Sam Bass Warner, Jr. has been enlightening Americans about their urban heritage for thirty-five years. In 1962, Streetcar Suburbs told us about Boston's rail-led expansion beyond the two-mile-radius pedestrian city of the 1850s, illustrating the story with one chart, eleven maps, and sixty-six photographs. In 1968 The Private City arrived, a richly illustrated and more quantitative study of Philadelphia from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The year 1977 brought The Way We Really Live , a set of lectures on Boston's history that combined slides, statistics, and sage reflections—a sort of backdrop for Province of Reason (1984), which presented biographies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bostonians. To Dwell Is to Garden (1987) traced Boston's community gardens in an effort to show how citydwellers interact with their environment. In the midst of publishing these volumes, in 1972 Warner wrote his most general urban history, which covered the whole country but concentrated on New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; he called it The Urban Wilderness .
For a generation Sam Warner has written about American urban history by sketching the development of particular cities. A 1994 poll of urban
history scholars identified him as the country's most influential urban historian, named his first book, Streetcar Suburbs , the most influential book in the field and ranked another of his books fourth in the same category, and designated Urban Wilderness as one of the books they would recommend most strongly as an introduction to North American urban history. The same Journal of Urban History issue that reported the poll included an article concerning the intellectual's place in the formulation of public policy. The article offered reflections on Charles E. Merriam's career as a professor at the University of Chicago, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Chicago, and an adviser to political leaders, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt. It ended with a plea for scholarship that would promote the improvement of human life. The article's author: Sam Bass Warner, Jr.
Many urban historians write about cities as collective works of art, while others treat them as museums displaying famous structures, as political organizations, as economic engines, or as sites of population change. Warner gives due attention to all these aspects of urban history, but he examines cities especially as settings for human life, reflecting incessantly on how human life could improve through wise, historically informed public action. Warner's essay on public-policy pundit Charles Merriam exudes a certain nostalgia for the decisive reformism of the New Deal, a measure of sadness at American unreadiness to take advantage of wisdom already available, and a hint of anger at the blindness of today's public figures concerning the stakes of urban policy. In those regards, Warner recalls Merriam less than he does the great urban historian and critic Lewis Mumford.
Like Mumford, Warner has always insisted on the interdependence of historical development, city planning, and quality of life. The preface to Warner's first book, Streetcar Suburbs (1962), invoked Mumford as a model. "Rare," wrote Warner, "are works like Lewis Mumford's which combine a sense of the totality of the city with an understanding of how it grew." No doubt he was thinking of Mumford's Culture of Cities , which had been published twenty-four years before Streetcar Suburbs , as well as Mum-
ford's City in History , which had just appeared in 1961. Warner then took ten years to work his way from his close study of Boston through his broader book on Philadelphia to his sweeping analysis of American urbanization, Urban Wilderness . Another twenty-four years beyond Wilderness , we can see reflections of Mumford's vision in Warner's work. But we can also see the effects of vast changes in urban America.
Mumford's prophetic Culture of Cities appeared in 1938; Warner's prophetic Urban Wilderness in 1972. Between those years the world went through great upheavals: the most destructive war in history, expansion of state-directed genocide to a scale never previously seen, dismantling of the world's major fascist regimes, disintegration of wartime alliances into a standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States, establishment of the U.S. as the world's leading economic and military power, a series of wars between the U.S. and its allies and communist and leftist regimes, and major rebuilding of ravaged economies in Eastern and Western Europe and Japan. Within the U.S., mobilization for war lifted the economy out of its long depression: industrial concentration proceeded apace, veterans' benefits stimulated both housing construction and the expansion of higher education, women entered paid employment in record numbers despite a dramatic postwar baby boom, blacks mobilized effectively against discrimination in education and other public facilities, and on campuses students not only joined civil rights actions but also mounted sharp opposition to American involvement in fighting the leftist regimes of Southeast Asia.
