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July 2024
2min read

Rediscovering Its Center

By William H. Whyte; Doubleday; 356 pages.

In the tradition of his semiclassic The Organization Man , William H. Whyte’s new book adopts a friendly, journalistic style to examine urban sociology. Avoiding the jargon that so often mars works on the subject, Whyte paints a portrait of the American city in the second half of the twentieth century, with fascinating details on matters ranging from pedestrian behavior to the flight of large corporations.

As long as men and women have lived in cities, they have exhibited behavior that is as familiar as it is unexpressed. Whyte observes, for example, the “one hundred percent conversation"—the tendency of pedestrians to conduct their most intense conversations where traffic flow is the densest.

Perching on ledges and curbs are the ubiquitous girl-watchers, although Whyte questions this designation: “Are ‘girl-watchers’ really looking at girls? They are putting on a show of girlwatchers looking at girls. … I have never seen a girl-watcher make a direct pass at a woman. … when a really good-looking woman goes by, they will be confounded, and they betray it with involuntary tugs on the earlobe and nervous stroking of their hair.”

In City Whyte is able to trace the behavior of the street by using such methods as time-lapse photography, documentary filming, and plain old eyeballing. He records his findings with self-effacing insight into his own methodology. “Observation is entrapping. … ,” he says. “As time goes on, you become familiar with the rhythms of the various street encounters … Now you can predict how they are likely to develop and, by predicting them, get the sense that you are somehow causing them as well. They are your people out there. Sheer delusion, of course. …”

In one instance he watches three men on a corner engaged in a prolonged good-bye. As one man rocks back and forth on his heels, Whyte chuckles to himself, knowing that presently another will unconsciously imitate the first.

The core of City lies in Whyte’s exploration of zoning policy. Beginning in the early 1960s, New York City, and other urban centers in its wake, began a policy of incentive zoning whereby developers were awarded vertical space for creating areas accessible to the public and designed to enhance street life. New York City planners decided to decrease the height to which buildings could be erected. If, however, builders provided an arcade or other public amenity, they could build higher.

At first the idea seemed to work. More open spaces were built in the center of New York under the new policy than in all other cities across America combined. But as Whyte points out, the developers were much more wily than the city had expected. The obligatory spaces were often inaccessible to the public or could hardly be called more than very wide sidewalks. The author began to compile a record of the really atrocious public spaces he encountered. As a result of his work, in 1982 the zoning laws were changed, and developers were forced to create spaces that complied with much more specific standards, standards that promised to bring life to the urban environment.

City is the work of at least sixteen years of observation of and involvement in the life and inner workings of the American city, and none of it has been wasted.

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