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Branding New York

In March 1971, a series of mysterious announcements began to appear in newspapers throughout the Northeastern United States. The first pictured the Statue of Liberty with a tear running down her cheek under the headline, “Announcing the Beginning of the End of New York City.” The next week, the same image appeared, now with the headline “On May 24, 1971, New York City Will Disappear.” And as an article in the Daily News later revealed, come May 24 the third and final installment was to be published with the headline “Today, New York City Disappears” above an image of Miss Liberty sinking into the ocean, with “the water up to her eyeballs like something out of ‘Planet of the Apes.’”1

As it turned out, these alarming images were nothing more than “teaser ads” for Alitalia’s new non-stop service from Rome to cities like Washington D.C. and Boston. For the first time, they announced, Alitalia customers could now travel to the United States without going through New York City. According to Alitalia and the campaign’s creator, Gardner Advertising, the intent was simply to run “amusing” and attention-grabbing ads. But this was not the view of New York’s economic and political leaders, who launched an all-out effort to halt the campaign, and to deny publicly that “New York has sunk or is sinking or will sink into the sea.” First, the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), the city’s official booster agency, sent an irate letter to the airline:

We at the Convention and Visitors Bureau—and all businessmen who are diligently working for a better New York City—are appalled by the insulting Alitalia advertisement that has appeared in the Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston newspapers. Editors from these papers have called us to ask what the ads mean, and we are at a loss to say. What purpose can be served by the commercial exploitation of a city whose problems are certainly not going to be helped by exacerbating defeatist attitudes. And where is the rationale in tastelessly subjecting a national monument to the indignities of this advertising campaign?

When this received a “flippant” response from Alitalia’s CEO—who asked “how a tear on a lady of compassion” was disrespectful, and further claimed that the company was “merely seeking to relieve congestion” at John F. Kennedy Airport—the CVB ramped up its lobbying. It organized a group of prominent Italian Americans to write letters of protest, and then, with the aid of Mayor John V. Lindsay’s office, got Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio, the city’s highest ranking Italian American politician, to write his own letter appealing to the airline’s sense of “ethnic” solidarity with New York City.

Nevertheless, by the time these letters had been sent, the “damage” had already been done. So many readers called the Washington Evening Star with questions and concerns that New York City really was going to disappear that they made a news story out of it: “Some of [the reaction] was pretty far out,” the paper noted, with numerous readers wondering: “Is New York going to fall into the sea like San Francisco is supposed to do?” As the Daily News noted, the ads reflected and reinforced a prevalent fear among Americans at this time: that New York City had “deteriorated” to such a point that something terrible would happen if one were so much as to set foot there, “even if it’s only long enough to change planes?” Alitalia, meanwhile, found a means of exploiting this popular sentiment, advising their travel agents: “So if you don’t want them to see New York, tell them to see Alitalia.”

This anecdote about the remarkable fallout from an irreverent advertising campaign depicting a drowning Statue of Liberty is evocative of the cultural climate of New York City in the 1970s that I will explore. That these over-the-top ads were at once so strangely believable and politically volatile reveals both the deep anxiety that they tapped into and the wider, inter-textual universe in which they emerged. They invoked the trepidation, even dread, with which the “average tourist” now boarded their New York City-bound planes, buses, and trains. And they were only the latest addition to a vivid and disturbing set of images portraying New York City as a sinking, dying metropolis, imagery that was seen repeatedly in magazines, newspapers, movies, and the TV news, and which—in combination with real events on the ground—was to help shape the public perception of the city for a generation.

Initially, as captured to comic effect in Neil Simon’s 1970 hit movie The Out of Towners, this tableau contained the mountains of refuse left to rot during week-long garbage strikes, subways spray-painted by brazen bands of teenagers, and crafty muggers staking out airports, train-stations, and hotels. By 1975, the picture had grown far more dire. After New York City suffered the largest public sector default of any municipality in US history, the visitor’s mental map would have expanded to include images of catastrophic fiscal crisis—from Mayor Abe Beame going hat in hand to Washington, to Sunbelt senators cheering President Gerald Ford when he flatly refused to “bail out” the city, to the city’s own policemen protesting lay-offs by handing out skull-emblazoned “Fear City” pamphlets warning tourists “Stay away if you possibly can.” By the end of the decade, the tourist’s mind would be filled with nightmarish scenes of the fateful summer of 1977, when the serial killer “Son of Sam” terrorized the populace, a city-wide blackout led to widespread looting, and a rash of fires in the South Bronx inspired the sports commentator Howard Cosell to famously exclaim during a live World Series broadcast from Yankee Stadium: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning!” Under such circumstances, it was not surprising that many travelers preferred to change planes in Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit—just about anywhere besides New York City.

