Urban Modernity, RIP: Mapping Marshall Berman Mapping Modernism

Throughout his life, Marshall Berman (1940-2013), long-time New York City resident and echt urbanite, provided animated and rich maps of literary modernism that rhapsodized cities as privileged and vital sites.  Even in light of his recent death, it is hard not to be struck by the vitality that he saw and felt cities to possess, and whose existence he never stopped reminding us about and celebrating.  As a native New Yorker, Berman wrote from committed engagement in New York’s space and shifting fluidity, and in his works mapped the sense of fluidity or perpetual permutability of urban life.  He showed us, in so doing, that maps are not only imposition from above, or Olympian views, but can map daily encounters best registered on city streets.  Even when I best knew Marshall in the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the inveterate street-walker of the Upper West Side and Broadway who exulted in most everything he noticed on the street.  Marshall maybe increasingly became an inveterate street-walker who took pleasure in public space, and enjoyed claiming for himself a spot on the street, finding a sort of release and liberation on the night-time sidewalks, in Times Square, or at the diners where he so loved to sit.

In retrospect, I imagine his championing of the street’s energy came from the magnum opus he was then completing, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982)–but that his love of street-life also shaped his voracious exploration of the space of literary modernism through the act of being in public.  For Berman quickly recognized that the depersonalization of urban life was not only the trauma and drama of modernity, but, transfigured by literary expression, also a privileged site for individuality.  In ways that are still resonant, his generous mapping of the modernity among cities extended from the city that he loved to the modern urbanism.  R.I.P., Marshall.

Berman’s sudden and unexpected death in a booth at the Metro Diner, at the heart of the Manhattan Upper West Side, can’t but provoke a reflection on his relation to the concept of urban space, from the sense of public space he lived and explored relentlessly as an observer and city-dweller to that which he read so very widely to excavate and explore with a canny sense of the personalized human geography.  For Marshall loved the lived urban environments and continued a life-long fascination he had with the living nature of a streetscape illuminated by electric lights, as if an ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, whose deeply modern possibilities he always felt beckoned and invited and which he was eager to explore.  Marshall’s recent death has prompted several emotional reflections that note the inescapably autobiographical aspects of his work, some of which he would himself, surely, be the first not to hesitate to note.  Marshall’s work was, first and foremost, that of a public intellectual who bridged personal criticism with urbanism.  For Berman often described his engaged writing on modernism and modernist projects of urban space as part of the creative projects of his life.

Marshall’s aesthetic explorations and critical judgements were in ways also maps drew deeply from his own personal experience of urban modernism, a visceral reactions to city planning, and his rediscovery of political identity in the streets.  But those experiences led him to keep a sharp eye on urban space as a specific collision of identities and source of continued creativity that was in need of celebration. Berman urgently wanted to communicate this discovery, and, with considerable vitality, to map it for the future as much as the present–though it sometimes seem that the map was so immense it was one he valiantly struggled to support. From his magnum opus All that is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall’s detailed readings of texts and works of art provided the optic to map the melting of experience Marx’s early political writings in the most fundamental unit of mapped space–the city–whose boundaries and planning provided the basis to assess the relation of mapping to modernity writ large.  Although mapping is often too easily tied  or pegged to the multiple processes of modernity–as if modernity was about the cognitive processing of an undifferentiated space, or the objectification of a fixed and bounded space, and map-literacy as sign of modernism–maps offer a screen able to transmute or conceal social changes, as much as a they register or explicate the shifting force fields of modern life.

In his written work, Berman eagerly peeled off this map-as-screen, in the hope of finding the mutable boundaries of the sense of self that emerged underneath its scrim–shifting from the disembodied perspective of the mapper to the action on its streets.  Through them, Berman urgently wanted to communicate a similar discovery, and, with considerable vitality, to map it for the future as much as the present.  For rather than championing the rectilinear rule used by the modern city surveyors, Berman mapped the experience of the street, from the personal perspective of modernist literature.  Berman’s thought and work was closely rooted in the memories of a generation that witnessed a dramatic expansion of the New York City as a theater of urban life from which, by wonderful creative alchemy, he gained access to the historical significance of expansion of life in an urban setting across Europe and made it his own:  a reader of the two-fold migration of modernism in the matrices of urban life and space, Berman mapped modern individuality within the interstices of metropoles with a literary omnivorousness, registering the most seismic shocks of modernity in modern literature in a map of the personalized perspective of space through such extremely sensitive registers as the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Karl Marx, Nicolai Gogol, Dostoevsky, Andrei Biely or Osip Mandelstam responded to the urban spaces in which they were written and described.  These works spoke to Marshall, since they echoed and provided a basis to be read through the experience of the local Manhattan landscape that he insistently explored as if they were phenomenological spaces, and the sense that the city’s public spaces, if delicately poised to be threatened and erased by the dangers of over-development, were also electric themselves.


urban metro diner


The composite image that their written works offered allowed Berman to recreate a composite counter-map of the “experience of modernity” that stood in close dialectic relation to the modern maelstrom of urban space that Marx evoked. The resulting map was deeply personal and emotional–and even in ways sentimental–but this was because the deeply humanist reading of these texts was particularly close to Berman’s heart.  In part, Berman’s reading of course came from the import that he gave to Marx on the transformation of urban space–“In antiquity, exchange value was not the nexus rerum; it appears as such only among the mercantile peoples . . . . the mania for wealth necessarily brings with it the decline and fall of ancient communities [Gemeinwesen],” Marx argued, and with it the “dissolution of the individual within society.”  Exchange value erodes the community:  “Where money is not itself within the community [Gemeinwesen], it must dissolve the community.”  But the often revelatory image of urban space the he revealed for his readers created a topography of urban alienation that was also very much Berman’s own discovery.

If all places are fictions, to some extent, Berman mapped his discovery of the individually contested nature of urban spaces, as not able to be simply bound or delimited, or understood as neighborhoods:  for in the city, the self in unmoored, unbounded, and open to new potentialities of change. The fluid nature of those urban environments, marked by the fluidity of exchange, was registered from the most situated perspective, Berman was convinced, in modernist writing.  For Berman, each of these authors–as might Whitman or Dickens or Joyce–provided privileged positions on a new map of the modern constitution of individuals in a shifting urban worlds that urban modernism could create in vivid detail, filled with striking aperçu:  the creativity of each writer captured the experience of the city and its promenades as paired halves of modernity–from the imperial construction of London’s Crystal Palace to Paris’ arcades to expansive automotive arteries that overwhelm the individual, to spaces for individual expression that mostly lie of outside them.  The resulting map of the creation of social space that Marshall created in ways continued in his own work and daily life walking the streets.

Berman felt himself a privileged observer of urban space by birthright.  But he became, by an act of generous empathy and deep convictions, not only an explorer of the streets but the mediator of earlier observers of urban space, and expansion of the built environments so rapidly constructed by modernists. While the mapping of a city is usually based on the boundary line that is drawn about it, and that brings it into existence, in evoking the experience of modernity Berman used modernism to map the place of the self, as much as the alienation of self, across urban classes and milieu, mapping the liberty of being modern urban space conferred.  Berman’s death on September 11 made me return to how deeply tied his writings are to his love of eagerly exploring and being fed by the city, looking at its lights and absorbing its energy, and his own clear sense of the New York City–and how vital what he wrote seems to understand the fluid nature of urban space, and the difficult to map the urban environment.  For Berman championed and romanced cities’–and New York’s–cultural wealth, and was the ardent defender of their residents.  These huge explorations of the deployment of urban capital were for Berman focussed on the West–but these were the cities whose literature Berman prized and were the prime seats of capital. In a sense, this map was somehow co-synchronous, with architecture paving a way for a new sense of the habitation of urban space.

Mapping the experience of the modern city became a way for Marshall to come to terms with modernity.  Berman began from the the intensity of alienation first formulated by Karl Marx in Paris during the 1840s, to translated alienation to a perception of an awareness of uneasiness of modern urban life, rehabilitating alienation as something registered in modern literature but that was rooted in urban environments.  Rediscovering a new dialectic, Berman argued that the imposition of a geometric sense of mapping–as Petersburg, whose newly rectilinear city was based on commissioned surveys–existed in a dialectic relation to modern individuality–its streets offered new collision of social identities, and the site of realization of the aspirations that the city itself staged for its inhabitants:  as the very instruments by which the state sought to “modernize fast” provided a new frame of reference for “being modern” and, from this change, for subjective politicization.  In mapping those new sites of urban alienation, Marshall traced a historical social topography of urban life.  The dreams of urban modernism that redesigned urban spaces, he argued, may actually have provided the map for a new political identity, unintentionally, as varied dreams of urban modernity provide the setting for a modernism in the streets–a change not always co-synchronous, but reflecting the progressive accumulation of urban capital.  Berman read modern art as having a clear role as both an expression of and protests against the same processes of modernization that he tied to a new concentration of capital and the creation of a public space in which different social levels, ethnicities and religions might intersect in an endless combination of new ways, as if in a profusion of possible meanings made suddenly available to their inhabitants.

The building of new urban spaces, he argued, created a new space for urban inhabitants to push against but opened up new landscapes of the imagination in their unprecedented scale and cavernous chasms of creation.  Marshall described how, as an undergraduate, he by chance recognized the awesome scale of the built spaces in Giovanni Battista Piranesi‘s eighteenth-century”Prigioni“, with their vertiginous near-abandonment of logical structure as a somewhat unlikely premonition of the totalizing vision of modernity that he new from home.  If Piranesi stressed the invention of the prisons as a new space lacking logic, Marshall took it on himself to celebrate what he recognized in these architectural pastiches as a premonition and version of the huge freeway spaces that were so suddenly sculpted by the urban planner Robert Moses in the center of New York City’s Bronx, where Marshall grew up, in the hope to build “super-urban” structures that seemed to exclude the place of individual experience that a close reading promised to rehabilitate.  The terrifying nature of these architectural modernist interventions made Piranesi‘s prisons both nightmarish caverns where small figures toil, and inviting spaces to observe.

