Cities can’t win. When they do well, people resent them as citadels of inequality; when they do badly, they are cesspools of hopelessness. In the seventies and eighties, the seemingly permanent urban crisis became the verdict that American civilization had passed on itself. Forty years later, cities mostly thrive, crime has been in vertiginous decline, the young cluster together in old neighborhoods, drinking more espresso per capita in Seattle than in Naples, while in San Francisco the demand for inner-city housing is so keen that one-bedroom apartments become scenes of civic conflict—and so big cities turn into hateful centers of self-absorbed privilege. We oscillate between “Taxi Driver” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” without arriving at a stable picture of something in between.
Has it ever been acceptable to regard a big city as admirable through and through? Maybe in books about Paris and London from around 1910 to the Second World War, and in books about New York in the years just after the Second World War, before the Dodgers moved and the big fractures began. For the rest, whether it’s Victorian London or post-sixties New York, pop novels and scholarly urbanism are most often voiced in a tone of complaint or querulous warning. (The outlier is the architectural historian Reyner Banham’s 1971 “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” still the best book ever written about an American city, its happiness fuelled by an Englishman’s perversity: Everyone says L.A. sucks? I’ll show you it shines.) Nothing urban would be more likely to evoke disgust than a study promoting a benign picture of Bloomberg’s New York—even though, in reality, that city was relatively peaceful (and self-healing from the worst war wound in its history) and prosperous (if more and more unevenly so), with the parks restored or expanding and the subways so safe that they became crowded at two or three in the morning. Those of us who dreamed of the High Line as an improbable public benefit, and then saw it come true, had to accept that it would next become a subject of ridicule, as a cynical developer’s amenity, a green-tinted scam.
The reason that perceptions of cities switch so radically is twofold. Cities are the contradictions of capitalism, spelled out in crowds. They are engines of prosperity and inequality in equal measure, and when the inequality tips poor they look unsavable; when it tips rich, they look unjust. And then cities enfold a subtler contradiction—they shine by bringing like-minded people in from the hinterland (gays, geeks, Jews, artists, bohemians), but they thrive by asking unlike-minded people to live together in the enveloping metropolis. While the clumping is fun, the coexistence is the greater social miracle, though not one that lends itself to stories. Greenwich Village and Park Slope and Southie count as homes and get reverent treatment; a musical might be made of hipsters and Hasidim learning to live together in Williamsburg. But a movie about the lives of the people in a single car on the 6 train would trail off into inconsequence, since the point is that city kinds and lives are so different that contiguity is their only coinciding point. (The one proviso of the local story is that the neighborhood must be under assault and the narrator must side with the old ways, even if he or she is representative of new ones. And so Ray, in Lena Dunham’s beautifully observed, Brooklyn-based “Girls,” runs for the local community board as a champion of preservation, not transformation, though he is utterly typical of the transformative kind.)
The things that give cities a bad conscience are self-evident: seeing the rise of 432 Park Avenue, the tallest, ugliest, and among the most expensive private residences in the city’s history—the Oligarch’s Erection, as it should be known—as a catchment for the rich from which to look down on everyone else, it is hard not to feel that the civic virtues of commonality have been betrayed. Every day brings news of old favorites closed, familiar neighborhoods homogenized, ethnic enclaves turned over to the legions of Capital, not to mention Oberlin and Bard.
Yet the social crises that cities face are remarkably consistent, country to country and town to town. Very little that is going on in New York, from plutocratic excess to outlying gentrification, is not also going on, with different emphases and origins, in London: the same tales of people who drink wine and lattes buying the property of those who drink whiskey and beer. At the same time, cities are local. Saying that Manhattan and central London share the same problems is like saying that a man dying of drink in London is like one doing the same in Manhattan. It’s true, but all the local conditions—what he’s drinking, where he drinks it, who takes him home, and what kind of home he goes to—are so different that a story about the drunk in either place becomes a story about the place. Cities are at once the most cosmopolitan and the most particular of subjects; they require, and rarely receive, a view sufficiently wide-eyed as to become effectively double.
The foundation of the city is its spatial organization, the way its streets meet and the way its citizens travel on them. Gerard Koeppel’s “City on a Grid” (Da Capo) tells the too little-known tale of how and why Manhattan came to be the waffle-board city we know. He shows us that the grid, far from being a long-range plan imposed by a class of managers, was the result more of a shrug, an inconclusive meeting, and a big “Why not?” Koeppel reproduces the key paragraph of the Gouverneur Morris report of 1811:
Whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular Streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed Improvements by Circles, Ovals, and Stars, which certainly embellish a plan . . . they could not but bear in mind that a City is to be composed principally of the Habitations of men, and that strait sided and right-angled Houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.
