Woody Allen leapt to defend New York at a time when everyone else was running it down. During the 1970s and 1980s—the “rotting of the Big Apple” era—he made his most lasting works. Filmgoers then had great interest in accounts of New York’s decline, and filmmakers were generally happy to oblige. Allen pushed back.

His two most polemical movies were Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979).

Manhattan famously depicts Allen and Diane Keaton’s characters admiring the 59th Street Bridge, to the strains of Gershwin, in the middle of the night, giving no care whatsoever to their personal safety. The year it was released, 1,733 murders were committed in the city. Manhattan is not a “warts and all” defense of New York.

As he himself put it, Allen gave his hometown the “wonderland” or “rose-colored” treatment, one that deals heavily in nostalgia. The movie is shot in black and white. Aesthetically, Allen has always gravitated toward the old New York of his youth. That’s the city that, as Manhattan’s voiceover puts it, he “romanticized . . . all out of proportion.” Morally, though, he has always been at home in the post-1960s social order. The plot of Manhattan centers around compulsive adultery and the Allen character’s relationship with a teenager. Life in the big city, per Manhattan, promises drama, if not happiness. New York is where life is lived on a higher plane, with sometimes tragic implications. Stable people don’t fit in New York City. (In this respect, see also Hannah and Her Sisters, from 1986.) You want a less complicated life?, Manhattan asks. Move to Connecticut.

California is the foil in Annie Hall, whose best jokes come at the expense of Los Angeles, “a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” Annie Hall came out the year of the blackout riots. California is portrayed as uninteresting, if safe: “there’s no crime, there’s no mugging.” So much for that, right? In the 2020s, Florida occupies the role that California used to play in urban policy debates. But New York progressives have yet to develop criticisms of Florida as imaginative as Annie Hall’s digs at California.

Allen grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn, at 1215 East Fifteenth Street. The Brooklyn of his youth is the third foil in his urbanism, and the most important. That Brooklyn was the antithesis of cool, inhabited as it was by characters like “Joey Nichols” eking out low-status existences such as bumper car managers and cabdrivers. Allen often portrays Brooklynites as simple folk: “I don’t know from suicide. Where I grew up in Brooklyn nobody committed suicide—everyone was too unhappy” (Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1989). Traditional outer-borough culture, for Allen, was unfulfilling and parochial.

Allen’s New York films have always been about Brooklyn, in the sense that, even when he wasn’t looking at Brooklyn, he was looking from it. For Brooklyn strivers of past generations, the goal was to move to Manhattan (“the city” or “New York”) as quickly as possible and never look back. A classic example of that sensibility may be found in the memoirs of Brownsville native Alfred Kazin, such as A Walker in the City. Another is provided by cartoonist Roz Chast (like Allen, an alum of Midwood High School) in her 2017 work Going Into Town:

I didn’t come to New York from Akron or Mumbai, but from deep Brooklyn, right across the East River. I moved to Manhattan to save myself from the life I had very clearly pictured as my destiny: living in a grim little apartment down the hall from my parents and commuting every day to Manhattan to a hateful, soul-deadening job. I saw myself on the train: middle-aged, wearing beige support hose and a dirty beige trench coat and some sort of horrible “office garb,” clinging to a subway pole and wondering why I was ever born.

The sensibility of disdain for Brooklyn coupled with reverence for Manhattan vanished during gentrification. Hipsters are famous for their irony. They don’t romanticize anything “all out of proportion.” They’re therefore incapable of the almost childlike adoration of New York’s cultural riches expressed in Manhattan. In twenty-first century New York, I have more than once heard educated Brooklyn residents brag about how rarely they go into Manhattan.

In Woody Allen movies, Manhattan-based high culture contributes decisively to the drama of big city life, as all the spats and love affairs play out against the backdrop of art museums and galleries, bookstores, the Hayden Planetarium, Central Park, celebrated works of architecture and infrastructure, and concert halls. Allen is one of the last of a dying breed: an intellectual without a college education. At his parent’s urging, he gave it a try at NYU and City College, but even to describe him as a dropout would overstate his level of engagement. Who needed college when you had Manhattan? This effect was intended by the city’s Gilded Age ruling class when they founded, as public benefits, institutions such as Carnegie Hall, Grand Central Terminal, and the New York Public Library. One of the most convincing cases New York can make that it contributes to middle-class flourishing is based on the accessibility of high culture.

Allen abandoned the polemics at a certain point, but his interest in cities has persisted through his most recent works. (His newest, Coup de Chance, is now playing in a handful of American cities after opening in Europe.) Café Society (2016) is another work of louche nostalgia, centered around a contrast between New York and L.A. Wonder Wheel (2017) stars Kate Winslet as a former actress exiled from Manhattan into waitress work at a Coney Island clam house. Set around mid-century, it’s a noirish study of drab, soulless Brooklyn.

An appreciation for easy morality and high culture stands at the center of Allen’s very traditional strain of urbanism. Going back to ancient times, the chief appeal of city life has rested on some combination of hedonism and the arts. It’s an unstable mixture. Urbanites who lose themselves in high culture, such as Leonard Bernstein, prove worse than useless when restoring behavioral restraint becomes a city’s most pressing challenge. And behavioral unrestraint can harm high culture in many ways, as when public sculptures get vandalized.

Allen’s corpus does not hold up in every last detail. His classic works are marred by a dated Freudianism, made as they were at a time when artists and intellectuals believed that obsessing over sex was the mark of seriousness. New York’s bad old days were no joke. In the then-famous phrase of journalist Ken Auletta, New York was “the left’s Vietnam.” Only after urbanists faced up to the crisis, and reassessed the conventional wisdom that caused it, would things begin to look up again for New York.

We don’t turn to Woody Allen for policy prescriptions, though. He never had much advice to offer about how to save the city. But he did have much to say about why it was worth saving in the first place.

Photo by Fairchild Archive/Penske Media via Getty Images


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