23 May 2011

City by City: An Introduction

Americans have always been suspicious of our cities. Before the Civil War, writers competed to denounce them in the strongest possible terms, culminating in the twin Transcendentalist broadsides of Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden. The latter prompted Henry James, himself no fan of the city, to describe its author as an “essentially sylvan personage,” that is to say a woodsman, a phrase that could go just as well for most American thinkers until that point, in spirit if not always in fact. Even Benjamin Franklin, as natural an urban creature as ever there was, felt no qualms about pamphleteering aggressively within the city in favor of country life. Nor was this American attitude confined to American cities. The New York of Melville’s Pierre is not yet as bad as the Liverpool of Redburn. And it was Rome that bore the brunt of Hawthorne’s distemper in The Marble Faun, where he notes that

all towns should be made capable of purification by fire . . . within each half century. Otherwise they become the hereditary haunts of vermin and noisesomeness, besides standing apart from the possibility of such improvements as are constantly introduced into the rest of man’s contrivances and accommodations.

At once too densely civilized and not civil enough, the city fared little better at the hands of an emerging pragmatism. Jane Addams sought to reform it by creating a smaller community in its midst, while William James, likely the American thinker most favorably disposed until recently, sought to transcend its opposition to the country rather than affirm it. If one was to locate a counter-tradition to all this city-phobia, it would be in the literature of the American oppressed. The shimmering Manhattan of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem prefigures the contemporary vision of the city as refuge from a savage and bigoted populace, and while Emma Goldman suffered on the East Side, it is impossible to miss the role that neighborhood played in the development of her ideas and commitments.

It was Jane Jacobs, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who most famously in the 1960s tried to rescue one American city from the long tradition of indigenous anti-urbanism; then she moved to Toronto. In the years that followed, in no small part because Jacobs’s defense of the city had come too late, the cities underwent a profound crisis. They have recently begun to emerge from this crisis, only to be spirited off again into the network of big global cities connected by major international airports, capital flows, and a few elite colleges. If the American city is no longer seen as a threat to public health and morality, it now represents an escape from America rather than its realization or continuation. “Thank God,” we say, gazing upon the rural natives, “that we live in New York [Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Boston] and not in America.”

This needs to end. Today we inaugurate the City by City project, during which we hope to gather reports from as many American cities as possible, to see how things are going and what can be done. The first issue will include Baltimore, Seattle, Greensboro (N.C.), Milwaukee, and one rural area, northern Kentucky. Some of these essays are historical, some are personal, most are someplace in between, but all would, we think, stand as evidence of the centrality of the city to both the historical American experience and the contemporary one. The alternative, an unending asphalt tapestry of strip-mall standards and suburban subdivisions, is as unacceptable as it is uninteresting. And so we turn to the different moments and spaces that make up that strangely homeless formation that is the American city. We have no place else to go.

Write to the City by City editors at city@nplusonemag.com.

Image: Downtown Milwaukee. From forum.skyscraperpage.com.

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