Are Cities Dead?

No New Yorker has a longer or more distinguished record of public service than ROBERT MOSES. He joined the Bureau of Municipal Research in 1913, under Mayor Mitchell, became secretary of state for New York under Governor Al Smith, and as city construction coordinator, he has handled the hundreds of millions of dollars which have been spent on parks, public beaches, housing, and bridges. He is now president of the New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation.
More

I picked up a New York City paper one morning recently and was appalled by the space and emphasis given to an obscure assistant professor with no record of administration, who, enjoying a foundation grant and speaking for a regional civic organization, prophesied imminent chaos and the early disintegration of our metropolis. He maintained that there are 1467 municipal agencies, fiercely independent, viciously uncoordinated, and shamelessly spending taxpayers' money in frantic insanity.

These counsels of despair come just as the Congress plans a Department of Urban Affairs of Cabinet rank. If the new Secretary begins by believing that American cities are doomed in spite of the increasingly rapid shift from rural to urban centers, he will accomplish little. If emphasis is on anything but local initiative, the effect will be zero, and we shall have merely elevated a bureau to an expensive department and put another bureaucrat in orbit. Anyway, if we are to have a new Secretary, let us see that he believes in cities.

There are plenty of things that are wrong with our cities. These things should not be slurred over or forgotten. There are many failures which should be appraised. But why exaggerate? Why imply that the faults are beyond redemption? Why minimize notable evidence of progress? Why ignore the remarkable people and achievements which make our big cities the powerful magnets they are?

One of the most-quoted Jeremiahs who inveigh against the condition of our cities is Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History. He is widely acclaimed in the academic world. I object to these Jeremiahs primarily because they attempt to poison a rising generation of ordinarily optimistic young Americans. There is another good reason for deprecating this school of thought: those who undermine the very foundations and raison d'etre of cities, and not merely the incidental mistakes of individuals, make municipal administration increasingly unattractive and relegate it finally to the lowest politics and the poorest talent.

Suppose we were to ask some of our best and most ambitious mayors, battling valiantly for limited, immediate objectives, whether concentrations of population are beyond improvement, whether the raison d'etre of the metropolis is gone, and whether their plans for redevelopment are essentially futile. I mean men like Lee of New Haven, Dilworth of Philadelphia, Miriani of Detroit, and former Mayor Morrison of New Orleans. Are the citizens who believe in such men now to be told that their trust has been betrayed?

There is, indeed, much wrong with cities—big and little—but the answer is not to abandon or completely to rebuild them on abstract principles. Only on paper can you disperse concentrations of population and create small urban stars with planned satellites around them. In the course of many years devoted to reclamation of water front, manufacturing of topsoil to cover thousands of acres of new parks, buying and preserving large areas of natural woodlands and shores in advance of the realtor and subdivider, planting thousands of trees along parkways and expressways, building hundreds of playgrounds, planning cultural centers in place of decaying tenements, tightening zoning and building laws, restricting billboards, opposing entrenched power companies and other utility corporations to keep the basic natural public resources inalienable, and stopping water pollution, I never caught a glimpse of the breast beaters who are now touted as pundits in this field. I saw none of them in our long battle to establish eleven thousand acres of Jamaica Bay within New York City as a permanent, protected, unspoiled natural game refuge. Is Jamaica Bay a symbol of urban rot, or is it just too small and obscure to attract the attention of the critics?

Recently, a number of planners and civic leaders in New York wrote a letter to the press advocating the conversion to a park of the whole of Welfare Island, a wedge in the East River presently occupied by hospitals. I tried this twentyfive years ago, before new hospitals and a bridge on the wrong side of the river were built, but the hospital commissioner poured abuse on me and was supported by the then mayor. It is too late now, because of the huge investment in modern institutions and vehicular access. Meanwhile, we have built adequate parks on Randall's and Ward's islands a little way up the East River and a pedestrian bridge to Ward's, which the paper planners never mention.

