- Historic Sites
The Soulless City
It is scarred by ugliness and racked by violence. It is inundated by newcomers and strangling in its own technology. How did it get this way? Can anything save it?
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Continuity and change. These are the themes of all life, and not less that of cities. However, as in so many aspects of our national experience, Americans seem more aware of, more sensitive to modes of change than to those of continuity. This is surely a survival from the frontier experience. There has not, I believe, ever been anything to match the rapidity, nay, fury with which Americans set about founding cities in the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Only just now is the historical profession beginning to catch up with that breathless undertaking. Before long we are likely to have a much clearer idea than we do now as to how it all began. But it is still possible at this early state, as it were, to identify a half dozen or so persistent themes in the American urban experience which seem to evolve from earlier to later stages in a process that some would call growth, and others decay, but in a manner that nonetheless constitutes change.
Through history—the history, that is, of Europe and Asia and that great bridge area in between—cities have been, nominally at least, places of refuge, while the countryside has been the scene of insecurity and exposure to misfortune and wrongdoing. Obviously the facts permit of no generalization, but there is at least a conceptual validity, a persistence over time, of the association of the city with security. In the classical and feudal world, to be without the gates was to be in trouble. Writing of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the critic George Steiner evokes the ancient certainty on this point, and suggests the ways in which it lives on.
In these two cities, the consequences have been more drastic and more specialized. Therein lies the singularity of the two Japanese communities, but also their symbolic link with a number of other cities in history and with the role such cities have played in man’s consciousness of his own vulnerable condition—with Sodom and Gomorrah, visited by such fiery ruin that their very location is in doubt; with Nineveh, raked from the earth; with Rotterdam and Coventry; with Dresden, where in 19-14, air raids deliberately kindled the largest, hottest pyre known to man. Already, in the “Iliad,” the destruction of a city was felt to be an act of peculiar finality, a misfortune that threatens the roots of man. His city smashed, man reverts to the unhoused, wandering circumstance of the beast from which he has so uncertainly emerged. Hence the necessary presence of the gods when a city is built, the mysterious music and ceremotiy that often attend the elevation of its walls. When Jerusalem was laid waste, says the Haggada, God Himself wept witli her.
Little of this dread is to be encountered in the United States, a society marked by the near absence of internal warfare once the major Indian conflicts were over. Warfare, that is to say, between armies. We have, on the other hand, been replete with conflict between different groups within the population, classified in terms of race, class, ethnicity, or whatever, and this conflict has occurred in our cities, which in consequence have been violent places.
An account of the draft riots in New York City in 1863 strikes a surpassingly contemporary note.
Nothing that we could say, could add to the impressivciiess of the lesson furnished by the events of the past year, as to the needs and the dangerous condition of the neglected classes in our city. Those terrible days in July—the sudden appearance, as if from the bosom of the earth, of a most infuriated and degraded mob; the helplessness of propertyholders and the better classes; the boom of cannon and rattle of musketry in our streets; the skies lurid with conflagrations; the inconceivable barbarity and ferocity of the crowd toward an unfortunate and helpless race; the immense destruction of property—were the first dreadful revelations to many of our people of the existence among us of a great, ignorant, irresponsible class, who were growing up here without any permanent interest in the welfare of the community or the success of the Government—the proletaires of the European capitals. Of the gradual formation of this class, and the dangers to be feared from it, the agents of this Society have incessantly warned the public for the past eleven years.
—Eleventh Annual Report Children’s Aid Society, New York
In some degree this violence—or the perception of it—seems to have diminished in the course of the 1930’s and 1940’s. James Q. Wilson, a professor of government at Harvard, has noted the stages by which, for example, the treatment of violence as an element in American politics steadily decreased in successive editions of V. O. Key’s textbook on American politics that appeared during the latter part of this period. Jt may he that depression at home and then war abroad combined to restrict opportunity or impulse. In any event, there was a lull, and in consequence all the more alarm when violence reappeared in the mid-1960’s. But it was only that: a reappearance, not a beginning.