Koeppel argues, convincingly, that the show of hardheaded rationality here is merely a show. There was no good commercial reason to make a thrifty city of intersections at right angles. London, the model of an imperial commercial city, had its ovals and organic oddities and still prospered. Philadelphia had lovely squares interrupting its own version of the grid. Straight-sided and right-angled houses can be built in circles as well as on street corners. The details of New York’s grid turn out to be surprisingly haphazard and improvisational in their origins. As Koeppel points out, no one has ever provided a good explanation for why the wide two-way streets were chosen to fall where they do—at Fourteenth, Twenty-third, Thirty-fourth. In general, he persuades us, the impulse behind the grid was less the rationalizing impulses of the Enlightenment than the eternal desire of a bureaucratic commission to finish its report, accented, later, by the eternal real-estate developers’ urge to have regularized lots to develop.
A lost city of stars and ovals may appeal to us more, but one wonders if it would have altered the city’s story much. The history of the grid suggests that its character is determined by its uses more than the other way around. Mansions that arose within it had a fenced, forbidding look, as in pictures of early Fifth Avenue; the clustering of poor immigrants seemed to create crowded streets and slums not terribly different from those in Paris or Chicago.
Koeppel certainly recognizes the ambiguities of the grid, but he seems unsure what to make of them; early in his book, he darkly insists that the dead hand of the rectilinear grid “favors private interest over public convenience,” and cites a German urban planner who claimed that “mystic” peoples favor organic cities over regularized ones. But any town that has Walt Whitman as its bard can hardly be accused of forcing narrowly straight-sided views on its singers. Rectilinear the grid may be, but it twists and turns in our imaginations as much as any winding road.
The grid, useful as an accelerant for pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, ended up being unintentionally well-adapted to the imperialism of the car; a short ride in a London cab can take forever, while taxi- and Uber-drivers race up and down the midnight Manhattan avenues at hyper-speeds. Evan Friss’s forthcoming “The Cycling City: Bicycles & Urban America in the 1890s” (Chicago) wants, in turn, to show us a forgotten parenthesis when the city had not yet yielded to the car. But he ends up showing mainly how terrific research and a feeling for detail can be undermined by the pieties of the contemporary social sciences. Common sense wins, barely, but not without the author taking many frightened-looking glances over his shoulder to see if the consensus of the discipline is gaining on him.
The consensus of the discipline takes a dim view of common-sense considerations (say, that people rode bikes because they were the best way to get places before cars). More sinister Foucauldian épistèmes must be shown to govern social life: any social explanation that can’t be expressed as a conspiracy theory involving bourgeois society stamping out Difference is inadequate to the phenomenon, even if the phenomenon is on two wheels with gears and going many different places at once. Still, Friss has a good story to tell. In the late nineteenth century, bicycles were not just a sweet means of romantic transport—“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,” and all that—but a technological triumph creating fanatical followers and interest groups. The bicycle was more like a personal computer than like a love seat. There were “dozens of exclusive bicycle clubs dotting America’s leading cities. . . . Libraries, card rooms, and billiard tables kept members busy while dumbwaiters shuttled food from kitchen hands to hungry cyclists.” Women considered them “an almost utopian instrument,” Friss says, and quotes a contemporary source: “Now and again a complaint arises of the narrowness of woman’s sphere. For such disorder of the soul the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”
Friss is a demon researcher, and his book is full of revelatory facts: who knew that the bicycle lobby played a key role in the Chicago mayoral election of 1887? Yet one feels impatient as he torturously tries to track academic concepts of class and mentalité onto what are, clearly, the inevitable inner squabbles of fan clubs and interest groups. Friss illustrates, without quite articulating, the central Trollopean social insight: like-minded people with similar passions typically end up fighting among themselves far more than they do with their class or intellectual opponents. Cyclists fight cyclists, as union leaders fight union leaders. To take one instance, Friss shows that the American biking community itself split, violently, in the eighteen-nineties, between those who were in favor of dedicated bike paths and those who mistrusted any segregation of the biker from the common highway.
Although Friss concedes that “bicycle mechanics became automobile mechanics” (as the Wright Brothers sprang from a bicycle shop into the air), he still insists that bikes were defeated not by cars but by a growing fear of the potentially radical effects, particularly on women, of the popular bicycle. The decline in cycling had to do with “its loss of social and cultural appeal,” Friss writes. “As more and more varieties of people began to ride, others no longer found bicycles so appealing.” Class panic, in this view, was central: “The smart set and their followers no longer found that their machines served as a social marker. The bicycle could not sustain itself as a fashionable social tool and also as a utilitarian tool.” Well, why not? Cars do. Bikes do again today, with sleek architects racing to their ateliers on the gearless kind and underpaid deliverymen pedalling through the rain with Chinese food. Scanting the obvious technological history, one can also overstate the determinisms of class warfare.
Surely many things, including bikes, fall in and out of fashion for reasons that have more to do with fashion than with reason. Hemlines do not rise and fall because of changing attitudes toward sexuality, unless attitudes toward sexuality change radically every five years. They rise because they had previously fallen and fall because they once rose. Fashion is not a subsidiary idea but itself an explanatory one. Any New York student of styles of transport and recreation will have seen, for instance, the rise and fall of roller skates, a craze that claimed the cover of this magazine more than once in the nineteen-seventies, and its replacement by in-line skating, and then, eventually, the decline of both. All of this had less to do with changing social visions than with the inevitable pull of tides and time.
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