February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
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?
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.
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.
Yet with all this it is necessary to acknowledge a transformation howsoever subtle and tentative. The tempo of violence seems to have speeded up, the result, more or less direct, of change in the technology of communications, which now communicate not simply the fact but also the spirit of violent events, and do so instantaneously. More ominously, there appears to have been a legitimation of violence, and a spread of its ethos to levels of society that have traditionally seen themselves, and have been, the repositories of stability and respect for, insistence upon, due process. It is one thing to loot clothing stores—Brooks Brothers was hit in 1863—to fight with the police, to seize sections of the city and hold out against them. It is another thing to seixe university libraries, and that is very much part of the violence of our time, a violence that arises not only among the poor and disinherited, but also among the well-to-do and privileged, witli the special fact that those elements in society which normally set standards of conduct for the society as a whole have been peculiarly unwilling, even unable, to protest the massive disorders of recent times.
The American urban experience has been singular in the degree to which our cities, especially those of the North and East, have been inundated by successive waves of what might be called rural proletarians, a dispossessed peasantry moving—driven from—other people’s land in the country to other people’s tenements in the city. American cities have ever been Oiled with unfamiliar people, acting in unfamiliar ways, at once terrified and threatening. The great waves of Catholic Irish of the early nineteenth century began the modern phase of this process, and it has never entirely stopped, not so much culminating as manifesting itself at this time in the immense folk migration of the landless southern Negro to the northern slum. In small doses such migrations would probably have been easily enough absorbed, but the sheer mass of the successive migrations has been such as to dominate the life of the cities in their immediate aftermath. The most dramatic consequence was that popular government became immigrant government: in the course of the nineteenth century, great cities in America came to be ruled by men of the people, an event essentially without precedent in world history—and one typically deplored by those displaced from power in the course of the transformation. Let me cite to you, for example, a schoolboy exercise written in 1925 by a young Brahmin, the bearer of one of Boston’s great names, on the theme “That there is no more sordid profession in the world than Politics .”
The United States is one of the sad examples of the present form of government called democracy. We must Rrst remember that America is made up of ignorant, uninterested, masses, of foreign people who follow the saying, “that the sheep are many but the shcpards arc few.” And the shcpards of our government are wolves in shceps clothing. From Lincolus Gettysburg address let me quote the familiar lines “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” In the following lines I shall try and show you how much this is carried out in modern times.
Let us take for example the position of our mayors. They are elected by majority vote from the population in which they live. Let us take for a case Mayor Curlcy of Boston. He tells the Irish who make up the people of Boston that he will lower their taxes, he will make Boston the greatest city in America. He is elected by the Irish mainly because he is an Irishman. Hc is a remarkable politician: he surrounds himself by Irishmen, he bribes the Chief Justice of the court, and although we know that the taxes that we pay all Rnd a way into his own pocket we cannot prove by justice that he is not a just and good mayor.
But such distaste was not wholly groundless. The migrant peasants did and do misbehave: as much by the standards of the countryside they leave behind, as of the urban world to which they come. The process of adapting to the city has involved great dislocations in personality and manners as well as in abode. From the first, the process we call urbanization, with no greater specificity than the ancient medical diagnosis of “bellyache” or “back pain,” has involved a fairly high order of personal and social disorganization, almost always manifesting itself most visibly in a breakdown of social controls, beginning with the most fun damental of controls, those of family life. The Children’s Aid Society of New York was founded in response to the appearance of this phenomenon among the immigrant Irish. Let me quote from their first annual report: It should be remembered, that there are no dangers to the value of property or to the permanency of our institutions, so great as those from the existence of such a class of vagabond, ignorant, ungoverned children. This “dangerous class” has not begun to show itself, as it will in eight or ten years, when these boys and girls are matured. Those who were too negligent or too selfish to notice them as children, will be fully aware of them as men. They will vote. They will have the same rights as we ourselves, though they have grown up ignorant of moral principle, as any savage or Indian. They will poison society. They will perhaps be embittered at the wealth, and the luxuries, they never share. Then let society beware, when the outcast, vicious, reckless multitude of New York boys, swarming now in every foul alley and low street, come to know their power and use it!
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.
It may also be speculated that the “disorganized” life of the rural immigrants of today arises in some measure at least from an inability to control the level of stimulus: to turn down the radio, turn off the television, come in off the streets, stay out of the saloons, woçry less about changing styles of clothes, music, dance, whatever. Lee Rainwater, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, has provided us with painful accounts of the feeling of helplessness of the mothers of poor urban families in the face of the incursions from the street: the feeling, literally, that one cannot simply close one’s door in the housing project and refuse to allow family, friends, neighbors, and God knows who else to come and go at will. This makes for lively neighborhoods, which from a distance seem almost enviable. But also for very disturbed people.
