A year and a half has passed since the Council appointed a Committee on New York City. This step was neither obvious nor taken without some controversy. Why not a committee on urbanism, or on comparative urban studies? In what sense does New York provide an appropriate focus for a Council research planning committee? Would such a group not tend to antiquarianism and parochialism?

The committee is still in its formative stage. Yet it is not too early to report how it defines its tasks and how it sees its relationship to history, the social sciences, and urban studies. In part, these orientations remain prospective, but there has been enough of a start to the committee’s activities to demonstrate how it has begun to put them into practice.

Analytical perspectives

“Cities are not things in themselves, but vantage points from which to study such matters as patterns of state building and public policy, the making and remaking of culture, and economic change.”

New York City as the committee’s geographical focus immediately raises questions about any city as a unit of analysis and of the choice of this city in particular. It is a commonplace to say that the field of urban studies, and the subfields of urban politics, urban history, urban economics, urban sociology, etc., are in disarray. This is the case, in part, because urbanists have sought to constitute cities as autonomous objects of analysis. This committee has begun, instead, with a rejection of Fernand Braudel’s injunction to study the “town itself, outside the economy or civilization containing it” (a position justified by the claim that “all towns have certain common characteristics and that such characteristics more or less persist from one period to another”1Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 373.); and by affirming Philip Abrams’ proposal that we should study the cultural, political, and economic relationships concentrated spatially in cities “in relation to our understanding of the system in which they occur and not as exemplars of an autonomous urban reality.”2Philip Abrams, “Towns and Economic Growth: Some Theories and Problems,” in Towns in Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology, eds. Philip Abrams and E. A. Wrigley (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 30. From this broad orienting position, cities are not things in themselves, but vantage points from which to study such matters as patterns of state building and public policy, the making and remaking of culture, and economic change.

The central aim of the committee is to draw on 200 years of New York City’s history to understand how culture, politics, and economics interact in a shared spatial context. This goal complements the microanalysis of individual populations and the macroanalysis of societies, states, and class and group formations. The former tends to miss how contexts shape individual actions, while the latter often overlooks the local roots of large-scale trends. The committee is using a single, very complicated, city to explore how the diverse components of a society are bound together, how the relations between them change over time, and how a compact spatial arena effects the construction of the society it contains.

Geographers have long pressed for greater considerations of space and place but relatively few American social scientists and historians have made the interaction of economic, political, and cultural dimensions in a particular place central to their research. Studies have often been made of populations as a whole, with little regard to crucial variations from place to place, or to how the urban container, to use an image of Lewis Mumford, shapes its contents. Our focus on the historical development of a particularly complex and significant place will bring these ordinarily separate objects of scholarly discourse together.

The usual omission of the spatial dimension is not trivial. Social constructions of culture, politics, and economics—and the interactions among them—are inevitably bounded in space and informed by place, giving society its texture and dynamics. A historical focus on a particular place forces the analyst to confront long-term interactions that might not otherwise seem worth exploring.

If, as a group, we share contextual and spatial points of departure, we also agree on a developmental approach to urban studies that is disrespectful of traditional boundaries between history, social science, and policy analysis. Urban studies have been artificially segregated in this way, as even a cursory bibliographical survey would reveal.

We are not studying just any place, of course. New York City stands at the intersection of two systems. More than any other city in the United States, New York is a “world city.” It is the globe’s premier capital market, a major port, a key node in the world art market, a center of international politics. As such, New York is one of a handful of cities connecting a global system of relationships: it stands between that system and the interior of the United States.

New York also stands at the apex of the North American system of cities. It concentrates features found in most other American cities, including problems of postindustrialism, ethnic conflict, and race relations; issues of governance central to democratic theory; and the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. Other cities find New York both a denser and more magnified version of themselves and an important part of their environment.

