An Urban Anarchist

In the past twenty-five years American cities have become an enigma to the people who plan them. It is by now common wisdom that, as poor blacks and Puerto Ricans have moved into cities while more prosperous whites have moved away, the city has become the setting where unresolved national conflicts between the races and classes are being fought out. The question then arises: what relation does the city as a distinctive kind of human settlement have to those forces tearing it apart? People speak glibly of “urban violence,” but what is there about the conflicts between blacks and whites, or students and police, that is traceable to the peculiar arrangements of city life?

Questions like these have baffled the people who are supposed to be experts on the city. Academic researchers understand little more about them than do architects, city planners, or educational administrators. The questions, however, have a practical urgency. If racial tensions originate in ways that have little to do with the assumptions or methods of city bureaucracies, there may be very little that can be done by the institutions of the city to control or change these conflicts.

The “crisis” of planning cities—and here that overworked word has some meaning—is whether city planning can really improve the social life in cities. This has been a specially perplexing problem for the large number of planners, now mostly middle-aged, whose models for social planning come from the New Deal. They see social reform as the product of deals made in a central forum among diverse pressure groups. The play of “countervailing forces” in the city would, they believe, create an equilibrium among group leaders, who are continually adjusting their needs and demands to each other.

Yet if the conflicts between groups in the cities are generated by economic or social forces which are national, this conception of equilibrium may be meaningless. The fact that city councils, school boards, or planning commissions exist where “leaders” can fight for the interests of various groups in the city may not solve anything. Indeed, there may be many who are not even formally represented by these leaders; and those that are may not be able to follow their bidding because they are driven by other, outside forces.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in New York, for example, recently arrived at an agreement with the city on ways to improve community-police relations, only to find most policemen so driven by hatred or fear of blacks that they could not participate in the programs created by their own leaders. In questions of race, labor policy, and education, centralized urban forums are increasingly proving themselves useless.

Thus the liberal majority among city planners have lately defined planning as the act of getting the cities “back under control.” By this they mean organizing the social life of the modern city into a single unit so that conflicts can be handled centrally. Control seems to them the primary problem: once the cities are made susceptible …

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Letters

How Cities Grow March 12, 1970