Tradition as Determinant
New England folk planning, the weight of English custom, resistance to change
The Giant Cities of our country have always seemed to me, as they have to most Americans, vast incomprehensible places in which I could at most know a few people, my own block or suburb, my shopping center, and my commuting paths. I have lived with a pervasive sense of existing as a dweller in small clearings in the midst of an urban wilderness. Only the rich and powerful escape this sensation because their well-protected institutions and cosmopolitan style enable them to pretend that they are not part of the same world the rest of America lives in. All my professional career has been spent trying to understand these giant urban wildernesses by seeking the historical background to their problems—problems which flooded in toward me from newspapers and television and from just walking and riding around the cities I had settled in.
Over the years of this study I have become more and more convinced that a long tradition has accounted for the endless failures of Americans to build and maintain humane cities. Unlike many, I don't believe there ever was a good old days, a flowering of New York or Boston. Rather, like neurotic middle-aged patients, our cities are case histories of the repercussions of basic flaws and conflicts. This conviction came from many sources: from the study of patterns of suburban growth in Boston, from examining the conditions of working-class life at the turn of the century, from a survey of the long history of Philadel-
phia, the nation's first big industrial city, and from a review of current planning problems. 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.
From this experience I have made the discovery that Americans have no urban history. They live in one of the world's most urbanized countries as if it were a wilderness in both time and space. Beyond some civic and ethnic myths and a few family and neighborhood memories, Americans are not conscious that they have a past and that by their actions they participate in making their future. As they tackle today's problems, either with good will or anger, they have no sense of where cities came from, how they grew, or even what direction the large forces of history are taking them. Whether one speaks to an official in Washington or to a neighborhood action group, the same blindness prevails. Without a sense of history, they hammer against today's crises without any means to choose their targets to fit the trends which they must confront, work with, or avoid.
Thus, the basic purpose of this book is to gather together what is now known about cities and to cast that knowledge in the form of a series of present-oriented historical essays which will give the reader a framework for understanding the giant and confusing urban world he must cope with. A great deal has been learned since Lewis Mumford published his excellent The Culture of Cities in 1938, and it is time once again to portray the logic of our urban past.
Put another way, the goal of this book is to attempt to use history to replace the diffuse fears and sporadic panics which now characterize the popular perceptions of our cities with a systematic way of looking at our present urban condition. The hope is that by presenting people with their history, panic can give way to understanding, and that by bringing out what is now known about how our huge urban system performs, people can choose for themselves intelligently what needs to be done and what can be done to build humane cities in America.
There are many ways to judge cities, but for anyone who is trying to
bring the lessons of the historical past upon present problems the most useful way is to hold the city up to the measure of three traditional goals: open competition, community, and innovation. These standards are not arbitrary; they constitute the cherished ideals of our society. The goal of open competition is that in a successful city every resident should have a fair chance to compete for society's wealth and prizes. It is a goal compounded in the early years of the Republic from popular enthusiasm for egalitarian politics and laissez-faire capitalism. The second goal, community, holds that a successful city should encompass a safe, healthy, decent environment in which every man participates as a citizen, regardless of personal wealth or poverty, success or failure. This goal is again a blend in which political egalitarianism and nineteenth-century humanitarianism merged. The third goal, innovation, is directed to the principle that a city should be a place of wide personal freedom; that the variety and individuality of citizens should find expression in new ideas, new art, new tools and products, new manners and morals. This goal is a restatement of the cherished American ideal of progress. Today, after half a century of almost continuous war and unabated human suffering, the reality of progress is deeply compromised, but as a society we have passed so far beyond the modes of living by tradition that our cities will henceforth be forced to maintain their existence through innovation.
These three goals are by no means a harmonious triad; they conflict at many points. In the past as in the present, our cities have favored innovation and competition at the expense of community. New products and methods of production, new transportation, new ways of doing business have been introduced without regard for the dislocation and suffering they create. Skills have been wiped out, whole industries rendered obsolete, millions driven off the land or harried from one city to another. Competition for jobs, wealth, and power has been severe and even lethal, never completely open and fair. Blacks, women, immigrants, children, and old people have always been at a disadvantage. The inherent nature of our capitalistic system has bestowed differential and cumulative rewards so that the successful exercise a disproportionate control over the city and the lives of its residents. Consequently the strong prey on the weak, and to him that has shall be given. Today's state, serving the white middle class, is only the most recent manifestation of social and economic competition.
