What do the songs of Bruce Springsteen tell us about the American city?

The Boss: Bruce Springsteen in 2009. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In cities across the world, Bruce Springsteen remains a huge attraction. His concerts pack stadia – last time he toured the globe, in 2016, he outstripped Beyoncé, Coldplay, Adele and the rest to be the year’s top grossing artist.

His live shows are legendary. What, though, about the influence that cities and towns themselves have had on his music? With his new record Western Stars out this week, let’s look at the urban landscapes that shaped the Boss and his songs.

Springsteen was brought up in small town New Jersey and bounced back and forth to California in search of success. His first couple of records contained hints of his urban influence.

1973’s Greeting’s From Asbury Park, N.J. left fans in no doubt where he was coming from. Containing a track which sounds more like a question you might ask City Mapper (Does This But Stop At 82nd Street?) one of the standouts was It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City. Springsteen recounts a stifling day on New York’s public transport: “It's too hot in these tunnels, you can get hit up by the heat/You get up to get out at your next stop but they push you back down in your seat/Your heart starts beatin' faster as you struggle to your feet/And you're out of that hole, back up on the street.”

His 1975 third album, the breakthrough Born To Run, began to showcase the key theme of his early career – getting out of provincial backwater towns and searching for salvation on the road. In Thunder Road, (“this is what I feel like inside,” said Nick Hornby about it), Springsteen croons, “It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.” Born To Run itself spells it out even more clearly: “Whoah baby, this town rips the bones from your back, it's a death trap/It's a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young/'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

He further explores the frustration of small town life on arguably his best record, 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town – naming his career-long fascination with the liminal spaces at the periphery of the urban and rural. By the time of 1980’s The River, he’s yearning for nearby New York without yet naming it. “Well look over yonder see them city lights,” he sings on Ramrod.

1982’s Nebraska moves the scene to the great plain states, with the title track telling a tale of murder. “From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska/With a sawed off .410 on my lap/Through to the badlands of Wyoming/I killed everything in my path.”

He swings back to the East Coast for his most complete vision of a single city: “I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus… Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

If Nebraska is Springsteen’s mid-period highpoint, Born In The USA is his best-known record from the time. The title track itself was laughably misunderstood by Ronald Reagan who used it in his 1984 re-election campaign, oblivious to its searing attack on the country’s failure to help Vietnam veterans. It starts with a withering assessment of where small town America had got to: “Born down in a dead man's town…”

Springsteen was becoming a major chronicler of the American economic shift under Reagan. His biggest statement yet was My Hometown, which encapsulated the decline in heartland towns. “Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores/Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more/They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back/To your hometown.”

By 1992, one of the biggest stars in the world, divorced and living in California, Springsteen makes no bones of his dissatisfaction. 57 Channels And Nothin’ On, from Human Touch, lays it out clearly: “I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills/With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills.” Released the same day, another album, Lucky Town, saw him drifting. Streets Of Philadelphia also came out around this time, accompanying the groundbreaking film about HIV/AIDS.

By 1995 Springsteen made clear a link long evident in his work. While John Steinbeck was the chronicler of the Great Depression, Springsteen’s homage, The Ghost Of Tom Joad told tales of migrants seeking a living in the NAFTA era. “Families sleeping in their cars in the southwest/No home, no job, no peace, no rest,” he sang on the title track. Youngstown made the case clearer. “From the Monongahela valley to the Mesabi iron range/To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story's always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world's changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.”
In the midst of Bill Clinton’s boom, Springsteen disappeared. It took a dramatic assault on one of his most cherished cities to wake him from slumber. 2002’s The Rising was his stirring, heartfelt love letter to New York City. On Empty Sky, he recounts the aftermath of the attacks. “Blood on the streets, blood flowing down,” before looking to the site of the former World Trade Centre, “I hear the blood of my blood crying from the ground/Empty sky, empty sky, I woke up this morning to the empty sky.”

A song written a few years earlier, about economic devastation in the Rust Belt was repurposed as an elegy for the twin towers, My City Of Ruins. “The boarded up windows, the empty streets/While my brother's down on his knees/My city of ruins.”

Springsteen, re-energised, hit the road with The E Street Band for the first time in years. With George W Bush in power, he was politicised more than ever in opposition to the Iraq War. 2007’s Magic saw him rail against the calamitous conflict, asking who would be the Last To Die. “The sun sets in flames as the city burns/Another day gone down as the night turns/And I hold you here in my heart/As things fall apart… Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?/Darling your tyrants and kings fall to the same fate/Strung up at your city gates/And you're the last to die for a mistake.”

He also began to grapple with the economic calamity just around the corner. On Radio Nowhere he painted a bleak picture. “I was trying to find my way home/But all I heard was a drone/Bouncing off a satellite/Crushing the last lone American night. This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?”

By 2012, wry observation had turned to fury. Wrecking Ball summarised his late-period anger at the betrayal of those small communities he’d once seemed so keen to escape. Death To My Hometown is damning. “Well, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down/No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground… But just as sure as the hand of God/They brought death to my hometown, boys… They destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains, the vultures picked our bones.”

The title track picked up the theme. “Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust,” he sang, “And all our youth and beauty, it's been given to the dust/When the game has been decided and we're burning down the clock/And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots… Bring on your wrecking ball.”

Returning to his immigrant tails, Springsteen pre-figured Trumpian attacks on those from beyond American shores. “I docked at Ellis Island in the city of light and spire/I wandered to the valley of red-hot steel and fire,” he sings on American Land. “We made the steel that built the cities with the sweat of our two hands/We made our home in the American land… They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin/They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind/They died to get here a hundred years ago, they're still dying now/Their hands that built the country we're always trying to keep out.”

His social conscience re-fired, Springsteen’s 2014 record High Hopes resurrected an old track he’d written about the killing of a black boy by police. It had never been more topical. American Skin (41 Shots) became a rallying cry amid the Black Lives Matter moment – showing Springsteen hadn’t lost touch with issues affecting urban communities: “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life/It ain't no secret, no secret my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”

Which brings us to 2019 and the release of Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album. Western Stars is full of the wide-open skies of the American continent.  Examining smaller US cities, The Boss visits Arizona for Tucson Train. “I come here looking for a new life/One I wouldn't have to explain… If I could just turn off my brain/Now my baby's coming in on the Tucson train.” Meanwhile, he hits the South on Somewhere North Of Nashville.

Often misunderstood as jingoistic and two dimensional, Bruce Springsteen is actually a chameleon, constantly inspired by his horizons, from the small towns of his youth, to the cities of his later life. A songwriter so quintessentially American that his universal themes are understood everywhere. Many of us come from provincial towns, many of us love the excitement of big city life. No-one captures it with such passion and joy as the man from New Jersey.


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.