Reading Our Region

50 Years of New York Magazine

This oversize volume of stunning photography and cool prose chronicles not only the five decades New York Magazine’s been in existence, but the political, social and cultural life of New York over the same period: journalism as witness to change in the city, and in journalism itself.

What’s more, given the exponential growth of online connectivity, as well as the city’s rep as the most “worldy” on the planet, the book can also be said to be not just reflective of urban life, but, as its editors suggest, “prophetic” as well. New York Magazine caught on early to the Manhattanization and cultural ascendency of Brooklyn and, by the Millennium, was already mapping the city’s “new contours” and taking on stories with national and international resonance.

With a striking black and white dust jacket that folds out to become a colorful schematic mega poster of one of the magazine’s signature features — the back-page Approval Matrix — the book covers some of the city’s movers and shakers and most significant events starting from the magazine’s inception in April 8, 1968.

What a time that was: the late 1960s seethed with unrest in New York and the nation. The magazine was published four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the city was mired in crime and filth. Those who could, fled the breakdown in services, racial violence, AIDS epidemic, bankruptcy.

Ironically, however, though blighted and polarized, the city then was also the “cradle” of movements and poised for “rebirth.” With famous-name authors and arresting, glossy photography, Highbrow, Lowbrow captures New Yorkers living “at the bleeding edge of the present.” It also reprints “strange turns” that its current editors feel defined a New York sensibility over the decades, including a 1970s obsession with houseplants and Donald Trump’s boat.

The overriding journalistic idea was — and still is — for New York Magazine to be different from The New York Times or The New Yorker, meaning that, in the words of founding co-editors Clay Felker and Milton Glaser, the new magazine would be “unpretentious . . . unapologetic, funny, brash, even a bit crude.” And it would present itself in a style that could only be described as vintage New York, meaning witty, wacky, and street-smart wise, if somewhat skewed toward younger readers into rad chic and upscale celeb.

Organized as eight subject matter chapters that each proceed chronologically, the structure enhances the book’s theme — that NYC is unique and that New York Magazine offers a unique point of view in covering the last 50 years. A tag headline at the start of each section sets the theme while also linking the chapters as an episodic “visual narrative” defined by look and voice.

No other city in the world, the editors imply, could claim ownership of such chapter concepts as Power, Midnight, Food, Crisis, Living, Culture, Family and Style as does New York.

“Who Really Runs New York City?” is the eternal question the magazine addresses decade after decade, with an eye on subjects artistic, cultural, and political, high and low.
What Felker (d. 2008) saw as a city “free form, giddy with change, infatuated with the new”— is exemplified by the magazine’s continuingly audacious, often outrageous, articles, infographics and photography.

You can indeed judge this magazine by its covers. The 9/11 shot of the city at night, lights on — until lower Manhattan, totally dark; Elliott Spitzer with an arrow labelled “brain” pointing at his genitals; the double-page-mob scene at Studio 54; a sexy Philip Roth lying on grass; a minimalist monochrome of Dylan — so many images that startle and critique.

Some covers have become iconic, many articles classics, such as Tom Wolfe’s devastating coverage of the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s Upper West Side party in June 1970. There were also innovations. Ms. Magazine started as an insert in New York Magazine in its 1971 year-end issue, putting Gloria Steinem and feminism on the map, and “foodie” first appeared in “What’s Nouvelle” by Gael Greene in June 1980.

Of course, the book had to stop somewhere. Too late for inclusion, though indicative of the magazine’s continuing investigative journalism, Andrew Sullivan’s brilliant piece on the opioid epidemic, which ran this past February, should make it into any future publication.

No collection of “greatest hits,” Highbrow, Lowbrow presents a selective, attractive, glam, hip “patchwork” cultural history sewn with skill and affection that shows the rewards and challenges of living in Our Town.