Linda's Reviews > Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870-1930

Budapest and New York by Thomas Bender
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Oct 26, 10

bookshelves: history, new-york, non-fiction, budapest
Read from July 15 to October 15, 2010

This volume is an illuminating, if sometimes ponderous, collection of essays investigating a series of related topics in the context of two cities with similar attributes during a particular historical period (from 1870 to 1930). Published in 1994, the book originated with a particular conference held in Budapest in 1988. As such, it basically preceded all the major political and social shifts that took place in the world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but as the subjects generally are events that occurred century earlier, it is hard to discern any major impact on the content.

Anyone looking to this book for a survey of Budapest and New York history of a particular time frame should be forewarned: It is, first and foremost, an academic study, with all the syntactical complexity and theoretical heft that implies. It’s not what one would call a light read. Moreover, reading the chapters – the book pairs essays on similar topics by American and Hungarian authors side by side – one is quickly reminded that American academics write to communicate; Eastern European academics write to impress. Unfortunately, as an American reader, this usually made the New York articles far more engaging to me than the Budapest ones. Still, for someone with more than a passing interest in the subject, it provides some excellent insights throughout. For myself in particular, having lived as an expat in Budapest for several years, the book opened up some crucial background to things I never knew, or completely misapprehended, about life in Budapest and Hungary.

At the outset, the editors make it a point to emphasize that the studies were not designed to be truly coordinated. Rather they are simply presented as side-by-side but independent analyses of related topics. This is not just a shame, it is a seriously missed opportunity. It is a shame, because the book succeeds best when it is at its most comparative – namely in the chapters on painting in New York (Chapter 11) and Budapest (Chapter 12). (Wanda M. Corn’s article on “The Artist’s New York” is by far the most engaging and enjoyably informative in the book.)

The explicitly non-“coordinated” intent of the editors really is a missed opportunity. Clearly there is a very limited audience for this book – a reader would have to be very familiar with both Budapest/Hungary and New York/the US to be attracted to it – but that really is the editors’ own doing. A more consciously coordinated/comparative study could have been a useful contribution to urban studies in general, and would have been interesting to a much broader audience. The comparison of two cities that passed through a strikingly similar moment in their respective development at the same particular moment in history should raise a wealth of productive questions about urban development – especially when the subsequent histories of the two cities diverged as much as did the histories of New York and Budapest.
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