IN his Baccalaureate Address for 1961, President A. Whitney Griswold of Yale said, among other things:

"I shall not attempt to recite here all the worst things that are said about us or to refute them by pointing out that just as bad (or worse) things go on in the countries which say them. Neither shall I attempt to itemize the shortcomings which we ourselves acknowledge. It is enough to remind ourselves of the nature of the great, national, hundred per cent American jeremiad. It goes like this. We are soft. We are spoiled. We are lazy, flabby, undisciplined, in poor physical condition, poorly educated, beguiled with gadgets, bedazzled by sex, uninterested in anything but our own comfort, unprepared for the responsibilities fate has placed upon us, unready for our destiny. In a word, we are decadent. Do I exaggerate the case? Listen to an American voice in the chorus of American self-criticism. I quote.

The arena, the tall tenement, the mass contests and exhibitions, the football matches, the international beauty contests, the strip tease made ubiquitous by advertisement, the constant titillation of the senses by sex, liquor and violence—all in true Roman style.... These are symptoms of the end: Magnifications of demoralized power; minifications of life. When these signs multiply, Necropolis is near, though not a stone has yet crumbled. For the barbarian has already captured the city from within. Come, hangman! Come, vulture!
"This is not an editorial from Prada or one of the lighter touches from a tirade by Castro," President Griswold continued. "It is a view of present-day American life by Lewis Mumford in his most recent book, The City in History. It is a view that is shared, or at any rate expressed, by many Americans from pulpits, classrooms, editorial offices, and high places in the government.

"Are things really that bad? If they are, heaven help us—and heaven will not help us until we help ourselves. If things are not that bad, why do Mr. Mumford and so many of his fellow citizens say they are? Perhaps they haven't got the facts straight.... Maybe the whole of Western civilization is decadent and, since we are the leaders of it, we are the most decadent of all."

The physical beauties of a city can, no doubt, be exaggerated, but no balanced observer will ignore them. Europeans coming to New York City for the first time are ecstatic about the view of lower Manhattan in the early morning from a great liner as it passes through upper New York Bay; mid-Manhattan seen from the Triborough Bridge at sundown; the jeweled diadem spread before the jet flyer at night; the clean gossamer cobwebs of its suspension bridges; the successive bustle and tomblike silences of its streets; the fantastic daring, imagination, and aspiration of its builders. Visitors are, of course, aware of New York's congested traffic, but is the slowdown any worse than that in London or Paris?

Admittedly, the gasoline motor has provided us with problems which did not exist in ancient Rome. But the jaundiced eye of the city historian sees no signs of achievement and progress. He is obsessed with the harlotry and the decline and fall of Rome and Babylon, and the beams and motes blot out Jones Beach.

Here is one example of this counsel of despair:

"Such form as the metropolis achieves is crowdform: the swarming bathing beach by the sea or the body of spectators in the boxing arena or the football stadium. With the increase of private motor cars, the streets and avenues become parking lots, and to move traffic at all, vast expressways gouge through the city and increase the demand for further parking lots and garages. In the act of making the core of the metropolis accessible, the planners of congestion have already almost made it uninhabitable....

"We must restore to the city the maternal, life-nurturing functions, the autonomous activities, the symbiotic associations that have long been neglected or suppressed. For the city should be an organ of love; and the best economy of cities is the care and culture of men."

Nowhere does the author even remotely tell us how these "symbiotic associations" can be revived and encouraged or where he would start with this renaissance.

As to housing, we read many similar grotesque misstatements. For example, Mumford says: "Stuyvesant Town was built by a private insurance company with generous aid by the State: but its residential density of 393 per acre remains that of a slum. Despite its inner open spaces, this housing would require eighty additional acres to provide the park and playground space now regarded as desirable, nineteen more than the entire project without buildings."

Here are the facts. The state had nothing to do with this project. It is not a slum in any sense. It is not overpopulated. New York City and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company substituted for filthy tenements excellent, modern, low-rental housing with plenty of light and air and views all around on less than 20 per cent land coverage. Everyone familiar with housing and recreation knows that no such huge additional space as eighty acres is needed for parks and playgrounds in a project totaling seventy-two acres.

Similar distortions appear in dicta regarding traffic.

"In the interest of an unimpeded traffic flow highway engineers produce vast clover leaves even in low density areas with limited cross traffic, where there is no reason whatever why the arterial flow should not be occasionally halted as in a city street."

Every competent engineer knows that halting through traffic at a clover leaf would produce strangulation and is the negation of all accepted standards for limited-access highways.

