Power, Culture, and Place uses the special vantage point of New York City to explore the economic, political, and cultural facets of urban development in the United States. While focusing on these themes within the city, it also asks how the nation’s largest and most important city has helped to shape broader patterns. While it does not resolve the debate about how power, culture, and place influence each other, it does try to frame the crucial issues concerning their interaction as they arose during the mercantile, industrial, and postindustrial transformation of New York City and the larger society.

A number of methodological and substantive assumption underlie this effort. We believe that the emergence of modern, urban, postindustrial society can be successfully understood only through a conscious analysis of the interplay between power, culture, and economic structure. Not only must each dimension be given its analytic due, but their intersection must also be explored. By contrast, the social science disciplines have tended to abstract the realm of polity, economy, and culture from one another, and at their worst, have dismissed or assumed away important interaction among them.

Admittedly, it is easier to assert the need for interdisciplinary research than to bring to life a genuine dialogue among the discipline. While the essays in the volume are inevitable rooted in a discipline, the Council’s Committee on New York City is committed to bringing political, cultural, and economic perspectives into fuller engagement with each other.

“To borrow a metaphor from Herman Melville, places constitute the loom of time upon which choice, constraint, and chance weave history.”

Another point of departure is a belief that the social sciences need to recover from their despatialization. In the pursuit of generalizable results, the social science disciplines have tended to remove space and place from consideration or consider them merely incidental. Indeed, disciplinary specialization practically requires the homogenization of space and place. But power, culture, and economic structure do not exist in abstraction, but in places. To borrow a metaphor from Herman Melville, places constitute the loom of time upon which choice, constraint, and chance weave history. Places certainly result from past choices and conflicts, but they also constrain and encourage future choices and conflicts, thus imparting a distinct pattern to historical development.

A closely related assumption is that large cities have driven nineteenth- and twentieth-century development and will probably do so in the twenty-first century. The close link between urbanization and industrial capitalism makes the first part of this claim almost self-evident. For the current period, this claim is more controversial. In recent decades, economic and population deconcentration and the rise of new urban centers have created the multinucleated metropolitan realm in place of earlier, more self-contained central cities. We still believe, however, that large cities, understood in this new metropolitan context, dominate human settlement patterns and that their central cities produce system-changing trends.

New York City is a particular case in point. Its population and budget exceed those of many nations. Three-fourths of those who work in its economy live within its political boundaries. It is the world’s largest and most diversified financial and corporate service center, home to the largest concentration of corporate headquarters, and a global center for culture and communications. As such, New York innovations, ranging from mortgage-backed securities to break-dancing, have a wide impact on the rest of the world. New York, like other large cities, combines and intensifies the interaction among social forces that elsewhere may be hidden, latent, or safely segregated from one another.

In short, the volume argues that urban studies should be revived as a fruitful and suggestive basis for social science. The city gave birth to the social sciences and motivated many classic studies, ranging from Friedrich Engels on Manchester to Robert A. Dahl on New Haven. A renewed urban focus can enlighten and enliven many of the most important issues currently engaging social scientists.

“By concentrating large numbers of different kinds of people and social strata in close physical proximity, urban areas provide fertile soil for contrasting and comparing these approaches.”

Among these are such methodological and epistemological issues as whether to rely upon individualist explanations, as opposed to more holistic or systemic explanations, or whether to stress meaning and interpretation, as in the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, or to emphasize causal explanation. By concentrating large numbers of different kinds of people and social strata in close physical proximity, urban areas provide fertile soil for contrasting and comparing these approaches. They also pose a number of key substantive problems in a particularly vivid way. These include the formation of classes and the development of state capacity, the role of politics and culture in mediating economic trends, and the relative autonomy (or lack of it) at different levels of the social system.

New York City is an ideal laboratory in which to test the validity and usefulness of our more general methodological orientations. It concentrates and reveals forces working on every scale from the neighborhood to the globe. For a century and a half, it has been North America’s largest city. As its largest port, New York has been a leading point of connection with the outside world, particularly Europe. Its nodal position in the national and global network of cities opened it to trends arising almost everywhere else, whether Asian and Caribbean immigration, foreign direct investment, or avant-garde ideas in the arts. It is a study in exquisite cultural, economic, and political contrasts. While New York partly reflects larger trends, it also helps to generate them, thus putting its own stamp on broader developments elsewhere.

