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?