As horrific as it was, however, this cultural moment was to prove remarkably brief. Come 1978, an amazing shift began to occur in the dominant representation of New York—one that would render obsolete alarmist Alitalia ads and their ilk, and provide much relief to the beleaguered leaders of the CVB. Incredibly, the mainstream media began to cover New York City’s apparent recovery, and to do so as dramatically as they had the city’s recent demise. In a typical article, Richard Dallos, a travel writer for the Los Angeles Times, noted his astonishment upon visiting New York in the summer of 1978:

Dallos was only one of an increasing number of intrepid journalists covering what became a major story by the late 1970s: New York City’s “amazing comeback.” Instead of filth, reporters found beautifully renovated hotels; instead of poverty they admired the spectacular views from the new 5-star restaurant atop the north tower of the World Trade Center; and, instead of a war-zone they strolled well-policed, camera-lined corridors from taxi-stands at Grand Central Terminal to the theater district in Times Square, where some truly fantastic new musicals were being staged.
As these reporters also knew, if only from reading the front pages of their own newspapers, “it can hardly be said that New York is booming.” It was common knowledge that the city’s unemployment rate was still among the highest in the U.S., that its schools and hospitals were crippled by budget cuts and lay-offs, and that entire sections of the South Bronx, their fire-stations shuttered, looked like “the aftermath of a bombing raid.” And it was beginning to be noticed that the city’s poverty rate was surpassing that of the nation for the first time in the century—with one in four New Yorkers living under the federally mandated poverty level by 1982.
Nonetheless, “from the standpoint of the out-of-towner,” especially one safely ensconced in a Midtown hotel, New York appeared to be on the rebound. The city had become once again “the place to visit”—whether or not it was still a viable place to live and work for many of its own citizens. All the major hotels, theaters, and nightclubs were booked, even while large swaths of the city were falling under the wrecking ball. Perhaps most striking was the launching in 1977—at the height of fiscal crisis, austerity, and the “Summer of Sam”—of the city’s first official marketing campaign: “I Love New York.” A new and hegemonic vision of New York was being produced—one that seemed, finally, to eclipse the apocalyptic image of the city sinking into the sea that had emerged over the previous decade. It was a vision so convincing and enticing that it could be embraced by tourists, celebrated by the media, upheld as a symbol for the nation, and used to distract attention from the city’s still very real and unabating problems.

From Image Crisis to Fiscal Crisis
Why open a discussion about one of New York’s most harrowing and transformative decades from the “standpoint of the out-of-towner”? Why focus on fears and fantasies fed by the media, rather than the complex lived reality of actual New Yorkers? Indeed, why talk about “average tourists” at all, rather than the era’s far more interesting visitors, immigrants, and locals—the renegade painters, poets, punk-rockers, hip hop artists, graffiti writers, disco royalty, salseros, and adventure-seeking travelers from Japan, Brazil, and Britain—all of whom saw in 1970s New York City a cultural Mecca founded on transgression and innovation, and elevated neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and the South Bronx to legendary cultural status in this period?

I begin my narrative this way not to deny this rich and complex cultural reality, but to foreground its official denial by reigning political and economic elites in a time of crisis. For it was in the 1970s that the standpoint of the out-of-towner and the imagination of the average tourist became overwhelming preoccupations for the established and emerging leadership of New York City. As this leadership was well aware, the dominant image of New York coming out of the 1960s was that of an “asphalt jungle” and the “ungovernable city.” These stereotypes were freighted with the class and race-based prejudices of a growing right-wing anti-urbanism in the US more broadly. They referred, generally speaking, to a crime-ridden city with a bloated and corrupt public sector, dangerously militant unions and social movements, and an unruly black, Latino, and white ethnic population. And they targeted welfare state policies from the New Deal to the War on Poverty that had turned New York City into a national paradigm of “civic liberalism,” earning it a reputation as a pro-labor, anti-business town. Meanwhile, the city’s vibrant cultural and political scene—from its long tradition of working class popular culture, to its central role in the 1960s counter-culture, to its rising underground movements of hip hop, subway graffiti, and punk—were easily subsumed by, if not used to exemplify, these stereotypes. The city’s embattled leaders in government, finance, real estate, and tourism, many of whom were themselves sympathetic to anti-urban ideology in whole or in part, sought essentially to erase any aspects of local culture that might feed such stereotypes, and to frame the city’s “comeback” through a tourist- and business-friendly image, one that was almost entirely white, Manhattan-centric, and decidedly not working-class.
What was the relevance of such branding, or of representation in general, to the city’s dire economic situation? Why look at a period of fiscal crisis in terms of public perception, media, and marketing? Compared to the litany of problems that the cash-strapped city faced—from paying sanitation workers to keeping street lights on at night—weren’t such image issues relatively superficial?