New York is certainly not representative of other cities or American society in general. Nevertheless, because it has long been a central nodal point in the historical interplay of cultural, political, and economic forces in American society, “local knowledge” of New York, in the broad tradition of space-specific work such as that of Carl Schorske on Vienna, Clifford Geertz on Bali, and Morris Janowitz on Chicago, can provide one valuable way to study many current issues in the social sciences.

“A place as rich and complex as New York provides a good vantage point from which to explore interactions that might be missed on a larger scale.”

It may be objected that it is impossible to generalize from one case, especially one as unusual as New York City. Obviously, no general proposition can be proven on the basis of a sample of one. Our concern, however, is not so much to prove hypotheses as to generate new ones. A place as rich and complex as New York provides a good vantage point from which to explore interactions that might be missed on a larger scale. A focus on a single place forces consideration of the interaction within a shared space of causal dimensions that are usually analyzed separately. The compression of social processes in the city may also expose latent interactions to more direct view. The city enables us to look at these interactions at different points in time, or with respect to different issues, and ask what accounts for different outcomes. The results of such efforts can help to improve the quality of both larger scale comparative studies and policy analysis.

Like policy analysts more generally, students of urban public policy often display only instrumental, short-term, issue-specific horizons. Improved policymaking depends less on more refined applications of existing techniques than on a better understanding of basic social processes. We think the kind of research we wish to encourage on New York City can provide a richer, more multidimensional understanding of the forces shaping social problems. By contrasting periods of time and phases of development, we will be able to see how problems developed, what the long-term consequences of the responses have been, and how they in turn generated new kinds of problems.

Current scholarship on New York is extremely uneven. A large and growing monographic literature examines the city’s history, social groups, institutions, cultural and intellectual life, architecture, economics, and politics and government. Younger scholars have produced much of this work. Yet it is fragmented, lacking a common theoretical agenda or a clear relationship to broader analyses of cultural, political, and economic processes. The complexity of the city has disarmed its students. Institutional and disciplinary barriers thwart dialogue among them.

As a result, little coherent, synthetic work on the city exists. The last integrated history of New York was written in the 1860s. The last large-scale collaborative effort to make sense of New York, the New York Metropolitan Region Study, is now a quarter of a century old. Coverage of basic facets of the city’s development is incomplete and haphazard; even the resources available for studying the city are poorly cataloged and suffer from curatorial neglect.

The committee, nonetheless, is optimistic about the quality of current scholarly interest in New York. The city’s prominence makes it attractive to a large scholarly community. Many scholars who are not specifically studying New York are facing theoretical and substantive problems similar to those we have identified. Prospects for comparative work are inviting.

In practical terms, the committee is attempting to bring together, and invigorate, a community of scholars. Its early activities, and the warm interest they have elicited, testify to this possibility.

Committee organization and activities

The committee is presently composed of nine scholars: Thomas Bender (history, New York University); Manuel Castells (urban planning, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Madrid); Michael Conzen (geography, University of Chicago); Ira Katznelson, chair (political science, New School for Social Research); Diane Lindstrom (economic history, University of Wisconsin); John Mollenkopf (political science, Graduate Center, City University of New York); Elizabeth Roistacher (economics, Queens College, City University of New York); Mary Ryan (history, University of California, Davis); and Martin Shefter (government, Cornell University). David L. Szanton, an anthropologist, serves as staff to the committee.

As a group, we are not the first to complain that students of culture, politics, and economics rarely communicate with each other, or fail to take space seriously. What we have begun to do in our early activities is to spell out what a specific urban focus can contribute to the intersection of these domains. Some early activities of the committee are worthy of note: an initial volume edited by John Mollenkopf, “Power, Culture, and Place: Essays on New York City”; the early work of three working groups; and a historical map project.

“Power, Culture, and Place,” to be published in late 1987, is based on papers given at a series of conferences that led up to the founding of the committee. The essays examine three themes—cultural hegemony, political transformation, and economic restructuring—at three moments of large-scale transformation in the city’s history (the mercantile, industrial, and postindustrial periods).

