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The Future of the City

The Atlantic Archives on Cities

Conor Friedersdorf

In no particular order, the pieces from The Atlantic archives featured during The Future of the City report.

Divided We Sprawl 
 
by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley 
 
Cities and their suburbs make up "a single social and economic reality," argue the authors of this December 1999 essay. "People work in one municipality, live in another, go to church or the doctor's office or the movies in yet another, and all these different places are somehow interdependent." 
 
Dubbing this attitude "Metropolitanism," the authors advocate reforms meant to combat an enemy of cities and suburbs alike: sprawl. Instead of "cookie-cutter projects" that are "easy to finance, easy to build, and easy to manage," they recommend a new emphasis on development within existing urban areas, spending on mass transit rather than new highways, and cooperation among local officials in metropolitan areas. "Academics, architects, and bohemians may decry the soullessness of sprawl, but people seem to like it," they acknowledge. "Why put up such a fight to save dying places, whether they are called cities or older suburbs or metropolitan cores?"  

Their answer is here
 
* * *
 
The Mall of America 
 
by Ian Frazier 
 
On visiting the nation's largest mall, the author reflects on how modern shopping environments turn the American scene into a place more limited than ever before. "Buildings that differed from the Mall of America only in size spread across the landscape all around," he writes, "close enough to one another that a person wearing half-league boots could jump from one roof to the next for mile after mile--from the Mall of America to the vast Sportsmart store to Office Depot to Old Navy to Toys 'R Us to Target, pausing finally at yet another local mall, the Southdale Shopping Center, the world's first enclosed shopping mall, built in 1956 by a Minneapolis department-store owner in order to provide comfortable indoor shopping during the cold Minnesota winters." The existential meaning of malls is his larger subject, and it has never been so entertainingly explored.

 
* * *
 
Boston Hymn 
 
by Ralph Waldo Emerson 
 
In order to hail Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, leading abolitionists met in Boston Music Hall early in 1863 for a celebration. The author, who late in his life championed the abolitionist cause, read this poem on the occasion. 
 
* * *
 
The Mad Strangler of Boston 
 
by Erle Stanley Gardner  
 
In 1964, residents of Boston were terrified by a serial killer believed responsible for eleven murders at the time this article was published. Its author, a distinguished criminologist, is best known for creating one of the most widely read fictional characters in the English language, Perry Mason. The Atlantic Monthly invited him to the Boston area, then home to the magazine, asking that he shed light on the murders. One of the most arresting details in the resulting article is the description of women so fearful that some left the city and others saw their health suffer from stress.  
 
"What do you do about the door when you enter?" one of the women said. "You look in the closets, under the bed, and in the bathroom. If a man is in there you want to be able to run out, screaming for help. Therefore, you should leave the door open. But if you leave the door open while you are making a search, what is to prevent the Strangler from following you in and standing between you and your means of escape when you first see him?"  
 
* * * 

The Not-So-Second City 
 
by Benjamin Schwarz 
 
Chicago is the finest architectural city in the United States, the author writes -- and as if to celebrate it, he surveys a number of books that chronicle its skyline, reviewing titles aimed at specialists and others better suited for general audiences. The story includes a rueful note. "Despite Chicago's abundance of talented young architects, including Jeanne Gang, 'Chicago' architecture is no longer a living tradition," Mr. Schwarz says. "But there's nothing to be done. The forces of globalism, or cosmopolitanism, as Marx both lamented and cheered long ago, are unstoppable." 

* * *  

The Tiki Wars 
 
by Wayne Curtis 

How do we distinguish the historic from the sentimental? 
 
The author visits the Kahiki Supper Club, in Columbus, Ohio, where thatched dining huts and an eighty-foot-high tiki goddess spur him to ponder what kinds of buildings deserve preservation for posterity. "I hate it when drugstore chains raze cool old buildings and replace them with boxy, harshly lit stores selling eyeliner and blister packs of batteries," he writes. "But I found myself mustering a bit of sympathy for Walgreens in this fight." 

The outcome is here.

