The Truth About City Life
Cities can’t win. When they do well, people resent them as citadels of inequality; when they do badly, they are cesspools of hopelessness. In the seventies and eighties, the seemingly permanent urban crisis became the verdict that American civilization had passed on itself. Forty years later, cities mostly thrive, crime has been in vertiginous decline, the young cluster together in old neighborhoods, drinking more espresso per capita in Seattle than in Naples, while in San Francisco the demand for inner-city housing is so keen that one-bedroom apartments become scenes of civic conflict—and so big cities turn into hateful centers of self-absorbed privilege. We oscillate between “Taxi Driver” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” without arriving at a stable picture of something in between.
Has it ever been acceptable to regard a big city as admirable through and through? Maybe in books about Paris and London from around 1910 to the Second World War, and in books about New York in the years just after the Second World War, before the Dodgers moved and the big fractures began. For the rest, whether it’s Victorian London or post-sixties New York, pop novels and scholarly urbanism are most often voiced in a tone of complaint or querulous warning. (The outlier is the architectural historian Reyner Banham’s 1971 “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” still the best book ever written about an American city, its happiness fuelled by an Englishman’s perversity: Everyone says L.A. sucks? I’ll show you it shines.) Nothing urban would be more likely to evoke disgust than a study promoting a benign picture of Bloomberg’s New York—even though, in reality, that city was relatively peaceful (and self-healing from the worst war wound in its history) and prosperous (if more and more unevenly so), with the parks restored or expanding and the subways so safe that they became crowded at two or three in the morning. Those of us who dreamed of the High Line as an improbable public benefit, and then saw it come true, had to accept that it would next become a subject of ridicule, as a cynical developer’s amenity, a green-tinted scam.
The reason that perceptions of cities switch so radically is twofold. Cities are the contradictions of capitalism, spelled out in crowds. They are engines of prosperity and inequality in equal measure, and when the inequality tips poor they look unsavable; when it tips rich, they look unjust. And then cities enfold a subtler contradiction—they shine by bringing like-minded people in from the hinterland (gays, geeks, Jews, artists, bohemians), but they thrive by asking unlike-minded people to live together in the enveloping metropolis. While the clumping is fun, the coexistence is the greater social miracle, though not one that lends itself to stories. Greenwich Village and Park Slope and Southie count as homes and get reverent treatment; a musical might be made of hipsters and Hasidim learning to live together in Williamsburg. But a movie about the lives of the people in a single car on the 6 train would trail off into inconsequence, since the point is that city kinds and lives are so different that contiguity is their only coinciding point. (The one proviso of the local story is that the neighborhood must be under assault and the narrator must side with the old ways, even if he or she is representative of new ones. And so Ray, in Lena Dunham’s beautifully observed, Brooklyn-based “Girls,” runs for the local community board as a champion of preservation, not transformation, though he is utterly typical of the transformative kind.)
The things that give cities a bad conscience are self-evident: seeing the rise of 432 Park Avenue, the tallest, ugliest, and among the most expensive private residences in the city’s history—the Oligarch’s Erection, as it should be known—as a catchment for the rich from which to look down on everyone else, it is hard not to feel that the civic virtues of commonality have been betrayed. Every day brings news of old favorites closed, familiar neighborhoods homogenized, ethnic enclaves turned over to the legions of Capital, not to mention Oberlin and Bard.
Yet the social crises that cities face are remarkably consistent, country to country and town to town. Very little that is going on in New York, from plutocratic excess to outlying gentrification, is not also going on, with different emphases and origins, in London: the same tales of people who drink wine and lattes buying the property of those who drink whiskey and beer. At the same time, cities are local. Saying that Manhattan and central London share the same problems is like saying that a man dying of drink in London is like one doing the same in Manhattan. It’s true, but all the local conditions—what he’s drinking, where he drinks it, who takes him home, and what kind of home he goes to—are so different that a story about the drunk in either place becomes a story about the place. Cities are at once the most cosmopolitan and the most particular of subjects; they require, and rarely receive, a view sufficiently wide-eyed as to become effectively double.
