Antidotes for the City: Utopia, Renewal, Suburbia

THE VAGUENESS OF THE CITY compounded ancient problems and led Americans at first to search for remedies, then to reach for antidotes. Some tried importing Old World schemes of paternalist utopia. Others hoped that old ills could be cured by renewal, by trying to erase what was there and begin all over again. But by mid-century the future seemed to lie with refugees from the city, who were finding new ways to make suburbs into communities.

AMERICAN VERSIONS of the English or continental model industrial town were distinguished by the simplicity and coherence of their plans, by the paternalism of their government, by their initial, short-run success and by their long-run failure. In the early nineteenth century, New Englanders like Francis Cabot Lowell had built model towns to house their workers, elevate their minds, and protect their morals. Later in the century the most impressive and best advertised of such efforts was Pullman, Illinois, a model community outside Chicago, named after its founder, shaper, and ruler, George M. Pullman. By the time of the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, “Pullman car style” was a common generic name for the products of American industrial progress. And in 1880 Pullman himself, inventor and builder of sleeping cars, decided to try to solve those city problems—crime, the slum, labor disorders—that seemed to him to be an unnecessary by-product of American industry. The “model tenement” movement in the cities, aiming at low rents and sanitary dwellings, had made little progress. Pullman, who was planning anyway to build a new factory, took the occasion to build a whole model town, where his workers would not have to live “in crowded and unhealthy tenements, in miserable streets, and subject to all the temptation and snares of a great city.” Pullman hoped his workers would be “elevated and refined” by their model town, and that, incidentally, they would be discouraged from turning to drink or from pointlessly moving from job to job. And he expected, of course, that they would be less gullible to union organizers and other urban “agitators.” As a company brochure explained to visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893: “The story of Pullman naturally divides itself into three parts—the building of the car, the building of the operating system, and the building of the town.”

When Pullman engaged the twenty-seven-year-old architect Solon Spenser Beman (who had recently remodeled Pullman’s own Chicago mansion) to design the factory and all the other buildings on his 4,000-acre tract on the shores of Lake Calumet, the assignment itself was remarkable. For at that time it was not common for architects to be engaged to design factories. The young Beman proved equal to his novel task, and Pullman—a town where “everything fits,” the nation’s “first all-brick city”—became famous. Streets were planned and paved, water supply and sewage were well provided for. In the original scheme were public buildings, a shopping-center arcade, a hotel (named for Pullman’s daughter), a post office, a bank, a library, a school, and a church. The “opera house,” it was reported, would equal “the most elegant theaters in the country in point of architectural beauty and artistic design.” The novelist Charles Dudley Warner hailed Pullman as “the only city in existence built from the foundation on scientific and sanitary principles.”

But it was very much Pullman’s city, designed to keep workers happy according to Pullman’s own definition. He did not claim to be a philanthropist, but said again and again that it was all a “strictly business proposition.” Rents were fixed to give the company a 6 percent return on investment. The long-run purpose was to provide a more stable and more docile labor force for the Pullman factory. But actually the new Pullman plant at the site was plagued by repeated strikes, culminating in the violence of 1894 which brought the National Guard with Gatling guns into the model city. Then, in 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the company had no legal authority to build a city. By 1915 the town had fifteen saloons, the stores in the arcade were being vacated, and the original plan was abandoned. Pullman had become just another industrial suburb.

There were other company efforts elsewhere, also on the pattern of the company towns in England, France, and Germany, which aimed to cure the ills of the city while providing a contented labor force. Near Pittsburgh, for example, there were the new steel towns Homestead and Vandergrift (designed to be “a workingman’s paradise”), and George Westinghouse’s Wilmerding, where air brakes were made. Even when these model company towns were not the scene of violence, as in Homestead, they tended to become diversified and sordid, frustrating their creator’s original purpose.