The duality was a compelling emblem that prefigured how modern city reconfigured the self by the ever-shifting nature of their space–and offered new abilities for the artist to register the dramatic destructiveness of urban life that acted out Piranesi‘s graphic images were premature images of the all-consuming industry of modernity:  and they may have set a project of recuperating the perspective of the isolated individuals within them, and of tracking the position of the individual in the rebuilt schema of urban space, and the vistas that this rebuilding offered viewers to explore and navigate along hidden pathways that compellingly invited viewers to inhabit, as well as the terrible overpowering neoclassical traps that they offer and in which anonymous prisoners toiled, but that seemed analogous to the monumental rewriting of the public spaces of the modern world when he discovered them at the Columbia University library one night as an undergraduate, and reveled in the distorted caverns that they offered their viewers to inhabit.


piranesi modernist vision?



These crazed spaces and prospectives that they opened in such Faustian structures provided a way for Berman to enter the dialectics of the architectural mazes of modernity, and the complex sorts of public spaces that they offered one to inhabit.

The jointly liberating and oppressive map of urban modernism that Berman saw as already prefigured in Piranesi’s neoclassical architectural fantasies were almost a confirmation of the haunting image that he readily ascribed to the ambitious city planner Robert Moses’ plans for a “super-urban” architecture that could be mapped over the living neighborhoods of New York.  Berman described his encounter of Piranesi’s etchings in his college years as something that he immediately and intuitively recognized from the excavations for the Cross-Bronx Expressway he watched, as the site of disappearance of a former life, in ways that must have made him intuitively trust in the alienation of the individual from the space of the modern city.  It’s tempting to understand one impetus behind his works as a liberation from the oppressive nature of the modernist restructuring of urban space that Piranesi sketched, or Moses or earlier planners had provided to the urban bourgeoisie:  in contrast to the distate Berman found Foucault’s work and its “crushing” perspective on humanity, he continued to map the lives of the inhabitants of urban streets in ways that he imbued with something like a redemptive power.

We all make maps in our heads daily that bear the clear imprint of our subjective experience–maps of cities, neighborhoods, buildings, or rooms–we use daily to negotiate lived space.  Indeed, as much as draw boundaries around space, we make maps–or counter-maps–to navigate space, open areas for navigation, and navigate the dense interstices of urban space.  When we do so, we stand in dialogue with urban planners–both with the spatial injustices of urban planning, the alienation of place, and the problems of how built space can be accommodated, or with the maps we make from memories, all to weave a personalized GPS system about neighborhoods, stores, cafés, and streets.  These multi-leveled maps of the cities we live in, and their fluidity, provide something like a new map for one’s sense of self–a map, as it were, that existed outside the transcendent division of modern space, but that tracks our possibilities for self-reinvention.  And if the fictive ‘taxi driver’ Travis Bickle from Martin Scorcese’s 1976 film demanded in a voice of energetic if crazed frustration that “the president should just clean up this whole mess here, should just flush it down the toilet,” Berman mapped the disintegrating or decaying nature of the city, both to understand the city and to celebrate it as a source of life. One could argue that all maps, indeed, only reflect the perspective of their makers.  We all orient ourselves by the maps we draw, which tell us where we are, not only defining the boundaries of our known world from a young age, but mapping as a way of reassuring ourselves that it can be known–


kid's map of house


–and that we can manage to extrapolate a relation of where we live to the wider world.


kid's map of world, land and sea


And Berman seems to have made considerable sense around his neighborhood in Tremont, and its small corner stores and candy shops, as he made sense from his immersion in New York.  Yet Marshall Berman’s deep charge to make sense of urban space began with the map of urban change that so imprinted and haunted his perception of city life, and which it became his charge to unravel and explain. Berman often described having observed the destruction of his childhood neighborhood in East Tremont, as a destruction of all sense of orientation, and a point to observe to observe the somewhat hidden workings of urban life.  He recalled yearly pilgrimages to the neighborhood where he grew up in the South Bronx neighborhood of Tremont, for a long time suffering urban blight, to survey the area abandoned by capital as it seemed to be remade; he would watch with apprehension but happiness the neighborhood being re-mapped by its local residents, returning a site of past alienation that so traumatized Berman himself to one of residence:  Berman’s city was the site of the “drama and trauma” of where selves became modern, as much as of outright alienation, as, ever the humanist geographer, he generously mapped those social contexts where modern selves were shaped by modern urban experiences similar to those that he had also witnessed and lived through. His work constituted something like a redemptive ethnography of urban modernity, haunted by planning, but open to the prospect that its streets proposed.  For his own experience informed how he argued that urban architecture existed in dialectic relation to the individual, and made the city’s streets a truly magnetic social space where classes mingle, ideas jump over barriers, and modernism’s promises were transmitted to all.  All That Is Solid reflects on the possibility of taking one’s control of freedom in the face of the perpetual disorder and disintegration of modern life, and both provides a sort of conscious map for its reader for how to do so, and a navigation, at the same time, of the progress of modernism in Europe and in the world.

The creation of fixity in map’s surface most always obscures the mobile undercurrents that run under its surface.  In tracing the extent to which all moderns not only wrestle with inherited formal structures of expression that they to some extent abandon or break free, but reclaimed the margins of the mapping of urban planning as the privileged site of modernity in All that is Solid, by exploring “the experience of modernity” in the depersonalization of the city’s modernity, the maelstrom in which one felt both perpetually at unease and at home, which he mapped from Paris to Moscow to New York as seats of a new experience of the world.  Such a change was not geographically continuous, but roughly cosynchronous, and might provide a way of mapping a new sort of ‘world-literature’ for Berman, albeit one that remained, as far as he charted it, rooted in the West, but if more geographically restrictive in purview than the sort of Weltliteratur of which Goethe conceived, and Franco Moretti has tried to map it was firmly tied to the rapidly shifting nature of the recreation of the physical plan and space of the city, and a dialectic reaction to urban structure.

In this sense, his map of modernism bears continued and compelling reading, for the conceptual interconnections and relations that Berman suggested with his mapping of modernist literature provide a valuable model for integrating close analysis of texts within a broader synthesis–a synthesis less based on markets and literary forms, than on mapping literary subjectivity to the shifting subjectivity rooted in a rapidly shifting urban space. Berman’s drive to map the transformations through which he lived as a lens to map literary modernity.  He did so through grasping the shifting nature of modern identity as a reaction to the form a modern city, in ways that offer readers a compelling counter-map of modern urban space–and indeed of the range of maps daily negotiated in urban life where members of different classes and ethnicities regularly collide.  Literary records provided the basis for his deeply humanistic mapping of one’s shifting place in the world, and of coming to terms with the mapping where we are.  By calling attention to the experience of urban modernity as a coming to terms with fluidity and change, of the counter-maps we continue to  make of the intensely  mapped city and over-mapped worlds in which we live, Berman celebrated the nature of urban space as a way to map identity by mapping the release of energy in the modern city’s streets. R. I. P., Marshall.

1.  Berman adopted Marx’s grand rhetorical evocation of the liquidity of the transmutation of value in the nineteenth century to link a historical tie to the modernism of the city of the 1840s, that not only revealed a site of the perpetual disintegration of value, but as a way to map a modern identity.  For identity, Berman found, was rooted in a dynamic of disintegration and recreation; far from a static image of a crisis of upheaval or decay, the violence of recreation of life in the city became the stimulus and fertile ground for the liberating and affirming perspective on its own transmutation and decay–and he secured a certain stability by mapping art in the city as a mutable site for the unexpected and heady assertion of identity within a dynamic that he believed continued to the present culture.  Berman unstintingly celebrated the basis for individually affirmative art, reading, in a sense, all culture as a forge of self:  his writing resists the transcendent Olympian or Apollonian perspective, however, and offers a map that traces the fluid inhabitation registered in art, which, in the end, serves as a map for the affirmation of self in a shifting world that builds upon and consumes itself, removing man from religious grounds–and engaging one all the more by its depersonalized and anonymous onrush as a result. In surveying urban experiences from London to Paris to St. Petersburg to New York, and even Brasilia, as centrally shaping modern individuality, urban settings framed individual aspirations to creativity.  For Berman the wonderfully close reader, literary evidence was the privileged site of a shifting sense of self that was mapped against the rapid redesign of modern urban space.  Indeed, if urban space was defined by architecture itself for Le Corbusier and his students and their projects of socialist planning, Berman prized the authenticity of urban experience as the deeper, and more meaningful, product of an  urban space that allowed the transgressing of existing or inherited boundaries and identities.  Berman felt the creation of the modernist individual was inseparable from urban instability and depersonalization or estrangement, both evident in the onrush of urban crowds and flowing streets with traffic, noise, and confusion.  Urban experience, in his readings, offered a site for taking its maelstrom by the horns–and he mapped his readings from his own rich experience of urban life.  In his ground-level mapping urban space as a site for endless possibilities for individual invention, based on the sightings of his advance scouts of modernity–Baudelaire, Gogol, Biely, Dostoevsky–offered intensive reflections on how the physical and social framework of the modernizing city unintentionally or intentionally provide spaces and possibilities for self-assertion–all in the hope for a liberating individualism of being at home in a time of perpetual change.

If geography is concerned with place, Berman’s close readings of literary modernism attended to questions of what place was like, how the internal structure of built cities shaped their experience of built space in cities, and how one could understand the migration of that experience of modernity across space.  The spatially situated narrative of the individuals provided him with the records to create a massive map of modernity. Berman’s geography of the urban experience of modernity so strongly appealed since it suggested a new sense of how art maps our own relations to urban space.  Instead of a disembodied modernist aesthetics, Berman saw modernism as fundamentally rooted in the experience of an ever-changing space–marked by the modernism of real estate and construction–and the difficulty of mapping one’s place within this onrush.  The problem of how to map the stability of the inhabitation of a city–or of the mass migration into the newly constructed urban space–provided not only an angle to describe the role of modern art as an engagement of this space of a dislocated modernity, but a map for charting the emergence of a new sense of self.  And the multi-layered creativity within the remapping and mobility of urban spaces that Berman charted provides a way to map the inhabitation not only of a city but of a globalized world–it might help create a map of what Toni Negri calls a laboratory for political experimentation, as an opening of political possibilities.