When such groups became large enough, when densities become ominous, government regulation becomes necessary, or at least all but invariably makes its appearance, so that even for the disciplined urbanité, technology at some point begins to diminish freedom. Keyfitz writes: George Orwell’s 1984 is inconceivable without high population density, supplemented by closed circuit television and other devices to eliminate privacy. It exhibits in extreme form an historical process by which the State has been extending its power at the expense of the Church, the Family, and the Local Community, a process extending over 150 years.
There are few bargains in life, especially in city life.
Cities are not only places where the standards of life improve, but also very much—and as much now as ever—they are places where men rise in social standing. Otis Dudley Duncan and Peter M. Blau in their powerful study, The American Occupational Structure , have made this abundantly clear. American cities are places where men improve their position, as well as their condition. Or at least have every expectation that their sons will do so. The rigidities of caste and class dissolve, and opportunity opens. Yet this has never been quite so universally agreeable an experience as one could be led to suppose from the accounts of those for whom it has worked. In the city men first, perhaps, come to know success. There also men, especially those from the most caste-ridden rural societies, first come to know failure. It seems to me that this is a neglected aspect of the urban experience. I would argue that the rural peasant life of, let us say, the Irish, the Poles, the Slavs, the Italians, the Negro Americans who have migrated over the past century and a half was characterized by a near total absence of opportunity to improve one’s position in the social strata, but also it was characterized by the near impossibility of observing others improve theirs. Rarely, in either absolute or relative terms, did individuals or families of the lowest peasant classes experience decline and failure: that in a sense is the law of a non-contingent society. Only with arrival in the city does that happen, and I would argue that for those who lose out in that competition, the experience can be far more embittering than that brought on by the drab constancy of country life.
Again technology—again television, for that matter—plays its part. Stephan Thernstrom in Poverty and Progress has noted that the immigrant workers of nineteenth-century New England, earning $1.50 a day when they had work, nonetheless managed in surprising numbers to put aside some money and to buy a piece of property and respectability before their lives were out, despite the fact that their incomes rarely permitted them to maintain what the social workers of the time calculated to be the minimum standard of living. The difference, Thernstrom notes, was that for the migrants a minimum standard of living was potatoes. Period. So long as they did not share the expectations of those about them—even the small expectations of social workers—they were not deprived. But advertising and television, and a dozen similar phenomena, have long since broken down that isolation, and the poor and newly arrived of the American city today appear to be caught up in a near frenzy of consumer emotions: untouched by the disenchantment with consumption of those very well off, and unrestrained by the discipline of household budgets imposed on those in between. The result, as best such matters can be measured, is a mounting level of discontent, which seems to slide over from the area of consumption as such to discontent with levels of social status that do not provide for maximum levels of consumption. Thus, even those who seem to be succeeding in the new urban world feel they are not succeeding enough, while others are suffused with a sense of failure.
In The Intellectual Versus the City , Morton and Lucia White point out that “enthusiasm for the American city has not been typical or predominant in our intellectual history. Fear has been the more common reaction.” Fear, distaste, animosity, ambivalence. “In the beginning was the farm,” or so the Jeffersonian creed asserts. And the great symbol—or perhaps consummation would be the better term—of this belief was the agreement whereby in return for the Jeffersonian willingness to have the federal government accept the debts acquired by states during the Revolutionary War, the capital of the new nation would be transferred from the city of New York to a swamp on the banks of the Potomac. Do not suppose that that agreement has not affected American history. New York remains the capital of the nation, as that term is usually understood, in the sense of the first city of the land. It is the capital of finance, art, theatre, publishing, fashion, intellect, industry … name any serious human endeavor other than politics, and its center in the United States will be found in New York City. In years of hard-fought presidential primaries, it is even for many purposes the political capital of the nation. But the seat of government is in Washington, which is only just beginning to respond to the fact that for half a century now ours has been a predominantly urban society.
Once again technology seems to be interacting with a pre-existing tendency. As the American city came more and more to be the abode of the machine, the alarm of American intellectuals, if anything, was intensified. And to a very considerable degree legitimated, for surely machines have given a measure of reality to alarums that were previously more fantasy than otherwise. To this has been added an ever more persistent concern for social justice, so that American intellectuals of the present time now conclude their expanding catalogues of the horrors of urban life with ringing assertions that the cities must be saved. But it is to be noted that this comes almost as an afterthought: the conviction that in the cities will be found the paramount threat to the life of the Republic has changed hardly at all. But at long last what they have been saying may be beginning to be true.
