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Tom Wolfe on 5 Cities

The late journalist and novelist was an exuberant chronicler of urban settings.
The writer Tom Wolfe in New York City, 2004.
The writer Tom Wolfe in New York City, 2004. Jim Cooper/AP

Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at age 88, was an extraordinary observer of all of American culture. But the clay for his sculpture came from cities: Over the course of his half-century of journalism, essays, and novels, his voice was interconnected with all things urban, and his assessments tracked assiduously with the evolving image of several metropolitan regions. We might not even think about it, but when we conjure the car-crazy Southern California of the late 1960s or the gilded and gritty Manhattan of the 1980s, we tend to use the words that Wolfe provided.

His adopted hometown of New York City, of course, provided the stage for much of that work, from his early newspaper career that begin at the New York Herald Tribune in 1962 to his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987. His precise understanding of how cities work more than occasionally conjured a bit of Jane Jacobs. “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years,” he once said. Miami, the extensively researched setting for his final novel, Back to Blood, was “a melting pot where the stones don't melt, they just rattle around.” Whether limning West Coast citadels, the neon frontier of Las Vegas, or the heroic sprawl of Atlanta, Wolfe well understood the engine of real estate development, and the swaggering personalities at the controls. (Charlie Croker, the unflinching, ex-college football player protagonist of 1998’s A Man in Full, is said to be based on Boston developer Don Chiofaro.) In his 1981 book From Bauhaus To Our House, he was not shy about criticizing 20th century modern architecture, as much out of respect for authenticity as skepticism of pretension.