One of the great delights of the decade Cyrus and I spent teaching our Writing New York class was the repeated opportunity to screen clips from Ric Burns’s monumental New York: A Documentary Film. Without a doubt, the highlight of that film is — for me, at least — the series of appearances by the philosopher and social critic Marshall Berman. The interview was clearly done in one long sitting, and over the course of it Berman begins to tire, to slouch a little, to nod his grizzled head to one side, almost coming to rest on his shoulder. And then, in a flash, he’ll animate, lean forward, offer a stinging indictment of Robert Moses or wax poetic about the fact that New York offers the possibility of living car-free. In the clip above he concludes his commentary on the lasting devastation of Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway with a lecturette on the birth of subway graffiti and hip hop among ruins in the South Bronx. “We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined,” Berman says, offering the story as a parable of the ways in which urban life can foster thrillingly creative moments even among the destructive forces of modernity.
New York lost one of its intellectual giants yesterday, when Berman passed away, and this morning I’m treasuring all the more the chances we had not simply to learn from him and to let him teach our students, but also to collaborate with him over the last few years, to count him a partner in our projects on the city’s literary and cultural history. From the first, when we taught Ginsberg’s Howl in our course, we structured the lectures using Burns’s treatment of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and the urban renewal movement at mid-century. Burns relies in those segments on the story Berman tells in the final chapters of his classic text All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982). After a few years of listening to Berman sum up this historical episode in Burns’s film, we began assigning the chapters from Solid along with Ginsberg’s poem. Berman’s triangulation of Moses-Jacobs-Ginsberg isn’t the only way to read Howl, of course, but it became a very compelling reading for us and, I think, for our students.
Imagine my delight one day in 2007, then, when I found myself in line at Tekserve, in Chelsea, behind Berman, who was there with his son in an attempt to diagnose a damaged laptop. (I’m pretty sure the kid said he’d whacked it for running too slowly.) I wanted to introduce myself, but instead became a fly on the wall as I observed one of my heroes engaged in parenting. I blogged about it later, not imagining I’d ever get to know him personally. Berman was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the Marx brothers above the text: