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The City

The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States

by John W. Reps
Princeton, 574 pp., $25.00

Despite the fact that it carries us only up to 1910 or thereabouts, this is the most comprehensive history of American city planning yet produced. It suffers from the inevitable consequences of comprehensiveness—lack of any great depth; but that will be filled in, either from other specialized studies already extant or by subsequent research clearly indicated by this work itself. For the very great merit of Professor Reps’s study is that it gives us, for the first time, a clear and coherent account of city-building in the New World. His material is chronologically organized: but this is not as simple as it sounds, for American theories of urban development have developed many odd twists, by-ways and cul-de-sacs. These are explored in fascinating detail.

The very concept of planning—that is, that cities were organisms whose forms and rates of development could be pre-established and controlled—was part of the Renaissance heritage which all the early settlers shared. Even without it, however, the concept would have had to be invented. For, as this book makes very clear, the seaboard city was the indispensable base of operations for the conquest of the virgin continent. And to found a brand-new city there had to be a plan. The first plans were applications of sixteenth and seventeenth-century European experience, of which the author provides a good introductory summary. Few of these early plans survived intact, of course. Rapid rates of growth (or of decay) would blot them out. Only here and there—in Savannah, New Orleans, Philadelphia—did any of these Renaissance layouts survive. But, nothing daunted, generation after generation planned new cities. All sorts of men with all kinds of motives: religious leaders, social reformers, land speculators, industrial and railroad tycoons. Professor Reps deals convincingly with all of them.

The format he has chosen is at once an asset and a liability to his material. Its great virtue is the lavish use of large illustrations, many of them rare or recondite subjects like the Mormon Nauvoo or company towns like Pullman and Gary. But it is apparently this format which has dictated a text which is episodic, at once factual and neutral, like the sound track for an illustrated lecture. And physically, the book is awkwardly shaped. For some perverse reason, the Princeton University Press has made it much wider than it is high, so that it is impossible to hold in one hand and difficult even with two. But these shortcomings do not seriously diminish the great value of this work, or the timeliness of its appearance.

The American people, more completely committed to an urban culture than any other in the world’s history, have nevertheless displayed, almost from the start, an ambivalent attitude toward the generator of that culture, the city itself. Professor Reps’s study deals with one wing of this bifurcated attitude—the pro-city parade of Utopians, Babbitts, grass-roots patriots, and plain comfort-seekers who have always seen the city as the new Jerusalem. But there has always been another and opposed wing of American opinion—those who saw the city as Sodom and Gomorrah, source of vice, usury, and political corruption.

Agrarians like the early Jefferson seem actually to have thought that they could build an agricultural republic with little or no urban development. Each plantation had direct, deep-water contact with Europe itself. Even Williamsburg was a village with a permanent population of scarcely five hundred souls; it swelled to a capital only in spring and fall, when farmers flocked into town to litigate and legislate. Of course, the War of 1812 taught Jefferson that industry and commerce and urbanization were inevitable. But distrust of the city remained endemic among the intelligentsia, as Morton and Lucia White have demonstrated in The Intellectual versus the City.

Cooper periodically fled Paris for Otsego Hall and Emerson affected rural Concord, though the material and spiritual sustenance of both was wholly urbane. From the days of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, most of our painters preferred the rural landscape and farmhouse anecdote, though it was to city folk that they sold. The children’s literature of the nineteenth-century—the so-called “nurture books”—was divided. For one Horatio Alger who made his fortune in the city there was always a stalwart country lad who remained pure and undefiled by staying down on the farm. Even architects and landscape designers have been ambivalent in their loyalties. Both A. J. Downing and F. L. Wright visualized their wholly urban clienteles in suburban landscapes. Bellamy’s Looking Backward is one of the few unabashed celebrations of the city in the nineteenth century.

The irony lay in the fact, of course, that the work of all these artists, writers, lecturers, and designers was the expression of an urbane culture. Only in the city were the lecture halls and galleries, publishers, and theaters where attitudes, whether pro- or anti-urban, could be aired. Only in the city was there an audience or clientele. Meanwhile, American commitment to urbanization grew decade by decade, as the census dramatically proved. The balance of opinion was in favor of the city until at least the end of World War I. Then the tide was reversed by two advanced technological developments: the electric distribution grid and the automobile. These two devices, and the whole pattern of decentralization they rapidly made possible, were to resolve the paradox of the rural sophisticate—how to have urban amenities in a rustic setting. suddenly all the material elements of urbanity—paved streets, warm houses, safe transportation, reliable food supplies, access to education and medical attention—came to be distributed across the countryside. The anti-city party had won decisive support from the most improbable direction. The destruction of the American city was at hand.

The destruction probably began without the planners fully understanding what they were up to. Neither Henry Ford, with his mass produced auto, nor Robert Moses, with his parkways for them to run upon, can be suspected of knowing, in the mid 1920s, what the consequences of their acts would be. Forty years later, it is apparent that they set in motion a destructive process compared to which the bombing of two world wars seems quite limited in scope.

It is fashionable in such circles today to talk as though they were all—traffic engineers, highway lobbyists, automobile manufacturers—merely the innocent agents of some Darwinian process in which the auto supplanted all forms of mass transit as an ineluctable expression of evolutionary development. This theory neatly skips over one non-evolutionary fact: namely, one of the most enormous subsidies in our history, smaller only than that enjoyed by our military establishment. Nor is it candid for them to claim that license fees, bridge tolls, and gas taxes will subsidize this subsidy. The current Federal program of highway construction has already run to thirty billion dollars and is nowhere near an end. One of the largest items in any state government budget is to its high department. No more than a fraction of the cost of all this will ever be paid by the vehicles that use it. Had all forms of transit—train, trolley, interurban ferry—enjoyed proportionately equal subsidies from the start, the development of the American city might have followed an authentically evolutionary path.