THE prosperous suburbanite is as proud of his ranch home as the owner of the most gracious villa of Tuscany. In the suburbs the hiker finds the long brown path leading wherever he chooses, by day, in filtered sunlight, or by evening, in the midst of the rhythmic orchestration of tree frogs. The little identical suburban boxes of average people, which differ only in color and planting, represent a measure of success unheard of by hundreds of millions on other continents. Small plots reflect not merely the rapacity of realtors but the caution of owners who do not want too much grass to cut and snow to shovel—details too intimate for the historians.

The real-estate subdivisions east of the city are not all there is to Long Island. The South Shore is my home. It is still mostly unspoiled, well protected, and largely in public ownership. Those of us who work at the problems that critics chatter about go down to the sea in cars and ships for respite, to fish, swim, soak up sun, and refresh our spirits, and in off seasons to wander in the anonymous enveloping ocean mist. Our fog appears, not stealing in on cat feet, but as a ghostly emanation of the sea, in silence punctuated only by the muffled bell and intermittent warning of the buoys along the hidden channels. Here we knit up the ravell'd sleave of care. Who are these pundits to say we have neglected our problems or that others might solve them better?

The cultures, amenities, and attractions of cities, suburbs, exurbs, and open country are manifestly different but complement each other. The sanest, best-balanced people are those who spend part of the year in each area and do not stay continuously under urban pressure. In that way they get the best of the city and of the more or less open spaces. A shack nearby or shelter in some vast wilderness will shortly be within the reach of most families.

In Mr. Mumford's recent gloom book, Baron Haussmann, a giant among planners, who saved Paris and turned it into a modern city, is contemptuously dismissed as a bulldozer and sadistic wrecker of fine old neighborhoods.

Here is some further pontification:

"To keep the advantages first discovered in the closed city, we must create a more porous pattern, richer in both social and esthetic variety. Residential densities of about one hundred people per net acre, exclusive of streets and sidewalks, will provide usable private gardens and encourage small public inner parks for meeting and relaxing. This can be achieved without erecting the sterile, spacemangling high-rise slabs that now grimly parade, in both Europe and America, as the ultimate contribution of 'modern' architecture."

Can anyone possibly believe that garden apartments housing over one hundred persons an acre are uncivilized and that small public inner parks have not been repeatedlyconsidered and found wholly unworkable?

To sum up, let me ask the Gamaliels of the city a few pointed questions.

By what practical and acceptable means would they limit the growth of population?

How would they reduce the output of cars, and if they could, what would take the place of the car as an employer of workers or as a means of transport in a motorized civilization?

If more cars are inevitable, must there not be roads for them to run on? If so, they must be built somewhere, and built in accordance with modern design. W.here? This is a motor age, and the motorcar spells mobility.

Is the present distinction between parkways, landscaped limited-access expressways, boulevards, ordinary highways, and city streets unscientific? If so, what do the critics propose as a substitute?

Is mass commuter railroad transportation the sole and entire answer to urban street congestion? Is conflict between rubber and rails in fact irrepressible? Are there not practical combinations of public, quasi-public, and private financing which can solve the riddle? And what of the people who prefer cars and car pools and find them more comfortable, faster, and even cheaper than rails?

If a family likes present city life, should it be forced to live according to avant-garde architectural formulas? Do most professional planners in fact know what people think and want? The incredible affection of slum dwellers for the old neighborhood and their stubborn unwillingness to move are the despair of experts. The forensic medicine men who perform the autopsies on cities condemn these uncooperative families to hell and imply that they could be transplanted painlessly to New Delhi, Canberra, Brasilia, and Utopia. We do not smoke such opium. We have to livewith our problems.

Is it a mark of genius to exhibit lofty indifference to population growth, contempt for invested capital, budgets, and taxes; to be oblivious to the need of the average citizen to make a living and to his preferences, immediate concerns, and troubles?

What do the critics of cities offer as a substitute for the highly taxed central city core which supports the surrounding, quieter, less densely settled, and less exploited segments of the municipal pie? Have they an alternative to real-estate taxes?

Pending responsible answers to these questions, those of us who have work to do and obstacles to overcome, who cannot hide in ivory towers writing encyclopedic theses, whose usefulness is measured by results, must carry on.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In