Fifteen years ago New York was still mainly a manufacturing city; in fact it had more industrial employees than any other city in the world. Nearly half the people here worked full time and nearly a million of them, or more than a quarter of the work force, worked at the production of goods. Eighty-thousand New Yorkers worked in the food trades, baking bread and brewing beer for the city’s nearly eight million citizens. A quarter million worked in the apparel industry. More than 20,000 ground lenses and made scientific instruments. One-hundred twenty-five thousand worked in the printing trades.
But New Yorkers did so many other things too that you could live here for years and never think of New York as a manufacturing city at all. Most of the city’s industry was tucked away in old lofts in odd corners of Manhattan or in small plants in Long Island City or Brooklyn. There were no great steel mills or automobile factories to dominate the city’s economy or its landscape. More than a third of the city’s factories employed fewer than twenty people each. New York’s industry was nondescript and, like much else that supplied the city’s vitality, largely invisible.
It was one of New York’s pleasures then that you could stay pretty much in your own compartment, painting pictures or teaching school or selling whatever you sold while the rest of the city became a kind of backdrop, often colorful, often squalid, usually a blur—something you noticed from the window of a bus or an airplane. You didn’t have to think about it if you didn’t want to, and why would anyone want to? In the outer boroughs there are thousands of New Yorkers who almost never come into what they call the city, by which they mean Manhattan. You can live here for a lifetime and never notice that New York is bounded by one of the world’s great rivers or that it is made up of hundreds of settlements with names like Tottenville, Corona, and Ravenswood or that it has, or once had, dozens of downtowns.
For years the city seemed to run itself by a kind of anarchic common sense. No doubt this was much of its charm for people who came here from smaller, less intimate places. New York lent itself to privacy, to eccentricity, and thus to a kind of freedom unavailable elsewhere. If New York was often a cold city where hardly anyone cared if you lived or died, it was also a city that left you alone to work out your own salvation. The city, for all the socialist talk of its intellectuals and the kaleidoscopic mergers of the alien corporations that had begun to operate here, was still by 1960 or so a kind of living museum of pre-monopoly capitalism: an anachronism as it was to turn out, but still in retrospect the climactic event in the history of those bazaars that arose centuries ago in Venice and Ravenna and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.