A New Book About Our Old City

Thomas Dyja’s history of NYC’s last 40 years focuses on “urban pioneers” who helped improve — if not save — this place we call home

| 07 Apr 2021 | 12:02

Thomas Dyja, who lives on the Upper West Side, has spent the last eight years raising two children, publishing a book about Chicago, and now penning, arguably, the most complete and entertaining history of New York’s last forty years. The just-released book is called “New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess and Transformation.” The title refers not to a Broadway tune, but to a quote from Holly Whyte, who was once asked to name the three greatest cities.

Whyte is one of many notable figures in the book. Dyja doesn’t use words like heroes (”Because we tend to raise people up and then knock them down,” he told me), but he does focus on those he calls “urban pioneers.” Their names may not be instantly familiar, but they helped improve — if not save — this place we call home.

Whyte, for one, was an “urbanist” and writer who, among many efforts, helped bring Bryant Park back from the dead. Gordon Davis was Mayor Koch’s Parks Commissioner, (think of him as you enjoy Central Park’s Sheep Meadow); Larry Kramer brought AIDS to the forefront; and many more. Their contributions make navigating so much information, over so many pages, easier, and frankly, inspiring. “These were mostly community organizers of sorts,” says Dyja, “just folks who realized they have their own kind of power, who said, ‘I live here too.’”

What spurred this book was observing and listening and reading iconic warnings like Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “As we got to the end of the Bloomberg years, there were so many changes taking place,” says the author. “Some good ideas had been hijacked, the discussions had turned so binary, and the theme was ‘the soul of New York is dying.’ But as I started diving in, I realized the soul changed, but it didn’t disappear. I did not sit down with a hypothesis, but I wanted to get to one.”

Mayors: Mixed Reviews

He gets to many, and all the subjects are here: public spaces (“We are always looking for space and we keep running out of it,” he writes ); gentrification (“encouraging middle class people to return from the suburbs to inner city neighborhoods”); crime; (“a sense of danger folded into our public life”); and leadership. As for those who ran the city over the years, all get mixed reviews. Mayor Ed Koch receives the most ink. “He really did take the city on so many different turns during his years,” says Dyja. “He was an ‘all-lives matter’ guy in some ways, but ultimately not great on race. Dinkins was better and worse at the same time, with lack of focus and engagement. Giuliani took on Wall Street and the mob, was a fusion Republican, and, of course, on 9/11 expressed what we all were feeling.” That was then.

The book is generally fair to names both large and small. Money allowed the Rockefellers to build space that went up — as in vertical — but “they did it with great concern for the city in which they lived,” says Dyja. And that guy who splashed his name over many city buildings? “Trump is not a major character, more of a thematic one,” says the author. Still, the Trump-Roy Cohn pas de deux is not ignored, and Dyja writes, “Of all the things Abe Beame can be blamed for, Donald J. Trump is by far the worst.”

There are statistics aplenty here. (Who knew that 2500 magazines emerged between 1979 and 1989? And that 60% of Harlem’s population left between 1950 and 1980?) But the author’s goal was “to find meaning behind the numbers.” And little is left out, including sports (“When the Yankees win, New York wins,’ he writes), the arts, and one form of music in particular. “Hip-hop may be New York’s greatest contribution of the last 50 years,” he claims. And he’s not just talking about what it did for Alexander Hamilton. The quotes from those he interviewed are memorable: For example, Jules Feiffer describes the late eatery Elaine’s as “a men’s club for the literary lonely.”

This is a book about history, but Dyja admits things were changing dramatically as he was finishing up: Trump’s presidency, Giuliani’s reputation, Black Lives Matter, and most important, the pandemic. He had enough time to write a new introduction, and an epilogue. “I even had to do a crash course on de Blasio,” he says. “But we were — and are — at a moment of crisis. Pandemics show us where all the cracks are. We are in the process of the city’s next moral compass.”

Meanwhile, he tries not to check sales charts for the book, though it received a rave from the New York Times. (“A tour de force, a work of astonishing breadth and depth.”)

“That was a game-changer, at least for now,” Dyja admits. “But I’m in it for the long game.”

Thomas Dyja will be virtually interviewed at the Whitney Museum on 4/29. https://whitney.org/events/thomas-dyja-adam-weinberg-in-conversation