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October 24, 2002 New York: Is some of its lustre gone?



by James Martin

“Some of you may be puzzled by the title of this lecture,” said Mark Kingwell, referring to “New York, Capital of the Twentieth Century.”

The University of Toronto philosophy professor is the author of Practical Judgments: Essays in Culture, Politics, and Interpretation. Kingwell spoke at the School of Community and Public Affairs on Oct. 3.

He said his talk is part of a larger work-in-progress, tentatively titled Losing Your Way, but he admitted with a wry laugh, “I seem to have lost my own way in this work — so I can’t really tell you what it’s about.”

When your role model is Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, however, getting lost is almost a requirement. Benjamin himself called his notorious 1,000-plus-page doorstop “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas,” yet it was 13 years in the making and still incomplete at the time of his death in 1940.

“Using the trope of the Parisian arcade as a jumping-off point, Benjamin’s cultural meditation discussed sexual mores, fashion, gambling, catacombs, Baudelaire, and all points in between and beyond. He dubbed Paris ‘the capital of the 19th century,’ a phantasmagoric city emblematic of modernity.

Kingwell sees New York City fulfilling a similar metaphorical role during the 20th century, albeit in a different way. He calls the Big Apple “a manifestation, a joyful working out, of the last century’s possibilities.”

Fancy footwork is at the heart of both cities. For Benjamin, the lollygagging flâneur symbolized Paris-as-metaphor. For Kingwell’s NYC, that symbol is the jaywalker: brash, fast, possibly over-caffeinated, and singularly dedicated to the mantra, “Don’t break stride.”

The jaywalker is all about creating and maintaining “forwardness” on New York City’s famous grid. Drawing on colourful quotations from W.H. Auden, Le Corbusier, and Roy Blount Jr., among others, Kingwell distinguished NYC from Paris.

Paris is a city layered atop ancient catacombs. New York is a place where the past is constantly being erased in favour of building something newer, taller, faster, shinier, better.

The jaywalker symbolizes this drive in the way he or she, although individually anonymous, is engaged in “a collective negotiation” to keep traffic on the move. Even the seemingly rigid street grid is fluid with potential, as the jaywalker constantly finds new ways to end-run around stalled trucks, to sprint kitty-corner across intersections, to dodge slack-jawed tourists. Brashness is a given, but Kingwell also locates spirituality in the audacity, a “transcendental sexiness” that goes beyond the workaday hustle and bustle.

But that’s all over now. As with Benjamin’s after-the-fact study of the Parisian arcades, Kingwell was talking about a Gotham that has vanished. In the aftermath of 9/11, the day when the last century’s two most accomplished symbols of “forwardness” (namely, the airplane and the skyscraper) fatally embraced over lower Manhattan, New York is a different place.

As evidence, Kingwell pointed to the popular T-shirts declaring “I [heart] NY — Now More Than Ever.” The first sentiment isn’t new, but the qualifier certainly is. No longer the commanding presence it once was, the city now draws “sympathetic love,” a sign that its “time of unquestionable supremacy is over.”

Capital of the 21st century

Early into the post-lecture Q-&-A session, one member of the audience asked the question that had been hanging over the Bronfman Building atrium all night: If New York City is “in a sense, over,” what will be the capital of the 21st century?”

“We’ve been playing out various versions of modernity’s endgame for some time,” Kingwell replied. “One answer is, We have yet to create it. But I’m still not convinced by the possibilities put forth by others, the idea of a virtual city, or an axis of power such as D.C. So the other answer is: I don’t know.”