Hefty slices of the Big Apple

The Encyclopedia of New York City - New York 1960
May 10, 1996

New York 1960 is the third in a series of books on the architectural development of New York City; previous volumes were New York 1900 and New York 1930. No other publication has the scope, breadth of knowledge or documentation of this series - its extraordinary compendium of data and photographs, which is a milestone in the description of the city's architecture.

The latest book deals with the postwar period of massive expansion and building associated with the Robert Moses era of master-planned urban design. This period saw the most dramatic reshaping of the city's appearance and architecture in its 370-year history.

The author is a highly regarded practising architect, and a professor at Columbia University, where he directs the historic preservation programme. So his book is really a manifesto in purdah for architectural enthusiasts and scholars who wish to save these buildings. A project like the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, for instance, whose planning and construction took place in the 1960s, is analysed in detail, including the rejected proposals.

The opening essays deal with the slum clearance, road and bridge building, infrastructural undertakings and other economic and social forces which blended to create the architecture of the 1960s. Subsequent chapters treat individual neighbourhoods and important projects like the United Nations building and the 1964-65 World's Fair. The last chapter focuses on New York's cultural life in the period under discussion, and its portrayal in popular imagery. The roles of preservation and architectural criticism are touched upon, and the final essay is intended to inspire hope in a revived New York.

New York 1960 weighs nearly seven pounds, so it cannot be carried around on a walking tour of New York like the AIA Guide to New York City. But it contains far more research than that book and is an essential reference for any architectural historian interested in New York.

The Encyclopedia of New York City is rather different in scope and purpose. There are 650 contributors working to a format devised by another Columbia University professor, the chairman of the history department, with about 4,000 entries on people, places, foods, businesses, historic sites and so on in snippet form, making it far more complete than any earlier compilation. The inclusion of the New York Historical Society as copublisher of the book is most apt. The society's library is the finest and oldest resource on the social history of the city and its resources bring a wealth of new material to the reader in a handy and highly accessible format.

That said, this is a book intended for the general reader rather than the scholar, unlike New York 1960, and the contributions of many important figures are not enumerated (though it is a nice touch to include the place of residence in the city in the entries on people). The breadth of the encyclopedia's coverage could lead the reader to assume that what is omitted is not important, whereas in fact the omission was the result of editorial preference. Nevertheless, over time and with emendations, the Encyclopedia should prove to be an even greater resource than it already is.

Christopher W. London is an art and architectural historian.

The Encyclopedia of New York City

Editor - Kenneth T. Jackson
ISBN - 0 300 05536 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 1,350

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