Any author must fear the rereading of something written twenty-odd years ago. You anticipate that the past two decades of history will mock the passages you once fancied your wisest. After all, who but a historian knows better that the commonplace assumptions of an era are likely to be the awkward postures of a moment?
I don't feel that embarrassment for this book, although it is very much a creation of 1972. Hope for the possibility for change and the ability to relieve long-endured suffering and injustice suffuse the text. There is an optimism that was buoyed by the successes of the civil rights movement and the energy of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Such a tone may be anomalous in 1995, but I maintain it nevertheless. Our nation is, and always has been, one that brims with possibilities, including knowing and improving our largest collective undertaking—the building of cities.
In this book there is also a reach for inclusiveness, an attempt to include all Americans, that would be difficult to sustain amidst the political narrowness of today's scholarly discourse. The progressive spirit of the 1960s encouraged such outreach, which was reinforced by my personal experience. I had been teaching in St. Louis and Detroit and also studying Philadelphia's history. It was the attempt to understand these giant regional metropolises that encouraged me to survey the history of urban America.
Since 1972 I have been living and working in an uncommon American place, the nineteenth-century center of an old American city, Boston. This
has not been a good vantage point for observing the rapid diffusion of the modern American metropolis, the malling of America, or the rise of Sun Belt cities. Urban renewal and styles of corporate investment, however, have brought a big mall to my neighborhood, and my friends have been showing me the growth of their cities. Thus, despite my peculiar situation, I have seen what is out there. To me it seems only an extension of the highways, subdivisions, strip malls, and office centers that were already in place in 1972. Because of the magnitude of the suburban growth in jobs, housing, and malls, however, today's metropolis is no longer merely an extension of a historical center city; it has become a new entity of its own.
The Urban Wilderness was written at the end of the 1924-1968 era of restricted immigration. The metropolises of 1972 were thus the creations of small-town Americans, and the children and grandchildren of immigrants. The text, therefore, concentrates on the institutions and processes of urban absorption and consensus, not on the first stages of immigrant adjustment. Today Los Angeles is an immigrant city as New York was in 1910, and the prediction is that New York will resemble its old immigrant self by 2010. To a historian the current fears of native workers that they will lose their jobs to cheap immigrant labor, the stereotyping of Hispanics and Asians, the resumption of night-school English teaching, and the rise of nativism are all familiar responses. Our 1995 fears resemble those of the 1850s and the 1900s. Yet, because this book was written during a decade of relatively few newcomers (see Table 3 on page 168), the reader will have to incorporate the effects of recent migrations into their way of thinking about the American metropolis.
The movement for women's liberation was also new in 1972. Although Betty Friedan had published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique , in 1963, and although I recall women's consciousness-raising groups all around the University of Michigan in those years, the sexual specifics of metropolitan life had not yet become clear to me when I wrote this book. Those issues came into focus later, when I read Dolores Hayden's Redesigning the American Dream in 1984. Again, the reader will have to extrapolate from the wage-earning husband and stay-at-home wife of my book to the current forms of two-wage-earning couples, single-headed households, and single mothers with children that, added together, are more common than the old form of the family unit.
The term "Negro" may strike a contemporary reader as odd, but in the 1970s the popular term for an African American was in transition from Negro to black to Afro-American. The book's failure to deal with the environmental goals of metropolitan design may also surprise today's reader.
To be sure, Earth Day 1970 proved to be an important awakening of public consciousness, and 1972 was the year of President Nixon's environmental initiatives, but few of us had yet seen how the demands for clean air and clean water would express themselves in urban design. In fact, Anne Whiston Spirn did not write her guide to environmental urban design, The Granite Garden , until 1985.
My suggestions for the physical rebuilding of the metropolis now seem rigid and old-fashioned. There is an excessive emphasis on "neighborhood unit plans" and "new towns," as if these were the most efficacious routes to creating lively small communities within large urban agglomerations. Over the past two decades I have visited a variety of American communities that seem to function very well: parts of continuous street grids where a shopping corner at an intersection serves as an effective community center; neighborhoods of poor people's housing where the interstate highway or the railroad establishes a useful boundary; dense seaside towns composed of a jumble of modest cottages; and old apartment clusters and local shopping streets that provide comfortable environments for their residents. Were I to rewrite Chapters 7 and 8 today, I would stress the possibilities of these precedents. I would also call for the active management of the air, water, and forest resources of the metropolis, and I would emphasize the necessity of promoting low-rise, high-density settlement and the efficacy of a variety of public transportation systems.