* * *
 
A Tale of Two Town Houses 
 
by Virginia Postrel 
 
In a comparison of housing prices in Los Angeles and Dallas, the author finds that Angelenos pay a premium for the right to build on their land -- that is to say, on "bureaucratic delays, density restrictions, fees, political contributions." The result: houses that cost roughly $300,000 more than their equivalent in Texas. "The unintended consequence of these land-use policies is that Americans are sorting themselves geographically by income and lifestyle--not across neighborhoods, as they used to, but across regions," Ms. Postrel writes. "People are more likely to live surrounded by others like themselves, creating a more-polarized cultural map." In this way, real estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap between red and blue states. 
 
* * *
 
Scaling Alaska's Heights 
 
by Charles Thompson 
 
The author recommends travel "to this most naturally scenic of all U.S. capital cities," explaining that Juneau boasts five mountains that even novice hikers can conquer in a single day: it is "one of the few places where the casual hiker can gain entry into the mountaineer's mystical world without the climber's skills and trappings, and may better understand the mountaineer's love of high places and his urge to journey into otherwise unreachable wilderness."  

Descending from the mountain, the hiker can walk all the way back to his or her downtown hotel in plenty of time to shower for the cocktail hour. But cleaning up isn't strictly necessary: it is, after all, a frontier city. 

* * * 

The Empty Arena 
 
By Bruce Schoenfeld 
 
Kansas City earmarked $222 million for an 18,000 seat hockey and basketball arena that opened in October 2007. But as yet, the city hasn't found a professional sports franchise to play there. "Now that I've inherited it," says Mayor Mark Funkhouser, "I tell people it's a shotgun wedding, but I have to make the marriage work."

If you build it, will they come? 
 
* * *

Back to the Future 
 
By Wayne Curtis 
 
Why aren't there monorails in numerous American cities? The author explores that question by visiting Las Vegas in 2005, shortly after Sin City opened its single-track effort at mass transit -- a project he gives mixed reviews. "Those of us who came of age making pilgrimages to Disney's Tomorrowland know that monorails produce a complicated nostalgia for the future," he writes, concluding that "the monorail was twenty years ahead of its time, and it has been mired there ever since." 
 
* * *
 
Road Trip: Part II 
 
by Bernard-Henri Levy 
 
Los Angeles is an anti-city, the author argues, "the prototype of a city with a poorly developed language, the prototype of unintelligible, illegible discourse." In his estimation, Southern California's sprawling metropolis lacks a center, a recognizable border, a vantage point where it can be "embraced in a single glance," and a heart, or historic neighborhood "whose historicity continues to shape, engender, inspire, the rest of the urban space." He closes by predicting "with some certainty" that LA is going to die.

* * *

American Murder Mystery 
 
By Hanna Rosin 
 
In an effort to fight poverty, officials in Memphis and many other American cities demolished big public housing projects, assuming that residents given vouchers to live elsewhere would excel in more diverse environments. But rather than reducing crime and dysfunction, dispersing poor residents has simply spread these ills around municipalities. Formerly safe areas are now crime-ridden. Can criminologists persuade policymakers that their former actions are at the root of the crisis? 
 
* * *

Houses of the Future


By Wayne Curtis

After Hurricane Katrina, a handful of small, independent developers began building houses that blend New Orleans' history, modern design, and an innovative focus on environmental sustainability. "As with jazz, gumbo, and some remarkable cocktails, this style illustrates the city's talent for crafting extraordinary things from the ordinary stuff it has at hand," the author writes. In surveying these efforts, particular attention is paid to five new houses, the architects who built them, and their contribution to "an entire country that needs to rethink the way it designs its cities and homes."

* * *

 
New York After Paris 
 
by Alvan F. Sanborn 
 
The year is 1906. New York is easily the most impressive city in the New World. But how does it compare to Paris? The author answers that question with what is arguably the most astute assessment of New York City ever offered -- its sweep is as big as the city itself, and the strengths and weaknesses of the metropolis are set forth in language that can only intrigue and delight the contemporary reader. 
 
