Looking Forward

By James Bennet

We have a collection of pieces in this issue that approach from very different angles what we are calling “The Future of the City.” But the astute, independent-minded reader—which is to say, of course, you—may grow suspicious. Are we really out to embrace the future, or to re-create some idealized past? After all, Christopher Leinberger, in “Here Comes the Neighborhood,” proposes innovative policies so that, in some ways, our cities of the future can look … like our communities of the early 20th century, when streetcars laced together every town of more than 5,000 people. John Freeman Gill, in “Ghosts of New York,” yearns for renewed imagination for art in our public spaces … like we had back in 19th-century New York. Are we committing a mistake similar to the one that Benjamin Schwarz, in “Gentrification and Its Discontents,” attributes to acolytes of the urban preservationist Jane Jacobs—trying to seal in amber everything we happen to like, and pretend that the rest can just go away?

In fact, it might seem as if we want to make everything new old again, because we don’t stop with the city. Consider Caitlin Flanagan’s “Love, Actually.” She manages to glimpse, through today’s degrading hookup culture, a feminine insurrection in pursuit of 1950s-style romance that is reshaping popular culture—for her, Taylor Swift in her disarming sweetness echoes Doris Day—and may even prove powerful enough to bring boys to their senses. And then there’s Wayne Curtis (“Who Invented the Cocktail?”). He reports that bars are once again mixing, of all drinks, 19th-century punches and “shrubs” (fruit preserved in vinegar, then combined with spirits).

Change is what makes journalism go—“Nothing Much Happened Yesterday” is not a headline you’re likely to encounter with your morning coffee or evening shrub—but when it comes to our own profession, we reporters are conservative creatures. As much as the most intrepid entrepreneur, we take risks—sometimes deadly risks—in order to practice journalism; but we fear risk when it comes to changing the practice itself. “We pride ourselves on defending standards of language, standards of judgment, and even a form of public service that can seem antique,” James Fallows writes in our cover story. “Whether or not this makes for better journalism, it complicates the embrace of radical new experiments.”

That’s changing, as Fallows shows. Years-long standoffs that were paralyzingly ideological (all content must be free!) are giving way to conversations about what will actually work in the real world. News organizations of all types are conducting radical new experiments with their traditional practices and business models. And Google is collaborating with them, not out of charity but out of self-interest, since its own business depends on reliable information.

It’s only natural to feel some nostalgia for the old ways, even as, in our accelerating times, the interval between the establishment of a convention and its defenestration approaches the vanishing point. When I first picked up an iPad this spring, I was astonished to feel a poignant stab of anticipatory nostalgia for my first-generation Kindle, to which I had become attached. On the other hand, I had in that moment even less doubt than ever that I would be able to keep on reading great books and stories in some form far into the future, whether on paper, the iPad, the Kindle, or something else.

The rumbling streetcar, the songs of Doris Day, the inky broadsheet may have seen their day. The stories in this issue are not arguing for their resurrection or artificial perpetuation; what the stories argue is that the essence that made each of these things magical will endure. That’s not nostalgia but its impatient cousin, optimism—about the future of vibrant urban communities, of romance, and of good journalism. About the shrub—well, time will tell.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/06/looking-forward/308099/