Saturday, November 29, 2008

Unironic Brooklyn

Francis Morrone, author of some of the best American urban guidebooks, likes cities. In one such book, he describes his move to Brooklyn well before it became white mandate.
What I was unprepared for was the beauty. I'd always fancied myself a connoisseur of cities, one who could see that a dense and aged urban environment could be as beautiful as natural scenery. Yet the Brooklyn I was slowly getting to know was so diversely beautiful, so clearly the product of successive ideals of the good city (however failed many of these visions ultimately proved to be), that I became a Brooklyn addict.
The addiction lead to Morrone's interest in the legacy of the City Beautiful movement at the turn of the last century, "that efflorescence of civic art that for me marks the highest stage of American urbanisim." Then he gets a bit angry.
Seldom is the City Beautiful written about without some studied academic distance, which is in itself no bad thing, except that today academics tend to view the American past through the lenses of irony, sarcasm, disdain, or a kind of (generally perfectly irrelevant) quasi-Marxism. I am tired of irony, sarcasm, disdain, and quasi-Marxism. I am tired, above all, of the prevailing sense, particularly among academics, that we view the past from a privileged perspective. We do not know more than the men and women of 1900 knew. I long to know what they knew, however impossible that dream may be.
I haven't read that kind of historiographical spirit and verve since Rachel Fulton's FJTP (see pages 2-3 and 470). Morrone's rejection of irony enables his Brooklyn guidebook to transcend whititude. Pay heed, Park Slope.