2.  Berman identified the call to be modern as one of being in flux in an urban environment:”to be overpowered . . . and yet to undeterred in our to face these forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own.”   In ways that crossed geographical boundaries, being modern meant vitally standing up to immensely destructive or totalitarian bureaucracies, a liberating source of unity.  This was a great book of the 1960s.  And mapping both alienation and liberation was more important for Berman to map than the cities–the map that he created of the inhabitation of cities by working-classes and bourgeoisie was itself not solid, but shifting, and best observed, in a deeply humanistic tradition, not from overhead, but from the streets, or from the witnessing of urban modernism that literature allowed.  Whereas most maps are seen “from above” as idealized prospects that we can survey, the peculiarity and fluidity of Berman’s social mapping of modernity lies in how it charts from below:  from the inhabitants of city streets, resisting the overpass or extra-urban freeway, or the skyscraper, as a disembodied view above.

It is only from this perspective that modern art delivers an authenticity that overcomes the alienated perspective from above.  (Berman’s lilting language itself reclaimed in academic sphere a fluid barrage of down-to-earth observations, beside sweeping visions or visionary leaps–in which the city, that huge concentration of capital and built promenades, becomes the living theater for a newly political sense of the subject.) His mapping starts from personal experience, and moved, by sympathy, to modernist writers in other cities,  in an attempt to encompass the places for the disintegration and renewal of human individuality in a realm of spent capital seems compelling because it offers a potentially useful way to map–and narrate, in so doing–our selves in a shifting landscape incapable of stability or solidity, but existing in a uniquely dynamic relationship to space.  The desire to make the map began with the changing city, and continued as a way to celebrate its protean flux.  And Berman’s life-long residence in New York provided Berman the vantage point to map a migration of modern identity into urban space, as a form of negotiating the increased social fluidity of urban life.  Berman’s books run against the grain of the fixity or continuity of a map of space, but in tracing the emergence of modern individualism to the streets, or to the liberating open spaces that streets offered in urban life; they suggested the need for a new social mode of mapping, more sensitive to the changing boundaries of urban identities than the drawing of clear lines.  (He bemoaned the decline of critical culture as a decline of the vitality of the alternative neighborhood of engaged pursuit.)

The engaged city rested on realization of its own destruction or loss, but capturing the possibilities of group action–as the early revolutionary call of Alexander Plekhanov in Petersburg or the 1905 revolution of Octobrists–that provided a vital reaction he wanted to capture in urban modernity, as a way to remap his own world, and to remap “how the encounter in the street becomes a political event.”  And in his urban walks on Broadway, Marshall sometimes seemed to be on the lookout for such a political event. And at the close of All that is Solid Melts into Air, Berman offered readers an almost hallucinogenic vision of urban fantasy that seemed to recoup his own love of urban space.  After exploring the possibilities of affirmation from the ashes of modern urban planning, he shares the fantasy of painting eight miles of the walls of the Cross-Bronx Expressway with their own expansive vistas of the communities and corner shops–a mural depicting “cross-sections of streets, of houses, even of rooms full of people just as they were before the Expressway cut through them all” but also “apartment houses, schoolyards, kosher butcher shops, appetizing and candy stores” (342) razed for the Expressway’s creation, as all cities realize and reenact their own ongoing processes of disintegration and decay–with disintegration the framework for greater integration.

All this is wildly sentimental, but the sentiment is clearly heart-felt–as almost everything Berman said or wrote was.  Berman’s Bronx is Freud’s Rome, it seems–presenting multiple epochs of world history simultaneously, much as Freud compared the simultaneity of memories in the unconscious mind’s  to Rome’s archeological layers, the Bronx mural presents and collapses a panoply of the multiple figures of modernity formerly residing in the Bronx.  His mapping of the Bronx’s unmaking and remaking becomes a key to mapping the processes of urban modernity.

3.  If the figure of the builder was central to Berman’s vision of modernity, the immensity of the Crystal Palace was one of its strongest images for modernist writers as one of the primacy of engineering in building a new space of inhabitation within the world.  The absence of this past–and indeed the severing of the modern world from it–was nowhere better captured than by the modernity of the Crystal Palace–which Berman used as a topos of modernity, akin to “perhaps a shorter version of the World Trade Center”–then still gleaming in all its majesty as a modernist monument. The construction of the Palace provided an image of the dreams of modernity, “all ready-made and computed with mathematical exactitude,” which haunted writers as Cherneshevsky or Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, as so intimidating in its perfection and artificial elegance that encompasses and envelops nature to compel silence and threaten individuality.  Although impossible to be captured in images of the actual building, which became a sort of pleasure palace to entertain later visitors, its first observers sensed the building as a space of modernity and modernism–largely on the basis of the reactions of its visitors, but that the few photographs of the empty shell-like structure hardly evoke–but suggested a modernity, for Berman’s writers, whose form threatened to overwhelm the individual–as an ambient both totally present and dissolving at one and the same time.  The onward charge to remake urban space was based on creating a new space for individual life in which the individual found a new home. Palace

And if modernity was a sense of being, the fragility and triumphalism of built space, promising a future of equally elegant industrially-constructed spaces, the building was itself precarious. As much as present the Palace as a structure of wonder, the onrush of the occupants within the structure, Berman would argue, and within the modern city that featured the social juxtaposition of inhabitants of different social and class origins, created the new sense of a space one was passing through, without solidity, and in which a sense of a future change was always anticipated.  The fluidity startlingly similar to Walter Benjamin’s glass “Arcades,” where the display of urban capital was the structure one passed through, and whose own search for an aesthetics of modernism Berman’s work so clearly echoes and parallels, but whose fragments were never able to fully coalesce.  By mapping modernity across space, Berman evoked an ongoing, dialectic struggle within the fabric of the modern urban map that itself embodied an ongoing struggle itself–and was something like as struggle over its inhabitants’ souls, and mapped its expansion over time. By treating the shifting of urban space as the substrate of the fracturing of modern experiences, the new arrivals in the city were forever transfigured by it as a place of destruction and rebirth that they had never witnessed before–which could not but change, he believed, the level of urgency with which one saw the world.   For Berman’s All that is Solid spans metropoles, moving with only the vaguest geographic orientation, from New York, to Paris, to London and to Petersburg, with an all-consuming omnivorous, whose composite map offers a map of the shifting spaces of modernity.

Berman’s charing of modernity offers a welcome reprieve from the currently ubiquitous digitized maps that privilege the fixed contours of population, opinion, or data:  for it celebrates mapping urban spaces, streets, and neighborhoods, and the political identities they reveal, as a collective creative act so powerful because it lacked clearly drawn fixity.  And the deeply personal perspective that Berman adopted on the city and its inhabitants–a personal voice so compelling that it served as a sort of bridge to readers and the multiple stories of urbanization he told. And the amazing empathetic jumps and leaps that he makes from individual texts to places in which they were written–evoking the Macadam streets of Paris, the marble and granite prospects of Petersburg, beside the concrete overpasses of New York–map a modernism of the mind.

4.  If modernity is in many ways about the abandoning of the structure of the map, and occupying marginal spaces to such a map, Berman mapped the masterful reconquest of urban streets and urban space, by taking cities as figures and metaphors of modernism with which his subjects dynamically interacted in their writings around such unique places like the Crystal Palace, the macadam Boulevards filled by traffic in Baudelaire’s Paris and its Macadam pavement, New York’s Broadway and urban freeways, the newly built spaces of late nineteenth-century St. Petersburg–or, for Berman, Times Square.  Sure, he never went into Los Angeles, or Chicago, or other seats of global capital.  But Berman mapped the seats of modern self-expression echoed in the new prospects of the Paris captured and rendered by Hilaire Guesnu’s map of Paris during the ‘Grands Travaux” of Baron Georges Haussmann, in his Souvenire du nouveau Paris, and occupied by men as Baudelaire–or of the new prospects in Petersburg or New York, that offered sites to engage with its modern space, from which you had the invitation to remap the world, its main centers of development to less economically developed sites.  (Petersburg was his best, brilliant example of the “modernism of underdevelopment.”) The exultance of the engagement with the urban city’s space serves as a vital element of recognition and compelling narrative of rediscovery of literature in much of his scholarship, which traces something like the migration of modern individuality to the city’s modernist space and streets.  Reading, or reading art, serves as something of a correlate for city walking.  For the street–as much as the structure–became the celebrated modern frontier and site for social interaction, politicized confrontation, and, with its potential freedom, for utopian yearnings that embodied a new relation to place, moving from the empyrean view of the map to the new inhabitation of streets filled with urban populations.


Through the writings of Baudelaire, and the evocation of Baudelaire’s own street walking, Berman could investigate the street-spaces left blank in triumphal maps of urban planning–the silences of modernist maps–and chart life on the streets.  Maps as this late nineteenth century view designed by Guesnu celebrated the universalizing of a plan of public space organized by clean open streets, associated more than anything with Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine from 1853, who would oversee the rebuilding of Paris, Berman’s figures revealed the individual uses of that space, in a counter-cartography not otherwise captured or marked on modernist maps of urban planning.

Views such as Guesnu’s or maps–or those which Robert Moses used to map urban interventions–are historically quite distinct.  But if both similarly seek to fabricate a universalization of uniform use of public space, removed from urban experience, Berman valued the local engagement of these empty structures to trace a counter-map of the shifting wellsprings of modernity of the belief that one could be on “equal social footing’ to any other urban residents, as the mere personal encounter in the streets can become a political event in this rebuilt space that, for all its apparent stability, becomes a place to remap the slipperiness of the modern life:  the instruments by which the state sought to “modernize fast” itself becomes the frame of reference for individual politicization, as dreams of urban modernity provide the setting for varied modes of modernism in the streets that he loved.  For urban streets seemed a sort of endless fascination and aliveness for Berman, who walked along every block of Broadway, loved the underground streets of subways, and the streets in the Village and Times Square–at best captured, perhaps, in the complex experience of a painted city street.

