City of New York, No Parking Anytime: The City and the Car in Postwar City Symphony Films

One of New York’s many “No Parking Anytime” signs painted on a roll-up door in Chelsea. (Photo by author.)
Exploring three experimental city symphony films made between 1958 and 1972, Cortland Rankin looks at the fraught and shifting relationship between New York City and the car.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on Mediating Urban Automobility.]

“No Parking Anytime” – no other traffic sign conveys such naked hostility towards the car, and in New York City they are everywhere. On top of their practical function, such signs also communicate something quintessential about the city’s contentious relationship with the automobile, namely that the car, that icon of Americanism, has never seemed at home in a city both celebrated and derided as America’s “Other.” New York remains one of the few American cities where you don’t need a car. Rather than providing the freedom and convenience so often associated with automobility, owning a car in New York can be a bit of a curse, condemning one to waste countless hours in traffic, navigate intense vehicular and pedestrian congestion, confront aggressive driving, and endure the evergreen struggle to find parking. For every moment of thrilling liberation and carefree reverie behind the wheel, there are many more marked by frustration, anxiety, anger, and fear. In other words, the car is, more often than not, a problem in New York City. And yet, the city is full of them.

Despite the fact that New York largely resisted the wholesale transformation to car-based urbanism better than most American metropolises, the city did not completely escape the car’s pervasive reach. Although he never learned to drive, Robert Moses wielded his authority as City Parks Commissioner and City Planning Commissioner, among other titles, to reshape the New York metropolitan region around the needs of the car. In addition to massive bridge and tunnel projects, Moses built 627 miles of new roads in and around the city between 1936 and 1968, 130 of which were limited access highways, some running straight through (and thereby displacing) New York’s most vulnerable communities.1Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 850. Caro’s chapter “One Mile” chronicles the destruction of the close-knit Bronx community of East Tremont by a single, mile-long curve in the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a particularly notorious urban highway that came to notoriety due in part to Caro’s reportage. Today, Moses’s edict that “cities are created by and for traffic” is still written in concrete and asphalt across the face of the city as the New York metropolitan area boasts almost twice as many miles of roadway as the Los Angeles metropolitan area – ostensibly the consummate car-based conurbation.2Robert Moses quoted in Robert Fishman, “Revolt of the Urbs: Robert Moses and His Critics,” in Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, eds. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 125. Thus we are presented with one of New York’s many paradoxes. The city was remade in the mid-twentieth century to accommodate the car, but remains in many ways deeply antithetical to it.

Cultural imaginaries of New York in the decades coterminous with the city’s postwar redevelopment are a fruitful place for unpacking this volatile relationship to the car. Cinema in particular offers a privileged vantage point on urban automobility. More than simply mirroring how we drive and think about cars in cities, movies, Iain Borden asserts, are actually “an integral part of how we perceive, project, represent and engage in this practice.”3Iain Borden, Drive: Journeys Through Film, Cities and Landscapes (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 13. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood has played an outsized role in molding perceptions of New York automobility, especially since the 1960s when on-location shooting returned to the city in earnest. One may think of Gene Hackman furiously pursuing an elevated BMT train in The French Connection (1971), Diane Keaton absent-mindedly slaloming down South Street in Annie Hall (1977), Robert De Niro cruising (and judging) the nocturnal streets of Times Square in Taxi Driver (1976), or Dustin Hoffman exploding “I’m walkin’ here!” at an encroaching taxi in Midnight Cowboy (1969). These iconic scenes have left indelible impressions in the popular imagination, but they employ the antagonistic relationship between the city and the car to achieve specific narrative ends. But what if we remove narrative from the equation? Might alternative forms of cinema offer alternative insights into urban automobility?