Although the mainstream Of our history has favored certain aspects of innovation and open competition, the goal of community has always
been an important and not always benign force. Political bosses, armed with the language of equality and the techniques of particularism, men like James Michael Curley in Boston or Richard Daley in Chicago, have closed competition and blocked the modernization of their cities for years at a time; unions of skilled workers and professionals have frequently refused to meet the needs of the public and have closed their doors against newcomers. Grassroots citizen groups have used their solidarity to exclude the blacks and the poor from their jurisdictions—both by law and by violence—or have fought off, delayed, or distorted the logical location of rail lines and highways, as well as civic improvements of all kinds.
Innovation uproots people. The sheer volume of the constant movement of Americans levies a terrible toll on the stability of our families, neighborhoods, and cities. Competition has never been fair and open; throughout our history businessmen, workers, and communities have sought to restrict it in their sector of interest or to manipulate it for their particular advantage. Community is often the enemy of innovation and equitable competition. These conflicts, the inevitable tensions engendered by such goals, can never be avoided.
Nevertheless we can choose how and where these conflicts will occur. Through democratic planning we can prescribe the self-conscious social choice of where and how the conflicts of the city are to be expressed, how the costs will be borne, how the profits reaped. Shall we stress competition or community or innovation in our schools, factories, and offices? What should the neighborhood demand of the highway engineer? Should the bohemian areas of our cities be enlarged? Should not projects for racial equality override all other claims for political power? If General Motors were to be nationalized, would its factory communities be more or less protected against corporate exploitation? Should doctors, professors, and army officers continue to be paid more than nurses, schoolteachers, and carpenters? Should new housing continue to be segregated by income level, or should the classes be mixed residentially?
Such questions are the questions of planning. A decision consciously arrived at can point out the policy to be adopted. Alternatively, questions can be sidestepped and common practice left to the workings of the marketplace and the outcome of the political power structure in the city. Whether by planning or inertia, at any given moment each city will be favoring certain aspects of our three goals over others. The success of
our cities may of course be judged subjectively by the degree to which urban patterns conform to one's personal evaluation of the goals. There is no final answer, no ultimate master plan, but there are and have been very different cities from those in which we now live. The size of our cities, the weight of the physical plant, the drag of law and custom, the obstructive interests of bureaucracies seem to restrict us to the narrowest of choices. Yet if history shows anything, it shows that American cities have been changing at a rate so rapid that in the course of one or two decades we do have enough choices to be able to plan for a balance among the three goals and to plan for balances quite different from those we now confront.
This book, then, hopes to survey the basic historical sequences that have shaped today's cities: the destruction of folk planning (Chapter 1); our tradition of land management (Chapter 2); our unfolding national economy with its accompanying internal structure of cities (Chapters 3, 4, and 5); our immigration and migration that formed a national urban culture and defined the class, racial, and religious subcultures upon which local politics play (Chapter 6). After this view of the controlling hand of the past, we will turn to a review of early efforts to rationalize the American city (Chapters 7 and 8). This study of past programs will focus particularly on the goal of community and on projects undertaken to make the community a safe and decent environment. It will also examine the historical concerns of health and housing to demonstrate how our tradition defines the present city. The history will conclude (Chapter 9) with an assessment of the choices and constraints surrounding today's urban problems.
Concern for the basic needs of human society, a concern often lost in the private opportunities and shifting complexities of our developing cities, may be illustrated by a brief introductory look at the New England town of the seventeenth century, the most completely planned of any American settlement. The Puritans dealt with the same basic issues and components, but they handled them in a way unique to folk planning. Puritan folk planning flourished along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Long Island a century before what is now the United States had a town large enough to be defined as a city. For a generation or two, medieval English village traditions fused with religious ideology to create a consensus concerning the religious, social, economic, and political framework for a good life. Each of the several hundred villages repeated a basic pattern. No royal statute, no master plan, no strong
legislative controls, no central administrative officers, no sheriffs or justices of the peace, no synods of prelates, none of the apparatus typical of government then or now was required to draft or execute these plans. The country folk of New England did not need guidance, subsidies, or constraints upon the management of their property, grants-in-aid for public works or unemployment relief, or assistance for the injured or old. Rather they carried in their heads the specifications for a good life and a decent community, and for a time they were able to realize them.
