealthy global capital instantiated in the World Trade Center (thanks to Rockefeller) to the fiscal and political crisis just a few years later and then its long aftermath (reported on by Breslin). Read more…

Fighting Over and On the Streets of New York

A few weeks ago, Jelani Cobb predicted that democracy would come back to the streets in the Trump era. A new exhibition, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!,” on view at the Bronx Documentary Center until March 5, 2017, and ongoing online, shows us just what that looks like—and emphasizes the long tradition of this kind of democracy in action. Activists and photographers taking to the streets will not be new in the Trump era. But this exhibition pushes us to keep doing it. Read more…

Bowery Boys

The Bowery Boys look at the development of Lincoln Center–and West Side Story. They read my book! And put it on their list of NYC books for the holiday! (Lin-Manuel Miranda and me, yaknow.) Listen to the podcast here or via Itunes.

Masterpieces of Everyday New York

In 2013, the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center initiated an exhibition on “objects as story,” prompted by curricular changes at Parsons that shaped its telling of the history of art and design around objects. New York served as the common theme for the exhibition, and faculty around the university identified and reflected upon an object that made up their New York. Mine: a sailor suit.

Research as a Public Good

As I return to research myself, I’ve been asked to be a member of the New York Public Library’s Research Advisory Group. It’s an honor to be among such distinguished company and to be asked to think about how this stalwart institution can strengthen its mission in research. How to articulate, argue for, and act upon research as a public good? Keep us honest and accountable. Send suggestions and comments.

A Center for Dance

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Center for Ballet and the Arts about other centers–City Center and Lincoln Center. The tangled relationship between these two institutions reveals the ideals, politics, and challenges of the arts in New York, especially for dance. In short, ballet won at Lincoln Center. Both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre have their home there. Other forms of dance (modern, Ailey) and smaller ballet companies (Joffrey) have found their home at City Center (as well as at the Joyce, Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, etc). Read more…

New York Arts Center: 1953

Mecca Temple, 135 55th St., 1929 (later City Center). New York Historical Society.

The Rockefeller brothers, long committed to philanthropy, began batting around ideas for a cultural center in New York in 1953. The grandiosity of the idea may have been possible only in the minds of people like the Rockefellers, or Robert Moses. When they joined forces, it was inevitable. Read more…


We are moving in on Rikers. Students have decided upon the theme of the visibility/invisibility paradox of the island. For some, Rikers is hypervisible. They work there, they know people confined there, they’ve been locked up there. For others, it is largely invisible from their New York. An island in a city made up of islands, connected by one lone long bridge, one public bus, and guarded by patrols on water and land. The closest some come to the place is in flying right over it as the plane charges off the runway at LaGuardia. Even then, you have to know what you’re looking at to see it. Read more…

Imagining NYC

In this book, Christoph Lindner traces the New York that appears in literature and the visual arts in the early 20th century. He divides the imaginations into two sections, one vertical (skyscrapers), one horizontal (sidewalks), and ties creative pictures to urban plans and forms. In this, he adds an attention to spatiality to that of visuality in modernism. The city is not only seen but walked. Read more…

Studying NYC

My research, teaching, and daily life are in and about New York City. The city is a laboratory, as is often said in many a grant application — or proposal for a New School. And yet it can be difficult to figure out how to study it when you are in the swirl of the petri dish. My research assistant, Katerina Vaseva, suggested that I pool together resources for students and others interested in understanding this maze: check out the new page here. Suggestions for additions welcome!

The Carceral City

I walked through Crown Heights a few days ago and came across this odd mobile police unit. Students in my class knew exactly what it was: a M.U.S.T. – a mobile utility surveillance tower. It can be moved to a “place of interest,” a platform elevated from the base, flood lighting, infrared cameras – all monitored by one officer in the lifted hub, the driver’s seat of the van, or, I believe, remotely. If chaos ensues below, that person can call in extra troops with the push of a button from the encased hub, without having to exit to the street. The 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, on a city corner near you. Read more…

Bodies in Motion

As shocking as the balloon nudes of Matisse and fractured bodies of Duchamp were, at least they stayed on the canvas. There bodies remained odd, perhaps unsettling but still. Bodies dancing on stages and in dancehalls outside of the Armory Show, however, were vibrantly – even dangerously — on edge. At the time of the exhibit, a dance craze was sweeping the nation, lifting young men and women off their feet, toward each other, and in pursuit of pleasure and escape. Read more…

Sailors, Fancy Free

Exhibition Object and Text, Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story (Kellen Gallery, Shelia Johnson Design Center, The New School, 2013)