The changes of those thirty-four years marked American cities deeply. The application of wartime mass construction techniques and government-sponsored mortgages by a new breed of well-capitalized housing merchandizers converted vast tracts of farmland around major cities into suburban developments. A grand network of federally sponsored superhighways linked major cities to each other as well as to their burgeoning suburbs. Automobile transportation became ever more dominant over mass transit and pedestrian movement. Segregation sharpened between centrally located, minority-occupied, often decaying dwelling areas and the newer, more prosperous, predominantly white zones of the metropolitan periphery as urban renewal became the controversial but far-reaching government-promoted program that tore down whole blocks of old dwellings and replaced them with new structures and open spaces, many dedicated to civic
centers, parks, roads, and commercial enterprises rather than to housing for the poor and black people they most often displaced.
When Lewis Mumford guided the Museum of Modern Art's production of the still-gripping film The City (musical score by Aaron Copland) in 1939, he stamped onto film the image he had written into The Culture of Cities : once people lived on a small scale in harmony with nature and each other; the capitalist-industrial city expanded technology and accumulation to an inhumane scale, to the detriment of almost everyone; new technologies of production, housing, and urban planning made possible a new humane decentralization. The film vivified its contrasts by representing a harmonious mill village, juxtaposed against scenes of smoke-choked Pittsburgh, traffic-strangled New York, and chaos on the highways, only to close with bucolic views of planned towns in the style of Radburn, New Jersey, and Greenbelt, Maryland. Mumford confronted viewers with an inescapable choice—and left no doubt of his recommendation.
Mumford's Culture of Cities offered a similar analysis of western experience from medieval times onward, just as his City in History extended his analysis to most of history and some of prehistory, beginning with Neolithic villages. In each version Mumford argued for a principle of limits: concentrations of political power and productive capacity make urban life possible, but that life only remains healthy at a certain modest scale and in the presence of a well-regulated balance between these two city-building forces. Push political power too far, you get the showy corruption of Rome or baroque capitals; push production too far, you get the lethal wage-slavery of Coketown; push both too far, you get the unlivable excesses of our time. Lewis Mumford wrote sweeping history to serve his own vision of the future.
In The Urban Wilderness , Sam Bass Warner did the same. Although he concentrated on the urban history of the United States, he offered Mumford's Culture of Cities as a benchmark, adapting a chronological scheme Mumford himself had extended from Patrick Geddes—eotechnic, neotechnic, and biotechnic—to a division of modern American history into technologically distinct periods: 1820-1870, 1870-1920, and 1920 onward. Like Mumford's, Warner's book teemed with eye-catching illustrations, mordantly labeled. More important, he deliberately built a present-minded book, devoted to drawing lessons concerning what is possible today from critical scrutiny of past accomplishments and failures. Like Mumford's great book, Warner's Urban Wilderness displays clear-eyed vision, vigorous language, faith in planning, confidence that technology can serve
humane ends, and taciturnity about the political moves that would realize its program.
Warner does not, however, mimic Mumford. His bibliographic commentary on Mumford mentions his "own more limited structural approach," and indeed, he attributes far more importance to specific public programs than Mumford did. Note the influence Warner assigns to hub-and-wheel metropolitan freeway designs, as well as to grid-form interstate highways, and his enthusiasm for Los Angeles as a freewheeling city, enhancing people's choices. As compared to the ultimately aristocratic Mumford, Warner comes across as an optimistic populist, a democrat who cares a great deal about individual liberties. Warner stated his creed in public lectures given five years after publication of Wilderness : "It is my belief that many of the destructive, indeed self-destructive, aspects of our human settlement come not from iron necessities, but from our unwillingness to confront what we as a society know about ourselves. The computer technician does not set his machine to the urgent tasks revealed by the novelist or the politician, and these gentlemen do not take time even to read the social portraits the computer draws. The rationality and universality of business and government are kept separate from the wisdom of home and community, while the fellowship and emotional richness of these domestic worlds are not regarded as acceptable measures of business and public life."
