Dangerous, filthy, and falling apart, garbage piled on its streets and entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble; New York’s terrifying, if liberating, state of nature in 1978 also made it the capital of American culture. Over the next thirty-plus years, though, it became a different place—kinder and meaner, richer and poorer, more like America and less like what it had always been.
You will have a hard time getting through Thomas Dyja’s New York, New York, New York, mostly because there is an idea on every page, if not in every paragraph — and usually attached to a perfect line from the host of sources he has collected for this history of New York City over its last four rollicking decades ... a tour de force, a work of astonishing breadth and depth that encompasses seminal changes in New York’s government and economy, along with deep dives into hip-hop, the AIDS crisis, the visual arts, housing, architecture and finance ... It’s quite a high-wire act, and one that Dyja, who has previously written a cultural history of Chicago, pulls off without ever losing the rush of his narrative. He slips in telling statistics with the skill of a banderillero, using them always to secure a point and move his story forward ... go have your own argument with Dyja; you will enjoy it. In our current atmosphere of political fanaticism and fantasy, his reasoning is a joy, as are his sense of nuance and his willingness to question his own assumptions. He elides what he calls the 'morality play' that has warped most arguments about New York for the last 40 years, giving each mayor his due — and his skewering — with astonishing objectivity, and each genuine reformer the benefit of the doubt. He looks at the city from all points of view, from that of the poorest outsiders to the Masters of the Universe, and best of all he brings to life the volunteers, everyday New Yorkers, who stepped forward to save their city when it needed them most ... outstanding work...[Dyja] has done all that a historian can do to light the way forward, by so vividly illuminating the past.
Dyja’s history is a pixelated montage, embellished with oaken references to Elaine’s and the Yankees, but also indebted to Google searches and online newspapers for its density of anecdotes about artists and ABC execs, among hundreds of minor socialites and city officials ... As for the mayors, although we occasionally learn where they eat dinner, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg appear less as people than as public-facing metaphors for the changes they wrought or took credit for ... the book’s main characters are concepts, which Dyja even capitalizes: Growth, Information, and Lifestyle. As characters, such themes can’t inspire the empathy or contempt ... This works insofar as it demonstrates Dyja’s main thesis ... Throughout the book, Dyja gives the sense that public-private collaborations were—possibly are—the only way to save the city, albeit with a bit of melancholy for the noblesse oblige of Rockefeller et al ... The future, Dyja writes, is what we make it. At the same time, his vision of urbanism includes precious little agency for individual or collective actors who don’t make epochal piles of money. For us, there are the margins. Dyja’s book has little power of prophecy, except to say that New York will always be New York—that there have been and will be disasters, of which COVID-19 is something like the third so far this century—and the silt of the next renaissance is there already.
Dyja portrays cities with verve ... he boldly anatomizes New York in a phenomenally intricate and revelatory web of provocative juxtapositions ... Along the way, he vividly, often caustically, portrays mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg (with a swipe at Bill de Blasio), and brings forward many intriguing champions of the public good ... Writing energetically in a jabbing, inflected, bemused, and satirical style that conveys New York’s propulsion and contradictions—and spotlighting the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Diana Vreeland and Jay-Z, Tina Brown and Al Sharpton—Dyja encompasses the scope and complexity of the city’s ferment ... A dynamic, passionately knowledgeable, surprising, and gutsy chronicle of a world-shaping city and humanity itself in all its paradoxical wonder.