That there are great and stunning exceptions is as much a matter of accident as anything. The essential fact is that for all the efforts to sustain and assert a measure of elite concern for urban aesthetics—of the kind one associates with historical preservation societies—and for all the occasional bursts of energy within the urban planning profession, the American city remains an ugly place to live, pretty much because we like it that way. A measure, no doubt, of this persisting condition can be attributed to the business and propertied interests of the nation that have resisted municipal expenditure, notably when it passed through the hands of egalitarian city halls. But it is more than that. Somehow, somewhere, in the course of the development of democratic, or demagogic, tradition in this nation the idea arose that concern for the physical beauty of the public buildings and spaces of the city was the mark of—what?—crypto-deviationist antipeople monumentalism—and in any event an augury of defeat at the polls. The result has been a steady deterioration in the quality of public buildings and spaces, and with it a decline in the symbols of public unity and common purpose with which the citizen can identify, of which he can be proud, and by which he can know what he shares with his fellow citizens. For the past seven years, as an example, I have been involved with efforts to reconstruct the center of the city of Washington, an attempt that begins with the assertion of the validity and viability of L’Enfant’s plan of the late eighteenth century (see the editors’ note on page 99). In this effort we have had the tolerant to grudging co-operation of a fairly wide range of public and private persons, but let me say that we have had at no time the enthusiasm of any. And now I fear we may have even less, since of late there has arisen the further belief that to expend resources on public amenities is in effect to divert them from needed areas of public welfare. The very persons who will be the first to demand increased expenditures for one or another form of social welfare will be the last to concede that the common good requires an uncommon standard of taste and expenditure for the physical appointments of government and the public places of the city.
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.
But that is only the beginning, hardly the end of the impact of this particular form of technology on the society at this time. In consequence of the management of the automobile traffic system by means of traditional rules of the road, the incidence of armed arrest of American citizens is the highest of any civilization in recorded history. In 1965, for example, the California highway patrol alone made one million arrests. Indeed so commonplace has the experience become that a misdemeanor or felony committed in a motor vehicle is no longer considered a transgression of any particular consequence, and to be arrested by an armed police officer is regarded as a commonplace. That is precisely what Orwell told us would happen, is it not?
There are some 13,600,000 accidents a year, with some thirty million citations for violations issued each twelve months. And at this point, ineluctably, technology begins to have an effect on the most fundamental of civil institutions, the legal system itself. Largely in consequence of the impact of traffic-crash litigation, it now takes an average of 32.4 months to obtain a civil jury trial for a personal injury case in the metropolitan areas of the nation. In Suffolk County, New York, it is 50 months. In the Circuit Court of Cook County, serving Chicago, it is 64 months. This past winter in Bronx County, New York, the presiding judge of the appellate division announced he was suspending civil trials altogether while he tried to catch up with criminal cases. The courts are inundated; the bar is caught up, implicated and confused; the public knows simply that somehow justice is delayed and delayed. All of which is a consequence of this simplest form of technology, working its way on the institutions of an essentially pretechnological society.
It sometimes happens that a work of art appearing at a particular moment in time somehow simultaneously epitomizes and reveals the essential truths of the time. In a most astonishing and compelling way this has happened for the American city, and it has done so, most appropriately, on Forty-second Street in Manhattan, in the persona of the Ford Foundation headquarters, designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo & Associates—a great firm, successor to Eero Saarinen & Associates whose first large commission was, of course, the General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit. Saarinen, and now Roche, have gathered a group of artist/technicians whose work, from the Dulles Airport at Chantilly, Virginia, to the Trans World Airlines Terminal at Kennedy Airport and the Columbia Broadcasting headquarters in New York City, has evoked the power and purpose of the age of technology as perhaps no other organization has.
Here in the Ford Foundation headquarters is expressed the very highest purposes of modern technological power: compassionate and potent concern for the betterment of man’s lot. The building is everything a building could be: a splendid work place, a gift to the city in the form of a public park, a gift to the world simply as a work of imagination and daring. If it is a reproach of sorts to the public and private builders of the nation who by and large show little of either, it is a gentle reproach, more show than tell. In that favored form of foundation giving, it is a kind of demonstration project: an example of what can, and what therefore in an age of technology must, be done.
