Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

High-rise anxiety and the failure of community

‘We can tell a lot about a society by knowing who occupies its tallest buildings’.

Just months after the Genovese murder, the local ABC affiliate in Philadelphia aired the programme The Detached Americans to identify the problem of urban apathy using the Genovese case as its kernel event. The TV documentary explains the act of bystanding as an effect of converging social conditions that create massified, consumerist and capitalist urban and suburban subjects. It connects rather than interprets the model of urban and suburban personhood in the mid-1960s, drawing links between standardized education, suburbanization, authoritarian military culture, deadening office work and rule and role-bound relations of the nuclear family. Combined, they all represent a source-field of social detachments, self-interest and self-protectionism. In the documentary, the problem of bystander non-intervention the Genovese case revealed represents a common denominator of modern mid-century US life rather than an exceptional urban experience based in the thin networks of social affiliation. The film psychologizes the urban apartment dweller by turning to a critique of how suburbanization produces conformist, authoritarian and psychologically deadened subject-citizens.

The film’s critiques echo leftist activist texts of the time such as the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, with its indictments of public apathy and social dislocation caused by educational conformity, 'remote control economics' and a state steered toward constant war. The isolation of the individual from decision-making power in society signalled a politics without publics, a democracy run by elites that creates 'a great mass of people structurally remote and psychologically hesitant with respect to democratic institutions'. 'Subjective apathy', the Port Huron Statement warned, 'is encouraged by the objective American situation'. The sources of social and political isolation of individuals firmly rested in the structures of capitalist systems of government built around war-making.

The Detached Americans draws from a similar critique crafted in the style of a civics lesson on public apathy and the problems of suburbanization, which were offered as explanations for the conditions that led to the failures of Genovese’s urban neighbours to intervene. The film locates the source of their urbanized failures in the collapse of rural community and the expansion of the suburban residential areas. Rather than target urbanization as the problem, the film argues that suburban production of social homogenization and the standardization of public education and middle-class employment breed white crime fear and detachment, fostered people’s willingness to follow rules and promoted a culture of conformity and obedience to authority, claims also made in Stanley Milgram's first 1963 publication in his 'obedience to authority' studies. Through its documentary aesthetic, The Detached Americans identified and examined some of the conditions that make intervention in the city more difficult, even if the answers the film provides - to communicate with less role-bound expectations of others within suburbanized families - fail to address the problem adequately. Eschewing judgement on the individuals who fail to help others, The Detached Americans suggested that the failure lies in the larger social structures of conformity and white flight from the cities to the suburbs.

The film functions as a diagnostic text, naming and describing the problem of social detachment in the city, and the US more broadly, and offering advice to viewers on how to develop communicative competencies that can thwart social barriers to involvement in others’ lives. The Genovese case bookends the TV documentary, which begins by describing the non-intervention of the witnesses to the Genovese murder, then proceeds by way of mid-century critiques of American conformity, bureaucracy and social typing to examine how urban society and its physical and social structures of governing typecast people into inflexible roles that create barriers to communication and social affiliation - echoing William Whyte’s (1956) The Organization Man, David Riesman’s (1950) The Lonely Crowd and C. Wright Mills’ (1951) White Collar.

According to the film, to interpret the city and the specific crime of urban indifference requires that viewers learn to read others as social types, or kinds of generalized others. With the help of expert narrators, spectators can learn to read for social types in order to develop skills that, rather paradoxically, will supposedly break down the problem of social typecasting. At minimum, the solution The Detached Americans offers to the problem of non-responsive citizens is calling the police; the larger solution is to learn to become better citizens through expert training in group and interpersonal relations as a way of rebuilding a sense of community in the context of atomized, anonymous, suburban living. The Detached Americans thus explains the problem of the city through a symptomology of suburban social relations.

In one of the film’s opening scenes, a detective speaks directly to the audience about how the Genovese murder was perpetrated as much by the bystanders to the assault as the assailant. Bystanders here are coded as accomplices to the crime, complicit in Genovese’s killer, Winston Moseley’s, perpetration. Blame for the crime rests with those who failed to intervene, ‘a curious shift’ Stanley Milgram criticized as ‘reminiscent of recent trends in moralizing about the Nazi era’. While ‘writers once focused on the sins of the Nazis; it is now more fashionable’, he argued, ‘to discuss the complicity of their victims’, a reference to Hannah Arendt’s controversial thesis on the banality of evil from her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial.

The film locates the urban problem of bystander non-intervention around the Kitty Genovese case in the physical and social transformation of suburbanization, dramatically depicting the suburban source of the problem of bystander non-intervention in an early scene in which a bulldozer demolishes a rural barn. The film then cuts to aerial footage of the orderly streets and homogeneous homes of the suburbs, accompanied by a recording of The Womenfolk's performance of the folk song 'Little boxes' that satirizes middle-class suburban conformity. The film locates the urban problem of bystander non-intervention around the Kitty Genovese case in the physical and social transformation caused by suburbanization. In the scene, changes along the rural/suburban interface at the edges of the metropolis represent the problems of non-involvement for the high-rise apartment dweller living in the dense inner city. The destruction of rural community and white flight from the city to the suburbs, the film implies, shape the psychological character of the city dweller as much as the suburban resident, proposing a psychological character profile that connects the inner-city resident and the middle-class suburbanite.