The foundation of the city is its spatial organization, the way its streets meet and the way its citizens travel on them. Gerard Koeppel’s “City on a Grid” (Da Capo) tells the too little-known tale of how and why Manhattan came to be the waffle-board city we know. He shows us that the grid, far from being a long-range plan imposed by a class of managers, was the result more of a shrug, an inconclusive meeting, and a big “Why not?” Koeppel reproduces the key paragraph of the Gouverneur Morris report of 1811:
Whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular Streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed Improvements by Circles, Ovals, and Stars, which certainly embellish a plan . . . they could not but bear in mind that a City is to be composed principally of the Habitations of men, and that strait sided and right-angled Houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.
Koeppel argues, convincingly, that the show of hardheaded rationality here is merely a show. There was no good commercial reason to make a thrifty city of intersections at right angles. London, the model of an imperial commercial city, had its ovals and organic oddities and still prospered. Philadelphia had lovely squares interrupting its own version of the grid. Straight-sided and right-angled houses can be built in circles as well as on street corners. The details of New York’s grid turn out to be surprisingly haphazard and improvisational in their origins. As Koeppel points out, no one has ever provided a good explanation for why the wide two-way streets were chosen to fall where they do—at Fourteenth, Twenty-third, Thirty-fourth. In general, he persuades us, the impulse behind the grid was less the rationalizing impulses of the Enlightenment than the eternal desire of a bureaucratic commission to finish its report, accented, later, by the eternal real-estate developers’ urge to have regularized lots to develop.
A lost city of stars and ovals may appeal to us more, but one wonders if it would have altered the city’s story much. The history of the grid suggests that its character is determined by its uses more than the other way around. Mansions that arose within it had a fenced, forbidding look, as in pictures of early Fifth Avenue; the clustering of poor immigrants seemed to create crowded streets and slums not terribly different from those in Paris or Chicago.
Koeppel certainly recognizes the ambiguities of the grid, but he seems unsure what to make of them; early in his book, he darkly insists that the dead hand of the rectilinear grid “favors private interest over public convenience,” and cites a German urban planner who claimed that “mystic” peoples favor organic cities over regularized ones. But any town that has Walt Whitman as its bard can hardly be accused of forcing narrowly straight-sided views on its singers. Rectilinear the grid may be, but it twists and turns in our imaginations as much as any winding road.
The grid, useful as an accelerant for pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, ended up being unintentionally well-adapted to the imperialism of the car; a short ride in a London cab can take forever, while taxi- and Uber-drivers race up and down the midnight Manhattan avenues at hyper-speeds. Evan Friss’s forthcoming “The Cycling City: Bicycles & Urban America in the 1890s” (Chicago) wants, in turn, to show us a forgotten parenthesis when the city had not yet yielded to the car. But he ends up showing mainly how terrific research and a feeling for detail can be undermined by the pieties of the contemporary social sciences. Common sense wins, barely, but not without the author taking many frightened-looking glances over his shoulder to see if the consensus of the discipline is gaining on him.
The consensus of the discipline takes a dim view of common-sense considerations (say, that people rode bikes because they were the best way to get places before cars). More sinister Foucauldian épistèmes must be shown to govern social life: any social explanation that can’t be expressed as a conspiracy theory involving bourgeois society stamping out Difference is inadequate to the phenomenon, even if the phenomenon is on two wheels with gears and going many different places at once. Still, Friss has a good story to tell. In the late nineteenth century, bicycles were not just a sweet means of romantic transport—“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,” and all that—but a technological triumph creating fanatical followers and interest groups. The bicycle was more like a personal computer than like a love seat. There were “dozens of exclusive bicycle clubs dotting America’s leading cities. . . . Libraries, card rooms, and billiard tables kept members busy while dumbwaiters shuttled food from kitchen hands to hungry cyclists.” Women considered them “an almost utopian instrument,” Friss says, and quotes a contemporary source: “Now and again a complaint arises of the narrowness of woman’s sphere. For such disorder of the soul the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”
Friss is a demon researcher, and his book is full of revelatory facts: who knew that the bicycle lobby played a key role in the Chicago mayoral election of 1887? Yet one feels impatient as he torturously tries to track academic concepts of class and mentalité onto what are, clearly, the inevitable inner squabbles of fan clubs and interest groups. Friss illustrates, without quite articulating, the central Trollopean social insight: like-minded people with similar passions typically end up fighting among themselves far more than they do with their class or intellectual opponents. Cyclists fight cyclists, as union leaders fight union leaders. To take one instance, Friss shows that the American biking community itself split, violently, in the eighteen-nineties, between those who were in favor of dedicated bike paths and those who mistrusted any segregation of the biker from the common highway.