I emphasize the role of media and marketing in my account because these visual forces were taking an unprecedented toll on New York’s status as a national and global center, and playing an unprecedented role in official efforts at recovery. Since the late 1960s, the city’s declining position was made evident by the exodus of corporations from Manhattan, the flight of middle class residents, a rapid drop-off in tourism, and a tumbling municipal bond rating. These losses meanwhile were occurring within a constellation of broader political economic shifts linked in their own ways to questions of representation. These included deindustrialization and the rise of a global “symbolic economy,” the accelerated competition between cities and regions for a share of this new economy, and the aforementioned growth of a conservative, suburban-based political movement fed a steady diet of televised urban dysfunction. Local elites understood that both New York’s future and their own personal fortunes were tied more than ever to the perception of the city’s “climate” or “environment” for business and tourism.

Against this backdrop, ubiquitous media coverage began to fuel what I will call an image crisis, through which negative representations in and of themselves were exacerbating the city’s wider economic decline. This was particularly true of volatile, subjective indicators like real estate values, visitor attitudes, bond prices, and investor confidence. And it was particularly an issue for place-based, image-sensitive industries like real estate, tourism, and financial services that could not simply move their operations to the suburbs, and that were facing growing competition from other cities and regions around the world. So elites in the effected industries, with the aid of a growing crop of consultants and image-makers in media and marketing, began to coordinate their efforts and place increasing pressure on government to act. Through public private partnerships, consultants reports, high profile magazines, city marketing, and other means, they worked to ensure that the repair of New York’s interwoven image and fiscal crises would lie at the heart of any plan for “recovery”— taking precedence over competing (and arguably more important) demands like filling widening gaps in the city’s budget for education, healthcare and housing. And so, far from minor, I will argue that media and marketing should be considered central forces in this unparalleled period of crisis and the realignment of the public sector.
But how novel was this turn to marketing in response to crisis? Was it not simply what New York City, the so-called “communications capital of the world,” had always done to spur economic growth, especially in trying times?

Contrary to popular belief—produced in large part by New York’s intensive use of city marketing since the 1970s—such marketing had never played a major role in the city’s or state’s economic development program prior to this time. Gotham certainly had a venerable tradition of urban boosterism going back to the early 1800s. It was home to an array of independent impresarios and entrepreneurs from Coney Island to the “Great White Way.” It created a Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1934—one of many CVBs created in cities nationwide in this period—which would work to attract the burgeoning travel and tourism trade after WWII. But historically, New York was different from US cities like Las Vegas or New Orleans that had long been dependent on marketing themselves for tourism and business. It became the nation’s industrial, commercial, and financial hub without the use of large scale official marketing, and through the 1960s its political leadership continued to see promotional efforts as ancillary, if not irrelevant, to their overall strategy of economic development. If there was any concern, the city’s premier broadcasting, recording, and publishing industries, left to their own devices, seemed perfectly capable of disseminating the sights and sounds of this booming metropolis to the world without city or state aid. Moreover, New York was a bastion of New Deal-style egalitarian liberalism, and largely eschewed overt public intervention on behalf of business and marketing. Thus, government and industry leaders typically assumed that the city would “sell itself,” and refrained from getting actively involved in promotion. That was until the crisis of the 1970s, when a dramatic shift occurred in the attitude of both public and private sector leaders towards self-promotion.