If we return to the questions that are currently central to theoretical debates in the social sciences, we find they can be fruitfully posed in the New York City environment. How, for example, do rapid changes in economic structure influence broad patterns of social and political stratification? The essays in the volume delineate the enormous social, political, and cultural aspects of what have variously been called the first, second, and third industrial revolutions or the mercantile, industrial, and postindustrial eras. In each, creation and decay simultaneously created an uneven and complicated impact across the class structure.

How, given these complicated effects, have groups entering or being created in the rapidly changing urban setting become incorporated into the economy, polity, and culture? How can a common polity, a shared civic culture, be created from so many distinct and conflicting streams? Is the process characterized by upward mobility, a closed opportunity structure, or both? What explains the fate of various group? Is an underclass a permanent feature of rapid periods of structural change? New York City has constantly generated new inequalities, with new groups clustered seemingly permanently at the bottom. Yet many of these group have improved their economic position over time through a complex political struggle. Intense political struggles have also taken place between decaying economic forms, whether artisan production in 1810 or garment loft factories in the 1980s, with such rising forms as the factory system or advanced corporate services.

“Class differences have been enormous for a century and a half in New York, yet outbreaks of class violence or class politics have been episodic at most.”

The current interest in analyzing the evolution of state capacity and autonomy can also be advanced through studies of New York City. State intervention has fostered and shaped the city’s physical and economic growth. This has been most obvious in public capital investments like the Erie Canal, the New York City subway system, or the John F. Kennedy International Airport, but it has also been true in more subtle ways. New York’s defeat of Philadelphia’s Second Bank of the United States in 1836 provides an example of how political advantage helped shape financial markets not only in New York but in the nation. Reciprocally, the concentration of wealth and poverty in New York inevitably makes economic trends into political issues. Class differences have been enormous for a century and a half in New York, yet outbreaks of class violence or class politics have been episodic at most. In each period, the political order and the civic culture have mediated economic tensions.

This mediation certainly took place outside the strictly political realm as well. A common culture was forged out of disparate and competing voices, in part because this culture expressed some cleavages among groups while dampening others. Some city spaces were delineated as the turf of class and ethnic subcultures, while others developed a much more public, heterogeneous character. There are implicit rule governing the evolution of this spatial differentiation which relate to the political and economic dimensions of power. From the debate over creating Central Park to conflict over access to park space on the city’s rim 140 years later, New York City offers much material for reflection.

A final question theoretically central to the social sciences concerns the degree of and limit to local autonomy. Anthony Giddens has written that the city was central to social theory until the advent of the nation-state, which usurped the city’s rights and powers. Much neoclassical and neo-Marxist thinking has reinforced this position. Leading economists, sociologists, and political scientists have concluded that competition for investment prevents cities from exercising political power over economic arrangements, at least in terms of redistribution. Some neo-Marxists have portrayed cities as the product of the mode of production and its discontents, with local politics following the functional imperative of promoting the former and suppressing the latter.

Other scholars, drawing on an older tradition in the United States, resist writing off local autonomy. The community studies literature took the importance of the urban realm for granted. The Chicago school of sociology saw the city as society writ small. While recognizing that things change as the scale of analysis shifts from the nation to the city, Robert A. Dahl’s classic study of New Haven,1Robert A. Dahl, Who Governs? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961). and Browning, Marshall, and Tabb’s recent prize-winning study of California cities,2Rufus P. Browning, Dale Marshall, and David Tabb, Protest Is Not Enough (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984). recognize that cities are places where larger forces can be affected as well as observed and understood. Despite the loss of authority to higher jurisdictions and the vulnerability to global market and demographic trends, this view holds that action in urban polities can have real, systemic consequences because they exercise real, if constrained, authority over core economic and cultural activities.

