julia foulkes

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.

With this opening, West Side Story serves as an emblematic text of urban renewal in post-war U.S. and in New York City in particular. The panorama relays the view of Robert Moses, the master builder who knit together the region through a network of highways, bridges, and tunnels, giving priority to cars and the flow of people and goods through the metropolitan area. Moses was criticized for his methods – razing, implantation, prioritizing infrastructure over people – but his birds-eye view of New York City mirrored the national trend of moving away from a central urban core to a sprawling metropolitan region.

The zoom in to variants of urban intimacy can be seen as the arrival of Jane Jacobs into the debate over urban renewal; West Side Story is both a statement in support of Jacobs’ views and a comment on them. The Death and Life of Great American Cities appeared the same year as the movie version of West Side Story, and much of the musical and movie assert Jacobs’ claims about the centrality of the street to urban life. Gangs – the Jets and the Sharks – were the prominent example of the era of the threat to safety that propelled much of Jacobs’ argument against the imposition of superblock structures and housing projects.

As the introductory scene of the movie shifts its scope, we watch how people inhabit the urban spaces made from tenement buildings, skyscrapers, highways, and bridges. It is not so much words that distinguish their habits (“beat it”) as movement – the lifting of a shoulder, a glare, an arrogant saunter. The gangs mark space by big bold gestures: arms shooting upward topped by widened fingers, legs splayed sideways; swift glissades across stretches of street; crouched runs over the word “Jets” or “Sharks” spray-painted on the street; and walking in a pack, someone breaking into a stylized motion, then nonchalantly returning to the pack. These motions characterize not only specific actions on a street but an orientation of being and moving in the world. The gestures assert the importance of minute-by-minute living in the city – aware, reactive, assertive – that encompasses the aspiration of gangs and belays the grand sweep of skyscrapers, bridges, and skylines that held sway when considering what to “renew” in urban life.

West Side Story is a cautionary tale of urban life in mid-century U.S. It falls to neither side of the urban renewal debate, not the grandiose panorama of a metropolitan region or the kinship of a city block. Instead, the story displays the bubbling tensions between government and residents, poor and middle classes, racial and ethnic groups, modernists and the emerging postmodernists that would erupt in the 1960s. These tensions were not caused by urban renewal so much as contained and given shape by it. The pathos of the ending – Tony dying in Maria’s arms and the unified funereal procession out of the basketball court of the opening – conveys the intractability of urban problems. The enduring appeal of West Side Story is that the intractability is matched by the dynamism and fullness of people and place, a testament about, and a tribute to, urban life.

Picture: West Side Story (MGM, 1961)