Lowry streetscene

Berman felt himself a privileged observer of urban space; he became, by an act of generous empathy and deep convictions, a mediator of earlier observers of urban space, and expansion of the built environments so rapidly and bravely constructed by modernists:  the grand modernity of the built urban environment was the other side of the Moebius strip with the modern sense of self to which it was inseparably tied, communing with Dostoevsky, Marx and Baudelaire in the same breath as he volunteered for his local public school or explored the lights of night-time Broadway or the thrill of gaudily lit Times Square.  These huge explorations of the deployment of urban capital were focussed on the West–not, say, the imperial capital of Bombay or Shanghai, or even Hong Kong and Rio–and extended to modernizing Petersburg, that city on the edge of the West, a brilliant conclusion to his survey of the re-imagining of the literary situation of the individual in the promenades, streets, and prospects of city life, because these were the cities Berman knew through their literature, a literature that registered individual liberty.  Yet although he described the sites for urban modernity in London, St Petersburg, and Paris, his own experience of New York was at the core of that book, taking writers as guides to that topography, and to the disappearance and reappearance at the heart of modern urban life.

There are no maps in Berman’s books, and he felt fine to omit them since his interest was in a deeply humanist mapping of urban space, and led him to read the literary transcendence of physical space as rooted in the street.  Rather than being rooted only in the literary, however, Berman was clear that his personal experience of New York City’s urban environment as an intensely liberating space in the 1960s.  This experience both informed–and allowed him to map–close reading of Baudelaire or Mandelstam, Biely or Benjamin as moral encounters with modernity.  (I’d like to think his presence will live in his neighborhood in New York’s Upper West Side, in the old haunts where he experienced the modernism of urban space as a site where all solid continues to melt away.) For Berman’s deeply moral perspective on the visual and architectural experience of modernity rested on the composite map of Mandelstam’s St. Petersburg, Baudelaire’s Paris, Dickens’ London, or Whitman’s New York, but was always tied to his own visual experiences of New York’s streets.  Although by the end of his life, Berman’s scholarly interests had returned to New York City by way of a history tracing the concept of public space–in ways, an extension of his preoccupations about New York’s space.  New York underlay his sense of the paradigmatic nature of urban experience as a jointly physical and social construction.

5.  When Berman died on September 11 after lunch, suffering a fatal heart attack at a favorite local city haunt, the “Metro Diner” in New York, I had a clear image of him eating a late breakfast in the place.  The wooden frame building on his beloved upper west side Broadway diner is itself somewhat Janus-faced, its retro exterior and interior design in an older, squat three-story building, echoing an older Broadway.  It was a favored site for Marshall’s engagement in urban life, a site of urban memories whose date is embedded in New York’s cultural history–an architectural palimpsest that embody the genius loci and layering of history present in his thought:   it was his perch and office, and his his affection for the restaurant, as other Broadway hangouts where we sometimes chatted or waved, reflect his commitment to creating a personal “place” in a variegated urban space; the Broadway Diner was a sort of vantage point for communing across historical time.  Berman loved walking Broadway, taking up energy from its lights and streets, and even when he walked less, and frequent meals there seemed a way to immerse himself in the public life he also found on its streets, squares, parks, subways and baseball fields. IMG_4423w-89Metro100 For the built city was a mapping of memories and meanings for Berman, where he could trace, on a deeply personal level, the place that individuals created and inhabited in a variegated space.  If Berman’s book is itself an extended structured form of pastiche, rooted in concrete specifics and physical particularities that provided a way to excavate urban spaces as portents  of political hope.  When I am in New York, the neighborhood remains eerily haunted by Berman’s words on the life of modern city streets.

6.  Berman’s colleague Corey Robin quickly and aptly noted that the striking date of his death–it just seems so odd, and so wrong for such a gregarious and open man–at first just takes one’s breath away.   For it seems to fall on a misplaced day–one so widely associated with death.  Twelve years later after the crazily planned collision of planes into that modernist monument, and the demonic implosion of floors of its offices, September 11 has  remained a day of commemoration–and redefined New York’s place in the global imaginary.  The magnitude of the disaster of 9/11 is chilling: it cruelly robbed life from some 2,753 New Yorkers (and over 2,000 employees whose work routines were literally punctured) also reminds us that Berman argued that out of ashes, trauma and tragedy came hope.  It recalled not only the intensity (and empathy) of Berman’s “awareness of death and destruction” but the triumph of modernism in New York, its destruction a twilight of the modernist skyline as two towers collapsed within an hour, transforming paired sentries into twisted steel girders that traumatically puncture public space.  And Berman pondered the possible meanings of rebuilding in their destruction. The very tower that Berman saw as a larger version of the Crystal Palace–that topos of architectural and imaginative modernity–provided something of a closure to the very epoch of the expanse of urban modernity–and the promise of modern individuality–seems to create.  Memory of the tragedy of 9/11 is difficult to juxtapose, of course, with Berman’s life, and any link between the two seems more of a tragic curse than a point of reflection.  The sixteen acres of “ground zero” became negative public space of collective mourning, whose commemoration in one building proved both difficult to entrust to one architect, as if too unwieldy, and, on account of the over-investment in its significance, rendering it a particularly fraught subject of architectural design. Dave Beckerman WTCDave Beckerman And what was a better example of all that is solid, all too tragically, and suddenly by an evil transmutation, at least appearing to burn into air?  If the fragile ruins standing of the modernist monument seemed suddenly invested with poetics of loss, debate turned about what architecture could capture such loss encapsulated the problem of addressing the twinned drama and trauma Berman found so constitutive of the modern situation of urban space–and whose space, like Berman’s Times Square, was itself so wildly out of scale in our recent imagination, and could be difficult to master or control, and reminded us of our relative size. WTC_03_BK-1 reflecting-pool-at-ground-zero The date September 11 was not only one of collective mourning and commemoration of the almost 3,000 men and women who died in the 9/11 attacks, but a destruction of the modernist monument that defined its skyline in ways many then saw little point in trying to recreate.  And it is perhaps appropriate to remember Berman passed on the anniversary of a change in urban skyline wrought by the destruction of twin urban monuments whose size, scope and expanse echoed the modernistic dreams of Le Corbusier, and whose destruction marked an era’s end–or a chapter in the urban setting of the struggle Berman traced of trying to making oneself at home in the world, or trying to do so–and of not ending a chapter, but also holding a hope of renewal.  Berman’s work started from a realization and deep awareness of the historicity of the city’s public spaces–a concern to which he returned late in life–that was framed both in New York’s projects of urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s, but also in the grimy beaux arts monuments of the 1970s and 1980s, coexistent with the World Trade Center’s modernist grandeur. The erasure or removal of this monumental place from the city is now a sort of trauma from which the city similarly phoenix-like emerged.  Deep questioning of what building could ever effectively do justice to so many collective memory–or how their absence could ever be commemorated or memorialized, in which Marshall Berman also actively engaged.  The debate opened a space, preciously, about what could occupy that urban site.

World_Trade_Center_ 1990.

7.  Although the events of that September 11 are something of a perverse limit case of human destruction, Berman remained upbeat in his belief the city would and always had risen from its ashes, that constructions would inevitably come to disintegrate. For he told a story of the relation of modernism and society that was also upbeat in the spaces that he argued cities opened up for lives to be led:  as has been suggested in several of the more moving memorials to have been written, Berman charted a counter-map to the triumphalism of redesigning urban space forcefully charted in New York by Robert Moses, or in Paris by George Eugène Haussmann’s project of rebuilding the Grands Boulevards in the 1860s, focussing on the figure of the flâneur in the liminal space of Times Square.  With Baudelaire and Marx as advance scouts, Berman surveyed a landscape that was the setting for Lionel Trilling’s “modernism in the streets,” beyond what he saw as the “curatorial approach” mandated by academic discipline, and capacious enough to hold the city and its abundant inhabitants.  All wrestled at the forefront of modernity, he reminded us, and we could draw continued comfort from that wrestling. Berman might event have resisted the identifying destructiveness alone with that event, as he resisted dismissing urban planning, however sharply the his neighborhood of Tremont suffered in the Bronx.  He always he saw the city as a form of continued exuberance.

Those interventions were part of the amassing of capital that redesigned and antiquated urban space by design, although the particular heavy-handedness of the intervention was not something he would ever be likely to forgive, but they prepared for a new basis of thought.  Even Moses’ “work gave you ideas,” he argued, and the ideas about urban space and how it had always been inhabited–even if he condemned, with Robert Caro, Moses’ work for ignoring the life of the city’s inhabitants, and skirting around, if not destroying, its neighborhoods, as posing questions about the relation between the rebuilding of urban space and life.  Spiralling back to Berman’s history, the traumatic observation of the un-making of his childhood neighborhood, East Tremont, which he recounted in All that is Solid and whose retelling Ric Burns preserved in his New York:  A Documentary Film, explaining how it offered a privileged point for contemplating urban space, and indeed its perpetually built, demolished, and rebuilt environment and the profound and fragile sense of place it offered. The plan of Robert Moses to carve concrete freeways originally intended to bypass cities so permanently scarred the fabric of New York in the plans for a Cross Bronx Expressway through his neighborhood to deeply effected Berman as a thirteen year old boy.

The scene of such destruction became paradigmatic for the trauma of the modern city, in of the slippage of stability in a modern city.  And Berman found, through Marx’s writings, the huge creation of urban spectacle repeated in some degree in the rebuilding of St. Petersburg, or the Paris of Baudelaire–or other projects of modernity as the precedent for what he had witnessed at the end of childhood in New York City’s Bronx–a context for framing the endless project of modernist reflection on the instability and remaking of urban space in its totality. For it was the Apollonian map from which Robert Moses planned an arterial structure that ripped out of the guts of the South Bronx community Berman knew–preparing for the Cross-Bronx Expressway–was somehow paradigmatic of the conjoined modern acts of unmaking and remaking of urban space, and erases what all maps tell us first and foremost:  “you are here.”  As much as urban development, Moses worked on the manufacturing of new synthetic urban peripheries–the overpasses, arterials, thruways, and shoots, as much as ladders, that sculpted and cut through urban life.