The exterior of the building is quiet and unassertive: it is not that big a building, and it seeks rather to understate both its size and importance. No-nonsense shafts of Cor-ten steel rise from the ground, here and there sheathed with a blue-brown granite and interspersed with large rectangular glass panels. Rather in the mode of a cathedral, the portals do not so much impart as suggest the experience to come. It is only on entering—Chartres, say, or Vézelay—and encountering the incomparable space, shaped and reserved for a single purpose only, that one leaves off observing the building and begins to be shaped by it: the eye rises, the mind turns to last things. So with the Ford Foundation headquarters. One passes through revolving doors to enter a garden. Truly a garden, a small park, like nothing anywhere else to be encountered, a third of an acre, lush and generous, climbing a small hill that follows the terrain of Manhattan at this point, illuminated by the now vast windows that climb nine stories toward heaven itself, and there only to be met by a glass roof. Water moves slightly in a pool—a font? Attendants move quietly, and are helpful. One notices that vegetation sprouts from beams and ledges on the third and fourth and even the fifth floors. One is awestruck by the wealth and power of the foundation, and the sheer authority of its intent to do good. Only the gray-white light is not quite what it should be: as in those French and German cathedrals whose stained glass was lost to war or revolution or Protestantism.
But this is only the entering light. As in any such edifice, there is a light within. In this case a very monstrancelike golden-brown glow that shines forth from the offices of the foundation executives, who from the floor of the park are to be seen at their work behind glass panels formed and reticulated by the same rusted beams that frame the colorless glass of two sides of the building. (Cor-ten steel seals itself by rusting and need not be painted.) At this point one perceives readily enough that the building has been built as a factory. Not precisely as a factory—any more than the Gothic Revival built office buildings precisely as medieval monasteries—but rather to evoke the style and somehow the spirit of a great plant. The huge, heavy lateral beams, from which elsewhere would be suspended the giant hoists that roam back and forth amidst the clatter and roar; the sawtooth roof; the plant managers’ eyrie hung from the ceiling, keeping an eye on everything; the perfectly standardized, interchangeable fixtures in each office; the seriousness and competence of it all, even the blue-black, somehow oily granite of the cheerless rest rooms (No Loitering in the Can) magically, stunningly, triumphantly, evoke the style and spirit of the primeval capitalist factory. Cor-ten. Red. Rouge. River Rouge. Of course! And why not, for $16,000,000 of Henry Ford’s money? He was that kind of man. Knew how to make automobiles and obviously liked to. Else he could hardly have done it so well. All black, just as the Ford Foundation headquarters is all brown. Same principle. So also the panopticon effect of the exposed offices wherein the presumptively interchangeable officers at their perfectly interchangeable desks labor at their good works in full view of management and public alike. (The public serving, perhaps, as the visitors to Jeremy Bentham’s prospective model prison: a “promiscuous assemblage of unknown and therefore unpaid, ungarbled and incorruptible inspectors”?) Critics, at least in the first reviews, seem to have missed most of this, but no matter: the architecture needs no guidebook: the intellectual and aesthetic effect is not to be avoided, even when the intent is least perceived. All in all it is just as McGeorge Bundy proclaimed it in the 1968 annual report of the foundation: “Kevin Roche’s triumph.”
But it is more than that. Or rather, there is more than is to be perceived at one time. A great work of art has levels of meaning at once various and varying. Standing in the park, gazing upward, following the factory motif, the mind is of a sudden troubled. Something is missing. Noise. Factories are places of noise. Of life. Clatter. Roar. There is no noise here. Only quiet. The quiet of the…? The mind oscillates. It is a factory, all right. But a ruined factory! The holocaust has come and gone: hence the silence. The windows have blown out, and only the gray light of the burnedout world enters. The weather has got in, and with it nature now reclaiming the ravaged union of fire and earth. The factory floor has already begun to turn to forest. Vegetation has made its way to ledges halfway up the interior. The machine tools are gone. Reparations? Vandalism? Who knows. But the big machines will no longer be making little machines. Gone too is the rational, reforming, not altogether disinterested purpose of the panopticon. One is alone in the ominous gloom of a Piranesi prison, noting the small bushes taking hold in the crevices of the vast ruined arches.