A description of a city offered more than 100 years ago is enjoyable partly because one can marvel at our changed perspective. At one point, for example, the author laments that "Fifth Avenue below the Park has lost its restful, if sombre, brown-stone unity by its unconditional surrender to retail trade." On the whole, however, this antique article is striking for its prescience in seeing what New York City has become. 
 
* * *


Are Cities Dead? 
 
by Robert Moses 
 
The author, an urban planner and lifelong New York City bureaucrat, is among the most polarizing men in the history of his field, and counted more than 75,000 employees under his command at the height of his power. Supporters of Mr. Moses argue that he is responsible for bringing to New York City infrastructure required for its growth in the post World War II era, whereas his critics especially detest his preference for cars rather than public transit -- his example influenced planners across the United States to build their cities around the automobile. In this piece, Mr. Moses launches an attack on his critics, especially Lewis Mumford, a staunch critic of urban sprawl. 
 
* * *
 
The Genesis of the Gang 

By Jacob Riis 

The author is one of the most famed muckraking journalists in American history. A Danish immigrant to the United States, he spent years as a serially destitute carpenter and salesman before earning renown for his work documenting living conditions in New York City tenements, most memorably in his book "How the Other Half Lives." In this 1899 piece, he reports on the lives led by impoverished urban youth, and how their material and social surroundings push them toward lives of crime. 
 
* * *
 
Broken Windows 

by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling

 
Any history of influential articles published by The Atlantic must include "
Broken Windows," a 1982 cover story by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling about the relationship between police and neighborhood safety. The theory it proposed is credited by many (though not all) with reversing the lengthy crime epidemic that plagued New York City and other urban centers. Former NYPD Commissioner James Bratton called Mr. Wilson "my intellectual mentor." A head of the Justice Department's research arm once said that the piece "has had a greater impact than any other article on serious policing."  
 
* * *

 
The Code of the Streets 

by Elijah Anderson 

Among inner-city youth, the "code of the streets" determines what is worth fighting for, how one dresses, the treatment of women, even grave judgments about the worth of life itself, the author argues. Turning a sociologist's eye to this world, he describes the difference between families that embrace the street's code and "decent families," who inhabit the same neighborhoods but reject violence. In its most powerful passages, this piece explains the logic that leads street kids to behave in ways that are ruinous to their futures and dangerous to the communities they inhabit. "This violence serves to confirm the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor," the author writes, "further legitimating the oppositional culture and the code of the streets in the eyes of many poor young blacks."

 
* * *

 
How Portland Does It 
 
By Philip Langdon 
 
On a 1992 trip to Portland, Oregon, the author tries to discover how the "courteous, well-kept city of 453,000" became "a paragon of healthy urban development," especially successful at maintaining a vibrant downtown core. He left impressed by "the sense of common purpose, the easy communication among the area's leaders, and the longstanding conviction that Oregonians should conserve the good life, even at the sacrifice of some self-interest."  
 
* * *

 
Lofty Ambitions 
 
by Virginia Postrel 
 
"Lofts were never supposed to be homes," the author writes. "They were vacant old factories and warehouses, taken over by artists looking for cheap space and good light." In this piece, she traces the rise of this trendy approach to urban living -- "phony and pricey, and that's just fine." 
 
* * *

 
Reversing White Flight 

by Jonathan Rauch

 
Even if school vouchers didn't improve public education, the author argues, implementing them would almost certainly improve poor neighborhoods. 
"Quite a few parents stretch their budgets to live in communities with good public schools," he writes. "Make vouchers available, and many of these parents will find that they can get more house for less money by moving into an undesirable public-school district and sending their children to a private school." In doing so, these voucher recipients would increase the tax base, property values, and the presence of middle class mores in poor neighborhoods. Thus the conclusion: "Vouchers are possibly the best desegregation and urban-renewal program that the United States has hardly ever tried."

 
* * *

Road Trip: Part II

by Bernard Henri Levi

On the bicentennial of the birth of Alexis de Tocqueville, America's keenest interpreter, The Atlantic asked another Frenchman, the author, to travel the United States and report on what he found. What follows are his reflections on Seattle, a city he loved, and San Francisco, whose famed island prison troubled his soul.



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