- 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
This attitude was perhaps unintentionally evoked by the respected Episcopal bishop of New York who in 1967 announced that in view of the circumstances of the poor of the city he would not proceed with the completion of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest such building ever begun, situated on a magnificent site overlooking the flat expanse of Harlem. Why? Meaning no disrespect, is it the plan of the church to liquidate its assets and turn them over to the poor? How much would that come to per head? But even so, would not the completed cathedral be an asset? If men need work, could they not be given jobs in its construction? The French— toujours gai , as mehitabel would have it—built Sacre Coeur as an act of penance for the excesses of the Commune. Could not the Episcopalians build St. John the Divine—a perfect symbol of rebirth—as a gesture of penance for all that Brahmin disdain which, in one form or another, to use Max Ways’s phrase, taught us to despise our cities until they became despicable? If the phenomenon of ugliness, the last of my urban themes, can be thought to have arisen from more or less abstract qualities of American society, in the present and foreseeable future its principal cause is visible, concrete, and ubiquitous, which is to say it is the automobile. More than any other single factor it is the automobile that has wrecked the twentieth-century American city, dissipating its strength, destroying its form, fragmenting its life. So pervasive is the influence of the automobile that it is possible almost not to notice it at all. Indeed, it is almost out of fashion to do so: the men who first sought to warn us have almost ceased trying, while those who might have followed have sought instead formulations of their own, and in that manner diverted attention from the essential fact that in the age of the automobile, cities, which had been places for coming together, have increasingly become machines for moving apart, devices whereby men are increasingly insulated and isolated one from the other.
A coda of sorts that has persisted through the elaboration of the themes of this paper has been the recent role of technology in accentuating and in a sense exacerbating long-established tendencies. The impact of technology on human society—on all forms of life—is the pre-eminent experience of the modern age, and obviously of the city as well. But only of late, one feels, has any very considerable appreciation developed that a change in quantity becomes after a point a change in quality, so that a society that begins by using technology can end by being used by it, and in the process, somehow, lose such control of its destiny as past human societies can be said to have had. Technology being so outwardly rational, it has been assumed by many that those who have been concerned about its directions have not really understood it. People easily come to fear what they do not understand, and it has been suspected, not always without foundation, that a certain amount of criticism of technology has been a latter-day form of rick burning.
One begins to think that this may not be so. Take the family automobile: a simple, easily enough comprehended (or seemingly so), unthreatening, and convenient product of folk technology rather than of modern science. Who would imagine any great harm coming from the automobile? Yet consider a moment. With its advent, everyday citizens, for the first time in human history, came into possession of unexampled physical energy: the powers of the gods themselves became commonplace. And from the very outset, violence ensued. It is said, for example, that when there were only four gasoline-powered vehicles in Missouri, two of them were in St. Louis and managed to collide with such impact as to injure both drivers, one seriously. Thus was introduced a form of pathology that was to grow steadily from that year to this. Today, something between one quarter and two thirds of the automobiles manufactured in the United States end up with blood on them. Indeed so commonplace and predictable have collisions become that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently ruled that a crash must be considered among the “intended uses” of a motor vehicle, and the manufacturers accordingly responsible to provide for such contingency in their design.
It becomes increasingly clear that the major environment, or, if you will, vehicle, in which incidents of uncontrolled episodic violence occur within the population is that of the automobile. Whether access and exposure to this environment have increased the incidence of such episodes, or whether the urban environment now largely created and shaped by the automobile has generally increased the violence level is uncertain at best (there has, of course, been a great decline in violence directed toward animals), but with the number of deaths and injuries at the present ongoing rates, and the number of vehicles in use approaching the one-hundred-million mark, it is a matter worth pondering.
Crashes are but one form of pathology. Each year in the United States automobiles pour eighty-six million tons of carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, hydrocarbons, lead compounds and particulates into the air we breathe. Recently my younger son came home with a button that announced, “Clean air smells funny.” Dr. Clare C. Patterson of the California Institute of Technology put it another way in testimony before a congressional committee: “The average resident of the United States is being subject to severe chronic lead insult,” originating in lead tetraethyl. Such poisoning can lead to severe intellectual disability in children: so much that Patterson feels it is dangerous for youth to live long periods of time near freeways.