To answer this question, I turn to three postwar cinematic treatments of New York automobility from the city symphony genre including Hilary Harris’s Highway (1958),4Highway, directed by Hilary Harris (1958, 5 min., b&w/sound, 16 mm). Marie Menken’s Go! Go! Go! (1962-64),5 Go! Go! Go!, directed by Marie Menken (1962-64, 11 min., color/silent, 16 mm). and Rudy Burckhardt’s Doldrums (1972).6Doldrums, directed by Rudy Burckhardt (1972, 17 min., color/sound, 16 mm). City symphonies are known for their direct engagement with urban processes, populations, and spaces without the use of character-based narratives. Classically structured as a “day in the life” of a city, they typically rely on a combination of montage and music in crafting their cross-sections of urban life. Erica Stein observes that city symphonies cluster around places and periods where “the definition and function of the city is being renegotiated through intensive urban redevelopment.”7Erica Stein, Seeing Symphonically: Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planning, and the Utopian Image of New York (Albany: SUNY Press, 2021), 3. While city symphonies have long employed images taken of and from cars to convey the dynamism and accelerated temporality of modern urban life, cars and automobility more broadly are not traditionally a primary focus. As New York was painfully restructured to facilitate a new era of mass automobile ownership in the postwar era, however, it’s not surprising to see increased engagement with automobility within the genre. More than just industrially marginal exercises in pure formalism, city symphony films can actually be valuable tools for analyzing and critiquing trends in urban redevelopment specifically because they don’t tell traditional stories. Indeed, Stein goes so far as to claim that they don’t merely represent urban space, but actively contribute to its production, thinking through and making claims about the changes wrought by urban redevelopment via form.8Stein, Seeing Symphonically, 4. Viewed collectively, these three city symphonies produced across three decades not only reflect changing attitudes towards the evolving dynamic between car and city, but generate novel ways of conceptualizing that dynamic through complex assemblages of sight and sound.

The View of the Road: Highway
A selection of views of the road from Highway (Hilary Harris, 1958).

Hilary Harris’s Highway is a paean to the spans of concrete and asphalt circumscribing New York that cinematically transforms the highway into a total work of art. Reinforcing Siegfried Giedion’s observation on American parkways that their “meaning and beauty… can be revealed only by movement,” Highway is shot almost entirely from a moving car.9Siegfried Giedion, Space, Time & Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, 5th ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 823. But while the car is Harris’s mobile filming platform, he does not try to reproduce the experience of driving. Instead, he mediates the abstracting power of high-speed car travel in a manner that defamiliarizes the highway, turning it into an aesthetic experience. According to Mitchell Schwarzer, driving at high speeds “liberates” architecture from its context and in turn facilitates its “imagistic transformation… from site to flow and from object to event.”10Mitchell Schwarzer, Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 20 & 26. Harris enhances this tendency through cinematographic choices that accent motion, such as filming guardrails from the side window whooshing by in medium shots or swinging his handheld camera around to capture overpasses as he drives under them, both of which render highway architecture fluid and mobile. He also repeatedly juxtaposes similar structures via match cuts in montage sequences, which encourages a reevaluation of highway design in purely graphic rather than functional terms. Ultimately, Harris’s combination of motion and media generates a highly aestheticized experience of the highway consistent with Lewis Mumford’s assessment of them as “not merely masterpieces of engineering, but consummate works of art.”11Lewis Mumford, The Urban Prospect (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 93. Mumford was better known for his stringent critiques of car-based urbanism, which he argued favored cars over people.

