The Urban, Dystopian Blame Game

Like any number of small- and big-screen thrillers, the film’s engagement with 9/11 is diffuse, more a matter of inference and ideas (chaos, fear, death) than of direct assertion.

So asserts the New York Times’ review of The Dark Knight,, the latest installment in director Christopher Nolan’s reworking of the Batman myth. Set in “the emblematic modern megalopolis,” the film depicts Christian Bale as Batman (funded by alter-ego/defense contractor Bruce Wayne’s Homeland Security contracts), locked in battle with a domestic terrorist calling himself the Joker.

Allusions to terrorism and modern-day mercenaries aside, the city itself is as notable a foe in Dark Knight as Heath Ledger’s Joker. At once “soulless, anonymous, a city of distorting and shattering mirrors,” (says the Times) it doesn’t take Commissioner Gordon to figure out that Knight‘s Gotham is actually Chicago – even Christopher Nolan can only conceal Michigan Avenue so much.

In Nolan’s Gotham, a city with only Manhattan opulence and Detroit back-alleys, around every corner lurks either a wealthy socialite or a purse snatcher. And as Gotham, Chicago, monument to Modernism that it is with its mechanistically plotted street grid, colossal glass-faced towers, and subterranean highways, stands in for both yesterday’s city of tomorrow and today’s dystopian future.

Yet Gotham’s denizens grapple as much with its concentration of people as with its architecture. Faceless and crowded along busy downtown streets and packed ferries (as they flee en masse from the threat of terror), their collective character is constantly called into question. Does the criminal element outweigh the good? When confronted with terror and chaos, will these huddled masses unite, or submit to their basest elements?

As I watched the fair people of Gotham fleeing their city by jammed highway and overcrowded water taxi, I called the collective subconscious into question: what does the fact that our dystopian nightmares always entail being trapped in the city say about the American character?

In Soylent Green, urban overpopulation leaves the residents of New York with nothing to eat… except other New Yorkers. In Escape from New York, the only people left in Manhattan are hardened criminals (is that really the only alternative to gentrification John Carpenter could think of?). In Minority Report, an obtrusive bureaucracy based in (get this!) Washington, DC convicts people of crimes before they’re committed. Skyscrapers are the scene of The Matrix‘s duels between man and machine, and George Romero unleashes an army of zombies upon Pittsburgh at least once a decade (though it took until 2005’s Land of the Dead for them to reach downtown – an obvious inaccuracy, as traffic here isn’t that bad).

The urban nightmare is not necessarily American. From the technocracy of Metropolis, Akira, or Brazil, to the totalitarian London of A Clockwork Orange or 1984, cities across the world have played the role of urban hell.

It’s not just the cinema that blames the city. It’s the press, too. In the wake of 9/11, Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas J. Bray suggested that sprawl is the antidote to terrorism. Social entrepreneurs may have adopted Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone as gospel, but Richard Carson recently suggested that cities actually make us more lonely (strangely enough, the correlation between density and social disconnection was first noted by Jane Jacobs’ foe Lewis Mumford). When given a choice, apparently, between terrorism and loneliness or exorbitant fuel costs and collapsing home values, perennial anti-urbanist Joel Kotkin writes that people still would rather not live in cities.

Hold the Batphone – how could that be?

Some say Jefferson’s ideal of America as an agrarian, yeoman society still holds; others, the purportedly family-centered obsession with frantic privacy. In Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City, Steve Macek examines the roots of urban America’s “[consistent depiction] as a site of moral decay and uncontrollable violence, held in stark contrast to the allegedly moral, orderly suburbs and exurbs.”

Macek writes that, instead of attributing the problems of the late 20th-century city to “broad social and economic conditions” – the systemic reasons why people are poor – right-wing policymakers and pundits have reframed the discussion and popularized the notion that the urban underclass itself is responsible for its own problems. True to his words, in a controversial article that very effectively mistakes correlation for causation, The Atlantic‘s Hanna Rosin recently wrote of the decline of suburban neighborhoods in Memphis due to increasing prevalence of residents paying rent with Section 8 vouchers. This decline, according to Rosin, is driven by the dispersal of former urban dwellers into first-ring suburbs.

(Nevermind that concentrating Section 8 vouchers – Rosin’s Eureka! source of all evil – also entails concentrating poverty. Isn’t that the very problem that Section 8 was engineered to combat? Would it not stand that such a practice would be a misuse of the program to begin with? Whom would we blame then?)

