Sep 16, 201310:17 AMPoint of View
Remembering Marshall Berman
(page 1 of 2)
Marshall Berman, a fearless New York City commentator on the metropolis, died on 9/11/13. I first became aware of his intellectual rigor as a lively and analytical writer when I picked up a copy of his now famous book published in 1982, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, three decades ago. I was so taken by his humanist view of the modern city—his favorite example was his own home town, New York—that I would read excerpts of his Faustian interpretation of modernization from the book, to anyone who came to visit in my upper west side apartment.
Later, as the editor of Metropolis, I asked him to speak on a panel I was organizing. He was partial to our title, and wanted to write for us, which he did in the early years of my tenure, accepting the speaking engagement with graceful generosity. And he was brilliant, as he was at numerous tough discussions held at various New York City venues through the years. To remember Marshall, we decided to revive the interview, in full, that Martin Pedersen did with him for our May 2006 issue on the corporate remaking of Times Square. -SSS
Marshall Berman is a difficult writer to pigeonhole: a Marxist working in a post-ideological world, a living remnant of the old and splintered New York left, a passionate lover of all good art—high and low—and an incurable urban romantic. A glance at the titles of his previous books—The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society; Adventures in Marxism; and his seminal work, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity—might lead the uninitiated to the wrong conclusions. Though Berman is a professor of political science at City College of New York, his prose is anything but academic. And despite his Marxist credentials, his latest release, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, is a compulsively readable tribute to the hurly-burly of popular art and commerce. Recently, Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to Berman about the history of Times Square, its revitalization, and why he continues to be drawn to it.
On the Town looks at the history of Times Square largely through the art created about it. Did you have a set of works you wanted to explore when you started, or did you just devour everything related to Times Square?
It was a combination. Times Square has generated so many interesting works in different genres:42nd Street, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Guys and Dolls, Eisenstaedt’s iconic V-J Day photo, and a lot of paintings. There’s a phrase by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York about the city being a “culture of congestion”—a culture of too much in the middle of too many in the middle of too much. That book had a lot about Times Square in it, and in some ways it’s one of my landmarks. Another is the artist Red Grooms’s Manhattan-scapes. He did Ruckus World in the 1970s, this wonderful life-size subway train full of twisted characters.
Why is Times Square important?
My one-liner is “It’s the sublime that you can reach on the subway.” Light is also a very important theme for me. The invention of the lightbulb in 1879 helped create Times Square. In Europe it was adapted very quickly for industry, especially in Germany, but in the United States the main people who used electricity were theater and circus owners: it was used for spectacle. In the 1880s the theater district was located between Union Square and Chelsea, and then the Metropolitan Opera opened at 39th and Broadway. When the Casino Theatre opened right opposite it, it became the first big theater to generate electronic spectacle. Twenty theaters opened up within a few years. People who owned the old theaters realized that they could do so much better with new electric theaters.