The Soulless City


There is to be encountered in ic of lhe Disraeli novels a gentleman described as a person “distinguished for ignorance” as he had but one idea and that was wrong. It is by now clear that future generations will perforce reach something of the same judgment about contemporary Americans in relation to their cities, for what we do and what we say reflect such opposite poles of judgment that we shall inevitably be seen to have misjudged most extraordinarily cither in what we arc saying about cities or in what we are doing about them. We are, of course, doing very little, or rather, doing just about what we have been doing for the past half century or so, which can reflect a very great deal of activity but no very considerable change. Simultaneously, and far more conspicuously, we are talking of crisis. The word is everywhere: on every tongue; in every pronouncement. The President has now taken to sending an annual message to Congress on urban subjects. In 1968 it was bluntly titled The Crisis of the Cities . And indeed, not many weeks later, on Friday, April 5. to be exact, he was issuing a confirming proclamation of sorts: Whereas I have been informed that conditions of domestic violente and disorder exist in the District of Columbia and threaten the Washington metropolitan area, endangering life and property and obstructing execution of the laws, and the local polite forces are unable to bring about the prompt cessation … of violence and restoration of law and order.…

The excitement is nothing if not infectious. In a recent joint publication, Crisis: The Condition of the American City , Urban America, Inc. and the League of Women Voters noted that during 1967 even the Secretary of Agriculture devoted most of his speeches to urban problems. At mid-1968, the president of the University of California issued a major statement entitled, “What We Must Do: The University and the Urban Crisis.” The bishops of the United States Catholic Conference came forth with their own program, entitled “The Church’s Response to the Urban Crisis.” At its 1968 convention the Republican party, not heretofore known for an obsession with the subject, adopted a platform plank entitled “Crisis of the Cities,” while in an issue featuring a stunning black coed on the cover, Glamour magazine, ever alert to changing fashion, asked in appropriate form the question many have posed themselves in private—“The Urban Crisis: What Can One Girl Do?”

Academics who have been involved with this subject might be expected to take some satisfaction that the alarums and jeremiads of the past decades seem at last to have been heard by the populace, and yet even those of us most seized with what Norman Mailer lias termed the “middle-class lust for apocalypse” are likely to have some reservations about the current enthusiasm for the subject of urban ills. It is not just a matter of the continued disparity between what we say and what we do: it is also, I suspect, a matter of what we are saying, and the manner of our saying it. A certain bathos comes through. One thinks of Scan O’Casey’s Captain Boyle and Joxer in that far-off Dublin tenement: no doubt the whole world was even then in a “state of chassis” but precious little those two could or would do about it, save use it as an excuse to sustain their own weakness, incompetence, and submission to the death wishes of the society about them. One wonders if something not dissimilar is going on in this nation, at this time. Having persistently failed to do what it was necessary and possible to do for urban life on grounds that conditions surely were not so bad as to warrant such exertion, the nation seems suddenly to have lurched to the opposite position of declaring that things are indeed so very bad that probably nothing will work anyway. The result either way is paralysis and failure. It is lime for a measure of perspective.

I take it Lewis Mumford intended to convey something of this message in his most recent book, The Urban Prospect , which he begins with a short preface cataloguing the ills of the modern city with a vigor and specificity that command instant assent from the reader. Exactly! one responds. That is precisely the way things are! Mumford is really “telling it like it is.” (A measure of négritude lias of late become the mark of an authentic urban-crisis watcher.) One reads on with increasing recognition, mounting umbrage, only to find at the end that this foreword was in fact written for the May, 1925, edition of Survey Graphic . Things have changed, but not that much, and in directions that were, in a sense, fully visible to the sensitive eye nearly a half century ago. To be sure, at a certain point a matter of imbalance becomes one of pathology, a tendency becomes a condition, and for societies as for individuals there comes a point when mistakes are no longer to be undone, transgressions no longer to be forgiven. But it is nowhere clear that we have reached such a point in our cities.