Find Myself a City to Live In: Jonathan Lethem’s Imagined Metropolis

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The principle urban conversation today seems to revolve around authenticity. The relationship many white urbanites have to their city depends on the story they tell about their neighborhoods. Are they authentic, i.e. did they move in before gentrification, and therefore “good.” Or are they one of the soulless homogenizers who arrive when the neighborhood is “safe” (white) and devoid of all realness. Credibility seems to rest on both cultural knowledge and timing. New Yorkers, of which I am one, seem to crave authenticity more than anything else besides money… maybe. In an urban environment that is increasingly looking like a suburban mall, craving and knowing where to find “the real” is a valuable form of cultural capital.

Jonathan Lethem has both lived the process of urban transformation and written so keenly on it that he can be read as both wise sage and guide to the hidden dialogs in modern urban America. His novels deal with the critical issues facing urban redevelopment and gentrification, but told through interior struggles of mainly young, white liberals rather than the communities undergoing such change. While communities exist in his novels, Lethem’s characters seem removed or cut off from them even as they crave their proximity. His recent work, Chronic City, offers a concrete-eating tiger that gentrifies neighborhoods, a war-free edition of the newspaper of record and a populace playing along with a giant hoax. It depicts a city (society) that just stopped caring about what was real. Lethem reminds us that the quest for authentic meaning in life is just that, a quest. But to give it up is to lose all hope for a meaningful life. The fear we all have is that we will wake up in a simulacrum. And this drive to keep it real, defines New York and New Yorkers. And it is this nerve that Lethem strikes so very hard.

Lethem is a New York writer, who stops to describe the physical environment, whether it is the uneven slate in front of a dilapidated Brooklyn brownstone or a neighborhood greasy-spoon diner. In a New Yorker interview he said “The place where I wanted to…[be] scrupulous was in the portrayal of the milieu, the neighborhood itself.” The richness of urbanscape that comes through his writing reminds readers of an important urban fact: cities change. Lethem’s characters always remember what was as they look at what is. Reviews have pointed out the autobiographical nature of his writing, which is undeniable, as a waft of a memoir is written through the prose. Lethem’s uses “thick description” to understand urban life. I believe Lethem’s work serves as a cultural touchstone for our generation. I can imagine college students reading Lethem to get a handle on late 20th and early 21st century American urban culture they way they now read Saul Bellow or Tom Wolfe to understand earlier periods. And like Wolfe and Bellow, Lethem’s novels always revolve around an axis of class, race and urban culture.

At its core, Lethem’s New York trilogy, Motherless Brooklyn, Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City, deals with white, educated and culturally ambitious creative types struggling to find themselves in a city that will not sleep. Here are young whites striving to make it in the big city, at a time when it is so much harder to make it. But the “it” in question isn’t money; rather it is authenticity, realness. Lethem’s city doesn’t just shape his character, but leaves marks. In an interview with Robert Birnbaum, Lethem states “…I was often writing about a dystopian urban environment… about versions of otherness and identity.… [I was ] planting my characters’ feet on the sidewalks that I walked growing up…It’s not actually my fault if Brooklyn functions as a cultural token. I’m a regional writer, testifying about a place I’m helpless not to think of, to dream of.”

What Lethem represents is the ambiguity and cultural difficulty of modern urban life for the white, middle class creatives. They fear, above all, being fakes or mindless copies of someone else. David Brooks points this fear out  deftly in Bobbos in Paradise. But we should not for a minute think that this is new. Writing in Esquire magazine in the 1950s, Norman Mailer in his famous “White Negro” essay, pointed to a craving for authenticity amongst white middle class youth who looked to black culture to find it. White, middle class youth at least since the 1950s have continuously tried to find authentic experience outside of their own communities, to the point now that I would argue that the quest for authenticity becomes their identity. In Lethem’s work the quest for authenticity consumes his characters. And just like Mailer, race is the key element to understanding authenticity, even if it is a hidden subject. But race is not the totality. Lethem’s characters also crave arcane knowledge as a form of cultural capital.

Finding or achieving authenticity (or urban knowledge) in New York is at best a Sisyphean feat. Urban space has and will never be static, by its very nature it is always repurposed. Cities reinvent themselves to fit the needs or their modern inhabitants and the age. And inhabitants come and go, as do neighborhoods. In Lethem’s imagined New York City, it is therefore the interior motives and desires of his characters that opens up a window on this change as we gain insight into the thinking and mindset of a generation by narrowing the focus as he does to individual struggles.

New York City has witnessed rapid swings in fortunes during Lethem’s own lifetime that we are still trying to comprehend. The urban unrest of the 1960s sped up white middle-class flight, so that by the 1980s many cities saw increasing concentrations of poverty and people of color. With lower tax bases, services were cut and a cycle of decline seemed set. Cities like New York City seemed doomed. The summer of 1977 was the nadir for New York City. A time I know Lethem remembers, as do I. 1977 was the summer of the Son of Sam (the serial killer), a blackout with massive looting and lawlessness, and what has been termed “the burning of the South Bronx” as arson destroyed dozens of square blocks of the borough, and the bankruptcy of the city itself. But as thousands left, many stayed and “discovered” new neighborhoods that made them feel real rather than artificial (urban rather than suburban). Moreover, this first wave of counter-culture gentrifiers, on the Lower East Side, SoHo, or Lethem’s own parents in Brooklyn, committed themselves to an urban utopia where race and class disappeared in their minds as divisions (though we know it couldn’t ever disappear). These older artists and activists made a political and creative choice to stay in the city, to stand with it and therefore, the city’s culture became theirs and defined them. But this generation also made it easier some years later for others to join them, who were less idealistic, as they were ironically also the leading edge of gentrification.

But these earlier gentrifiers lived a contradiction that really defines modern liberalism, a hypocrisy that lays deep in American life: displacement. Brooklyn has been ground zero for this in the last fifteen years. Neighborhoods such as Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Lethem’s own Boerum Hill and Fort Greene (all neighborhoods near where I live) have witnessed hordes of invaders. What were these searchers seeking? Authenticity. Brooklyn has always represented the real city, but for years, as Alfred Kazin wrote in Walker in the City, Brooklyn was the reality one escaped from not towards. Now, it is Kazin’s grandchildren’s generation that is escaping towards a Brooklyn that he fought so hard to leave.


Richard Greenwald is a professor of history and dean of the graduate school at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His next book is entitled, The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life. More from this author →