According to Schwarzer, “[v]elocity can rearrange the parts of an architectural landscape into otherwise imperceptible rhythms and harmonies.”12Schwarzer, Zoomscape, 83. In Highway, however, Harris seeks to make the unseen “rhythms and harmonies” of the highway landscape intelligible and enjoyable through the interrelation of the musical score and the rhythmic qualities of cinematography and editing.13One of Stein’s main interventions in Seeing Symphonically is the notion that city symphonies produce their own kind of analysis of urban space with and through rhythm, a method she compellingly articulates through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “rhythmanalysis.” For example, as Paul Arthur points out, guardrails filmed from the moving car resemble a musical staff, establishing a visual metaphor in which passing cars function as notes and the rise and fall of the highway corresponds to musical crescendos and decrescendos.14Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 48. David Hollister’s rock-and-roll and jazz score also incorporates aspects of the sonic landscape of the highway. For example, the constant staccato notes played at regular intervals by various instruments recalls the sound of tires passing over sections of asphalt. Allen Weiss might categorize this variety of audio-mimesis as “notated/stylized/evocative” – a mode in which stylized performed music is used to evoke specific elements of a particular soundscape.15Allen S. Weiss, Varieties of Audio-Mimesis: Musical Evocations of Landscape (Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2008), 53. The steady beat also occasionally rhymes with lane markings, guardrails, and street lights as they pass in and out of frame, as if the architectural components of the highway itself were playing the notes. The relationship between the score and highway architecture becomes even more pronounced in the film’s final act. Atop low-angle shots of overpasses filmed from below, a muted trumpet belts swelling glissandos that evoke the curves of the overpasses as they wax and wane in the frame. The staccato piano notes playing under the trumpet aurally mimics the architectural layout of the interchange itself, with the curving overpasses (trumpet) above and straight surface streets (piano) below. Viewed (and listened to) holistically, this cinematic highway is both kinetic sculpture and complex musical arrangement – a veritable midcentury American Gesamtkunstwerk.

Highway is less about the view of the city from the highway than the view of the highway itself. With only fleeting glimpses of landmarks like the Empire State Building or the Manhattan Bridge locating the film in New York, Highway, much like the eponymous transportation system, has a tenuous connection to place. Relatively anonymous highway features take center stage while New York’s more iconic vistas are relegated to the margins. Instead of vilifying the placelessness of highways as Marc Augé (among others) would, Harris embraces their abstracting quality as license to craft a cinematic superhighway without end.16See, for example, Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995). Rather than a road to somewhere, Harris’s highway provides its own raison d’être – it is the destination.

In stark contrast to the chronic congestion that has long plagued New York’s highways (and to which highways contribute via the phenomenon of traffic generation), the imaginary limited-access roadway of Harris’s film is a utopic roller coaster of speed where traffic jams are a distant memory. Instead, the boredom and dread of highway driving in New York is replaced by a sense of exhilaration constantly renewed by a visually dynamic and aesthetically rich automotive landscape.17For a more contemporary descendent of Highway, see The BQE, a three-screen “cinematic suite” that accompanied Sufjan Stevens’s 2007 live album-length orchestral ode to the (notoriously congested) Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Even as the film draws to a close and road signs warn of a potential end to the journey, Harris’s car (and camera) keeps rolling.

The View from the Road: Go! Go! Go!
A selection of views from the road from Go! Go! Go! (Marie Menken, 1962-64).

Highway is an unadulterated celebration of the highway and the car, but Marie Menken’s Go! Go! Go! is more ambivalent about the car’s place in the city. “Speed is about excess,” Schwarzer writes. It’s “about seeing more than one can process, traveling beyond the capacities of our bodies.”18Schwarzer, 22. Go! Go! Go! is all about speed, but it’s not a simple endorsement of it. Automobility may seem an odd lens through which to consider this city symphony given that only its opening sequence is shot from a car, but the combined transformative potential of automotive and cinematic apparatuses is integral to Menken’s larger critique of New York’s non-stop “busyness.” Menken opens the film with a drive across the Brooklyn Bridge into Lower Manhattan, but this is no ordinary establishing sequence. Instead, a combination of handheld cinematography and stop-motion turns this tour into a pulsating rush of color and motion. Visually intoxicating and overwhelming, the sequence has much to say about the experience of the city from the car.

Unlike Highway, the opening of Go! Go! Go! consists of a frenzied commute through downtown Manhattan’s densely-trafficked streets and avenues. Furthermore, the focus of this sequence is not the view of the road, but the view from the road. According to Schwarzer, the view of the city from a moving car is “a quick and potent mix of vision with form that almost instantaneously evaporates” and “can seem like the transformation of mass into energy.”19Schwarzer, 72. Through the use of stop-motion Menken amplifies the uncanny effect of driving through pedestrian-centric downtown neighborhoods. The cityscape becomes virtually unrecognizable, with buildings, parks, and pedestrians piling atop one another in a rapid-fire collage of imagery. With the absence of sound, our experience of the city becomes purely visual and the speed at which we perceive it flattens the depth of field, reducing the urban environment to a two-dimensional abstract expressionist painting in motion.