Although Friss concedes that “bicycle mechanics became automobile mechanics” (as the Wright Brothers sprang from a bicycle shop into the air), he still insists that bikes were defeated not by cars but by a growing fear of the potentially radical effects, particularly on women, of the popular bicycle. The decline in cycling had to do with “its loss of social and cultural appeal,” Friss writes. “As more and more varieties of people began to ride, others no longer found bicycles so appealing.” Class panic, in this view, was central: “The smart set and their followers no longer found that their machines served as a social marker. The bicycle could not sustain itself as a fashionable social tool and also as a utilitarian tool.” Well, why not? Cars do. Bikes do again today, with sleek architects racing to their ateliers on the gearless kind and underpaid deliverymen pedalling through the rain with Chinese food. Scanting the obvious technological history, one can also overstate the determinisms of class warfare.
Surely many things, including bikes, fall in and out of fashion for reasons that have more to do with fashion than with reason. Hemlines do not rise and fall because of changing attitudes toward sexuality, unless attitudes toward sexuality change radically every five years. They rise because they had previously fallen and fall because they once rose. Fashion is not a subsidiary idea but itself an explanatory one. Any New York student of styles of transport and recreation will have seen, for instance, the rise and fall of roller skates, a craze that claimed the cover of this magazine more than once in the nineteen-seventies, and its replacement by in-line skating, and then, eventually, the decline of both. All of this had less to do with changing social visions than with the inevitable pull of tides and time.
How much do the physical arrangements of cities—their alleys and streets, their transportation infrastructure—actually affect their character? The grid expresses something about a common New York ideal of busyness and intersection—mercantile capitalist order as a devouring Dionysian force—more than it enforces that ideal. The greatest celebrations of the grid are the émigré Piet Mondrian’s two New York paintings: “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and “Victory Boogie Woogie.” They are part of a forties-New York efflorescence, the blinking, stable, dynamic, and yet still rectilinear energy—an image of energy that breaks with the usual organic forms of ecstatic spirals and gyres. They show the grid as metaphor, and a metaphor, after all, is a cell with a view: the bars in the window bend, and you leave as, and when, you want to.
If city tales begin with grids and transportation, they end in ruins: there are no more moving or frightening images in urban history than those of contemporary Detroit. The photographs of Michigan Central Station now be-weeded, or of Mishkan Yisroel synagogue abandoned, are presented on the Internet as if Piranesian and romantic, until one recalls that this Rome fell not after five hundred years of Vandals and Christians but after a mere few decades of neglect and decay and social change. The journalist David Maraniss has written a book about the fall of Detroit, and done it, ingeniously, by writing about Detroit at its height, Humpty Dumpty’s most poignant moment being just before he toppled over. Maraniss’s “Once in a Great City” (Simon & Schuster) is an encyclopedic account of Detroit in the early sixties, a kind of hymn to what really was a great city. (Maraniss spent his early childhood in Detroit, and its old monuments still have a childlike glow for him. I feel the same way about Philadelphia, a similar place with a similar fate and a happier rebound.)
Maraniss begins with twinned disasters that at the time no one saw as portents. In 1962, the Ford Rotunda, a now forgotten but formerly world-famous example of high-tech architecture, designed by the visionary modernist Albert Kahn—once one of the five leading tourist attractions in America—burned to the ground in an hour after a stupid roofing accident. The same day, another Kahn building, a model black-owned-and-operated hotel called the Gotham, was raided on charges of housing a gambling ring; it was shortly doomed to demolition, to make way for a parking garage, as much of black Detroit was being steamrolled for expressways. Both structures were monuments of civic optimism in their day, and their destruction dramatically illustrates all that could be lost.
We then meet a panorama of social players and types: from Berry Gordy, Jr., then emerging as a tycoon of rhythm, to Wilfred X, Malcolm’s older brother, a significant character in the era and the town. The Motown chapters, to any lover of American music, are especially engrossing. Maraniss dramatizes one of the most compelling of all historical questions: How did a line of geniuses suddenly emerge in this one industrial town—Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Holland-Dozier-Holland, and so many more that Aretha Franklin, across town, was snobbishly kept out of the line by her preacher father, who didn’t want her to mingle with crass Motown? Was it because there was a local hit-making music business, or because there was, by serendipitous chance, a special gathering of geniuses? The obvious answer, that it was a little of both, is not that helpful, since we want to know how much of each, a question that applies equally to Florence in 1400. The art historian E. H. Gombrich, the best student of the process, once identified the central engine of such renaissances as in-group competition, and, indeed, the engine of Motown’s genius seems to have been the morning meetings, when all the composers would have to go head to head and demo to demo, and the competitive level was so high that Gordy’s sister Esther generally sided with Smokey over Berry.
