arts 09.24.07

The Destruction of Lower Manhattan

No, not that.

In 1967, Danny Lyon began photographing as sixty acres of buildings in Lower Manhattan fell, one by one, to wrecking crews. "I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past," he wrote. "These buildings were used during the Civil War…The streets involved were among the oldest in New York and when sections of some were closed by the barriers of the demolition men, it meant they would never be opened again." Much of the razing was done to make way for the World Trade Center.

Lyon, who was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, wasn't initially drawn to documenting this seismic urban shift. One peyote-fueled night, though, he realized that whether or not the buildings themselves had a story to tell, a large piece of New York history would be lost. And that led to the The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, a book of photographs and essays originally published nearly 40 years ago.

Since then, if you wanted a copy of the book, it was such a cult item that it would set you back several hundred dollars on eBay. It was reissued a couple of years ago in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of NY and we've been looking through these images lately, and reading Mr. Lyon's thoughts, in anticipation of the Municipal Art Society's Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York.

Now that Robert Moses has had what we hope will be his final resurrection, it's an apt moment to consider issues raised by this exhibition, including the question 'Is New York Losing Its Soul?'—the cover story on Time Out last week and the subject of a panel discussion on October 3. When we frame the question this way—is New York becoming more like other cities or less like other cities?—we think most people would say it's becoming more like other cities. The mallification question.

This isn't to suggest that there's any straight line from what happened in 1967, that summer of love, to New York's worries about soul and identity. Only that New York has historically been quick to demolish (later for you, Penn Station) and not given to introspection of the where-have-we-been/where-are-we-going variety.

Danny Lyon's book includes a new Epilogue from 2004. He writes, "Change? What changes? Nothing changes. Just the people come and go. Those queer and crooked streets are as close to eternity as America will ever get. I am sure that among their narrow passages, on some dark night, skinny children stagger drunk with enthusiasm, and dream their dreams, and make America again."

We're not sure that's so, but it's a comforting thought.


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