New York City offers a test case for the relative theoretical sturdiness of these two views. What city has been more subject to global forces of economic and demographic change? Yet what city has attempted more governmental intervention, whether through an elaborate local welfare state, the regulation of housing markets, or the promotion of its own economic expansion? The evidence can help us determine the extent to which cities can use larger forces to chart their own course or are merely subject to them.

Skeptics may challenge the assumption that place-centered, interdisciplinary, historical research is badly needed, as well as the belief that New York is an excellent starting point for such work. New York City’s distinctiveness may cause particular doubt about the latter point. New York is older, larger, denser, and more heterogeneous than other American cities. It is more Roman Catholic than most and more Jewish than any. It houses disproportionate numbers of the rich and poor alike. It has a larger public labor force, more kinds of public services, and greater governmental regulation of housing markets than other cities. And while New York City might be the nation’s most cosmopolitan city, it also has parochial worlds like the Satmar Chassidim in Williamsburg or the Italian Americans of Bensonhurst. How, then, can New York City be taken as representative of anything?

“As a center of influential economic, political, and cultural institutions, it creates and propagates widely felt innovations.”

We believe that New York City is more archetypical than atypical. By concentrating extremes, it reveals forces, trends, and conflicts that are latent elsewhere. As a world city, it is among the first to feel trends arising elsewhere. As a center of influential economic, political, and cultural institutions, it creates and propagates widely felt innovations. Despite decentralization and new sources of competition, it has been economically dominant for more than a century. Its disproportionate influence on national political development continues to today, despite its dwindling fraction of the national vote. From the political machine (and its Progressive opponents), to the New Deal, to the liberal reforms of the 1960s and the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, New York has provided a template for national patterns. A third of the foundation dollars, three national network news operations, most of the leading magazine and book publishers, two newspapers with a claim to national standing, the main art market, and many nationally significant cultural institutions are all located in New York City.

It is surprising, then, that New York has received so little comprehensive scholarly attention. Numerous monographs have appeared on particular aspects of the city’s history, but they are fragmented and without a common theoretical focus. Scholars have produced more synthetic work on Boston or Chicago, or even on New Haven, than on New York. A quarter century has passed since the last comprehensive research program on New York City’s political system or its economy. Even if the skeptic rejects the claim that New York provides the basis for theoretical development in the social sciences, the need for greater comprehensive scholarly attention can hardly be denied.

E. B. White once wrote that “by rights New York should have destroyed itself long ago, from panic or fire or rioting or failure of some vital supply line in its circulatory system or from some deep labyrinthine short circuit.”3E. B. White, Here Is New York (New York: Harper & Row, 1949), 24. The essays in Power, Culture, and Place suggest reasons why, until now, such a fate has been avoided.

Essays by Diane Lindstrom (University of Wisconsin), Emanuel Tobier (New York University), and Norman and Susan Fainstein (Baruch College, City University of New York, and Rutgers University, respectively) provide ample evidence that mercantile, industrial, and postindustrial transformation posed major social challenges. Lindstrom shows that overall economic growth was accompanied by increasing class inequality in the antebellum period. Tobier demonstrates how the tremendous economic drive at the turn of the century produced new tensions over land use in the central business district and the expanding outer borough housing markets. The Fainsteins, in turn, examine how state intervention to reshape the city to promote corporate functions and metropolitan decentralization generated new kinds of conflict. These essays give ample evidence that economic development consistently produced conflict—yet fatal crises never resulted.

One source of order may emerge from learning to live with disorder. Cultural historians Peter G. Buckley (The Cooper Union) and William R. Taylor (State University of New York, Stony Brook) examine the cross-class use of public spaces, the forging of street life, and how the popular culture industry took selected aspects of that street culture and projected them into national discourse. Sociologists William Kornblum (The Graduate Center, City University of New York) and James Beshers (Queens College, City University of New York) follow this theme by examining the reconstituted white ethnic enclaves along Jamaica Bay and their conflicts with emerging Black and Hispanic communities over access to public spaces like the Gateway National Recreation Area.

“Groups expend great energy to carve out and protect niches in a shared spatial context.”