In the end, what is our problem with cities? Perhaps we are afraid of the power an autocracy can wield in an urban society. Perhaps we fear urban crime, or the threat of high-tech, high-rise terrorism. Perhaps we just yearn for “somewhere that’s green,” like Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors.

Or, maybe, we just fear the poor, and as more a matter of inference than direct assertion, dump all our blame onto the city – and thereby distance ourselves, emotionally and spatially, from the consequences of poverty.


  1. Thank you, Mr. (Dr.?) Macurak, for firing this salvo. Ms. Rosin is probably feeling quite smug about the attention she has garnered, but she deserves to be chided for pandering to one of the meanest, most divisive, and most destructive streaks in the American persona. Rather than stirring reasoned discussion, she has merely reiterated a societal myth to justify institutionalized racism and classism — as if that has never been done before!

    I’ve been an urban observer for (gulp) four full decades and parts of two others and have seen numerous urban “evils” come and go: In the 1950s, it was “slums”; in the 1960s, riots and black empowerment; in the 1970s, wetbacks and the “underclass”; the 1980s, drug lords and welfare queens; the 1990s, drive-by shootings and … Hey, wait a minute: A number of cities gained population between 1990 and 2000, including some of the largest and supposedly meanest, such as Chicago and Los Angeles. And then there were all of these cute neighborhoods with terrific fixer-uppers.

    In other words, white households have repeatedly reinvented their fear and racism into justifications for fleeing, first, city neighborhoods, and then cities in their entirety. Of COURSE they have nothing against “those people” … “but we KNOW they pull down property values — see? everywhere they live turns into a slum! “

    The “‘oughts” are so far a mixed bag, although the machinery of the “war on terror” has pushed us toward xenophobia, overbown fear, and deep anxiety, all to benefit a small chorus of mean-spirited, grasping ideologues. Still, signs of old-fashioned American pragmatism have emerged, generating hope that the stigmatization of cities may decline (I have no illusions that it will disappear). Housing values have slipped the furthest at the urban fringe, because the cost of transportation has finally hit home and the absence of any check on further increases has made some homebuyers think twice about 40-mile-one-way commutes. Downtown and “uptown” condos sold well prior to the end of the feeding frenzy. The convenience and sense of place offered by many cities are catching second looks, and new urban amenities — such as Chicago’s Millennium Park, which was designed with families in mind — have more to offer than just soccer fields and the occasional water park.

    Young people are increasingly likely to look to cities for their first AND second homes, attracted by the “buzz” that higher densities support, the chance to avoid buying that second car, and the large number and concentration of cultural and arts opportunities — musical organizations, museums, bookstores, networked (and networking) coffee shops, art galleries, nightclubs, child enrichment programs, poetry slams, and the like —made available and quickly accessible. And they are increasingly likely to find like-minded peers there, too.

    I am not suggesting that cities will suddenly experience population booms, nor that their many urban problems — above all, poverty — have disappeared, nor that the suburbs will lose their attractiveness to the majority of householders. However, I think that Americans, especially younger Americans, better understand the fuller picture that appears at the intersection of time crunches, the trade-offs between housing prices and transportation affordability, global warming, environmental degradation, and hunger for something we have always known as “community”. It’s becoming increasingly clear that 95% of all Americans are adrift in the same boat and that, for the first time in American history, the generations trailing the boomers will not do better than their parents, and in fact may live in considerably worse circumstances. Younger people grew up in desegregated schools and have become far more likely than their parents to embrace diversity in their personal lives. They also wise up about crime, particularly violent crime: That it is not ubiquitous, but clustered in hot spots, often around abandoned housing, public housing, and Section 8 ghettoes (which do exist, sadly). As their numbers grow, they will be in a position to advocate for better public schools and other services.

    As urbanists, we can begin to influence the mass entertainment industry by rejecting the premise that cities are dystopian monsters that feed off misery and violence and marketing our much more optimistic urban vision — a protopian vision — in its place. We need to find allies in the arts to help us beat back the gloomy depiction of future Urbia to create space for a wholesale reinvention of the urbane as lively, clean, well-managed, convenient, and affordable, and urban places as one of the best responses to minimizing both our ecological and carbon footprints and to helping us find our way back from the culture of “Mr, Myself, and I” to a more inclusive political culture centered on collective good.

    Joyce Levine, PhD, AICP


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