Medical institutions have grown to be major determinants of the well being of city dwellers, but recent trends toward making health care a business seem self-defeating. I have always thought of medicine as a profession, and physicians and nurses as professionals whose jobs, like that of teachers, include a large measure of public service as well as private skill and profit. Indeed, what distinguishes a profession from other forms of employment is the element of public service, which can be one of the most important personal rewards of such work. Therefore, the rapid growth of private, profit-making medical corporations, large and small, has come as an unwelcome surprise to me. Since 1972 profit-making hospitals, insurance company health maintenance organizations, nursing homes, and health service companies of all kinds have multiplied lustily while community-based, voluntary organizations and municipal hospitals have languished. To me this expansion seems to be feeding on the inevitable frailties and misfortunes of our fellow citizens. The American health-care system now seems to care primarily for insurance carriers and hospital corporations.
The opportunity for this moneymaking was provided by the large corporate health-insurance and Blue Cross-Blue Shield policies of the 1960s that offered substantial profit to organizations that limited their coverage to the young and healthy, cut back on staffing and services, and found ways to push the chronically ill, the old, and the poor onto federal, state, municipal, and charitable budgets. As a consequence, in 1995 our medical system serves us both as well and as badly as the suburban shopping mall.
Finally, the call for democratic planning echoes throughout this book. It is a call to make public what is now customarily private, and to subject decisions that affect us all to open democratic process. Neither planning nor the special problems of the democratic management of planning are at the forefront of contemporary public discussion. Indeed, conservative political voices in America continue to link planning with socialism, and socialism with tyranny, despite the fact that socialism, planning, and democracy all prevail in both the United States and Europe.
Whenever large numbers of people live and work together, or whenever large sums of money are managed, planning comes to the fore. The questions of how to weigh costly alternatives, how to provide expensive capital investments, and how to balance conflicting goals all demand planning for the future. In a democratic society like ours planning takes on special urgency. If the essential decisions lie in the hands of those with large accumulations of capital or political power, then the citizens of a democracy live at the mercy of decisions that are beyond their control; public politics will become more and more peripheral to daily life, and private politics will take over. The decline in voter participation in the United States is an ominous telltale of such a process.
Since 1972 private corporate tendencies have continued to grow. Planning decisions, of course, are made every day: decisions to extend electric power lines, decisions to develop open land, decisions to build a new factory or business, or to close an old one, decisions to launch new communications systems, decisions to manage farmland and farm products, decisions to make loans, decisions to import products or services from overseas, and so forth. All of these decisions affect the jobs, wages, environment, race relations, and living conditions of a city and its suburbs. Some of these decisions are currently regulated by public utility, business practice, and environmental laws, but few are subject to public scrutiny and debate over their likely consequences in a metropolitan region or for their effects upon the national network of cities.
During the 1960s and early 1970s the public demanded more participation in local land-use, highway, public-facility, and environmental decisions.
In cities and towns, and even in some states, there have been considerable advances in public participation, openness of hearings, and public consultation, especially in comparison to the former urban renewal and highway practices of the 1950s. Moreover, thanks to the Model Cities and Great Society era federal and state programs, there has been a multiplication of local nonprofit, membership organizations at every scale, from community gardens to large community development corporations. These groups represent important extensions of democratic communities in the United States (see Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide , 1994). Yet these organizations depend on the federal government and the states to protect the local economies that enable the nonprofits to exist. When corporations decide to close down the businesses of Trenton or Youngstown, there is no way for the local citizens to defend themselves. Similarly, if people are to find jobs outside the ghettos or beyond the depressed metropolitan areas, national economic planning will be required to maintain full employment and ensure a living wage. Or, if all the children of a metropolis are to be given access to a decent education, then the state must see that there are schools for the children to attend.
It is not easy to make national economic planning a democratic institution, but it can be done. The Federal Reserve Board is now a national planning institution, though not a democratic one. Its limited functions, however, are exemplary. In a nation the size of the United States the federal government can plan successfully in only a few areas; the rest must be undertaken by the states, the counties, the cities, and the towns.
All of America's metropolitan and municipal institutions are created by state governments. The variety of alternatives that these present make up an ample resource for any governor or legislature to study and adopt. What remains absent today, even more so than in 1972, is a sense among Americans that as dwellers in a highly integrated metropolitan economy of networks of cities and suburbs we depend on one another. We do not realize this interdependence, so we lack a sense of the possibilities of our shared life and consensus goals. Our lives, our cities, and our suburbs need not be subject to the private decisions of finance capitalists, corporate managers, and their special-interest lobbyists if we citizens are willing to assume responsibility for our own well-being.
S. B. W.