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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.”―Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York and The Other Paris
“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.”―Hua Hsu, author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific
“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.”―Lizabeth Cohen, author of Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age
“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.”―Carlo Rotella, author of The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood
Peter L’Official is Assistant Professor of Literature at Bard College and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review, and GQ.
Hua Hsu began contributing to The New Yorker in 2014 and became a staff writer in 2017. He is the author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific. He has previously written for Artforum, The Atlantic, Grantland, Slate, and The Wire. His work has been anthologized in “Best Music Writing” and “Best African American Essays,” and his 2012 essay on suburban Chinatowns was a finalist for a James Beard Award for food writing. He also served on the editorial board of “A New Literary History of America” (2009) and was formerly a fellow at the New America Foundation. Hsu is currently an associate professor of English at Vassar College and serves on the executive board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.