“In the context of dramatic inequalities, culture can both legitimate and undermine political authority.”

How, in the midst of endemic economic inequality and social heterogeneity is public consent achieved? New York City presents this issue in an intensified microcosm—more unequal, more culturally diverse, yet still stable. In the context of dramatic inequalities, culture can both legitimate and undermine political authority. Several papers in the volume illustrate the different ways both consent and dissent have been constructed through collective spectacles, public spaces, and popular culture. Peter G. Buckley, New York Institute for the Humanities, portrays the rise of a popular culture distinct from upper-class “society” before the Civil War. Multiclass participation in newly-invented forms like political clubs or P.T. Barnum’s amusements helped moderate the symbolism and rhetoric of class differences. Yet in the Astor Place Riot, these mechanisms were unavailing. William R. Taylor, State University of New York, Stony Brook, argues that a revolution of scale and complexity took place in mass culture at the end of the nineteenth century, and that its elements (like yellow journalism or Tin Pan Alley songs) were accessible to, if not quite shared by, a cross-class, cross-ethnic, cross-sex public. William Kornblum and James Beshers, both Graduate Center, City University of New York, describe the contemporary flight from common spaces to which different groups attach their own meanings in the (re)creation of white, middle-class, ethnic enclaves on the periphery of the city.

By patterning our power and political mobilization, political institutions have historically contained the tension between economic inequality and political democracy. The order of such a political order is not a given. It must be explained. The rich literature on the American party system, associated with such scholars as V.O. Key and Walter Dean Burnham, that trace changes in the rule and practice of politics at moments of breakdown and crisis, rarely examines the urban roots of the national political order. And yet, after the Industrial Revolution, urban, or, more properly, metropolitan locations have been the most potent sources of national power.

Amy Bridges, Harvard University, argues that preindustrial New York contributed both the oldest continually existing political organization, the New York County Democracy, and helped to shape the basic nature of national party competition. These political forms also influenced the formation of a distinctively American working class. For Shefter, as for Bridges, national politics is directly related to local politics. Accordingly, he argues that reform efforts in New York picked up great momentum from their nationalization of its major precepts, and that, in turn, national policy shaped local political developments, shifting the methods by which local interests reached accommodation between the New Deal and the 1950s. Norman I. Fainstein, New School for Social Research, and Susan S. Fainstein, Rutgers University, in complementary ways, show how federal tools enabled local actors to remake New York’s physical and social terrain.

The papers on economic restructuring in the book also demonstrate the usefulness of historical and interdisciplinary approaches. Lindstrom shows how it came to be that New York City emerged as the first, largest, densest concentration of institutions driving American economic transformation, and she demonstrates the massive inequalities this early process produced. Emmanuel Tobier, New York University, demonstrates how the massive physical changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century city, including the changing scope and form of the central business district, reflected national and international trends, and how alterations to the built form influenced such local matters as the creation of new middle-class living standards. Mollenkopf ties together various strands of the recent restructuring of the American economy, their impact, often devastating, on the mature industries of New York, and the emergence of the office and telecommunications as the key symbols of the urban economy.

What distinguishes these various essays, as well as the synthetic conclusions by Bender (“Reflections on a Private World in a Public Culture”); Katznelson (“Reflections on Politics and Space”); and Mollenkopf (“Reflections on the Political Economy of Development”), is their refusal to live neatly within the bounds of culture, politics, or economics. The same kind of cross-disciplinary orientation also characterizes the committee’s initial working groups, each of which has begun to meet and to work toward a volume in the committee series.

The topics of the three working groups—The Built Environment, The Dual City, and Metropolitan Dominance—were selected because they raise issues central to understanding how cultural, economic, and political forces interact to shape New York City and contemporary society; because they have been continuous and important focal points for debate and action in the city during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and because they have been the subject of sufficient, if disparate, scholarship to allow for confrontation, integration, and synthesis.

“This working group has begun to examine how culturally diverse groups, government intervention, and the marketplace have carved New York into its complex, ever-changing patterns of land use, social functions, and social groupings.”

