Book Review from the Journal: Urban Legends, Peter L’Official

In anticipation of Volume 47 of the Carolina Planning Journal coming out next month, this week we are featuring another book review from Volume 46, The White Problem in Planning. Veronica Brown reflects on Peter L’Official’s Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin.

Book Review by Veronica Brown

A few televised moments speak to their era so well that they surpass television history and stand in for an entire period in American history. Surely the 1988 World Series, in which the camera panned from Yankee Stadium to a burning building in the South Bronx as Howard Cosell announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” is such a moment. Except for the fact that Cosell never said his most famous line. Peter L’Official debunks this story in the introduction to Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin, an exploration of how during the late twentieth century, various media constructed a South Bronx that stood in for both the concept of urban decline and for the place itself. When presidents visited the rubble of Charlotte Street, as L’Official writes, they “did not visit the ‘South Bronx’ as much as they did the site of the nation’s shorthand for urban ruin” (129). Through thoughtful analysis of the period’s visual art, books, and movies, L’Official provides a necessary reexamination of the South Bronx’s history that also serves as a compelling argument that places are constructed not only through plans but through their artistic representations.

In the strongest two chapters of the book, L’Official pairs the photographs of Jerome Liebling and Roy Mortenson and the conceptual work of Gordon Matta-Clark with examples of what he terms “municipal art” (14), or work with a function that is bureaucratic as much as aesthetic. This “art, at work” (46) includes the Department of Finance’s project to photograph every lot in New York City from 1983 to 1987 in order to standardize the city’s tax assessment system. In this “administrative mode” (77) of photography, life emerges at the corners of straight-on photos of South Bronx buildings caught in the process of abandonment. Passersby move from one photo to the next as the city photographer progresses down the block. Situating these tax photos within a rich tradition of artists depicting urban ruin, including through conceptual photography, L’Official creates a “dual-purposed ethic of viewership” (76). This mode of looking considers the art-historical canon as well as sociopolitical upheaval in the urban environment. In another inspired pairing, L’Official uses the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and the Occupied Look program, two forms of urban trompe l’oeil, to demonstrate how perception and perspective shaped understandings of the South Bronx. Through Occupied Look, the actual windows of abandoned buildings were covered with panels with painted-on windows. Occupied Look presents itself as an easy subject for derision, but L’Official rejects cynical mockery, instead comparing the initiative to Gordon Matta-Clark’s building cuts in the Bronx Floors series. L’Official’s deft exploration of these various artistic interventions in Bronx abandonment proves municipal art projects as worthy of analysis and also figures the period’s conceptual artists as key urban theorists of twentieth-century decline.

In later chapters, L’Official turns to popular media depictions of the South Bronx, including books and movies, and continues to home in on well-chosen details. In a particularly gratifying turn, the main character of Abraham Rodriguez’s Spidertown (1993) has a scavenged Occupied Look window mounted on his bedroom wall, literally reversing the direction of the faux portal and co-opting its furtive purpose as he hides his cash behind the panel. The 1981 films Fort Apache, the Bronx and Wolfen each center on Charlotte Street, a block sufficiently metonymic for urban distress that Jimmy Carter staged a photo opportunity there when he visited the borough in 1977. In Fort Apache, the Bronx, both character and setting assume the identity of Charlotte Street. Pam Grier, the ultimate blaxploitation star, plays a sex worker named after the street. The film received significant protests from the local organization Committee Against Fort Apache, which argued that the film was reductive and offensive. Charlotte Street, however, had become a studio backdrop rather than a neighborhood with residents, a transformation made clear through the construction of a new building that appeared to be burnt-out for the production of Wolfen. Although L’Official does not extend his analysis of Charlotte Street to Ed Logue’s zealous development of the corridor into a row of single-family homes in 1987, recently detailed in Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities (2019), the aestheticization of the street through its movie appearances demonstrates why the American aesthetic ideal of the white-picket fence would be all the more appealing as a solution to the borough’s problems.

Full of both rich detail and exciting ideas, Urban Legends is an enjoyable book for any audience interested in the South Bronx, but the book provides a particularly important meeting ground for urban planners and historians of visual culture. As L’Official argues, the South Bronx “has been hard to ‘see’ clearly beneath the layers of myths, stereotype, and urban legend” (245). Urban planners have historically failed to see the Bronx and used its representation to obscure a clear vision of countless Black and Latinx urban neighborhoods across the country. This pattern has fostered rampant exploitation of these neighborhoods, including current gentrification and displacement in the South Bronx. What is perhaps most useful for planners to take from Urban Legends is an understanding of how representations will continue to construct the space. When L’Official asks “What vision of the Bronx will live on” (247), planners should recognize this vision will not only be constituted through their efforts but also through art and popular media.

Buy Urban Legends here.

Find Volume 46 of the Carolina Planning Journal online here.

Veronica Brown is a 2021 graduate of the Master’s of City and Regional Planning program. She received her undergraduate degree from Smith College, where she studied the psychology of contemporary visual culture. Before coming to UNC, Veronica worked in communications at the Whitney Museum of American Art.