The mobility of walking in the modernist street was a recapturing of that identity–not by reading space in the Olympian map but from the street-walker’s resistance to its impression of totality.  Berman realized how literature offers a recuperation of this walking on the ground.  In ways that oddly resonate with how the theorist Michel de Certeau valued how pedestrians create space in the city by the very act of transgressing the built architecture its planners impose, crossing streets outside of predetermined pathways and violating the Cartesian symmetry traced in its pavement, the constantly creative dialectic of the inhabitation of modernist space in modern forms of being created not only an art of resistance, but a spirituality of hope. Berman was interested, if never framing it so to my knowledge, in the new spaces of spirituality of the urban streets, and the poetics of the day-to-day–from the alleys of New York City to the magnificence of Times Square, where New York touched the world–and it may be that the space around the World Trade Center created a new space of urban spirituality or site aiming at redemption in modern life.  And it might be worth asking about whether that spirituality of the street still survives his passing.  Because for Berman, the human architecture of cities created a dialectic of modernism with how individuals confronted modernity–a sort of anti-Walden, erasing the romantic landscape by its totality, offering hope at  its its margins, in spite of its modern reconfiguration as a place that held in itself little sense being at home or at ease–even in the Bronx.  (It’s hard to imagine Marshall Berman at peace amidst the leafy woods.)


And this was the space he always sought to map–or the space in which he sought to map the birth of new political awareness and identities.  Despite the geographic breadth of the spread of modernity in All That is Solid, spanning the shifting geographies of Moscow, Paris, and New York, or his planned magnum opus on the evolution of public space from antiquity, the city that haunted much of Berman’s work and for which all others were a surrogate remained New York–and the streets of other cities the streets and squares of New York.  He searched for a dialectic by which urban inhabitants shaped space in which meaning existed differently for its conjoined classes, at a tempo and pace removed from earlier habits of work, as its lived spaces opened spaces of creativity:  and the slipperiness of the day-to-day,  the reconstruction of meanings at the same time as the city obliterated the social past, as all values once seen as solid suddenly melt to air.  It seems fitting to re-examine his relation to New York in this context, and the image of the modernist city it presented as a basis for his own subtle tracing of modernity’s map.

All That is Solid Melts into Air traces an itinerary of urban imaginaries as a dialectic of modernity and modernism; cities are conceptual sites where maps that can be read, moving from Baudelaire’s urban onrush of traffic to Times Square via Moscow, chart a quintessential transformations of modernity–and mapping the space in which modernity consumed and cannibalized a previous landscape of cultural memory.  In deeply affecting ways, growing out of Berman’s intensely emotional interaction with the building and social creation of urban space, as bridging sites of sociability on both sides of the Atlantic–that forged commonalities of modern individuality that supplanted or replaced their inhabitants’ previous ties to the past.  Indeed, his map of urban populations is something of a resilient counter-map to modernist urban planners who had forcible opened the city to automobiles. A fan of the beauty of the shared spaces of streets, Berman’s life-long anger at Moses derived from not being able to abide with physical ugliness–or   a master plan without sense of the space for its inhabitants.  For the deep sense of violation Berman got from  Robert Moses‘ plans to high-handedly transform New York as an agent of modernity that he cultivated a deep empathy with urban experiences of displacement, and to the arts of cultural resistance to become “more human and alive than you’ve been before”–and a redemption from the violence of recarving urban spaces without regard for their inhabitants, and ongoing act of resistance to Moses’ grandiose schemes of urban redesign, and all the pounding, blasting, and smashing executed by an urban ballet of the work of “intense steam shovels and bulldozers” Berman remembered as violently reshaping urban space. The superimposition of new structures over the old expanded the hubris of planning the city’s new structure on a poster-sized map that so changed the contours of Manhattan’s northern shores–allowing the Apollonian perspective from which he implemented expanded the Triborough Bridge Authority to link automobile traffic across boroughs, as much as serve their city’s residents–he metaphorically disguised it as an “urban tapestry” despite although its ‘super-urban’ plan lay above the city’s lived space and destruction of the lived fabric of neighborhoods–but which, he argued, if it drove a generation of writers from a city that no longer seemed their own, provided a Baudelaire-like ability to find oneself it the onrush of its streets–the very streets that Moses seemed to turn his back contentedly.

rmoses and map

Berman sought to tell the story behind the silences of Moses’ triumphal maps–or such triumphal maps of planning–by turning our attention to the stories of people on the streets, where they created spaces for themselves in response to hugely ambitious modernist urban transformations that razed neighborhoods, and to map a westernized experience of modernity through their voices.

Estrin CBERobert Estrin/The New York Times

Moses’ mapping was a desecration for Berman–a violation and wound of the commons, as it were, that took generations to heal with the Bronx itself. For while Moses mapped the arteries of highways and freeways to facilitate the motion that expanded urban life, Berman mapped the expansive experience of tis inhabitants, as the English leftist E.P. Thompson considered class as a creation of the experience of work.  Berman mapped an urban secular modernity historically rooted in his own experience of urban space, and rejected its alienating character.  Rather than see the city’s space as marking a site of collective alienation, as the Marxist Althusser, Berman’s city-dwellers are at home without bearings, and the perpetual audience for all solid melting into air.  The phrase from Marx’s early writings became a point of defense and a sort of barrier for Berman to denounce the post-modern, and describe the redemption that came from living through a city being destroyed, but which, on an essential level, always redefined itself from its ruins and ruination. For Berman, the sort of modernity he traced in cities were ongoing and continuing through the present.  As a consequence, in fact, the term “post-modern” would take our eyes off of changes that continued to shape our sense of self and indulge an aestheticized view of space, if not one overly theorized.  The romance of the city was not simply the cool or hip, or the diversity of the melting pot, but a new awareness cities confer of being in a world not only where one is conscious of “how the other half lives,” but which generate a new sense of day-to-day creativity.

8.  But it was in a modern city where one is at ease with unease, at ease in the social maelstrom that urban life creates and to which one becomes so habituated in the rhythm of urban life in which the urban wanderer lives.  For it is, by no coincidence, in the same modern American maelstrom that the figure of the secularized American Jew first arose:  the identities that  men and women like Berman claimed at a remove from their immigrant roots was at ease with the shifting scenario of urban life, perpetually recreating him or herself apart from the rhythms of family-bound work settings or of religious ritual–and through which he claimed a sense of contact with the urban dispossessed. There’s a sort of incantational repetition here of awakening one’s sense of the city as a stage for the remaking of meaning in modern society, and an unfolding conceptual map of deep social implications:   but the city was for Berman somehow not able to be simply mapped, since it remained a source of perpetual fertility, from May Pole celebrations to nightclubs to new musical forms of song that developed on its streets.  Berman described in a “lecturette on the birth of subway graffiti and hip-hop in the South Bronx:  he felt the witness to the origins of Hip Hop and Techno in the dancing around boomboxes outside subway stations on city streets, and the parallel efflorescence of subway art, recently destroyed at Five Pointz as an improvised creativity of urban life–and the raucous graffiti that he loved.

2013-11-21-4Chase Guttman

Owen Dippie & Spagnola

The consuming of this graffiti art, a fundamental form of self-assertion that was boundlessly joyous in itself, belonged to the self-consuming nature of the city Berman celebrated and saw–as in the early counterpoint of fixed roof lines and the fluid graffiti on the moving cars of subway trains, moving on elevated tracks from upper Manhattan to the Bronx. Keith Baugh 2  CopyrightKevin Baugh

9.  The layers of Berman’s own evocation of the city offered, of course, a point of literary and artistic transcendence of his own sense of the torturous nature of urban life.  And here his sense of empathy entered in important ways.  The shedding of boundaries in this shifting nature of urban space was  qualitatively different from today.  But witnessing the shedding provides a continued entry into the map of urban life that bridged that of an immigrant to urban space with the possibility of cosmopolitan discourse that that offered:  one of Berman’s reflections was, indeed, that the two men who had so sparked his intellectual interest in modernism, Lionel Trilling and Meyer Shapiro, if Anglo-Saxon gentlemen, were themselves products of Jewish immigrant culture–whose perspective on urban modernity or literary and artistic modernism, occurred at a unique point of remove to urban life and identity.

If modern cities offered a new role or a variety of roles for the Jew to adopt and to feel at home in, if at ease in its un-ease, that unique space and status anonymous cities offered for Jewish immigrants–a share of its population of which Berman of course formed part, by extension–whose comfort in discomfort reflected and participated in their acclimation of themselves to a dissolving moral universe. From this perspective, the mutability of urban identity, and the possibly vertiginous pleasures of depersonalization, that meant an acquisition of a new identity in a new space, was part of Berman’s vision of the modern that mirrored the Jewish immigrant experience into what was a fundamentally  American space.  It’s striking to note that Isaac Bashevis Singer charted a parallel story of immigration to urban space in the same years that Berman experienced the Bronx’s redesign–and that this redesign of a city, bounded by automotive corridors, reshaped a known urban space.  And its fitting as a way to trace Berman’s own image of urban geography–and the distinction of modern art by men as Trilling, Shapiro, and Berman–from the perspective of the arrival into a new urban space–as much as from its destruction by the Faustian figure Berman found in Moses’s projects of the modernist rewriting of urban space.

The dangerous disintegration of morality was linked to the modernity of urban space, in Shadows on the Hudson (1957),as its characters redraw ethical compasses after cultural dislocation while dreaming of Poland at night.  The book’s publication parallels the very term in which Moses was so influential reshaping the city, but is a in many ways a look backwards from a rebuilt New York on a fixed time of immigration during an uncertain post-war period, a New York whose apartment buildings bear an eery similarity to apartment buildings Warsaw of inter-war years, and is itself a sort of literary microhistory of urban dislocation in a period immediately prior to Berman’s own childhood, where the city seems both a contraction of the world, and a new point of expansiveness. Singer set a large part of his sprawling narrative in New York’s Upper West Side, where Boris Makaver’s spacious apartment reminds him of his Warsaw apartment in 1947; Singer tracks immigrants as they try to find a new sense of meaning in their lives across the New World of New York City.   The book serially published in the very period that Moses helped redefine the city in the late 1950s is a melancholy look back to Warsaw from the remove of America, and weaves a collective melodrama as an immigration narrative both spatial and spiritual, that turns about the crisis of faith in the New Land  in a generation between two phases of urban growth.  It was first published in New York the Yiddish-language Forward–itself a sort of bridge to the language of the Old World, expansively narrating as a new Dickens the stress urban society created on old-world ties:  morality disintegrates or comes apart for a circle of friends, absent any social or moral glue.  Singer’s novel charted the shifting marital relations and social roles and ties of a group of couples formerly imbued with religious aspirations against the backdrop of habituation to the new geography of the diaspora of the Old World in the microcosm of New York real estate and neighborhoods from the Upper West Side, Brooklyn, Brownsville, Third Avenue antique shops, Queens, Fifth Avenue, Eight Street, Coney Island, and Times Square–whose live refract and are reshaped by the labors of making over or rebuilding a self removed from the past, at a perceived remove from God in this new urban landscape–stretching along the Eastern seaboard to Florida.