But after two or three generations, the consensus crumbled and with it the replication of the towns. The culture proved inherently unstable, and the neglect of the time element in town planning and social ideals wrecked the township system. Only one feature of the seventeenth-century experience has descended to us. The Puritan form of private landholding survives as the dominant land tenure in our real-property law. In contrast to our modern planning goals, the Puritans sought a community where order and stability would enable all men to live according to a Biblical morality of love and virtue. The Puritans saw themselves as establishing a timeless system. The relationships among men, the laws and customs of the village, the pursuit of agriculture and the trades, the reading of the Bible and the gathering of the congregation to hear the preaching of the ministry—all these, they thought, would permanently maintain their earthly segment of a divine universe.
The planning problem of the Puritans was to harness the land hunger of seventeenth-century Englishmen to the task of establishing a stable community where frontiersmen might live and worship. The planning solution was to identify the family as the basic unit of labor and production and the core element in social organization, and the town as the unit of settlement. The town was to be nearly self-sufficient economically, to exist by corporate self-government and corporate allocation of land, and to nourish a congregational church. The two hundred-odd Puritan towns had at their inception a group of families, with or without a minister, who had applied to the colonial legislature for township grants. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine, towns were initially founded by squatting on land purchased from the Indians, but later these settlements sought and received confirmation of their township and individual land titles. In the typical Massachusetts case the
legislature offered previously surveyed wilderness tracts or granted a license to survey and locate a township. The conditions of such grants were two: the town planters had to occupy the sites, erect houses, and create a going community within two or three years; and they had to be numerous and prosperous enough to support a minister and a church. In some cases the founders failed and the legislature intervened, revoked the grant, and took a direct hand in supervising the development of the struggling village. Such conditions were unlike those in most of the colonies and unlike those during most of the subsequent history of the United States, in that land grants were contingent upon an intent to settle and to build a community. The more usual American style was to seek out land for future speculation, to settle as individual families instead of in village groups, and to allow villages and towns to rise or not, depending upon the natural course of commerce and real-estate promotion.
Following the grant of a Puritan township—free except for surveying costs and sometimes a purchase payment to the Indians—the founding families declared themselves a permanent community by signing a covenant. The covenant essentially said that each signatory (and his family and heirs) agreed to be bound by the laws and to accept the taxes, duties, and obligations of the town. At this beginning moment the covenanted corporation held title to all the land of the township, many square miles of wilderness. The church, although supported by township taxes, was a separate entity, governed by the more limited membership of those Puritans who had undergone conversion, but attendance and possibility of membership was open to all the men, women, and children of the town.
The mode of allocating town land assured the early achievement of the community and religious goals. The land resources were immense by English standards, thirty to a hundred square miles of raw land, but the founding families were not allowed to scatter or to homestead isolated family farms. Neither was a Bible communism to arise from community
property and community labor. Legally the town moved to set up individually owned and worked family parcels, but by manipulating the placement of these parcels it sought to bind independent families into the social unity of an English village.
Upon completion of the survey of the future village, each family was immediately granted a home lot. On this lot the husbandman was to erect his house and barns, set his fruit trees and garden, and tend his family stock of milch cows, oxen, sheep, and poultry. These home lots, which varied from as little as half an acre for a poor bachelor to as much as twenty acres for a wealthy family, were laid out against one or two streets that adjoined a strip of fenced common land where cattle could be penned and the future church erected. The first church was a modest affair, but in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the townsmen built the large white Christopher Wren churches which established the modern standard "colonial" church for American Protestantism. Also, these later generations drove the cattle off the commons, refencing and landscaping the rough village space and thereby transforming it into the town greens which have been the envy of most suburban subdivisions ever since. Home-lot grants varied according to a number of factors. The size of a man's family counted; men with many children received larger than normal allocations, bachelors small lots. The community's need for a man's services counted; millers, blacksmiths, and ministers were attracted by offering double and triple allocations. Finally, because as seventeenth-century Englishmen and Puritans the settlers recognized hierarchy to be the natural and desirable order of society, men of means or status were given larger allocations or subsequent land bonuses.
Despite such differentials, most families in fact received very similar parcels, and with few exceptions the largest grants were not more than eight times the smallest. In Boston the wealthy grasped much more of the town's wealth in their hands. By all later American standards these first townships were the most equitable allocations of resources the
country ever knew. A rough commonalty of property prevailed, and no one was left out. Never again was popular consensus able to forge so inclusive and equitable an economic program.
Beyond the village home lots lay the farm parcels, intentionally scattered so that no family should locate on a single tract. In these years a family normally received about a hundred and twenty acres, of which only about twenty-five acres could be actively cultivated. The remainder was to be used for grazing cattle, mowing wild grasses, and cutting firewood. Wheat and rye, the major grain crops that lay at the core of this subsistence agriculture, were grown in one or two common fields in which each family was given a strip proportionate in size to its home lot, and here each farmer was to work his own allotment. In the first years, when many settlers arrived without tools or cattle, the plowing of the strips in the common field must often have been a community project. But at the core of New England farming—as of New England religion—lay individual effort and responsibility.