To be a good witness, a responsive witness, the film also directs viewers to look at and understand the placeholder for the crime: a chalk outline of a body lying in the street. The sexual violence and murder committed against Genovese is placed in the street, where violent death is projected as public and staged, and at the same time spectral. Viewers of The Detached Americans never see or hear the crime being committed; they instead see the outline of the victim’s corpse, and then later hear the testimony of a single fictional male witness as he describes what he saw of the assault and why he did not intervene.

The programme describes how the unnamed victim, clearly modelled on Genovese, led an urban life, signified by the high-rise apartment building that stands behind the detective. Genovese actually lived on the second storey of a Tudor building above a shop across the street from a 10-storey apartment building. ‘This is where she lived’, the detective declares as he points to the high-rise, placing the witnesses and Genovese into physical proximity that is also meant to signify, in its ideal form, a context of neighbourliness. While the film depicts the murder's witnesses as all living in the same building, the witnesses who testified at Moseley’s murder trial lived in three different buildings, distributed across different vantage points on the scene of the crime. The Detached Americans may suggest the witnesses all lived in one building to emphasize more dramatically the failures of the model of community based in multistorey apartment buildings. The film’s detective character tells us the witnesses ‘were on four different floors, looking down at the thing’, portraying the witnesses as an aggregated collective in which the physical proximity enabled by the high-rise apartment fails to produce collective action.

At the end of the film, a fictional witness to the Genovese murder describes the scene he saw on the street as he fumbles and then hesitates to explain why he did not call the police. The scene is shot from inside his upper floor apartment, where the camera records his testimony to what he saw on the street below his apartment after-the-fact, as if the truth of his inaction on the night of the murder he witnessed can be located in his act of looking at the scene months later. When viewers are introduced to his character as a witness to the murder, he has just appeared from a prior scene that staged a fight between him and his wife witnessed by their daughter at the dining room table in their suburban home. He switches character roles in the scene where he plays a witness to the Genovese murder, but the film suggests that his different roles as suburban husband and father and as an apartment-dwelling urban witness to the murder are psychologically one and the same. The film locates the problem of bystander non-intervention in the suburbanized nuclear family form, where the detachments of suburbia are juxtaposed with high-rise indifference in the city.

Like 1950s educational television programmes, The Detached Americans ‘stages a sense of proxy contact between everyday citizens and experts charged with the administration of their conduct'. Similar to the role-play scenarios in the TV programmes Anna McCarthy analyses in her book The Citizen Machine, The Detached Americans uses techniques of what McCarthy calls ‘wooden acting’ to encourage viewers to learn the difference between who individuals are and the social roles they playWhile the programmes McCarthy analyses draw from inter-group relations theory and mid-century scholarship on the problem of communication across group differences to offer training to its program’s viewers, The Detached Americans draws from the subfields of interpersonal communication, social interactionism and social role theory for its conceptualization of the problem the Genovese murder identified, and the solution on offer. In the programme, group differences are subsumed within the dyad of the married couple and the suburban family as key sites of social management and behavioural engineering. The Detached Americans is explicit in this lesson, and quite literally uses wooden acting in scenes that feature mannequins and Barbie and Ken dolls.

The Detached Americans is an example of civic television, a form of media production aimed at training and producing better citizens. Harry Reasoner represents the moral pedagogue, a role he came to occupy as a CBS news anchor covering the JFK assassination in November 1963 and Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing live on-air. Later, in 1968, he co-created the programme 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace. In the film, real-life news anchor Harry Reasoner teaches by demonstration. In an act of re-mediation, Reasoner gestures to a TV screen used on set to play recorded examples of bystander inaction.  Anna McCarthy describes such tools of demonstration-based civic pedagogy as ‘postwar art(s) of government’, where television documentary becomes an ‘experiment in governing by television’, addressing the failures of citizens to act responsibility toward other citizens in need. The good citizen must not only be taught, he or she must have ethical citizenship ethics demonstrated to him or her.

The Detached Americans might offer an alternative ethics of witnessing within the context of divided city life. Its thin description of the multiple factors that condition bystander intervention in the context of changing urban and suburban social relations function like Erving Goffman’s ‘eye behavior on the street’: a means of glancing at the whole picture, of going what Heather Love calls ‘close, but not deep’ in one’s interpretation of urban social relations. In the case of the Genovese murder, where bystanders were said to have failed to act on their ear and eyewitnessing of the street, television documentary comes to both to fill in for their absence and helps train other citizens in how not to be a bystander by portraying a series of structural factors that impinge on people’s ability and willingness to intervene on behalf of others in the context of urban life.

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