The restless energy and optimism of early 1960s America was strongly associated with the car and the freedom of the open road.20Kornelia Boczkowska, “From car frenzy to car troubles: automobilities, highway driving and the road movie in experimental film,” Mobilities 16, no. 4 (2021): 529. New York, however, as Art Simon points out, “bent the open road into a winding circuitry of avenues, cross-streets and tunnels,” replacing openness and possibility with claustrophobia and anxiety.21Art Simon, “‘One Big Lousy X’: The Cinema of Urban Crisis,” in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Volume IV: 1976 to the Present), eds. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 483. But the opening of Menken’s film unwinds that circuitry and imagines what careening through downtown at impossibly high speeds might look like. In its reduction of streets to mere vectors of movement, Go! Go! Go! creates an illusion of unobstructed car travel through the urban environment that would otherwise only be possible on a highway. Indeed, the film implicitly raises the specter of what the city might have looked like from the perspective of the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway, which Robert Moses wanted to ram down Canal Street – a potential future harbingered by the repeated glimpses of construction sites punctuating the mise-en-scène.

The production of Go! Go! Go! followed the 1961 publication of Jane Jacobs’s landmark treatise on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Given that the film essentially, if unintentionally, visualizes what traversing Manhattan at speed does to one’s “image of the city” (to borrow Kevin Lynch’s concept), it is provocative to read it as a critique of the contemporaneous obsession of planners like Moses with urban highways.22See Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1960). For Jacobs, planning around the needs of the car was completely antithetical to the diversity of uses and population density required to sustain healthy urban neighborhoods. One of the unfortunate results of planning for the car in Jacobs’s opinion is the homogeneity it encourages, to the extent that “city character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place.”23 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), 338. Though thrilling and beautiful, Menken’s hyperspeed ride through Manhattan in Go! Go! Go! does just that by virtually effacing the uniqueness of Manhattan’s many neighborhoods. What we’re left with is a visual rendition of the conditions of displacement and flux endemic to car-based urbanism.

None of the remainder of the film is shot from a car, but the concern with speed persists. For example, Menken films a graduation, a bodybuilding competition, and a wedding all in stop-motion, rendering them comic whirls of movement and color drained of pomp and circumstance. Begging the question “what’s the rush?”, such sequences seem to call out the restlessness baked into the proverbial “New York minute.” In the film’s penultimate sequence at Coney Island the uncanny hilarity inherent in the stop-motion aesthetic seems right at home alongside the sideshow attractions. Thinking back on the film’s opening sequence through the carnivalesque lens of Coney Island, it becomes apparent that the opening car ride can also be read as just that – an amusement-park ride in which the technologies of car and camera conspire to produce a funhouse version of New York that is equal parts exciting and terrifying.

The View by the Road: Doldrums
A selection of views by the road from Doldrums (Rudy Burckhardt, 1972).