The shadows on the Hudson are not only those cast from skyscrapers, but inside their minds, as they navigate the city and dream of Warsaw or Poland at night. Between the date of its action (between 1947 and 1948) and its publication (in Yiddish, in 1957), Singer noted that the new state of Israel was founded.  New York had been re-mapped and redefined, as Berman witnessed at first hand, at the same time, at the very same time; Singer’s book described motion in the microcosm of a city which no longer existed by the time it appeared.  The city and urban life was for them both something of a prism for redrawing individuality, unmoored from older inherited roles, as it a is new topography of space–one Moses newly created in New York’s Bronx from 1953, when Berman saw the excavation of that seven-mile long trench across eleven or fifteen distinct neighborhoods including East Tremont, carving a canyon  that destroyed intact existing communities, pursuing a map with disregard for the city’s inhabitants.

10.  As Berman stood in awe of it and exasperated at the over-riding lived space, Moses later projected a massive incursion of urban communities  in lower Manhattan, seat of Greenwich Village, that, with the Lower Manhattan Expressway, whose potential razing of the city’s dense ethnic lived fabric was challenged at the very time that Berman wrote.  The later plans for a  successfully resisted by Jane Jacobs, among others who framed a community-based urbanism in response to the threatened to cut violently into their realities of city life–and insisted on the “social capital” of the neighborhood as a diverse and thriving space, which combined corner stores and residences, and took new value of the composition of its streets, as much as of the arteries by which automotive transport used to navigate.

Cross-Manhattan Expressway

Indeed, Jacobs’ point that the spatial design of a city conditions and shapes how people treat one another in important ways, and indeed organize their lives, far from a ‘physical determinism,’ was undoubtedly an inspiration for Berman’s work–and created a social dynamic that surprisingly wiped Moses off of the map of New York.  And one can read All that is Solid is almost Berman’s Howl a plaintive cri de coeur, painting the current Bronx “as a scene of disaster and despair,” in a city lost in the modernist urban space that demanded the taking back of its streets, as well as a humanist treatise on urbanism and urban mapping:  but less of an individual cry than an montage of individual’ confrontation with urban space.

11.  There was, of course, a great Jewish intellectual tradition in the celebration of the city’s liberatory spaces, and the liberating spaces that urban life offered to its citizens.  Berman’s emphasis on the city’s modernity and the new spaces built for its inhabitants charts a the occupation of a new architecture of urban space, in ways that echo that other master-mapper of modernity, Walter Benjamin.  For the city’s experience, as much as the transgressive possibilities that urban space then allowed, was what Berman used humanist learning to map, finding evidence of atmospheric detail in literary texts.  Whereas the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin found modernity’s maelstrom in the reproduction of images, Berman located the maelstrom in the city’s new space.  For Walter Benjamin, Paris was a network producing an over-abundance of staged images, shops, and print media for its inhabitants to negotiate daily, whose lack of a clear center was explored with particular pleasure by the figure of the flâneur, and offered the modern space that to him, in Germany, had remained forever somehow both foreign and closed in starkly dramatic ways.  Benjamin’s charting of this urban passage to modernity in his own travels to Paris–an experience of encounter that Berman often described as fundamental to his own growing up–provided a sort of basis for Berman to model his own master-map of the unfolding of modernity in prose through literary texts. Benjamin offered a model for moving with a fluidity and poetry that a simple map could not allow, traced out a literary genealogy from Marx to Baudelaire that Benjamin had already earlier imagined, if not fully  cast in the exactly similar geo-spatial terms.

Berman would single out the criticism of Walter Benjamin, whose “very modern angel [of history] is prey to every anxiety and inner contradiction that haunts our history,” as able to move easily in ways “effortless (and unconscious) ease” in modern cities as Paris, from a unique perspective that his upbringing and education offered, “intuitively close to his material” in Paris, even when he “couldn’t fit into German Kultur,” to which as a Jew he was always an outsider.  (The figure of cosmopolitan learning and communion was, in ways, an echo of the similar ties that Berman remembered finding in Paris, when he travelled there after college, and the visual experience and spatial concreteness that he offered–but about which he had only read.)  Benjamin remained the cosmopolitan who looked forward to walking with Adorno in New York’s Central Park, and in his writings on Marseilles, Naples, Moscow, Paris, and Berlin, who, for Berman, showed readers “how to dance in the streets and [in so doing] stake their claim to the modern world.”  This reclaiming of the streets derived, for Berman, on the reclaiming of a political prospect that urban spaces both literally, metaphorically and figuratively allowed.

Berman’s account of urban modernism may unconsciously echo Benjamin’s memories of Berlin, a terse, intensely moving work written on an Italian seashore in an attempt to recreate the spaces where he grew up and developed an awareness of his sexuality in Berlin and the streets where he discovered pleasure in losing himself and finding in his Berlin Childhood–Benjamin was a cartographer of modernity in describing the achievement of learning how “to lose one’s way in the city, as one loses one’s way in the forest” as an urban wanderer, despite his rather cloistered in a middle-class apartment, “overshadowed by aunts who never left the house,” the city was freeing as a sensorium for the fertility of the “slippery, foul-smelling lanes” of the Markt-Halle and experience of urban life, with different social classes and lipsticked prostitutes; Benjamin, nourished on the Enlightenment French authors as a youth, only found the urban topography that he knew and celebrated in Paris as a foreign place that he suddenly knew from the books he had read, and felt liberated to move within, and to dissect its structure in his Arcades.

And Berman–almost intuitively, and as a city-dweller, more than an archival sleuth–continued Benjamin’s incomplete survey in grandly mapping a cartography of modernity across national space in the expansion of the city as a social unit in itself, by clues of social description and parallels, often with less attention to the sexuality of this landscape or mapping of gender in it than to the individuals it contained and the new opportunities for social relations it created. These relations could be as fictional, of course, as they were real, and Marshall had a great sense of humor, or even more of fun:  it is tempting to see the discovery of the freedom the lost orphaned individual in the city who mastered its surroundings in the story invented by two displaced émigré Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who contributed an alternate narrative of a New York as Gotham City as the ultimate space of self-transformation; Superman’s image graced the cover of a Bar Mitzvah gift Berman inscribed to me, Jules Feiffer’s great Great Comic Book Heroes (1965).  In it, Feiffer eloquently described the great personal meanings that comic book superheroes had to him.  (Comics were quintessential creations of metropolitan cities, and Berman loved comics, too, for pleasure; perhaps he read them as unconscious renderings of liberties of urban life–and of the new liberating realities they created for immigrants to new lands, on a scale far greater than other modernisms that they had beheld abroad.) Action_Comics_1

12.  The nested cosynchronous stories of a spatial migration of modernity Berman mapped offers a wonderfully fluid prospect of modernity as a spatial and stylistic progression always vitally connected to the transformation of urban capital– where the fluidity of urban life is embodied on the ground–and the perspective of the person on the street repeatedly illuminated against broader historical structures as if map a new knowledge of urban space. I may have shared it, in ways, or internalized its thematic of the alienation of urban space.  When studying comparative class formation, Berman’s shadow loomed large–as it often did for many–in framing how I tried to describe image of the city’s relation to concepts of class.  Even if I did not know it at the time, my essay, moving rather jerkily among workers’ culture in the unlikely grouping of Paris, London, Moscow, Petersburg, and Baku, across built space, desperately to piece this narrative of modernization together–without the literary poetics to which Berman resorted to make a what a brilliant poetic leap–but my juxtapositions could never hold. The map was hard to create.

Berman was not in that aborted essay’s footnotes or bibliography:  I had internalized the argument.  When growing up in the then-diverse upper west side of New York, some eight blocks away from where Marshall Berman lived, I accepted the identity Berman gave to the city as a unique forge of modern experience.  It made intuitive sense–not only because of the polyglot nature of urban neighborhoods, but the sense of being at home in the unsettled but electric nature of urban life, regularly interrupted by jostling traffic, fears of shadowy crime, and mutually incomprehensible life styles admirably existing in close proximity to each other.  And the notion that one can begin from one’s own urban experience to understand the experience of workers’ exposure to a new image of life–opening prospects or possibilities for interaction–made sense.  The social overlapping of urban space, bridging men of various origins and classes, seemed a sort of alternate reality to the divisions that existed and seemed impossible to overcome in western cities like Paris or New York.  And reading Marxists critics describe divisions of false consciousness that segregated the common interests of urban classes then made perfect and persuasive sense.  (I also wrote the paper in a class led, I later realized, by Reggie Zelnik–whose monograph on Tsarist workers was a work Berman cited with passion as exemplary.)

Berman worked, in the company of social historians, to summon living witnesses to evoke the grander subject of the architectural rebuilding of the city as a social spectacle, focussing on the interactions with anonymous figures, social confrontations, and encounters with the newly instituted police, newspapers, or the popular press.  He recuperated the city as a site of almost phantasmagoric intensity for all its inhabitants, including “men of various origins and classes,” recreating its electric tensions as a space of self-transformation and potential self-realization, in ways which the geometry of the city could not encompass, or where the personal point of view could powerfully pierce through the structure of built totality. For Berman worked with a unique physical sense of the lived spaces writers negotiated–seeing the perspective of the literary as a unique view on social history–that allowed him to move outside the fixed boundary of urban territoriality, and to enter into the perspective of the individual on the streets, or on the ground, with a tactile immediacy that the sources of social history rarely allow, in order to map the alienation and depersonalization of urban space with an eloquence that communicated almost apparitional tones.

