Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow and Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.
The late journalist and novelist was an exuberant chronicler of urban settings.
Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at age 88, was an extraordinary observer of all of American culture. But the clay for his sculpture came from cities: Over the course of his half-century of journalism, essays, and novels, his voice was interconnected with all things urban, and his assessments tracked assiduously with the evolving image of several metropolitan regions. We might not even think about it, but when we conjure the car-crazy Southern California of the late 1960s or the gilded and gritty Manhattan of the 1980s, we tend to use the words that Wolfe provided.
His adopted hometown of New York City, of course, provided the stage for much of that work, from his early newspaper career that begin at the New York Herald Tribune in 1962 to his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987. His precise understanding of how cities work more than occasionally conjured a bit of Jane Jacobs. “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years,” he once said. Miami, the extensively researched setting for his final novel, Back to Blood, was “a melting pot where the stones don't melt, they just rattle around.” Whether limning West Coast citadels, the neon frontier of Las Vegas, or the heroic sprawl of Atlanta, Wolfe well understood the engine of real estate development, and the swaggering personalities at the controls. (Charlie Croker, the unflinching, ex-college football player protagonist of 1998’s A Man in Full, is said to be based on Boston developer Don Chiofaro.) In his 1981 book From Bauhaus To Our House, he was not shy about criticizing 20th century modern architecture, as much out of respect for authenticity as skepticism of pretension.
That book, like most of Wolfe’s output, also inspired fierce controversy. But even Wolfe’s many critics and literary foes must admit that few writers ever captured places and times as deftly. Here are five choice passages from the man and the cities he lived and worked in.
1. On Las Vegas, from “Las Vegas (What?) LAS VEGAS (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) LAS VEGAS!!!!” Esquire (1964)
Las Vegas takes what in other American towns is but a quixotic inflammation of the senses for some poor salary mule in the brief interval between the flagstone rambler and the automatic elevator downtown, and magnifies it, foliates it, embellishes it into an institution … the only town in the world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs. One can look at Las Vegas from a mile away on Route 91 and see no buildings, no trees, only signs. But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless. I can only attempt to supply names—Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon, Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald’s Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney. Las Vegas’ sign makers work so far out beyond the frontiers of conventional studio art that they have no names themselves for the forms they create.
2. On Los Angeles, from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
It was like Tiepolo emerging from the studios of Venice, where the rounded Grecian haunches of the murals on the Palladium domes hung in the atmosphere like clouds. Except that [car customizer George] Barris emerged from the auto-body shops of Los Angeles. Barris invited me out to his studio—only he would never think of calling at that, he calls it Kustom City—at 10811 Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. If there is a river within a thousand miles of Riverside Drive, I saw no signs of it. It’s like every place else out there: endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, tacos, drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plateglass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forwards on the sidewalk and throw up.
3. On New York City, from The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
As the Mercedes ascended the bridge’s great arc, he could see the island of Manhattan off to the left. The towers were jammed together so tightly, he could feel the mass and stupendous weight. Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets! There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening—and he was among the victors!
4. On Atlanta, from A Man in Full (1998)
Rolling lawns, absolutely perfectly cut, watered, landscaped, and ornamented by flowers and deep-green bushes, every leaf of which seemed waxed and polished by hand—rolling lawns swelled up on either side of Valley Road, leading to stupendous piles of Georgian brick with real slate roofs or romantic but equally stupendous villas of Italianate stucco atop the crests. And even though it was nine o’clock in the morning, on a hot day in May that had already turned the asphalt slopes of Collier Hills into an oven, here in the real Buckhead all was serene and green and cool, thanks to the soaring trees, left over from virgin forest, that created a great green canopy for the entire neighborhood.
5. On Miami, from Back to Blood (2012)
There were parts of Coral Gables where it was illegal to park a commercial vehicle like that in front of your house. But in Hialeah it was a point of pride for a man. Hialeah was a city of 220,000 souls, and close to 200,000 must be Cubans, it seemed to Nestor. People were always talking about “Little Havana,” a section of Miami along Calle Ocho, where the tourists all stopped at Café Versailles and had a cup of terribly sweet Cuban coffee and then walked a couple of blocks to watch the old men, presumably Cubans, play dominoes in Domino Park, a tiny plot of parkland placed right there on Calle Ocho to lend a rather drab neighborhood a little … authentic, picturesque, folklorica atmosfera. That done, they could say they had seen Little Havana. But the real Little Havana was Hialeah, except that it was hard to call it little.