Professor Reps ends his book just where the going gets tough; where the plot takes this unexpected turn for the worse. He closes with these words:

So it was that in the period of a few years at the beginning of the century the course of American city planning was altered. Despite the distracting trends and the vagueness of its goals, for half a century American planning has moved ever more steadily in the directions first charted when Burnham [in the Chicago Plan of 1909] and those who followed in his wake ventured beyond the bounds marked out by such earlier explorers as Champlain, Penn, Nicholson, Oglethorpe, L’Enfant, Olmsted and the countless others who created the cities of America.

This is an odd way indeed to describe what has actually happened to the fabric of American cities since Burnham’s death in 1912. It is true that his “City Beautiful” plans had certain formal differences, stylistic conventions, which put them apart from late Victorian practice. And it is correct to say that various architects and planning commissions continued to design in the City Beautiful manner right up until World War II. But few of these grand schemes for Civic Centers and Water Gates got beyond the stage of pastel-tinted drawings. The funds were more and more siphoned off for highways, freeways, parkways leading out to the suburbs to which the centers of gravity were being transposed. Burnham and his followers thus represented the end of the old pro-city school of thought rather than the new anticity (or un-city) theoreticians of the motorized Forties and Fifties.

The City Beautiful had its fatuous aspects but it was illuminated by a conviction that the central city should be handsome, richly finished, cherished. Even Babbitt and his luncheon pals in Zenith, even Samuel Insull with his opera house, even the developers of Coral Gables and Hollywood-by-the-Sea still clung to the idea that the central city was, in literal fact, the center of American life.

What we have witnessed since Olmsted and Burnham has been not merely the steady attrition of the city but a steady attack on the very concept that urban centers are any longer necessary. A whole literature on the “Disappearing City” has appeared. It is the work of some of the most urbanized scientists and scholars imaginable, working precisely in some of the world’s greatest centers (Cambridge, Chicago, Berkeley, Los Angeles), in institutions which could not for half an hour survive the disappearance of urban society. Much of this literature presupposes technological substitutes for human contact, systems so shallow and vulgar in their understanding of culture that one marvels at the academic apparatus which produces and supports them.

Kenneth E. Boulding, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan writes:

The crux of my argument now is that civilization is passing away and that the city will pass away with it…the city has really ceased to have any meaning in itself…we can visualize a society in which the population is spread very evenly over the world in almost self-sufficient households, each circulating and processing its own water supply…deriving all the power it needs from its own solar batteries, each in in communication with anybody…through its personalized television, each with immediate access to all the cultural resources [sic] of the world. (The Historian and the City 1963 p. 138 ff.)

The tone Dr. Boulding affects is sardonic but the meaning is quite as serious as that of Frank Lloyd Wright who beat him to the draw a full thirty years earlier in a little book called precisely The Disappearing City. First Wright diagnoses the city as being “like some tumor grown malignant, the city, like some cancerous growth, is become a menace to the future of humanity” (p. 21). “… Nowhere is there a clear thought or a sane feeling…the citizenry is parasitic, the overgrown city itself is barbaric” (p. 23). And the cure? Word for word, Wright anticipates Boulding in his Broadacre City: here is the rationale for the same petty bourgeois Utopia; part suburb, part subsistence farming and part do-it-yourself togetherness—and all of it dependent, ultimately, upon a never-mentioned urban culture.

Many social scientists like Scott Greer (The Emerging City, published in 1962) seem to share this “scientific” view of the “evolutionary” destruction of the city. And the attitude is common among geographers. Professor Jean Gottman, in his study for the Twentieth Century Fund, Megalopolis (1961), describes the urban sprawl which now extends from Boston to Roanoke. Despite (or because of?) its dry, judgment-free style, it constitutes an objective apologia for this appalling mess. Nowhere does it even suggest, much less analyze, the many alternative possibilities of development. The Pennsylvania geographer Erwin Anton Gutkind is more candid. In a series of books whose titles alone are suggestive, The Expanding Environment: The End of Cities, the Rise of Communities (1953), and The Twilight of Cities (1962), Gutkind has been arguing for the abandonment of the historic city.

But, stripped of their scientisms and technocratic generalizations and of their fundamentally social-Darwinist bias, all these arguments can be located right in the main stream of rustic romanticism: they have merely replaced Thoreau’s been patch and woodpile with a station wagon and food freezer. The fact remains that the city, as the very etymology of the word suggests, is the generator of civilization, not merely one of a putative number of its containers. As a center of human activity, it generates the special climate required for social invention. This climate occurs nowhere else. The center can no more be subdivided and evenly distributed across the countryside than could the brain survive distribution across the nervous system.

The growth of the motorized suburb in recent decades has removed from the central city that sector of the population which had the power to act; it left only the powerless poor behind. It was not merely that the gentry vacated the city, ceasing to pay taxes and vote. It was that they evacuated it conceptually as well—left it behind, threw it away like Kleenex and forgot about it.

The consequences of this disastrous policy are now upon us and the problem of the city has returned to the forefront of American concern. One expression of this concern has been the urban redevelopment program of the national government. All too often this program has taken the form of projects as outrageously class-oriented as Baron Hausmann’s work for Napoleon III. But fortunately other forces are being galvanized into action: not merely the racial minorities and urban poor who never left the city but also the intelligentsia who, finding the suburbs insupportable, are now beginning to return to their proper habitat.

Perhaps the city will survive after all. Professor Reps could help the process by giving us a second book as good as this one on the half century 1910-1960.

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