13.  The long shadow of the image of the modern experience of the city–not as a space of alienation, or a built space that deracinates, but as a lived space–was internalized from a range of other sources from the late nineteenth century.  The growth of modern metropoles’ whose forms came to negotiate the diversity and differences among their inhabitants, among whom unfolded a new sense of the meaning of time, was indeed often cinematic for Marshall Berman, and revealed a similar taste for the surprising social juxtapositions and pastiche of urban life.  Berman was a major movie-goer, and movies must have provided the greatest mechanical montages of the mobility of the street scene Berman tried to evoke.  The moving eyes of these early twentieth-century films of cities, moving from the empyrean to the quotidian, from above to the street, capture the rhythm of an intersection between life, urban form, and social identity that Berman also mapped, but which is so hard to capture in clearly drawn lines. Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler had classically captured on film the contrast between the machinery-like nature of mass urban panorama and theatrical vignettes of cityscape in their 1921 black and white short film “Mannahatta,” which Berman knew well. Strand’s deep interest in recording the imprint that the city made on the individual let way to his deep attraction to how the city and individual always interact:  the cinematic ode to the perpetual movement of bodies on of ferries, cars, as crowds of the “million-footed Manhattan . . . descends to its pavements.”

In ways that echo the early filming of the experience of streets, carriages, trollies, cars, and of course ferries that are the vehicles bearing mass-society, the film recapitulates some of the cinematic recordings of street-walkers that clock the shifting progress of time and street rhythms in Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Brno.  In each, the majesty of the new built nexus in a society composed of recent urban immigrants among whom mass society daily unfolded, and as the lip of the boat touched the island of Manhattan, lives of new individuals were released and poured forth onto its shores: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGAt0ic52gc Whereas Strand traced cities as the first places subordinated en mass to the clockwork-like orchestration of uniform time, “people moving in the streets,” Berman mapped in them discovery of modern individualism, as closely tied to the monumental fabric; the way that Strand captured “people involved in daily living” in the streets celebrates an urban  experience where routes of ships’, cars, carriages and pedestrians routes intersect within the built environment, in ways that follow no clear pattern or vector, even if they occur across a right-angled intersection of streets.

Fifth Avenue photo

Mannahatta” showed the inhabited canyons of the city in ways that could not help but echo a genre of movies of mass observation captured the rhythms in urban space in the filming of new spaces of metropoles in Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Brno, Timişoara and Zagreb–the new Gross-stadt of the late empire–as the site of forging a new architectural experience of urban life.

This space existed both for architects of the new modern city that were planed for each by the great modernist architects such as Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Camillo Sitte, or Ordon Lechner, and the inhabitants of these rapidly expanding cities where new urban identities were daily born. Each built monumental structures to comprehend the rapidly expanding cities of the late nineteenth century, and grasp the expanding urban experiences of cities as they accommodate workers in new rhythms of urban life, regularly combining linguistic traditions and ethnic groups, similar to Berman’s targets-but-inspirations–Haussmann and Moses, planner of the Triborough Bridge, Cross-Bronx Expressway, and Long Island Highway, destroyer of the South Bronx.  The motifs of many of these earlier monumental builders were the source or basis for the new architecture of skyscrapers and apartment buildings in New York.  And the recording on film of these tableaux of urban life and urban surfaces of modernism suggest a smoothness that Berman was eager to unpack, and make more messy. For the motion through these sites, rather than their stability, is what Berman sought to unpeel the map’s surface–and whose mobility and lack of systematic ordering he celebrated.  Berman loved the spaces in urban topographies that, he believed, themselves, as either areas bathed in light (Times Square) or maybe in shadows, offered an ecstatic liberty of personal release.

For Marshall was always ready to celebrate the sort of refuge that the open spaces of Times Square, dirty or clean, continued to offer as a space in which he was happy, and that offered a sense of happiness:  rather than waxing nostalgic about the grubbier “deuce” of the past, it was able for Berman to capture the pleasures of urban experience in undeniable ways that was a fundamental form of redemption.  “I find today’s Square’s exploding lights and multicultural crowds as hot and sexy as any I’ve ever known, if people would only stretch themselves to look and feel.”  If only . . .

14. For Berman–as to an extent for Benjamin, who also linked Baudelaire and Marx–the rebuilding of the modern city was not only a site of an alienation from the past, but a shape-shifting romancing of which one is part, and a somewhat cinematic spectacle. As the city comes to constitute the new spatial relations for modern self, the shifting social seams of the city provided a continued occupation for Berman’s interest:  so  Times Square, a modern arcade and the paradigmatic shared social space of a shifting self, and a sign of the relation of New York to the greater world, perhaps trivialized in comic if totemic fashion by the monumental globe advertising JVC, but perhaps still containing a memory of the opening of the world.


For Marshall Berman was a huge fan of urban pleasures, and was pleased to be overwhelmed by the disorienting lights and shifting populations–pimps, transients, midget prostitutes–of Times Square, as an ultimate urban myth and fantasy–and also an enchanted space of childhood fascination.  (The excavation of the city was always mapped by Berman as a sort of excavation of personal memories.)  Perhaps the same relation no longer exists in the overlapping advertisements and billboards of the sparking “mall-ification” of Times Square.

For Berman, Times Square was the site of the connection between New York and the World that confirmed, as it was to do for a generation, the centrality of the city as the navel of the world:  the site not only of the newspaper of global reach, but the expression of New York’s capital.  Times Square was not a “square”–but rather an intersection–that offered something of a mental space that offered the release of the confusion of modernity, writ large in neon signs, jumbotrons that mixed images, value, and objects–a center that offered public space and a space of civility we are too quick to discount, if it is also the site of flux and continued remaking, where the world still met New York, sex became a form of metaphysics, and where all was, appropriately, both present and at the same time also wildly out of scale. The sorts of questions Berman had always asked almost pose questions of how to map Times Square–or how we came to remap the obliquely angled intersection of Broadway with Seventh Avenue as a square–“the deuce”–that has assumed a mythic status as an epicenter of New Year’s celebrations and a center for the city’s margins, which opened a sense of disintegration and remaking that was an urban dialectic writ small.  In its scenographic night-time transformation by electric illumination, already transcending boundaries, Times Square remapped itself as a global wonder of capital:  as one of the first areas that seemed illuminated at night–a common characteristic of modern urban spaces–electric illumination transformed the street intersection mapped in a 1909 Baedecker, and racy Longacre Square, here shown in 1880, to an evanescent if intoxicating exploration of an often transgressive space, whose huge proportions magnify midtown Manhattan beyond actual size or scale and transcended its normal bounds, and became an intersection that invited public life.

Longacre_Square,_New_York_City,_1880 Times Sqare 1909 Baedecker

The urgency of the arrow oriented viewers to more than a subway stop, as it had assumed a new place in the imagination of Americans, populated now as much by films as by theaters, singers, or celebrities, as women showing off their bodies in summer dress for Dave Chapelle:  all as if to say, “You are Here,” you have arrived, in the fundamental statement that all maps offer to the world.

16BD27D2 Map of Film Sites in NYC map_loc_times_square

The magnification of this single segment of midtown Manhattan after the new building of that worldly newspaper The New  York Times, created metropolitan “public” space that increasingly boasted global significance.  Its mapping as a seat of spectacle and public life–realtors be damned–fascinated Berman which in itself nourished creative expression, and, bounded by seats of financial capital, presented not only a site of hyper-reality or simulacra, but a generative space on “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty Forty-Second Street”–a protypical urban space, and the unique possession of New York City, and itself a site of reflection on “the art of living together” that distinguished New York.  Berman championed it as the space of competing desires in what Kerouac called the “fantastic hoorair of New York,” where electric lights enticingly beckoned the individual to enter a new sort of joy in its disorered space.  The city’s center, Times Square, was the “bath of light” for Berman that continued to be transgressively opening over and across time, was a comforting sense of dislocation in miniature, if an elusive one to map.

Dylan's Times Square While now it is  site for security cameras, and a confluence of marketing more than news or public life, it has a continued sense of urban vitality and social press.  Its magnificent sense of an synaesthetic onrush of surfaces was best captured in Charles Demuth’s homage to William Carlos Williams’ imagist evocation of the “number 5 in red” in an onrush of urban transit–emblazoned on a passing fire-truck and imprinted on one’s eye–among the intensity of the onrush of sensations in a metropolitan crowd:

Number 5 in Red

If coolly disembodied, Berman would trace this sign as a compact of sociability, and a site of fusing and liminality, where “ego-boundaries liquefy” in a moment of common currency. Berman returned to shifting urban space in his Times Square project, and a projected unfinished history of the historical construction of public urban spaces–singing of the relation between place and urban space, and of the personal sense of one’s place in a built space. And it still exists, as a site of vitality, in a contemporary map of centers of urban noise complaints in downtown Manhattan:   Times Square wears something of a crown, a gauzy cloud in the upper right, suggesting its continued status as a site of commotion and celebration.  Yet, of course, it must be pointed out, this map is not only a record of vitality, but, itself, a mapping of a new shape of urban space, where data on the population is collected and analyzed, and subject to review and monitoring, and a fairly creepy way of mapping its inhabitants by the collation of complaints.

NYC Noise Complaints

We can map, as Berman asserted, a continued assertion of vitality among visitors to the Square, who find continued joy in their assertions of having arrived in this place where they can be happy:  the Square remains a hotspot more for tourists’ tweets , as one of Eric Fischer’s glorious heat maps of the uploading of photographs in cities shows, marked by the diagonal red streak whose slant seems almost to disrupt the violet grid traced by the tweets created by tourists–a testament to the ongoing creativity in its physical space, if only of marking one’s presence “there” and having arrived, and then of broadcasting this sense of arrival to the world:

Locals and Tourists Cell Phone Images

The dense tweeting in Times Square, even stripped of content that we might imagine as mostly banal–“here I am!”  “this is what it looks like!”  “look at me with Micky!”–maps a continued fascination of the space it offers for identifying and celebrating one’s location, as if to make its experience more real–or the pleasure in its being able to be vicariously shared.   And yet, the darker side of Fischer’s map–the means by which these tweets from urban travelers were mapped–is marked by the constant tracking of our online presence and physical presence in the city, and the emergence of multiple levels of surveillance in our changing urban space.