If speed is an intoxicant that distorts perception and aestheticizes car travel, then embracing slowness and stasis, as Rudy Burckhardt does in Doldrums, is an effective way of exposing the more sobering realities of car-based urbanism.24Both Ernie Gehr’s Shift (1974) and Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977) also take up the conceit of stasis in relation to automobility to different effects. Shift, which consists entirely of static shots (run forwards and backwards) of automotive traffic on an anonymous three-lane Manhattan street filmed from a height of several stories and edited together via montage, is typically only considered in Structural terms, but could also be read as a meditation on the disorienting nature of city driving. Akerman mobilizes (or rather immobilizes) long takes of empty Manhattan street views and parked cars along with one slow car-mounted tracking shot up almost twenty blocks of Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen in her exploration of alienation in News from Home. The car remained a potent symbol of American industrial prowess, consumerism, and cultural optimism well into the 1960s, but more critical discourses were emerging, spurred on by the burgeoning environmental movement, the oil crisis of the 1970s, and vocal consumer advocates like Ralph Nader.25The publication of Nader’s bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile in 1965 not only led to the adoption of new road-safety measures, but ignited a new era of anti-car sentiment. See Bryan Appleyard, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World (New York: Pegasus Books, 2022), 233–249. Doldrums gives form to the mounting cynicism surrounding the car, its relationship to the city, and the environment more broadly. Burckhardt was a man of the street and ranked among the most prolific documentarians of twentieth century New York. But his milieu was the city sidewalk, with architectural details, window displays, pedestrian movement, and street fashions ranking among his favorite subjects. What makes Doldrums so unique in his body of work is that so much of it is shot along the alien environment of a highway.

The film opens in Chelsea on a Sunday morning, the streets almost empty after a rainstorm. Set to a down-tempo piano blues rag, the neighborhood seems as moribund as the title “doldrums” connotes, mostly devoid of street life but full of garbage piling up along curbs. This lull in activity in the urban core seems a metonym for New York’s oft-remarked-upon general malaise of the early 1970s. But as the second “act” reveals, the urban hustle and bustle has simply relocated to the periphery. The stasis of the pedestrian Chelsea scenes contrasts markedly with the constant automotive movement of the film’s longest segment shot along the New Jersey Turnpike. However, this ostensible dynamism proves illusory.

The shift from neighborhood street to major regional artery is an abrupt and uncharacteristic change in scale for Burckhardt. And yet he maintains his signature street photographer aesthetic, setting up his camera along the shoulder of the turnpike to catch views of roadside infrastructure and passing traffic in static long takes as he would pedestrians on a sidewalk. Rather than taking the view of the road or from the road as in Highway or Go! Go! Go!, Burckhardt, who largely eschews the car as a filming platform, concentrates on views taken by the road. Doldrums channels the unwelcome perspective of the pedestrian trapped in an automotive landscape – the view perhaps of the hitchhiker or the stranded motorist. Instead of indulging in the kinesthetic visuality of highway driving or cinematically augmenting the sensation of speed as Harris and Menken do, Burckhardt frustrates it by keeping his camera mostly still. Neither exhilarating nor terrifying, the speed of the passing cars and trucks captured in static long takes merely elicits feelings of frustration, impatience, and even impotence in the viewer. Eventually, these scenes of vehicular traffic actually become boring to watch as the cars and trucks streaming past at regular intervals begin to resemble canned goods traveling steadily down a conveyor belt rather than tons of machinery hurtling forwards at 60+ miles per hour. Burckhardt attempts to make sense of the unending parade along the turnpike, focusing on red semi-trucks in particular as a bored child might during a long road trip. The repeated presence of what seems to be the same red semi entering the frame from different angles in subsequent shots underscores the monotony of the commute, which contrasts sharply with Harris’s effervescent portrait of highway travel.

Although he prefers postsynchronized music in his films, Burckhardt allows the highway to “speak” for itself in Doldrums, layering in direct sound recorded along the turnpike that in turn provides an unstylized “melody.” The rate of cars passing is relatively constant, which creates a rhythmic bassline, and the fact that car and truck engines produce different sounds adds “instrumental” diversity to the “score.” The Doppler effect of roaring engines and tires meeting asphalt getting louder as they approach and then quickly dissipating as they move away attests to a stationary sound recording position that mirrors Burckhardt’s stationary camera position, an aesthetic choice that reinforces the paradoxical idea of stasis in a landscape built for speed. The ultimate effect of the soundtrack is, like the image track, hypnotic and intentionally boring.

