The city and the countryby Theodore Hamm
It goes without saying that New York City used to be a different place. Throughout most of the 20th century, the rest of the country hated the city precisely because it was so unique—daring and dangerous, New York used to be the site of progressive politics, liberation movements by women, blacks, Latinos, and gays, and a constantly renewing intellectual and artistic avant-garde. For these reasons and many more, red state fundamentalists stoked the hell fires of resentment at the sinful city.
As just one, particularly memorable example, consider the torrent of abuse endured by Al Smith, the pride of the Lower East Side, when he ran for president in 1928. A popular radio evangelist aptly named John Roach Straton declared that Smith represented nothing less than the “forces of hell” emanating from New York City. To wit, these included “card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism.” Give me Al Smith’s world over Straton’s any damn day.
Fast forward to the present and near future, and New York City is no longer reviled by the rest of the nation. In fact, the likely match-up for president in 2008 is Rudy vs. Hillary, two New York City-based media celebrities on a first-name basis with all the good folks in the heartland. One hardly expects to hear our city denounced by evangelist knuckleheads from Wichita, but I’m not entirely sure that this sea change in popular opinion is such a good thing. The rest of the nation, perhaps, now loves New York because the city no longer threatens its core values. Yet as the fundamentalists take over the statehouse in South Dakota and the Supreme Court, I think it’s incumbent on all of us free thinkers to make the city once again a laboratory of new ideas and political change—or at least a safe haven for all those who believe in novels, dancing and evolution.
The Rail is pleased to announce our forthcoming publishing partnership with Black Square Editions. Under the direction of John Yau and Phong Bui, Black Square/Brooklyn Rail Press will publish books of poetry, fiction, timely nonfiction, artists’ memoirs, art criticism and interviews. Stay tuned for more details…