Review #139 Jan/Feb 2005

The Rebirth of Urbanism

City: Urbanism and Its End, by Douglas Rae. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. 432 pp. $30.00 (hardcover). My reaction to Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism And Its End was […]

City: Urbanism and Its End, by Douglas Rae. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. 432 pp. $30.00 (hardcover).

My reaction to Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism And Its End was somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, I found it one of the most interesting books written in recent years about the rise and fall of the American industrial city, well-written and full of valuable insights. At the same time, I ultimately found it disappointing, less for what it contains, however, than for what it leaves out. Even so, it is a book that should be read by anyone seriously interested in understanding the American urban condition.

At its most basic level, City is a chronicle of New Haven, Connecticut, from its industrial heyday through its gradual and then precipitous decline, from the early 20th century to the present day. The first half of the book is largely devoted to a detailed picture of New Haven in and around 1910, arguably its high water mark as an industrial city, centering on the now forgotten but emblematic figure of Frank Rice, the city’s mayor from 1910 to 1917. It is this part of the book that is most valuable, and most original. Mining sources from newspaper accounts and city directories to industrial statistics, Rae systematically dissects the web of local politics, industry and society in an American industrial city of the time. In an analysis that should be of particular interest to planners, he demonstrates the geographic basis of its social and economic dynamics, showing how intensely centralized and interwoven the fabric of central cities once was.

Although fascinating as description, particularly as presented in Rae’s fluent and highly readable prose, these pages make a more important point by showing the extent to which the rich fabric of America’s industrial cities was dependent on a unique combination of factors, ranging from the nature of 19th century transportation systems and energy sources to the mass immigration of the period. As he writes, “there was nothing inevitable or even predictable about this temporary historical alignment: if God, or nature, should elect to run the same history a thousand times, there is no particularly good reason to expect that the same alignment would recur very often, or at all.” This inter-weaving of economy, society and politics within a tightly centralized setting is what Rae terms “urbanism.” It is the loss of this fabric, or the end of urbanism, as Rae would have it, which represents the theme of the rest of the book.

The second part of City chronicles New Haven’s decline and the efforts to reverse that decline, particularly those of Mayor Richard Lee and his band of technocrats, whom Rae aptly describes as “the smartest and most arrogant people who had ever served in the management of so modest an American city,” in the 1950s and 1960s. At this point, however, the book starts to misfire. While full of rich, entertaining description (I particularly enjoyed the sections on New Haven’s early urban renewal and War on Poverty days, in which I participated as a bit player barely out of my teens) in trying to grapple with far more issues, the book loses its focus as it approaches the present, summing up the last two decades as well as the city’s prospects in a manner that is barely more than perfunctory. While he briefly touches upon the issue of the urban future, he quickly slides away from it back into the anecdotal mode in which he seems more comfortable. Indeed, while it is impressive to find a distinguished member of the Yale faculty so good at narrative and storytelling, it is surprising that he seems so reluctant to generalize or draw inferences from his tales.

There is no doubt that Rae is correct that urbanism, if one accepts his admittedly idiosyncratic definition of the word, is over. Many readers, myself included, would object, however, to his trying so peremptorily to appropriate this term. By defining urbanism in a way that makes it inherently a product of a unique – and long gone – set of historical circumstances, one’s ultimate conclusion becomes somewhat tautological, but begs the larger question: what is one going to replace it with? Are our cities mere relics, then, surviving on the memories of a bygone past? Rae’s formulation makes it harder, rather than easier, to think about this question.

Urbanism, ultimately, is what cities do – not just what industrial cities did during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but whenever and wherever they establish a meaningful role for themselves within the society and economy of their time. A Mayan writer of the 6th century, if asked, might well have defined urbanism as a ball court, a palace and an altar for sacrificing unlucky victims to the gods. The central project for New Haven as well as America’s many other post-industrial cities is how to define, and then recreate, an urbanism that reflects today’s realities, not how to go back to a past that is gone forever.

This project, the creation of a 21st century urbanism, is an important one, and is engaging hosts of practitioners and thinkers in city after city across the United States. What is going on today in New Haven, indeed, as it embarks on transformation based on Yale University’s emergence as its overwhelmingly dominant economic engine, is directly relevant to that project, and would be a fascinating and valuable study. Rae ultimately recognizes this and alludes to it at the very end of his book, but ends up writing “that tale is, alas, the subject of another book.” Alas, indeed.


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