What is an American City?

By Michael Katz:

“The April 25, 2006, death of Jane Jacobs was one of the events that prompted me to rethink my narrative of recent urban history. If any one person can be anointed patron saint of urban studies, Jacobs deserves the crown. Her 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities must be the most widely read and influential book ever written about American cities. After more than forty years, it retains its powerful impact. I have assigned it often to students, who invariably find it moving and convincing. Death and Life resonates with their ideal of urbanism and gives them a set of criteria for identifying a good city. With the book as a yardstick, they find that current-day cities come up short. Although the book has the same effect on me—new delights emerge every time I read it—recently, I wonder if it does as much to inhibit as to advance our grasp of American cities today. Its identification of mixed use, short blocks, multi-age dwellings, and density as defining a healthy neighborhood is based on models of old cities like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or many of the cities of Europe. At least implicitly, this makes recapturing the past the goal of urban reform. Yet, the growing, dynamic, vibrant components of urban America are more like Phoenix and Los Angeles than the old East Coast cities. With Jacobs’s criteria, they never can qualify as good cities; mutant forms of urbanism, they repel rather than attract anyone who loves cities. But is this a useful assessment? Is the fault with these cities or with the criteria? Did Jacobs bequeath us a definition of urbanism or do we need a different set of markers to characterize what makes a city—and a good city—in earlytwenty-first-century America? Certainly, the former view—the belief in a core set of ideas defining healthy urbanism—underlies one of the most influential urban design movements of today: new urbanism. New urbanism does not take Jacobs’s criteria literally, although her spirit is visible in its emphasis on density, mixed residential and commercial use, pedestrian-friendly streets, and vibrant public spaces. Its charter defines a set of principles it considers adaptable to a wide array of places from suburbs to shopping malls.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cities tried to respond to these issues with active government—what historians have labeled progressivism. Despite the persistence of corruption, widespread poverty, and racial discrimination, cities increased municipal expenditures, professionalized their administrations, and constructed buildings and infrastructures that supported the most vibrant and successful era in American urban history. In the late twentieth century, by contrast, the response to similar issues was the withdrawal of active government, evident in reduced federal funds, reliance on market-based solutions to urban problems, and the need to turn to private initiatives, like special service districts, to carry out public functions, such as street cleaning and security. The results are everywhere to be seen, in homelessness on city streets, poverty spreading outward to inner suburbs, uncontrolled sprawl eating up open space, crumbling infrastructure, gross inequity in spending on public education, the future of urban finance mortgaged to casino gambling, the incapacity to prevent or respond effectively to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the subprime mortgage crisis. The widely heralded comeback of American cities is thin and fragile.”

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