- 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
Mumford in his new book speaks of precisely the same phenomenon : One of the most sinister features of the recent urban riots has been the presence of roaming bands of children, armed with bottles and stones, taunting and defying the police, smashing windows and looting stores. But this was only an intensification of the window-breakings, knifings, and murders that have for the past twenty years characterized “the spirit of youth in the city streets.”
And note the continuity of his last phrase, which alludes, of course, to Jane Addams’ book The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets , in which she describes just those conditions at the turn of the century in terms that William James declared “immortal” and which, we must allow, were hardly ephemeral.
Yet here, too, technology seems to have been playing us tricks, accentuating and exacerbating our recent experience. The newest migrants come upon an urban world that seems somehow to need them less, to find them even more disturbing and threatening, and to provide them even less secure a place in the scheme of things than was ever quite the case with those who preceded them. I take this to be almost wholly a function of changing employment patterns consequent upon changing technology. But this very technology has also provided an abundance of material resources—and a measure of social conscience—so that people who are not especially needed are nonetheless provided for: by 1968, after seven years of unbroken economic expansion, there were 800,000 persons living on welfare in New York City, with the number expected to reach 1,000,000 in 1969. In part this is a phenomenon of birth rates. One person in ten, but one baby in six today is Negro. The poor continue to get children, but those children no longer succumb to cholera, influenza, and tuberculosis. Thus progress more and more forces us to live with the consequences of social injustice. In a more brutal age the evidence soon disappeared!
Those who have moved to them have almost invariably improved their standard of life in the not-very-long run. Nor has this been wholly a matter of the consumption of goods and services. “City air makes men free,” goes the medieval saying, and this has not been less true for industrial America. The matter was settled, really, in an exchange between Hennessey and Dooley at the turn of the century. The country, said that faithful if not always perceptive patron, is where the good tilings in life come from. To which the master responded, “Yes, but it is the city that they go to.” Technology is at the base of this process. The standard of life in American cities rises steadily, and there are few persons who do not somehow benefit. And yet this same technology—wealth—takes its toll. More and more we are conscious of the price paid for affluence in the form of manmade disease, uglification, and the second- and third-order effects of innovations which seem to cancel out the initial benefits.
Nathan Keyfitz, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, has nicely evoked the paradox implicit in many of the benefits of technology. Plenty encourages freedom. It also encourages density. Density can be managed only by regulation. Regulation discourages freedom. The experienced, conditioned city dweller learns, of course, to live with density by maintaining, as Keyfitz puts it, “those standards of reserve, discretion, and respect for the rights of others” that keep the nervous system from exhausting itself from the overstimulus available on any city street. The traditional assertion of Manhattan apartment dwellers that they have never met their neighbors across the hall is not a sign of social pathology: to the contrary, it is the exercise of exemplary habits of social hygiene. Borrowing the meter from George Canning’s account of the failings of the Dutch, the rule for the modern cliff dweller might be put as follows:
In the matter of neighbors, The sound thing to do, Is nodding to many But speaking to few.
It may be speculated, for example, that a clue to the transformation of the roistering, brawling, Merrie England of tradition into that somber land where strangers dare not speak to one another in trains lies in the fact of the trains . Technology—in this case the steam engine that created the vast nineteenth-century complexes of London and Manchester—brought about urban densities which required new forms of behavior for those who wished to take advantage of technology’s advances and yet retain a measure of internal balance. The British, having been first to create the densities, were first to exhibit the telltale sang-froid of the modern urban dweller.