Cover image for The creative destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940
The creative destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940
Page, Max.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xiv, 303 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm.
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HT168.N5 P34 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Winner of the 2001 Spiro Kostof Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians.

"It'll be a great place if they ever finish it," O. Henry wrote about New York City. This laconic remark captures the relentlessly transitory character of New York, and it points toward Max Page's synthetic perspective. Against the prevailing motif of a naturally expanding metropolis, Page argues that the early-twentieth-century city was dominated by the politics of destruction and rebuilding that became the hallmark of modern urbanism.

The oxymoron "creative destruction" suggests the tensions that are at the heart of urban life: between stability and change, between particular places and undifferentiated spaces, between market forces and planning controls, and between the "natural" and "unnatural" in city growth. Page investigates these cultural counterweights through case studies of Manhattan's development, with depictions ranging from private real estate development along Fifth Avenue to Jacob Riis's slum clearance efforts on the Lower East Side, from the elimination of street trees to the efforts to save City Hall from demolition.

In these examples some New Yorkers celebrate planning by destruction or marvel at the domestication of the natural environment, while others decry the devastation of their homes and lament the passing of the city's architectural heritage. A central question in each case is the role of the past in the shaping of collective memory--which buildings are preserved? which trees are cut down? which fragments are enshrined in museums? Contrary to the popular sense of New York as an ahistorical city, the past--as recalled by powerful citizens--was, in fact, at the heart of defining how the city would be built.

Beautifully illustrated and written in clear, engaging prose, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan offers a new way of viewing the development of the American city.

"An excellent, multifaceted analysis of the process of urban development-not the inevitability of development but the choices individuals, organizations, and developers made that transformed Manhattan. The politics of place was, Max Page convincingly argues, an ongoing battle to define and thereby control the evolving shape of the city."--David Schuyler, author of Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing 1815-1852

"Max Page transcends the usual dichotomy between those who glorify destruction for the sake of change and those who would avoid both at all cost. The sizeable borderland between architecture and preservation reveals new dimensions about science and history, innovation and memory, the cities that have been, and those yet to come."--Gwendolyn Wright, author of The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism

"A sober, humane explanation of how and why New York City became a place of continuous rebuilding. . . . For real or armchair New Yorkers, the whole package is a treat."-- Kirkus Reviews

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Historian Page writes about the growth and change in Manhattan in the early part of the twentieth century. Compared with its European counterparts, Manhattan seemed to be both unfinished and in a state of constant revision. From the zoning laws that preserved the luxurious character of Fifth Avenue to the clearance of the tenements of the Lower East Side (only to build "better" tenements) to the politics of historic preservation, the way in which Manhattan revised itself reflects its social, political, and cultural organization. When the movement to save the physical past outdoors lost its support, the Museum of the City of New York attempted to provide a sort of "indoor preservation." Manhattan is viewed through the eyes of romantics and reformers, both trying to persuade the world of the importance of their point of view, while the sheer size and scope of the place denies the possibility of their success. Page's excellent research and his somewhat wry point of view come together nicely in a book that will interest many readers. --Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1904, Henry James noted that New York was "crowned not only with no history, but with no credible possibility of time for history." The image of Manhattan as an urban center so much on the move that it exists only in the present and future has become enshrined in the popular imagination. In eight engrossing, interconnected essays, Page, who teaches history at Yale, traces Manhattan's constant reinvention, often at the expense of preserving a concrete past. Describing this process as "creative destruction"Äa phrase first used by economist Joseph Schumpeter to characterize the process of capitalismÄPage delineates the complex historical circumstances, economics, social conditions and personalities that have produced crucial changes in Manhattan's cityscape. Focusing on specific events and projectsÄincluding the evolution of Fifth Avenue as an elite residential and commercial boulevard between 1824 and 1924; the destruction of Mulberry Bend, "the wickedest of American slums," in the late 1880s; and the constant battle to promote the planting and growth of trees on the islandÄPage's study teases out such important issues as how social class has been defined in the city and the conflict between nature and urbanization. Carefully setting his miniature portraits of Manhattan history within a vivid panorama, Page raises pivotal questions concerning the role of cities in shaping the framework of everyday life and the broader sweep of history and nationhood. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Within the framework of the transitory character of New York City, Page (history, Yale) argues that the early 20th-century city was dominated by the politics of destruction and rebuilding that became the hallmark of modern urbanism. The oxymoron "creative destruction" suggests the tensions between stability and change, market forces and planning controls that are at the heart of urban life. Page investigates these cultural counterweights with case studies of Manhattan's development, ranging from private real estate development along Fifth Avenue and early slum clearance efforts on the Lower East Side. A central question is the role of the past in the shaping of collective memory. Clearly written and well illustrated, this work is recommended for New York City collections of academic libraries and urban studies collections.ÄHarry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

The phrase "creative destruction" is economist Joseph Schumpeter's apparently contradictory characterization of capitalism's frenetic energy in roiling the marketplace and stimulating investment. However, it is also applicable to urban studies. Cities are living monuments to the pace and diversity of change, the very evolving marketplace where space, style, and distance are all commodities vying for purchasers and investors. New York City is the premier example of this "creative destruction" where every phase of the 20th century has played out in clear fashion. Page's thoughtful text and generous photographs illustrate major movements in urban life in New York. His seven chapters include the emergence of zoning, preservation, slum clearance, and the development of residential neighborhoods as exemplified in Manhattan. In some ways, "seeing the past as prologue" helps readers view Robert Moses' emergence and impact on the entire city as a continuation of Manhattan's pre-1940 metamorphosis. Yet in a larger sense, the processes described and documented here are at work, in varying degrees, in every vibrant city across America. Writing ostensibly about "Metropolis," Page also offers glimpses of capitalist dynamics at work in "Smallville," along the coasts as well as in the heartland. Recommended for upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. J. Kleiman; University of Wisconsin Colleges

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
One The Provisional City
Two Fifth Avenue's "Restless Renewals"
Real Estate Development Along the "Spine of Gotham"
The "Via Appia of Opulence": Sources of Fifth Avenue's Development
A Compelling Force: The Speculative Market in Space
Real Estate Stories
Protecting Property
Commerce without Commercialism: The Fifth Avenue Association and the Conservation of the Avenue
Zoning the Avenue, Zoning New York
Conclusion: The Progress of Preservation
Three The Foul Core Of New York
The Rise of Slum Clearance as Housing Reform Jacob Riis and the "Leprous Houses" of Mulberry Bend New York's Real Napoleon III
Decongestant: Embracing Slum Clearance in the 1920s and 1930s
Conclusion: "Cataclysmic" Reform
Four Priceless
Historic Preservation and the Valuing of Space"Sacred Stones": Early Preservation in New York
St. John's Chapel"Life Thread" of the City "Priceless"
Five "A Vanished City Is Restored"
Inventing and Displaying the Past at the Museum of the City of New York
New York's "Attic" A "Visualized Biography" Collecting and Selling a City
Conclusion: "New York's Memory"
Six Uses Of The Axe
Toward a Treeless New York
Natural New York A Bit of God's Country: Central Park Tree Battles
Tree Culture: The Decline and Rebirth of Street Trees
The Spirits of the Trees
Seven Pro Urbis Amore
I. N. Phelps Stokes and the Iconography of Manhattan Island Speaking of Old New York...
Remembrance of Things New York: Producing the Iconography
Frozen City: Photography and Memory in the Iconography
Acquiring New YorkA "Chaos of Memories"
Eight Landscapes Of Memory And Amnesia