A cultural history of the South Bronx that reaches beyond familiar narratives of urban ruin and renaissance, beyond the “inner city” symbol, to reveal the place and people obscured by its myths.
For decades, the South Bronx was America’s “inner city.” Synonymous with civic neglect, crime, and metropolitan decay, the Bronx became the preeminent symbol used to proclaim the failings of urban places and the communities of color who lived in them. Images of its ruins—none more infamous than the one broadcast live during the 1977 World Series: a building burning near Yankee Stadium—proclaimed the failures of urbanism.
Yet this same South Bronx produced hip hop, arguably the most powerful artistic and cultural innovation of the past fifty years. Two narratives—urban crisis and cultural renaissance—have dominated understandings of the Bronx and other urban environments. Today, as gentrification transforms American cities economically and demographically, the twin narratives structure our thinking about urban life.
A Bronx native, Peter L’Official draws on literature and the visual arts to recapture the history, people, and place beyond its myths and legends. Both fact and symbol, the Bronx was not a decades-long funeral pyre, nor was hip hop its lone cultural contribution. L’Official juxtaposes the artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s carvings of abandoned buildings with the city’s trompe l’oeil decals program; examines the centrality of the Bronx’s infamous Charlotte Street to two Hollywood films; offers original readings of novels by Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe; and charts the emergence of a “global Bronx” as graffiti was brought into galleries and exhibited internationally, promoting a symbolic Bronx abroad.
Urban Legends presents a new cultural history of what it meant to live, work, and create in the Bronx.
The great Bronx book we have needed for decades. L'Official cuts through the foliage of lazy journalism, unexamined assumptions, and political rhetoric and brings together the voices of writers, rappers, social scientists, and people on the street. The result is a nuanced picture of the South Bronx, which for almost a century has been mostly neglected, scorned, and viewed as expendable—perhaps one of New York City's biggest crimes.
This cultural history of the South Bronx weaves between artistic disciplines and political attitudes, landing on a compelling story of how lived experience is told from the outside. L’Official has an acute way of seeing others’ ways of seeing, and he shows, in a series of exacting analyses, how familiar shorthand about the area has obscured its reality.
[L’Official] deliberately and skillfully reads the borough…through novels, movies, art, journalism, and municipal records, looking to both unpack and undo its mythology. The result is a vibrant cultural history that gestures beyond the tropes of the boogie down and the burning metropolis, those pervasive narratives of cultural renaissance and urban neglect that have dogged the area for half a century.
L’Official shows us, slowly and precisely, how novelists and artists and civil servants have deployed myths of the South Bronx as both backdrops and blank screens. Some of those myths have been canon for decades…Urban Legends is a parabolic dish microphone pointed at history, collecting the waves that outsiders have bounced off the South Bronx.
A vibrant cultural history of the South Bronx…L’Official summons photography, film, fiction, and music to bear witness to the multifaceted creativity and vitality of the South Bronx, and deftly reveals a place overflowing with myths, dreams, images, and visions that make us see it afresh. This delightfully innovative narrative is the perceptive look that the Bronx and New York City has long deserved.
I happily devoured Peter L’Official’s terrific cultural narrative, which explores the creative renaissance of an inner city NYC borough, once a poster child for social turmoil, economic wreckage, and physical devastation…An important book that speaks with powerful relevance to the state of Black life in America today—and the demands of Black Lives Matter.
L’Official is a careful, thorough, and inventive scholar, and the story he tells is utterly absorbing. Combining analyses of literature, the built environment, art, and municipal documents, Urban Legends is multidisciplinary work at its finest.
Urban Legends is cultural history at its very best. L’Official demonstrates beautifully how literature, photography, film, journalism, and other renderings of the South Bronx in the imaginations of both its detractors and its defenders powerfully shaped the community’s fate.
Well conceived, deeply argued, and consistently engaging, Urban Legends is a distinctive and highly original work of cultural history and interpretation that brings fresh insight to conversations about the city and the arts. A fine book.
This is urban intellectual history at its best.
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.