In the ballet Fancy Free three sailors burst onto the stage, liberated from duty for a short leave. Leaning against a lamppost outside a bar, they wait for the city to happen. A woman passes, and action begins. Three ply their charms on her, one tires of the game, and another woman saunters by. Competition grows between the three men for two women, resulting in dueling solos. The fight amongst the sailors takes over, the women realize they have been forgotten and stride off, and the men find themselves where they began, waiting for something to happen. A third woman saunters by. Read more…

Seeing the City: West Side Story and New York

The movie West Side Story opens with an aerial panorama of New York City, starting from the southern tip of Manhattan with a view that encompasses the divide and coming together of the Hudson and East Rivers, moving over the concentric circling entrance ramps of the Triborough bridge to the dense skyscrapers of Midtown, patterned scape of Columbia University and Stuyvesant housing complex, and then following the diagonal cut of Broadway in the grid to swoop down to the street, to a worn concrete basketball court. The Jets begin snapping their fingers. Read more…

From Coney Island to Lincoln Center, From Strangeness to Fantasy

Cornell University Architecture Workshop (2010)

Architects know that the built environment can evoke fantasies. But what happens to those fantasies over time?

In the case of Coney Island, strangers at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries sought belonging in an escape to the beach, outside of the dense overbearing industrial landscape of Manhattan. There they found white castles, whirring rides, log chutes, and steeplechases. The fantastical world of such amusements heightened fears of a city – acrophobia, claustrophobia – in an attempt to ameliorate them. Its decay throughout the 20th century may be an indication of the changes in our fears – and the fantasies we need to confront them. What phobia could restore the need for Coney Island now? Read more…

Lincoln Center, The Rockefellers, and New York City

Rockefeller Archives Center, Research Report (Fall 2005)

Rockefeller explained his interest in Lincoln Center both by the particularities of the historical moment and the legacy of the arts beyond those particularities. He reasoned that postwar society in the U.S. was in an era of prosperity, with more leisure time available to more people than at any other time in history. The arts served to fill leisure time fruitfully, and spiritually. For while economic needs were being met and scientific advances in medicine had increased longevity, people’s spirits were diminished, and the arts could satisfy yearnings for fulfillment on a deeper, more meaningful level. Rockefeller also noted that famous cities in history – Rome, Athens, Paris, Kyoto – were known for their arts, not their political, economic, or business successes. Rockefeller was also concerned with the international dimensions of the United States’ power and recognized that most countries did not think highly of America’s culture. In his view, Lincoln Center would feature the best of the performing arts from the U.S. and provide a place to present the best of the performing arts from countries around the world to U.S. audiences. For Rockefeller, then, the performing arts in the 1950s fused the specific needs of the historical moment with a long-lasting, worldwide legacy. Read more…

Dance and the City

Festschrift for Rüdiger Kunow (2013)

All great art is born of the metropolis. — Ezra Pound

For some years now I have been pondering the ties between cities and the arts. This pondering began from one of those seemingly random questions in the oral defense of my dissertation on the development of modern dance in the United States in the 1930s. As I was articulating the Americanism of modern dance, a committee member asked, “But is New York American?” With a righteous New York manner, I defended the Americanism of my new home, contrasting its immigrant and ethnic pluralism with the homogeneity of the often valorized heartland. But I knew his question uncovered something I had not thought enough about: that the dancers I researched and wrote about almost all lived in New York, even if they toured the United States and sought national acclaim and nationalist meaning in their dance. Read more…

Art + City

Cities are hubs of artistic activity. People are drawn to cities because of their artistic offerings and they are the place where the majority of artists live and work. But how and why did this intertwining of art and cities come about? And what effects has it had on cities and on the arts? This course investigates the art of urban life (such as the development of bohemia); genres of art that arose in and of the city (photography, the Broadway musical, hip hop); spaces of the city that become identified as an arts enclave (SoHo, “museum mile”); and the municipal policy and politics that both support and confound the arts in cities (public art). We read first-hand and historical accounts of artists in the city and analyze artworks for their portrayals of the ties between urban life and artistic vision.

Read the syllabus here.

New York City: Past Present Future

New York City exists as a physical and imaginary place, both a dense concrete maze and a blowzy personality. This course examines the many contours of this phenomenon by looking at the city across time; we explore specific historical moments for the intertwining force of politics, economics, social struggles, and artistic and cultural flowering, and consider those dynamics in planning for the future.

Read the syllabus here.

Where Urbanization and the Arts Meet

The rise of Lincoln Center and the transformation of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) reveal how tied stages are to streets. These articles examine how events inside these grand performing arts institutions — their performances, audiences, programming — related to the changing demographics and neighborhoods of New York; how ideas about urbanism and actions on city streets become transfigured in the arts; and how cosmopolitanism became inscribed in city life by these institutions. (Streets and Stages: Urban Renewal and the Arts After World War II [pdf]; The Other West Side Story [pdf]).

Photo: BAM, 1978 (NYPL)