Seeing Symphonically

Avant-Garde Film, Urban Planning, and the Utopian Image of New York

By Erica Stein

Subjects: Film Studies, Mass Media, Urban Studies, Social And Cultural History, New York/regional
Series: SUNY series, Horizons of Cinema
Hardcover : 9781438486635, 300 pages, August 2021
Paperback : 9781438486628, 300 pages, January 2022

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Table of contents


Introduction: Carving Out an Island

1. Tomorrow Has No Smell: The City, Regional Planning, and the National Day

2. City/Text: Weegee’s New York, Urban Renewal, and the Miniature-Gigantic

3. Secret Passages: Symphonies of the Margins, Slum Clearance, and Blight

4. Spectacle in Progress: Symphonies of the Center and Advocacy Planning

5. Image/City/Fracture: The Cool World, the Urban Crisis, and Nostalgia for Modernity

Coda: Repair


Looks at how a group of aesthetically innovative independent films contested and imagined alternatives to urban planning in midcentury New York.


Can the cinema imagine a different way of developing, using, and living in the city? Is it possible to do so using images of the extant city? Seeing Symphonically shows how a group of independent experimental, documentary, and feature films made in and about late modern New York City did just this. Between 1939 and 1964, as the city was being utterly remade by a combination of urban renewal projects, suburbanization, and high-rise public housing, the New York avant-garde reinvented the city symphony, a modernist form that depicted a day in the life of an urban environment through complex montage, optical effects, and street portraiture. Erica Stein documents how these New York City symphonies subverted and critiqued urban redevelopment through their aesthetics, particularly their rhythms, and, through those same rhythms, envisioned a world in which urban inhabitants have the absolute right to remake the city according to their needs, outside the demands of capital.

Erica Stein is Assistant Professor of Film at Vassar College.


"Seeing Symphonically is one of those books that needed to be written. It is somewhat surprising that a book on the representation of New York in avant-garde and independent film hasn't already been published. The book is therefore an important and long-awaited contribution to both film studies and urban studies." — Steven Jacobs, coeditor of The City Symphony Phenomenon

"The City Symphony film—long a staple in filmmaking and a genre which has produced a large handful of genuine film classics—has always struck me as a wonderful merging of documentary and experimental film. But under the watchful and educated eye of Erica Stein one sees that so many of the New York City Symphony films also and importantly bring a critical and sometimes caustic eye to the utopian aspirations of New York’s checkered record of urban planning and redevelopment." — David Desser, author of The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa