• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

In the Cage

Families Against the City

by Richard Sennett
Harvard, 258 pp., $8.50

The Uses of Disorder

by Richard Sennett
Knopf, 198 pp., $5.95

There are certain classical patterns of scholarship which are still both useful and beautiful to watch; and which few scholars any longer trouble to carry through completely. The failure to do so results in bitty and irrelevant research of the most familiar kind. The rare exception is both satisfying in its craftsmanship and exciting as a source of important and original ideas. These two books constitute such a classic model. In the first, Professor Sennett reports the findings of an odd and seemingly arcane documentary investigation of the composition and characteristics of the households of a declining middle-class neighborhood of Chicago during the years 1872-1890, using the city directories of those years to follow the fortunes of persons more completely reported in the Census of 1880, and he draws some startling conclusions. In the second, more speculative, work, he develops the theory that he tested in the research reported in the first; and the perceptions that led him to select this commonplace tract of nearly a century ago for intensive study become the source of insights that are radically relevant to the current urban crisis.

Located about two miles due west of what came to be the Chicago Loop, the forty-block area Sennett defines as Union Park had a population of some 12,000 in 1880. The area had declined in status as it grew in population. In 1860 it sustained six or eight hundred souls in a spacious urban life which Edith Wharton would have found quite pleasing, to judge from the memoirs of A. C. Chatfield-Taylor and Carter Harrison II—two well-to-do and socially prominent former residents of Union Park whom Sennett cites. But the ensuing years were a time of unusual economic and demographic stress as well as growth for Chicago. The great fire of 1871 destroyed most of the city east of the Chicago river, and the depression of the Seventies impeded normal rebuilding. Union Park, though well west of the devastated area, found that the axis of growth of the city had changed from east-west to north-south as the city was rebuilt; and was itself cut off by an increasingly ugly and unpleasant warehouse and industrial belt. The well-to-do moved to the new gold coast along Lake Michigan, and Union Park became middle-class with a tendency to sag into lower-middle.

But it was still thoroughly, if increasingly defensively, respectable. The proportion of its residents rated as professional or managerial by occupation was nearly twice that for the city as a whole, while clerks were proportionately twenty times as numerous. Manual semiskilled and unskilled laborers were greatly underrepresented, while domestic servants were twice as numerous proportionately as in the rest of the city. Union Park had no mini-ghettos in it; one-fourth of the population was foreign born, but over 90 percent of it was anglophone, and only a 1 percent trace had ancestry other than northern European. Sennett calls it “ethnically integrated,” but there wasn’t much to integrate.

Union Park, in 1880, was already, then, of Middle America all compact. And by selecting for study a community nearly a century old, Sennett gains the advantage of access to census data in which individual families are identified, which the Census Bureau cannot lawfully provide from current materials. Hence he is able to relate these data to other, albeit sparse, traces left by members of the Union Park community in their encounters with life. Sennett managed to trace about a thousand fathers and sons from 1872 to 1890:

This trace involved selecting all the families in the 1880 Census where a father, or occasionally a lone mother had a son at work; the heads of these families and the working sons were located when possible in directories of the City of Chicago in two-year steps back to 1872 and forward to 1890. Thus it was possible to sketch the occupational and residential history of these families and compare the generations.

The tracking down of these thousand Union Park people revealed, for the majority of families, that the family became a refuge for fathers who were in fact stagnant in their work, even though the economic structure of Chicago was rapidly expanding. In this stagnation, this lack of vigor, whose surface character was noted in Union Park at the time, lay the origins of a condition that has, on many accounts, persisted into the present; a special weakness of middle-class fathers in relation to their sons, and a consequent sense of family in which the mother is taken as the strong force; in Union Park occurred, in other words, a failure of middle-class fatherhood, where the father was unable, due to his own work experience, to prepare his children to cope with the urban society in which they would live.

Life in Union Park, Sennett infers, was characteristically fearful of and defensive against the demands, rather than responsive to the opportunities, of the outside world. There were, in any case, few prospects of satisfaction for Union Park men. Men did not marry until they had “established themselves.” “In the majority of cases, the husband was at least five to ten years older than the wife; for about a fifth of the married couples, the husband was ten or fifteen years older than the wife; and in the case of wives under twenty-five, from 10 to 15 percent of their spouses were 15 to 20 percent older than they themselves.”

But even marriage brought very little freedom, sexual or otherwise. Family size remained small, though contraception was neither reliable nor respectable. Little time or money was spent outside the home whose keynote, in every respect, was abstinence. In Dreiser’s novel, Sister Carrie’s reluctant relatives and hosts, the Hansons, lived, as Sennett notes, in Union Park.

But Sennett does far more than corroborate the picture of life there which Dreiser presented. In Chicago as a whole, the proportion of white-collar administrative and commercial occupations was expanding enormously at this time. In Union Park, this expansion was shared almost exclusively by persons who lived in large households that sheltered an extended rather than a nuclear family—though this is popularly regarded as a sign of lower status. Those who lived in what Sennett calls “intense” families, including only parents and children, without roomers or collateral relatives, tended to remain stagnant or even slip in comparison to their less exclusive neighbors. He has no psychological information about the individuals who compose his sample, and his interpretations of his demographic data require an immense logical leap, but they are also immensely plausible and illuminating.

Sennett sees the isolated, emotionally intense family life of American cities as a banal and cheerless effort to defend the family unit against external threat from anything different or challenging. Such a defense obviously keeps those who practice it from learning to cope with the kinds of people and situations they avoid; and it requires them to insist ever more stridently that everything of value is included in the pattern of family life to which they limit themselves. As Paul Goodman pointed out years ago in an essay in this journal (NYR, May 23, 1968), what we call racism in America is really squeamishness; it does not distinguish among the objects of its repugnance as genuine racism, responding with hostility to the actual characteristics of the denigrated race, would.

Sennett’s inferences and contemporary observations also support the central conclusion of Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz’s pioneer study, The Dynamics of Prejudice. This found ethnocentric hostility to be positively correlated not with low socio-economic status so much as with declining socio-economic status, and the consequent sense of defeat and loss of ability to cope. Sennett’s contribution here is his evidence that the process is a vicious cycle: declining fortunes lead to more intense ethnic hostility while ethnic defensiveness and a fearful and sullen withdrawal from what is strange and active hamper economic fortune. The embittered barber who complains that his business is falling off still drives long-haired youths out of his shop, or cuts their hair short as a patriotic act if they do happen to come in.

In The Uses of Disorder, Sennett, now free of the constraints of formal empirical investigation, speculates creatively about the ways in which his insight might be used to arrest and reverse the present desolation of the American city, reduced as it is so largely to a set of warring enclaves, none of which has within itself the resources to sustain a decent, let alone a rich, life. Growing material abundance, indeed, has made things worse, for “a community with adequate monetary resources can materially control its boundaries and internal composition”; and, by duplicating facilities that a poorer community would have to share, reduces the occasion for human interaction: except in comic strips—themselves an atavistic art form—who borrows a lawn mower any more, even from a neighbor indistinguishable from himself?

But Sennett’s critique cuts deeper even than the problems of urban misery. He addresses himself directly to the baleful effect on individual human growth of living in a world where people strive harder to avoid conflict and disorder than to achieve any positive goal. Like Konrad Lorenz, Sennett perceives modern man as uniquely lethal in lacking any natural limits to his aggression against his kind. But Lorenz attributes this primarily to man’s reliance on technological weapons which permit him to kill without recognizing his victim as human or developing an instinctual aversion to pushing a button or pulling a trigger. Sennett emphasizes that being brought up to isolate oneself from conflict tends to make it more lethal when it does occur in any case; it is more frightening because unfamiliar, and one’s adversary is perceived as a devil who might do anything, unless one is prudent enough to do it to him first. So it goes.

Existence in a state of urban development thus comes to possess no arts, no letters, no society, and, what is worse, continual fear and danger of death; the life of a man becomes solitary, dull, nasty, brutish, and short. If life is to become more truly civil, Sennett proposes, the power to avoid and exclude and to resort to bureaucratic and impersonal authority to control the behavior of one’s adversaries must be curtailed. Zoning restrictions on land use should be eliminated. The police—and, presumably, the National Guard—must not be used to abort social conflict and thereby forestall its genuine resolution, which can only occur through a real encounter among antagonists who thus learn to take each other’s true measure, abandon their own unrealistic insistence on dominating and exploiting the situation for themselves, and even work together, at first for limited, then for increasingly general goals.

What must be abandoned in the process is a sense of omnipotence—and the terror underlying it—and “the adolescent refusal to deal with the world in all its complexity and pain…dreaming of a beautiful city that exists somewhere other than in the present, a beautiful city where people fit together in peace and harmony, a city so beautiful in fact that ghetto people, Irish cops, aristocratic WASPS, hippies, students, clerks and bookkeepers will close their eyes to what they cannot abide in each other, to the painful facts of their difference, and settle down to common happiness.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print