Burckhardt displays little interest in conjuring the excitement of highway driving. In fact, in the select instances where he does shoot from a moving car, he deliberately avoids the frontal gaze through the windshield, preferring either rear-facing shots looking down at the tires of other cars or panoramic views out the side windows of dreary industrial landscapes replete with transmission towers, rail sidings, and billboards. Rather than the architecture of the turnpike itself or the experience of driving on it, Burckhardt is primarily concerned with the highway in context – as part of an “ecological” system to borrow Reyner Banham’s formulation.26See Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). One way this manifests is in the views Burckhardt captures from the shoulder of the turnpike of the industries that surround it. In place of the architectural details or storefront signage that were his bread and butter, Burckhardt turns his attention to refineries, smokestacks, and gas storage tanks, capturing each of them in isolation in static long takes. His focus on trucks, refineries, and gas tanks implicitly embeds his automotive mise-en-scène within larger transportation and energy networks that further stretches the typically intimate focus of his Manhattan-centric oeuvre.

When Burckhardt ventures off into wetlands between the turnpike and the Jersey City waterfront he finds a literally overlooked junkyard. Used tires, rusted cars, broken furniture, and discarded beer cans proliferate, all of which echo the curbside garbage in Chelsea, only on a much larger scale. This wetland-cum-landfill abutting the turnpike seems to confirm Peter Blake’s assessment of highways as “hideous scars on the face of the nation… poisoning the landscape and townscape with festering sores along their edges.”27Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 125. But Burckhardt also finds a strange beauty in this liminal space, deploying his signature montage technique to catalog the various “specimens” of this rarely trafficked place with the curiosity of a naturalist encountering a new ecosystem. As the camera surveys the detritus, Burckhardt layers in the postsynchronized sound of chirping crickets, which simultaneously evokes a complete lack of human activity while also implying that this human-altered landscape can potentially be understood as an environment in its own right. Amidst the debris field, Burckhardt unexpectedly encounters children playing. As a boy jumps amidst discarded tires (the detritus of the automobile age) the Manhattan skyline comes back into view. Burckhardt can’t resist the pull of the city and he ultimately returns to his home turf, cataloging pedestrian movement and street fashions along 14th Street in the film’s final sequence. Doldrums ends with a fast-motion shot of Manhattan traffic lights at dusk cycling between green and red lights. Manhattan’s street grid, though itself designed in part to facilitate movement, may be no match for a highway in terms of speed, but it’s home for Rudy Burckhardt.

Conclusion – The Road Traveled

The relationship between the car and New York City has long been tumultuous, but never one-dimensional. The city symphonies that speak to the city’s postwar redevelopment evidence a range of perspectives on that relationship, from Highway’s celebratory views of the road to Go! Go! Go!’s wildly energetic, yet more ideologically ambiguous views from the road to Doldrums’s more overtly critical views by the road. Rather than esoteric relics of the avant-garde, these films warrant sustained consideration because they look beyond the conventions of narrative filmmaking to find new formal ways of making claims about urban automobility that help us see and understand the issues at hand in novel and productive ways. But alternative aesthetics don’t automatically equate with critical dispositions. Instead, taken as a whole these films demonstrate a tension between an enduring aesthetic fascination with the automotive experience and a growing impulse to analyze and contest the anti-urban tenets of car-based urbanism. Viewed chronologically, the changing nature of this balance is indicative of a larger attitudinal shift towards the place of the car in the city. For example, in Highway Hilary Harris uses a combination of dynamic cinematography, montage editing, and music to turn a drive along New York’s highways into a modernist work of art consistent with the general optimism surrounding both cars and highways in American society of the late 1950s. Though Marie Menken’s use of stop-motion cinematography to enhance the illusion of speed in Go! Go! Go! betrays an aesthetic penchant for the transformative perceptual experiences offered by the car, the film also displays an implicit critical awareness of the detrimental impact of cars on older forms of city life in sympathy with the advocacy of Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s. Finally, Rudy Burckhardt’s confrontational use of stasis and slowness as part of an anti-car aesthetic in Doldrums operates in concert with a more ecological understanding of the car as the key driver of a wider petroculture with dire environmental consequences, a viewpoint that was coming into increasingly sharp focus in the 1970s.