We can thank Marshall Berman for preserving this sense of urban release, and this ultimate transcendence of loneliness–for Marshall was, at the same time as joyous, also an admittedly tragic figure of modernity in himself, lumbering on in its streets, searching for the sparks of vitality that the city also offered–who recognized that sense of tragedy, but discovered in urban space a way of finding company in a land of alienation, where one had to accept this alienation even as that didn’t in any way mean that was, in itself, a cause for abandoning a right to personal joy. The question of the continued existence and mapping of a public and civil space of course remains on the front burners all the time, as does the ability to provide a legible map for individuals of that public space.  This was, of course, the great unwritten project that Marshall wanted so to write.  But it was of course hard to complete, and somehow remained an ongoing effort that, as if in rejoinder to Richard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man, remains one Berman legacy.

15.  One wonders if the project of modernism is in the same way open in the modern cities.  Can one still see the urban space the seat for a modern liberated self, or, better still, map that sense of liberation in city streets, as much as Marshall Berman would be ready to find the continued existence of this space in the continued spectacle of Times Square?  Can the inhabitation of the city still be so clearly mapped as a site or source of individual affirmation, or is this practice of mapping the self–and the space of self-assertion–somehow reduced?  We might turn, here, to the engagement of the city map in contemporary art, as a sort of conclusion Berman might himself have appreciated. Berman mapped the experience of built space as a shifting space to realize personal identity through the art of urban modernism, rather than rooted in or contiguous with the rigidity of Apollonian street plans.  He strove to trace indices to chart of how space was occupied by different social groups–and the most acute register of the space in which he was so at home, rather than the mere aestheticization of the forms of urban life in “this world all spanned with iron rails.”

The cinematic models of mass observation projects such as the films of Paul Strand, as of Dziga Vertov, were models for assembling the dissonant rhythms of urban space as an overlapping or bridging multiple personal spaces, whose poetic juxtaposition created a new impression of the autonomy and stability of urban mobility:  there was an echo of the fragmentary written maps of Benjamin, also a lover of the cinema, in his maps of the very comfortable disquiet of modernity he loved in which nature was reduced to a mechanized space through which to move.  For in the film, the excitement and apparent order of social life was created and preserved, in ways that made it a site and stage of viewing and being viewed . . . unlike, no doubt, the images registered in security cameras. The day that Berman suffered the tragic heart attack was a day of obsessive commemoration of tragic loss.  It also marked a day that shifted the mapping of life in the city–the modern city.  And a possible coda to his life-long meditations on urban space might direct new attention to the shifting stakes in the construction of post-modern nature of current urban life–using, as Berman would appreciate, the new arts of mapping urban spaces to ask what sorts of ability for individual expression the mapping of the city still offers.

If in celebrating the possibilities and vitality of the city, Berman was skeptical of the totalitarian effects of the huge projects of rebuilding of urban space, he refused to separate the current re-mapping of how urban space is inhabited from the huge architectural projects he both admired as modern projects, and which he critiqued from the streets as constellations often in uneasy relation to social change. The nature of what we map in a city where we are all now increasingly mapped–in a broad data collection that has sadly became so prominent a response to 9/11–and which compels us to try to rethink the relation between city and self. Multiple video artists have tried to address the omnipresence of data-collection by mapping of a sense of the occupation of urban space through the reverse-surveillance of geographical tracking devices.  A remapping of modernity underlies how the artist Jeremy Wood ‘draws with GPS’ as a way of remapping public spaces by his daily ventures in London, cumulatively mapping his private spaces of the city’s streets. Wood used the technology of a GPS tracking device to map how he the city was redrawn by how he inhabited its space, and the place that he drew within its web of streets, that echoed less the built space of the city,  than its occupation, unlike the perpetual surveillance of our occupation of urban space–where the city is a site of social surveillance.  There is a tenuous stability in how wood occupied the planned “place” of London:  “My Ghost” is a 2009 “personal cartography” of the city, suitably paranormal in nature, and less championing of the social dynamics of the city, which have been evacuated, than the routes of travel that he took, recorded in an alternative archive to public memory.  When Wood recorded the urban routes that he took over five years in a Giclée print, he preserved the personal creation of an urban space from an urban place by means of GPS tracking; the resulting negative exposure print traces a personal map that results allows its viewers to trace how Wood occupied its streets, by ghostly traces of how he inhabited a dense network of streets in London and made them his own:


There is a sense of disembodiment in the constant mapping by the city of its inhabitants, and indeed the tracking of individuals in the geo-location of their patterns of consumption, physical mobility, or day-to-day transactions.  The city remains subject-matter, of course, but is exposed in its particularities that are at the same time stripped in curious ways from individuality–and a new Olympian perspective seems to emerge. Much as Berman described the sense of being at home in the urban onrush, there is a sense of the residue of that onrush and mobility in Wood’s time-lapse cartography of his migrations in the avenues and by-ways of London.  The image recreated and archived his personalized experience of the place from between 2000 and 2009, and geo-spatial knowledge of it in a way that evades the simply objective map, but reveals “textures created by travels through the city” by finding visually expressive qualities in the “details of digital traces” that he himself has left on it through his movements:  if a geography of time, it is also a personalization of place, and reconquest of it through its “textured” nature of personal dithering, squiggling, or speeding. Is it not a testament to one’s familiarity with the unexpected nature of urban society, and a personalization of the mapped nature of urban space?  “It is not down on any map,” Melville wrote in a sentence of which Wood is fond; “true places never are.”  If urban space is a true place for Wood,  this image of 2012 continues his personal cartography, compiled from 2000 to 2012. My-Ghost (2012)It’s hard to say Wood or anyone could be at home in a space of surveillance.  The continued divergence of monies earmarked for Homeland Security to the surveillance of urban spaces has qualitatively changed the nature of public space in American cities, and no doubt risks to change that notion worldwide, as spaces are now spaces for big data collection, and sites for surveillance against dangers real and unreal, where space can be less easily appropriated by many. At about the same tim as Wood recorded a time-lapsed record of the places he occupied, in a map whose lines seem to wear down beaten paths of streets, like foot-worn trails through a wilderness, the greater availability of new mapping technologies led to a proliferation of ways to record the occupation of urban space that carry clear connotations, as well, of an increasing awareness of being seen and observed by surveillance.

Parallel projects of urban mapping, perhaps more amenable to Berman’s image of the city as a constitutive space, include the marking of space in ways that echo the work of founders of Mass Observation in the 1930s and 1940s, who sought to track the everyday life of British men and women, through the “emotional GPS” attempted by Marina Zurkow, Scott Paterson, and Julian Bleecker, PDPal, performed in New York City, Minneapolis, and Banff, using Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s) such as cel phones to map the intersection of emotional, rather than spatial, coordinates, in a subversion of tracking geographical location in the manner that now occurs daily in Google Maps.  In ways that Berman might have appreciated, “Real Time Rome,” organized by Carlo Ratti and the MIT SENSEable City Lab, collected trails left by cell phones and GPS devices to delineate urban dynamics among different classes in real time, using an open source control system WikiCity (2008).  When Esther Polak tracked the itineraries of different people of different professions by GPS in her Amsterdan RealTime (2oo2), she described the map she projected against a black background on a wall-sized video screen as a “diary in traces.”  Rather than a map, we have only traces of the personal . . .

Amsterdam RealTime

Yet isn’t this sense of a personal map that Wood delineated and these other projects defined, but delineated as an imagined map of surveillance and espionage, now no longer actually private? The new social community of mapping that has grown up in the past five years or so around Open Street Maps suggests an alternative to the society of surveillance, it is true, in which we can all be mappers of our streets and, in mapping, assert our sense of public space.  Berman would surely appreciate its practice of taking back the streets in which we live by contributing to their mapping if he were able.  For the patchwork quilt of OSM maps allow a collective mapping, able to be inventively used to map urban social realities in specific ways, from multiple sources–evident in this nice mapping of London that shows the contributions of different authors in different colors in order to foreground its collaborative patchwork tapestry of recording and knowing space that started from its streets.

contributors to London OSM

Alan McConchie has used alternative tools to painstakingly retrace the composition of the same OSM map over time; one panel of his four-piece visualization “Open Street Map:  Every Line Ever, Every Point Ever” (2013)” used data generated from OpenStreetMap (OSM) since 2004, which sedimentation suggests the progressive process of anonymous alterations of the city’s map over time that create a collective image of its streets, reassembled as a whole–

McConchie OSM London

The resulting map is a graphic residue of individual practices of remapping, reclaiming, and repossessing the city’s lived space.  The web of lived streets that the OSM framework offers is a reclaiming of the reality of urban space, that parallel the increased surveillance of urban space and the fragmentation of public space constantly surveyed and simultaneously filmed from multiplying points of view.  Berman would nicely understand the poetics of the OSM project as a point of resistance in open-access remapping in which the practice of mapping is a basis for collaboration in knowing space.  If the OSM community uses mapping tools as a way to reclaim public spaces, however, responding to the fragmenting that results from the surveillance of public space.

16.  Although Berman rejected the term of post-modernity as deeply anti-humanist, finding  the fragmenting of  space the basis of modernity a basis for personal renewal, the ubiquitous surveillance of life in the city is pretty close to the condition of the post-modern that we inhabit.  It is in the city where one is being watched, tracked, and surveyed by a multiplicity of cameras and other eyes, and in which we are always tracked, and as a result can never really learn to get lost in its many labyrinths of allies and class in the ways Benjamin imagined.  For acceptance of surveillance seems the ultimate alienation of place.  If divisions of class structures no longer permeate urban life, urban space is permeated and redefined by a surveillance state, in the style that Thomas Pynchon has recently re-imagined, through technologies simultaneously dispersed and centralized, by which its inhabitants’ private lives are not private, but openly mapped.  We are never invisible here, or melted into air, and at the same time we are always tracked, made visible to the unseen observer afraid of the public constitution of urban space.  There is a paradox of mapping populations that shift in the city, but whose identity is, at the same time as it is shifting, also always being surveyed. R.I.P., Marshall.

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November 22, 2013 · 4:02 pm

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