Branding New York
In this environment, old-fashioned urban boosterism gave way to the standardized, coordinated, and far more capital-intensive practice that I will refer to as urban branding. As with corporate branding more broadly, this approach entailed a dual strategy that was at once visual and material, combining intensive marketing—in this case place marketing—with neoliberal political and economic restructuring. On the marketing side, real estate and tourism executives joined economic development officials, media makers, and marketing consultants to construct and disseminate a “cleaned-up” image for the city. On the restructuring side, city and state officials undertook far-reaching, pro-business economic reforms—euphemistically called “product modifications” by consultants hired at the time—that privileged certain social classes, economic sectors, and geographic regions over others. Such modifications included tax-cuts for corporations to build new office towers in Manhattan alongside harsh austerity measures and mass lay-offs of municipal workers. They included the enhancing of services and security in central financial and tourist districts alongside the elimination of services in poorer, “blighted areas” of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Thus the branding of New York constituted a process of both the real and symbolic commodification of the city, and of the simultaneous production and marketing of a hegemonic, consumer- and investor-oriented vision of New York.
As with corporate branding, the representational framework of the new “New York” was tightly controlled and richly designed, transforming a simple logo and slogan into a distinct and all-encompassing universe. The origins of this framework may be traced to a series of unprecedented city-wide marketing efforts in the 1960s and 1970s. First was the World’s Fair of 1964-65, which despite its generic, international style, was the first to coordinate coverage among New York’s dominant television, film, and magazine industries and to broadcast a compelling, corporate-sponsored, “global city” image to the world. In striking contrast to this modernist vision was the one promoted by New York Magazine, founded in 1967. In the magazine’s pages, the city was artfully repackaged, warts and all, as a unique and hip place to live, work, and shop for young, social-climbing urbanites. Then, drawing inspiration from both of these precedents, came the city’s first, quasi-official marketing campaign, known as “Big Apple,” sponsored by the real estate-led Association for a Better New York in 1971. This campaign was to culminate with the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, which seized upon the architectural gigantism of the newly built World Trade Center to proclaim the city’s resurgence. And finally, in 1977, the New York State Department of Commerce launched the “I [heart] NY” campaign, combining a witty logo designed by New York Magazine artistic director Milton Glaser with a multimedia celebration of Broadway theater and Fifth Avenue shopping, all against the backdrop of the new downtown skyline.

None of these branded visions made reference to Gotham’s famously polyglot, racially diverse, proudly working class culture, except to extol the shopping and entertainment opportunities such culture at times provided. None had much to say about the daily struggles of citizens enduring austerity measures, lay-offs, or arson. And all steered clear of what today is seen as a cultural renaissance emerging in underground clubs, at downtown galleries, and on the walls of subway cars criss-crossing the city. These were not cultural phenomena designed to attract the tourists and corporate headquarters back to New York. To the contrary, according to consultants hired by the state, they were driving them away. And so lifestyle magazines and marketing campaigns created a cleaned up vision, presenting New York as a safe and exciting city for the “average,” white, middle class consumer.

Symbolic Politics and Counter Branding
Despite superficial appearances, the branding of New York had a profound and enduring effect on the social and political reality of the city. For, as distant as it was from the everyday lives of most New Yorkers, the glamorized, often utopian urban imagery produced by the World’s Fair, New York, Big Apple, and I™NY helped to promote and sell the city’s post-industrial and neoliberal program of economic development.

The benefits of this free-market mode of development were highly unequal. Incentives to spark private-sector growth were generously given at the top of the social ladder while public-sector service cuts undermined standards of living at the bottom. Meanwhile, the upbeat image provided by city branding helped distract critical attention from these contradictions, selling the idea of the city’s “recovery” to locals and out-of-towners alike. This was well understood by economic development officials and their private sector consultants, both of whom justified the need to spend scarce resources to mount tourism marketing campaigns by asserting that the latter was less expensive and presented a more “positive” public image than simultaneous efforts to attract corporations through tax breaks and subsidies.

Nonetheless, the introduction of branding alongside the reorientation of the public sector was a hotly contested development in this historically progressive, working class city. The official, branded image of New York quickly became a potent political target, and ushered in a new era of symbolic politics in the city. Throughout the decade, those most affected by cutbacks, including groups as divergent as police officers facing lay-offs and Bronx teenagers armed with spray paint, developed a common oppositional tactic: to gain media attention—and a degree of power—by undermining, or counter-branding, the new “New York” image. Ironically, both the city’s branders and counter-branders realized that their local struggles were playing out on a global stage, and adapted their political strategy accordingly.

1 Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin Schaffner, came out in 1968 and became a major box-office success. It told the story of an astronaut crew led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston) that crash-landed on a planet in the distant future on which apes were the dominant species and enslaved human beings. The famous final scene shows Heston and Linda Harrison escaping on horseback down a beach and discovering the Statue of Liberty sunk in the sand—thus realizing that they are actually on earth, and that humans (presumably those in New York City) had brought an end to their civilization millennia before, thus enabling apes to evolve to take over the planet.


Miriam Greenberg


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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