The early towns were intended only to support a primitive economy of self-sufficient families and autonomous villages. Farming was crude and laborious, and the output of each farmer varied with his energy and that of his family. Instead of searching for specialties that might bring a higher cash return, as their eighteenth-century descendants were to do, the first generation seemed content to clear the land slowly and to strive for a stable agricultural routine. Since most of the towns were located along the coast or on a river, they relied on water transport for their infrequent dealings with the outside world. Indian footpaths, trails that wound through the forests, were the only long-distance roads in the colonies, and many towns did not build roads even to connect the villages of one township to its next neighbors. Some towns were too self-centered even to meet their obligation to send representatives to each assembly of the legislature. There were, to be sure, occasional promoters and merchants, and each town had a storekeeper who took in grain and cattle and arranged for the purchase in Boston and elsewhere of salt, cloth, iron, and other goods. The market was not, however, a primary orientation for these farmers. For them, worldly wealth consisted of an
estate in land, and this goal the township could and did guarantee to the first generations of its members.
Clearly population growth, economic change, or cultural modification spelled conflict and disruption for the order and stability of the cluster of closed villages. For about two generations the ease of founding new townships when old ones were filled or split by controversy made New England a stable system of multiplying cells. The founding families welcomed newcomers to a full share of the town's land divisions until the resident community sensed that it was complete; thereafter no more home lots were granted. Such a moment sometimes came with the crowding of the wild meadow by the townsmen's cattle. More often the land-distribution rolls closed when, typically after ten to fifteen years, the first families felt that their town had enough settlers to become a viable village. Latecomers continued to arrive in the more prosperous towns, and they could and did purchase land from the founding families, but folk planning did not anticipate and made no allowance for continuous expansion.
The genius of the township system, distinct from later planning ideals and achievements, lay in its crude organization of freedom and opportunity in group, not individual, terms. More strongly than in the tightest urban ethnic or racial ghetto or in the closed union or in the inbred family corporation, the unity of land control combined with a common village and religious experience to force men of the time to seek change only in group terms. The young and dissident could not break away as individuals from village constraints, since to have done so would have cost them their culture. Only to the extent that the disaffected could form themselves into new town-building groups could they gain direction over their own futures.
Town division, however, could not alone cope with long-term changes. Steady, undramatic demographic and economic pressures eroded the established culture. Perhaps most surprising to the founding families was the fact that the religious consensus was the first element in
the township culture to give way. Most of the children of the first settlers did not live the intense religious life of their parents, and the experience of conversion which informed adult life of the older generation did not so often repeat itself in the children and grandchildren. Protestantism was itself becoming an ever-shifting, ever-dividing mass of religions, and soon after the migrations of the 1630s Quakers and Baptists and lesser heretics began to appear in the towns. The loss of deep orthodox faith created in each village a dangerous ideological potential. Religious indifference or dissent lay in wait, ready to reinforce any demographic or economic change that might press in upon the old unities.
Even within the oldest townships the single-nucleus village could not be maintained against demographic pressures. New villages were started within the large townships and inevitably brought with them demands for multiple congregations, conflicts over town management, religious schism, and political divisions. If, as was often the case, the old township kept its political boundaries but sheltered within it many villages and many churches, the unified cultural, religious, and social life of the Puritan village was lost there forever.
A new farm pattern also emerged as the generations went on. To preserve intact the home lots along the common, sons and grandsons were often given outer parcels of land. By such inheritance practices the old New England towns came to resemble the speculator-managed eighteenth-century farm settlements, and thus New England fell in with common American ways. As the countryside advanced across the wilderness by single-family farms and crossroad store clusters, the political units—townships and counties—were woven into a fabric of low-density settlement and multiple villages. The eighteenth-century social geography matched its economy, oriented to the markets and to specialized agriculture.
The moral of the story depends, as in all historical tales, upon the eye of the beholder. For the seventeenth-century pioneers the story foretold the "ruin of New England." For the eighteenth century it repre-
sented a happy escape into prosperity and personal freedom. For the nineteenth century and today's boosters of modernization the story reveals the benign hand of progress. The history of the New England township system carries multiple meanings, but as a base for the examination of the American city surely its most pervasive theme carries the most important message: to plan without regard for the processes of change is inevitably to fail.