On the Bigness of Cities

IN the bright lexicon of the city expanders, ‘big’ is a synonym for ‘great.’ Apparently they do not realize that ‘great’ has any connotation other than size.

It is interesting to trace this belief in bulk and see how masterfully it influences all our ideals. In my youth — and even now, for aught I know — farmers deposited on the editors’ desks gigantic squashes, tomatoes, or ears of corn, and received their meed of praise in the form of a laudatory paragraph. No one inquired whether these vegetables were better because of their size, whether flavor was enhanced or nutritious elements multiplied. Ambition was satisfied with producing the biggest.

The many recent mergers of food manufacturers, advertising agencies, and banks are another symptom. The ulterior aim is really bigness. The reasons given — savings effected, overhead cut down, factories or branch offices merged — are merely sops to an economic conscience. What we seek is the doubtful satisfaction of saying we are the biggest in our city, or state or country, or the world. We know that our countrymen will admire us for our size and not look beneath the surface. The spirit is that in which the farmer nourishes his mammoth squash.

In New York City a bank and a motor-car manufacturer are engaged in a contest as to which shall erect the tallest structure. Actual building substance has given out at the altitude attained. You cannot indefinitely increase the height of buildings without doing something more to foundations.

So now the contest has dwindled to flagpoles. At present Chrysler appears to be nearer the Milky Way, unless the architects of the Bank of Manhattan can think up a new stunt. New York has the largest office building and the second-largest hotel in the world. It will not be content until a new hotel snatches the prize for mass from the Stevens House in Chicago. Indeed, its overmastering ambition is to crowd more people inside of what may conservatively be styled the boundaries of the city than are jammed into a similar corporate area anywhere else on the globe. When that day comes some proud man, the president of the biggest bank, will sit behind the biggest desk in an office on the highest floor of the tallest building in the biggest city in the world.

Examine the claims of the numerous towns and cities clamoring for attention and see how inevitably the population figures are stressed. Each of these cities is watching with sharp and envious eye some alleged competitor in the race for census preëminence. They count their gains as mere people, more and more people, with little concern as to what the people are, how desirable they may be as fellow citizens. St. Paul and Minneapolis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, every locality has its contestants, whose jealousies and heartburnings keep chambers of commerce and real-estate boards on the jump.

And yet no objective is more stressed by town planners than decentralization. The evils of congestion are with us every hour. The crowds get in our way, render it impossible to secure a seat in a street car or a theatre — or to reach the door of a theatre when we have a seat — or a place to park our car. The new skyscrapers springing up in New York and other cities like mushrooms in a dark cellar add groups to the daily throngs in the adjacent streets as large as good-sized towns and cities. With one hand we beckon this multitude to come and swarm in our streets and with the other we wave a futile protest at the problem of congestion. Los Angeles is already beginning to rue the hospitality with which she welcomed new population, and her congestion problem is elementary compared with that of older cities.

Cities have three ways in which to grow. First there is the birth rate — but this is apt to be highest among the less desirable inhabitants. Second, population can be added in batches, in the form of groups of workmen attached to factories which are pulled up by the roots and transplanted bodily to cities offering inducements in the way of free sites, power, spur tracks, or low wages. These groups, too, are usually below the standard in intelligence, social ideals, and income of the average town or city which has depended thus far on circumstances for its growth. The third way is to reach out and scoop up all the neighboring towns and cities which could by any plausibility be considered suburbs. This way at least preserves the character of the population, but it spreads the city’s high tax rates over suburbanites hitherto self-contained and immune.

Of these three ways the greatest and most popular is the second, though the arrival of industries with their cohorts of employees into a city unplanned and unzoned for their reception is sometimes devastating. There is authority for the belief that you cannot add a cubit to your stature by taking thought, but that was uttered before the invention of chambers of commerce and civic advertising.

Is n’t it about time we revised our standards of civic excellence? Bigness is not a virtue in itself, but it ought to be possible for a city to be both large and comfortable. Or we could so organize our civilization that all cities would be small. Our families are smaller. And as for fame, there are other criterions than size. No one asks the population figures of Oberammergau, or Florence, or Clovelly, or Taormina, or, for that matter, of Litchfield, or Williamsburg,or Lenox, or Valley Forge.

The bees are better town planners than we are. As soon as the hive gets too crowded, some of the more progressive thinkers among the older bees begin to develop a queen from among the latent princesses in the brood combs in spite of the furious jealousy of the reigning sovereign. As soon as the new queen is strong enough there is a battle royal for the possession of the home hive. The defeated queen and her adherents swarm and start a new hive, and each is soon humming happily at a normal capacity.

Will not some of our town planners inaugurate the swarming idea to relieve our overgrown cities of their congestion? At the next city election, say, the defeated party will pile into its flivvers and move en masse to some beautiful unoccupied site and there start a new city fashioned after a better ideal. What we want is better and smaller cities.