We are also reintroduced to the man who ought to be on the twenty-dollar bill, the great Walter Reuther, the president and a founder (with his brother) of the United Auto Workers, tragically little remembered now, especially compared with the thug Jimmy Hoffa, who betrayed the labor movement to organized crime. We witness Reuther’s heroic past—he was a social democrat who worked in the Soviet Union and denounced Stalinism; a labor leader who survived attempts by the owners not just to intimidate but to assassinate him—and his visionary nineteen-sixties present. He thought that autoworkers needed not only higher wages but less stressful work, and proposed regular sabbaticals for them, as for college professors.
We get a deservedly sympathetic portrait of Henry Ford II, who knew perfectly well what a louse his old man had been, fired the goons who had tried to kill Reuther and his brother, recognized the necessity of unions, and worked hard to accommodate their concerns. There are also some lovely and funny intertwinings: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a saint but no fool, got into a squabble with Gordy over potential royalties for an LP of his “I Have a Dream” speech. (Maraniss notes that there were multiple “Dream” speeches—Gordy was ready to release the one delivered in Detroit, before the March on Washington, which Reuther helped organize.)
The display of municipal energies is so impressive that every page haunts us with the questions What went wrong? How could so much go so wrong so rapidly? How did a city of so many fruitful tensions and monuments and intermediary institutions turn into the ruins we see now, with scarcely a third of its 1950 population remaining and so many of the sites that Maraniss mentions ruined or destroyed? The answers, more hinted at than spelled out, are depressingly familiar: the riots of 1967 and the upward swoop of crime that dissolved old neighborhoods and drove their residents to the suburbs; the separation of the suburbs as a tax base from the city that they depended on; and, above all, the simple and inexorable decline of Detroit as a manufacturing base, under the pressure of Asian competition. (It is exactly the historic arc of change that John Updike captured for all time in his “Rabbit” books.)
Reading about Maraniss’s Detroit in isolation, though, one would have only a vague idea that pretty much the same things happened in Gary and Buffalo and Cleveland and Camden—if Detroit got it worse, it was partly because it had it better. What’s more, the same thing (minus the gun violence, an American specialty) happened in the North of England. Liverpool (which also had a pop efflorescence), Manchester, and Leeds all saw similar depressions. Read the English novelist Keith Waterhouse on what downtown Leeds was like, splendid and civic, during his Yorkshire childhood in the forties, and the Detroit agony seems universal.
The rise in urban violence certainly played a decisive role in the American disaster. Maraniss details the first significant clash between police and citizens in the sixties, caused by the killing of a prostitute known as St. Cynthia, in recognizably muddled circumstances. The local community’s suspicion of the police was not assuaged by the possibility that in this particular case the police were not at fault, or by what Maraniss records as the genuinely good intentions of the recently appointed police commissioner. His book reminds us that amnesia about the effect of crime on middle-class voters is a dangerous narcotic for liberal politics. It was crime and the fear of violence, however paranoid or overstated, that impelled the rise of Richard Nixon, and of George Wallace, and fuelled the paranoia about cities that became a staple of the American political diet for decades. Maraniss shows us that periods of progressive politics—and one of the most heartbreaking things in his chronicle is the certainty, of Dr. King among others, that Detroit was at the onset of an upward-moving arc—coincide not with periods of heightened despair but with periods of rising expectations. (Black Lives Matter rose under Obama because a reminder of residual bigotries met an increasing expectation of equality of treatment.) Walter Reuther was well to the left of Bernie Sanders, but he understood that his union needed a better Ford, in both senses. The U.A.W. could get more power for itself and benefits for its members when there was more to share. Someone once called anti-Semitism the socialism of fools, meaning that imagining that Jewish financiers were responsible for inequality was a half-witted way of explaining it. Sentimentality about urban violence is the progressivism of fools, a half-witted insistence that the American middle class, itself plagued by economic insecurities, is more likely to pay tender attention to cities if they are made unlivable.