Whereas Mumford intimates that it will take acts of creative genius and benevolent despotism to bring about the better world of which he dreams, Warner claims we have the essential knowledge for improvement and need democratic discussion to recognize our common needs. Nor are Mumford's and Warner's likely agents of change the same. Despite Mumford's commitment to the tradition of town planning that sprang from nineteenth century utopians (Mumford's first book was The Story of Utopias ), he claimed that, properly communalized, such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright could serve the future decentralized city. Warner remains suspicious of architects on their own, but he expresses hope for enlightened, populist city planning.
That enlightened populism marked the Sam Warner of 1972 as it marked the era. Warner wrote his book at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, then a major center of student political mobilization, the initial base of Students for a Democratic Society, and the site of the first teach-ins. In fact, Warner played a significant part in Ann Arbor's left politics, both on
campus and off. That background helps explain his initial self-description in Urban Wilderness , not as a prize-winning professional urbanist and professor but as a responsible citizen: "And my ordinary citizen's life contributed to this point of view. A brief term as an editor of a weekly newspaper in an industrial and residential satellite town and my dabbling in municipal reform politics carried me into the midst of the conflicts of a giant state university. Here, in seeking to aid blacks gain admission and staff positions, helping in antiwar campaigns and drives to end secret military research, and finally in confronting the ultimate contradictions of a closed and self-serving public university seeking to resist open-enrollment demands, my citizen's life and my urban research converged."
Although 1972 brought the Watergate burglary, the reelection of Richard Nixon, and the acceleration of American intervention in Vietnam, it also brought some hope to American populists. The relative success of the civil rights movement, occasionally effective action against urban renewal, swelling campus organization against the war, and, more uncertainly, intermittent rebellions of black urbanites against city police all sustained hope that popular collective action would blunt or even redirect the forces of evil.
Another influential populist book that emerged from the same Michigan milieu in the early 1970s, William Gamson's Strategy of Social Protest , illustrates the political commitments of the time. As Gamson explored the historical conditions under which "challenging groups" had gained advantages in American politics between 1810 and 1950, with an eye to present and future challenges, Warner explored the history of implicit and explicit choices concerning the futures of American cities. If we can read Urban Wilderness as an enduring commentary on American cities, we can also read it as a product of the wave of radical and populist political mobilization that welled up in the United States during the 1960s.
Between the 1960 and 1970 censuses, the U.S. population passed 200 million—and grew to 249 million by 1990. By relaxed census standards, 73.5 percent of the 1970 population lived in urban areas, with the majority in great webs of cities and suburbs down the East Coast, in the Midwest, around the Gulf of Mexico, and along the West Coast. Median education for persons 25 or older was 12.1 years—roughly high school graduation—while median family income was $9,586. A mere 10.8 percent of families were headed by a woman. The American labor force then consisted of about 50 million men and 30 million women; of the women, 57 percent were married with their husband present. Since 1970, the U.S. population has shifted toward the South and the West, education and income have risen while becoming more unequally distributed, women's labor force participation has risen substantially, the proportion of working women who are married and living with their husbands has continued to decline, one-parent families have become much more common, as have cohabiting unmarried couples, and the clustering of Americans in a few intermetropolitan regions has only increased. In all these regards, 1972 was merely a stopping point in the course of long-established population trends.
