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The City of New York functions as a kind of oversized experimental laboratory for the United States. The rest of us watch the antics of this great city with a mixture of anxiety and envy, both emotions stirred by the thought that what happens there may happen next where we live. We have dithered, fumed, and criticized as the city has opened its doors to immigrants, tossed highrises into the air, bloated its welfare programs, erupted over decentralized schools and open-door public higher education, teetered at the edge of bankruptcy and then pulled back—the last under the tutelage of a mayor who epitomizes the brassy, confident parochialism for which we have always adored and loathed New Yorkers. Some may think that Los Angeles has replaced New York lately as the bellwether of fashion, pop music, and bizarre fads, but for political theater, New York still leads the way.
Thus it is perhaps fitting that Hendrik Hartog's fine new book focuses upon eighteenth and nineteenth century New York City to illustrate an extraordinarily important historical transformation of our ways of thinking about city politics, and indeed about politics generally. Ostensibly, Hartog's Public Property and Private Power is about the private property of a public body. This simple statement fails to capture the true subject of Hartog's book, however, because the book is really about our vocabulary of "public" and "private"—about the way in which, over a century ago, those words became central in the way we think about cities.
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