Is it the past or the future that has taken hold of the mind? Certainly the ruined steel frame is a good enough symbol of the twentieth century so far. (Where had one last seen that color? Of course. Pingree Street in Detroit after the riot. A year later there it was again, on Fourteenth Street in Washington: the fiery orange-red of the twisted steel shopping centers’ framing after the looting and arson has passed.) Or is it the future? There is a sur réal quality that comes of standing in the ruined half of the building, watching the life going on behind the glass walls of the intact half, seemingly oblivious to the devastation without. Can ruin advance slowly like rot? No. Yes. Did the automobile start all this? No. Surely it is all this that started automobiles. One quarter to two thirds of which end up with blood on them. Blood. Red. Rouge. River Rouge.
But then why has the American architect Joseph Stein built the Ford Foundation headquarters in New Delhi immediately adjacent the Lodi Tombs, symbols of death sensual to the point of necrophilia? Did not Bentham remark that he could legislate wisely for all India from the recesses of his study? There’s a panopticon in your future.
And yet it comes together in a way. “ Le siècle de la machine ,” Le Corbusier wrote in 1924, “ a réveillé l’architecte .” Not least because the machine destroys so much of that experience of community that the architect seeks to create. A biographer describes Eero Saarinen’s purpose thus: “What … [he] wished to renew, maintain, and improve was the organic expression of the civitas which he found weakened or destroyed virtually everywhere in modern civilization, with one significant exception—the university campus.” And so Roche built a ruined machine-formaking-machines as the headquarters of a great philanthropic foundation whose principal concerns have been to support the universities of the nation, and to seek to strengthen the community life of its cities.
The research of James Q. Wilson arid Edward C. Banfield at Harvard University is now beginning to produce results surprisingly similar to the visions of the architect/artist. As Wilson puts it, “After a decade or more of being told by various leaders that what’s wrong with our large cities is inadequate transportation, or declining retail sales, or poor housing, the resident of the big city is beginning to assert his own definition of that problem—and this definition has very little to do with the conventional wisdom on the urban crisis.” Wilson and his colleague asked one thousand Boston homeowners what they thought to be the biggest urban problem of this time.
The “conventional” urban problems—housing, transportation, pollution, urban renewal, and the like—were a major concern of only 18 per cent of those questioned, and these were expressed disproportionally by the wealthier, bettereducated respondents. Only 9 per cent mentioned jobs and employment, even though many of those interviewed had incomes at or even below what is often regarded as the poverty level. The issue which concerned more respondents than any other was variously stated—crime, violence, rebellious youth, racial tension, public immorality, delinquency. However stated, the common theme seemed to be a concern for improper behavior in public places .
What these concerns have in common, and thus what constitutes the “urban” problem for a large percentage (perhaps a majority) of urban citizens, is a sense of the failure of community .
And yet cities, by definition, destroy community. Or is it only when they are too big, too unsettled, that they do this? Is it only when social conditions are allowed to arise which lead inevitably to assaults on the private communities that experienced city dwellers create for themselves, which in turn lead to more collective regulation and, in consequence, less of the self-imposed decision to behave properly and as expected, which is the essence of community?
We do not know. “Them what gets the apple gets the worm,” goes an old folk saying. Is that what the Ford Foundation building represents: a shining exterior, rotting from within? A civilization whose cancerous growth has already devoured half its offspring, and is moving toward the unthinking, untroubled other half? We shall see. Hopefully, in the meantime we shall also think about it a bit. Mumford, unfailingly, has sorted out the levels of immediacy and difficulty of the current crisis.
To go deeper into this immediate situation we must, I suggest, distinguish between three aspects, only one of which is open to immediate rectification. We must first separate out the problems that are soluble with the means we have at hand: this includes such immediate measures as vermin control, improved garbage collection, cheap public transportation, new schools and hospitals and health clinics. Second, those that require a new approach, new agencies, new methods, whose assemblage will require time, even though the earliest possible action is urgent. And finally there are those that require a reorientation in the purposes and ultimate ideals of our whole civilization—solutions that hinge on a change of mind, as far-reaching as that which characterized the change from the medieval religious mind to the modern scientific mind. Ultimately, the success of the first two changes will hinge upon this larger—and, necessarily, later—transformation. So, far from looking to a scientifically oriented technology to solve our problems, we must realize that this highly sophisticated dehumanized technology itself now produces some of our most vexatious problems, including the unemployment of the unskilled.
But something more than thinking will be required. A certain giving of ourselves with no certainty of what will come of it. It is the only known way, and imperfectly known at that.
Attend to Mrs. Boyle at the end of Juno and the Paycock , pleading for the return of a simpler life, a life before all things had become political, before all men were committed, before all cities somehow seemed in flames: Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ fleshl Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!