These essays suggest that the social construction of public space has important consequences for economic, social, and political order. Groups expend great energy to carve out and protect niches in a shared spatial context. None can completely dominate or control that shared space, yet the rules of the game favor and project some competing elements while dampening the expression of others. Order and disorder are not polar conditions; order is instead built upon the particular way disorder takes place.

Political scientists Amy Bridges (University of California, San Diego), Martin Shefter (Cornell University), and John H. Mollenkopf argue that the framework of political participation also helps to harness conflict. For Bridges, the political interests of the urban immigrant working class were defined by America’s (and New York’s) great political invention, the professional political party or machine, because universal white male suffrage preceded the formation of that class. Shefter traces how the nineteenth-century machine–reform dialectic was transposed into the relatively stable, and for a time uncontested, pluralism of the 1950s and early 1960s. Mollenkopf analyzes how the economic, fiscal, and racial trauma of the late 1960s and 1970s affected the position of different groups in the political arena and speculates on why it remained stable nonetheless.

Three reflective essays are offered in place of any firm conclusions. Thomas Bender (New York University) echoes earlier essays by urging historians to place the study of public spaces at the center of their analysis of cities, thus returning a political dimension to the “new social history.” John Mollenkopf reflects on the paradox that political parties have decayed as a means of representation at the same time that state efforts to shape the physical environment have become stronger. Finally, Ira Katznelson (New School for Social Research) critically reviews how major social theorists have viewed the city and offers suggestions for future work.

These essays only begin to substantiate the assumptions that provide the starting point for the volume. Do culture, politics, and economics really have an equally significant influence on New York’s development? How do they intersect? Do the essays bear out the contention that the particular shared spatial context helps shape how these domains are woven together? What distinct pattern, if any, has New York stamped on larger social trends? What evidence is there that New York has driven larger development patterns? Or has it progressively lost ground to external forces?

The Committee on New York City will pursue these issues in the coming year through research programs on (1) reconstructing the built environment, (2) New York and the wider world, and (3) changing patterns of inequality. These subjects have been chosen because they allow economic, political, and cultural perspectives to be brought to bear and they contribute to theoretical development in the social sciences.

The working group on the built environment will examine the building, use, and understanding of the physical city. It will focus on the 1880–1920 period in which the construction of several hundred skyscrapers transformed the skyline and captured the essence of modernity.

The second working group will study the changing relationships between New York and the wider economy, the political system, and cultural institutions. If New York institutions have fostered important national changes, then a focus on their activities should reveal largely unexplored relations between economic, political, and cultural development. This effort will explore, in effect, New York’s “foreign policy,” asking if its leadership can be sustained in the face of technological change and the dispersion of power.

“Old patterns of inequality have thus been undermined, even a new ones are created.”

The working group on the changing nature of inequality will analyze the economic, social, and political ramifications of the current “postindustrial revolution.” Manufacturing decline, the rise of services, and internalization of the city’s businesses and population have been particularly rapid since the 1960s. Racial and ethnic succession, the rise of new social strata and the decline of old ones, and economic restructuring have posed severe challenges to the city’s economy, polity, and civic culture. Trends toward polarization and a new middle class are both evident. Old patterns of inequality have thus been undermined, even a new ones are created.

This article is adapted, with permission of the publisher, from the introduction to his 1988 edited volume, Power, Culture, and Place: Essays on New York City, sponsored by the committee, the volume is copyrighted by the Russell Sage Foundation. The committee’s activities are made possible by grants from the Russell Sage and Spenser foundations as well as by financial support from the Robert F. Wagner, Sr. Institute of Public Policy, City University of New York.

John H. Mollenkopf is distinguished professor of political science and sociology and is director of the Center for Urban Research, both at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He also was a member of the Council’s Committee on New York City.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 42, No. 3 in September of 1988. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.


Robert A. Dahl, Who Governs? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961).
Rufus P. Browning, Dale Marshall, and David Tabb, Protest Is Not Enough (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).
E. B. White, Here Is New York (New York: Harper & Row, 1949), 24.