Warner never said otherwise. His recognition that the present he confronted offered no more than a moment in processes of continuous change gave him two large advantages. First, it reduced the danger of the sort of present-oriented history he undertook to write; instead of treating all the past as a preparation for today's or tomorrow's culmination, he could reasonably search for the origins of continuing American conditions. Second, it allowed him to show that the past had more than one outcome; in some sense, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles (his three main case studies) all resulted from similar processes under changing conditions. Thus the book's three-part logic:
1. Initial conditions and continuously acting causes
a) Seventeenth-century settlement
b) Land law and provisions for planning
2. Stages in the urbanization process
a) New York 1820-1870
b) Chicago 1870-1920
c) Los Angeles 1920-1970
3. How those pasts produced today's problems and choices
a) Diverse cultures and neighborhoods
b) Attempts to define and settle urban problems
c) Housing and health care as public failures
d) What we can do now
Ultimately Warner insists that the past was open, subject to collective choices that Americans made without always foreseeing the consequences. He also insists that the future is still open, subject to collective choices with consequences reasoned history helps us anticipate. Urban history can guide public policy. Thus, Warner argues late in the book, consumers and employees improperly lack representation in the decisions of large enterprises, but the New Deal and Great Society experiments demonstrate how both can gain voice—if only Americans summon up the collective will to give them voice.
In pursuing this ambitious plan Warner provides only the sketchiest economic analysis. Except for occasional references to immigration and international flows of capital, the world economy plays little part in his story. He relies on Alfred Chandler for the history of economic organizations and ends up implicitly optimistic about the capacity of American enterprise to hold its own, sustain growth, and solve its problems. As critics of the original edition noted, Urban Wilderness provides even less information about the political processes that have generated decisions affecting cities in the past and that might implement better decisions in the future. Although Warner's analysis of the defeat of national health insurance in 1917-19 resonates with failed recent attempts to reform American health care, in general he does not tell us how the structure of American politics would have to change if his representation of popular interests were to come about or what might produce such changes.
Warner's analysis of shifting urban population, geography, and activity patterns goes much further, especially in tracing the effects of transportation changes, housing technology, and industrial organization. Seen from the 1990s, however, his urban newsreel has a number of blank frames. His four main social categories—white Catholic, white Jewish, white Protestant, and black Protestant—do not exhaust an urban scene in which Cubans, Central Americans, Koreans, Chinese, South Asians, and other streams of recent immigrants now figure prominently. Homosexual communities play no part in Warner's cities. Women's distinctive urban experiences as mothers, wives, lovers, workers, consumers, housekeepers, and victims of
violence receive no particular attention. We can understand the absence of AIDS, not yet identified in 1972, from his account, but hard drugs, homelessness, and homicide loom much larger in retrospect than they did when Warner was writing. Costs of welfare and medical care, declining industrial bases, resulting fiscal crises, and the federal government's attempts to shift the burden for public services to states and municipalities constitute a much larger part of American urban politics than Warner's account would lead us to expect.
Rewriting The Urban Wilderness in 1995, Warner would surely have to say more about political relations among cities, states, and the federal government. He might well moderate his enthusiasm for the Los Angeles solution to American urban ills, which has proved vulnerable to pollution, tangled traffic, aging industrial plant, racial-ethnic division, and segregation just as radical as the ghettoization of older East Coast cities. Nor did the Warner of 1972 see the extent to which American cities would continue the pattern he had actually documented in Streetcar Suburbs : incessant expansion at their outer edges into enormous, sprawling, many-centered metropolises with multiple interstitial areas simply left to decay. Which is to say, merely, that in the realm of urban problems none of us, not even Warner, owns an unclouded crystal ball. The wonder is that the book's prophetic portions stand up to scrutiny so well more than two decades after it was written.
The wonder, or the despair. Warner's analyses show us how fecklessly we have faced the challenge of our cities. Things have gotten worse, for in the 1990s Americans are prepared to accept politicians' declarations that cities have become too unmanageable, too expensive, too dangerous, too packed with undeserving freeloaders for effective intervention—except for the protected high-income neighborhoods, office buildings, and entertainment districts they often frequent. Today's urban policy prescribes costcutting, containment, control, and construction of prisons, plus cooptation for the few who can prove themselves worthy. Inequalities of wealth and living conditions within cities have only sharpened since 1972, and show no signs of abating. We can still read Sam Warner with illumination concerning the sources of our urban malaise, if with dwindling hope of combatting that malaise by means of concerted public action.