The company town became a focus for American debate over national ideals. Henry Demarest Lloyd, financial editor of the Chicago Tribune, who had recently become famous by his attack on Standard Oil, was commissioned in 1881 by the editor of Harper’s Magazine to write a piece about Pullman. Lloyd wrote the article, concluding that the “beauty and convenience” of the town were likely to fulfill the company’s hopes to prevent labor trouble, since it was a place where “brains have been mixed with the mortar from the foundations to the roofs, and where the self-interest of the capitalist has been something shrewder than the selfishness of the ordinary type.” But Lloyd’s article was not critical enough to satisfy Harper’s editor, and he refused it. He then turned to Richard T. Ely, a young professor of economics whose article not only satisfied Harper’s but made Ely’s public career as a social critic. Ely praised the physical plant, “the all pervading air of thrift and providence” and the absence of saloons, but he called the place undemocratic. “If free American institutions are to be preserved, we want no race reared as underlings…. The idea of Pullman is un-American…. It is benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as shall please the authorities.

THE NOTION OF “renewing” cities and clearing slums was no American invention. Concern over the slum had grown with the rise of the industrial city. During the eighteenth century, the street commissioners of London and of Dublin had cut through their city’s slums. In 1853, when Baron Haussmann began rebuilding Paris, he planned the Bois de Boulogne and cleared the avenues which gave the city its grand vistas (and presumably, too, an immunity to revolutionary barricades). After Glasgow demolished the whole of its congested ancient center in 1866, smaller slum-clearance projects followed all over Britain.

American reform movements of the late nineteenth century made slums their special target. “Slum” became the name for places where poverty, crime, prostitution, and disease festered. With the rise of photography the middle-class public could be forced to witness the conditions of slum life. Jacob A. Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, beginning in 1877 spent twenty-two years covering “the foul core of New York’s slums”—places called Bandit’s Roost, Bottle Alley, Kerosene Row, and Thieves’ Alley—and made his reputation as a photographer and reporter of slum conditions. How the Other Half Lives (1890; popularizing an old phrase) was followed by The Battle with the Slum (1902), which reported the progress of a dozen years. Riis foreshadowed the hopes that would motivate “urban renewal” in the mid-twentieth century:

The battle with the slum began the day civilization recognized in it her enemy. It was a losing fight until conscience joined forces with fear and self-interest against it. When common sense and the golden rule obtain among men as a rule of practice, it will be over…. Justice to the individual is accepted in theory as the only safe groundwork of the commonwealth. When it is practised in dealing with the slum, there will shortly be no slum. We need not wait for the millennium, to get rid of it. We can do it now. All that is required is that it shall not be left to itself. That is justice to it and to us, since its grievous ailment is that it cannot help itself.

Since the beginning of the Civil War, the slum had three times “confronted us in New York with its challenge.” One was the “treacherous mob” that led the draft riots of 1863, another was the cholera epidemic starting from “the back alleys,” and a third was “the mob” led by Boss Tweed that had plundered the city’s treasury. “For it is one thing or the other: either we wipe out the slum, or it wipes out us.” Riis went on to warn that “when the brotherhood is denied in Mulberry Street, we shall look vainly for the virtue of good citizenship on Fifth Avenue…. You cannot let men live like pigs when you need their votes as freemen; it is not safe.” The battle with the slum continued during the early years of the century.

A shortage of housing during World War I brought the government into the emergency effort to provide housing for war workers. Then, after 1929, the depression required a housing program in order to reduce unemployment in the building trades and to stimulate the market for construction materials; incidentally the program aimed to provide better housing. By 1933, construction of residential buildings had declined to almost nothing, annual expenditures on housing repairs had fallen from $50 million to $500,000, and home mortgages were being foreclosed at the rate of one thousand per day. Federal home loan agencies, set up to help avoid foreclosures, aided those who could afford to buy a house in the first place, but helped little in the battle against the slum. By 1934 the federal government, under the Public Works Administration, had undertaken slum-clearance projects in Atlanta, Cleveland, and Brooklyn. At first President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who felt a romantic attachment to the countryside and sought ways to draw people out of the cities, was not much interested in urban housing and slum clearance. His adviser Rexford G. Tugwell planned enticing “greenbelt towns,” on the model of English garden cities, outside centers of population. Three thousand such towns were planned, and three were built.