The working group on the Built Environment, chaired by Bender, is asking how various large-scale social processes have produced physical change in New York, which in turn contain and give texture to these processes. This working group has begun to examine how culturally diverse groups, government intervention, and the marketplace have carved New York into its complex, ever-changing patterns of land use, social functions, and social groupings. It is inquiring about what civic ideals and material interests imply for particular urban forms, and what techniques, whether scientific, market-based, educational, or governmental, were used to carry them out. It is focusing particular attention on how practice redefines intentions as various groups attach private or group meanings to physical places and plans and contend for power to make their meanings the public definition. In this way, the working group is concerned with interpretation as well as with the making of the built-form itself. It seeks the meaning of spatial change for the evolving cultural, political, and economic ordering of the city’s life.

The working group on the Dual City, chaired by Castells, is also concerned with inequality, space, and meaning as it confronts the massive restructuring now under way in New York. Dualism has long been a metaphor used to characterize the complicated process in which immigrant streams have intersected with the city’s changing lattice of industries and occupations. As groups concentrate in economic niches, by choice or by necessity, a cultural division of labor has been produced. At moments of restructuring, the division of labor breaks apart and a new one is created.

An intrametropolitan dualism is now emerging in New York, characterized by sharp contrasts between the affluent and the destitute. New managerial and professional strata associated with the advanced corporate sector are growing rapidly; but so are new, low-skilled, service occupations filled more often than not by women and recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Asia, and other Third World areas. A middle class largely built upon the generational upward mobility of second and third generation descendants of earlier immigrant communities has evolved between the poles of wealth and poverty. The current wave of gentrification amidst austerity may well be making middle-class status more precarious, prompting the drawing of hard, often bitter, lines between the city’s middle-class white ethnics and its poorer minority groups.

New York emerged as America’s leading metropolis early in the nineteenth century. Although the city has retained its paramount position, this achievement, the subject of the working group on Metropolitan Dominance, chaired by Shefter, cannot be explained simply by early preeminence plus the benefits of inertia. New York’s elite have had to adjust to changes in the broader economic, political, and cultural systems within which the city is enmeshed. The near collapse of the city’s economy and its brush with bankruptcy in the 1970s indicate that the success of such adjustments cannot be guaranteed.

In examining the innovations needed to make these adjustments, the working group will examine New York’s “exports” and “foreign relations.” It will ask how New York has gained and reinforced its position relative to other cities in the realms of culture, economics, and politics; how this dominance affected, and has been affected by, national and international developments; and how New York’s position in one domain has influenced its position in the others.

In addition to its working groups, the committee has initiated a historical map project. In an initial stage, Jeffrey Kroessler, Graduate Center, City University of New York, is preparing a much-needed guide to the map resources of greater New York which will both describe private and public collections and cross-index map resources by decade and by type, thus giving the reader an idea of temporal and areal variability in topical coverage. One possible, very ambitious, goal of the project would be the creation of a synthetic and interpretive historical atlas of New York City, whose conceptualization, coverage, organization, and materials would grow out of the committee’s research.

The committee’s work has been launched with the generous support of the Russell Sage and Spencer foundations. We are very grateful for this assistance.

The present article borrows liberally from various documents prepared collectively by members of the Council’s Committee on New York City. These include the proposal submitted to the Council by Thomas Bender, Ira Katznelson, and John Mollenkopf in May 1985 and subsequent submissions to the Russell Sage and Spencer foundations.

Ira Katznelson is Columbia University’s interim provost, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, and deputy director, Columbia World Projects. He served on the Committee on New York City (1985–91) and was president of the Social Science Research Council between 2012 and 2017.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 40, No. 3–4 in December of 1986. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.


Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 373.
Philip Abrams, “Towns and Economic Growth: Some Theories and Problems,” in Towns in Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology, eds. Philip Abrams and E. A. Wrigley (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 30.