“No Parking Anytime” the ubiquitous sign reads. Looked at one way, it’s a boldfaced denial of the car’s place in the city. Looked at another, it’s an invitation to keep driving, which is really where the car is most at home anyway. This implied double meaning also captures something quintessential about the city’s relationship to the car. As much as New York may seem at first glance to be the definitive anti-car city, it is also a city that was extensively remade by and for the car. Coterminous with these redevelopments, the postwar cycle of New York city symphonies remains an important reservoir for understanding this dynamic in all its complexity. Like the cars themselves, cinematic conceptions of urban automobility in the city symphony genre are constantly shifting gears.

 

Notes

Notes
1 Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 850. Caro’s chapter “One Mile” chronicles the destruction of the close-knit Bronx community of East Tremont by a single, mile-long curve in the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a particularly notorious urban highway that came to notoriety due in part to Caro’s reportage.
2 Robert Moses quoted in Robert Fishman, “Revolt of the Urbs: Robert Moses and His Critics,” in Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, eds. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 125.
3 Iain Borden, Drive: Journeys Through Film, Cities and Landscapes (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 13.
4 Highway, directed by Hilary Harris (1958, 5 min., b&w/sound, 16 mm).
5 Go! Go! Go!, directed by Marie Menken (1962-64, 11 min., color/silent, 16 mm).
6 Doldrums, directed by Rudy Burckhardt (1972, 17 min., color/sound, 16 mm).
7 Erica Stein, Seeing Symphonically: Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planning, and the Utopian Image of New York (Albany: SUNY Press, 2021), 3.
8 Stein, Seeing Symphonically, 4.
9 Siegfried Giedion, Space, Time & Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, 5th ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 823.
10 Mitchell Schwarzer, Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), 20 & 26.
11 Lewis Mumford, The Urban Prospect (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 93. Mumford was better known for his stringent critiques of car-based urbanism, which he argued favored cars over people.
12 Schwarzer, Zoomscape, 83.
13 One of Stein’s main interventions in Seeing Symphonically is the notion that city symphonies produce their own kind of analysis of urban space with and through rhythm, a method she compellingly articulates through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “rhythmanalysis.”
14 Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 48.
15 Allen S. Weiss, Varieties of Audio-Mimesis: Musical Evocations of Landscape (Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2008), 53.
16 See, for example, Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
17 For a more contemporary descendent of Highway, see The BQE, a three-screen “cinematic suite” that accompanied Sufjan Stevens’s 2007 live album-length orchestral ode to the (notoriously congested) Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
18 Schwarzer, 22.
19 Schwarzer, 72.
20 Kornelia Boczkowska, “From car frenzy to car troubles: automobilities, highway driving and the road movie in experimental film,” Mobilities 16, no. 4 (2021): 529.
21 Art Simon, “‘One Big Lousy X’: The Cinema of Urban Crisis,” in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film (Volume IV: 1976 to the Present), eds. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 483.
22 See Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1960).
23 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), 338.
24 Both Ernie Gehr’s Shift (1974) and Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977) also take up the conceit of stasis in relation to automobility to different effects. Shift, which consists entirely of static shots (run forwards and backwards) of automotive traffic on an anonymous three-lane Manhattan street filmed from a height of several stories and edited together via montage, is typically only considered in Structural terms, but could also be read as a meditation on the disorienting nature of city driving. Akerman mobilizes (or rather immobilizes) long takes of empty Manhattan street views and parked cars along with one slow car-mounted tracking shot up almost twenty blocks of Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen in her exploration of alienation in News from Home.
25 The publication of Nader’s bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile in 1965 not only led to the adoption of new road-safety measures, but ignited a new era of anti-car sentiment. See Bryan Appleyard, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World (New York: Pegasus Books, 2022), 233–249.
26 See Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).
27 Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 125.
Rankin, Cortland. “City of New York, No Parking Anytime: The City and the Car in Postwar City Symphony Films.” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 3 (September 2023).
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