New Deal enthusiasms finally produced the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937. Slums were torn down, and by 1941 over 160,000 dwelling units for the poor had been constructed. Their primary effect was not so much to remove as to renovate slums. Since middle-class citizens objected to having public housing nearby, new public housing was often erected in the midst of Negro districts, and to make the increase in units possible without reaching beyond the segregated areas, the public housing eventually was made taller and taller. These public-housing towers offered accommodations which were as different as possible from the preferred American housing unit, the single-family dwelling surrounded by a yard. The political liberals who had once championed large-scale public housing now attacked these towers for poor Negroes confined in Negro neighborhoods as “slums with hot running water.”

“Slum clearance,” which became loosely confused with “urban renewal,” still remained a grand objective of hopeful reformers. The decay of houses during the Depression and the slow-down in construction during World War II worsened the shortage. The bipartisan Housing Act of 1949, sponsored by Senator Robert Taft, pushed slum clearance ahead with a program of “spot removal” which aimed to eradicate the worst slums. The first euphemism for this program was “urban redevelopment.” And the enlarged act of 1954 became a program for “urban renewal.” The main purpose now was to “renew” the cities—to clear away the slums, scoop out the rotten old cores of cities and replace them by a renewed city center. Now the whole city was included: not merely dilapidated residences but also commercial buildings and public services. Starting from slum clearance, this program promised “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” in “well-planned, integrated residential neighborhoods.”

Enthusiasm for urban renewal knew no bounds. In 1963 Congressman William S. Moorhead of Pennsylvania, quoting Isaiah on “repairing the waste cities, the desolation of many generations,” extolled Pittsburgh as “the renaissance city.” At the same time the president of Little Rock’s First National Bank proclaimed “a vision and a goal to achieve in the rebirth of our city. We want to create a city, gentlemen, where no child will leave a slum to go to school. God willing, we shall soon have that city.” Philadelphia prepared a movie reminiscent of nineteenth-century booster literature, which advertised that city as “a showcase for urban renewal.” The mayor of Providence declared urban renewal “not a luxury for Providence and many other cities in this country. It is an absolute necessity if they are to remain healthy.”

THE RESULTS OF the program were disappointing. There was evidence that the urban poor, supposedly the beneficiaries of the urban-renewal programs, were suffering more than ever. The demolitions resulting from slum clearance and other renewal operations (including freeways, toll roads, parking lots, airports, etc.) led to a net loss from the housing inventory which, during the years 1950–56, withdrew more than 200,000 units a year, increasing during the years 1957–59 to the withdrawal of 475,000 a year. In California alone, by 1960 these programs had erased 10 percent of all the housing units available in 1950, for a net loss of 359,000 units. “The emphasis on demolition and evictions,” Charles Abrams, a housing specialist, observed, “has made life for many families an unending trek from one slum or furnished room to another. Building a stable life within a context of rootless living is virtually impossible. Children are uprooted from schools, parents separated from friends, and rootlessness ultimately gives way to hopelessness.” The poor, and especially Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other disadvantaged groups, suffered most. The new units put up in place of the old were too expensive to benefit those who were evicted. The number of new dwelling units constructed were estimated at less than one fourth of the number demolished. The median monthly rent of the private residential apartments built in 1962, which mainly replaced low-rent housing, was $195, and a considerable number rented for more than $360 per month.

The human effects of these miscalculations were disastrous. What urban renewal did to the people it was supposed to help suggested that the remedy was worse than the disease—if indeed there was a disease. To study the human problem, the sociologist Herbert Gans went to live in the West End of Boston in an area that was declared a slum in 1953. The area was to be torn down under a federal renewal program (1958–60), its inhabitants would be summarily dispersed, and within two years new tenants would be moving into the luxury apartments that had been government-financed to replace the slum. Gans discovered that the deep-rooted Italian-American “slum” community had had a flourishing community life of its own. There the food, religion, education, family life, and politics had a special character that made residents feel at home. “Redevelopment proceeded from beginning to end,” Gans observed, “on the assumption that the needs of the site residents were of far less importance than the clearing and rebuilding of the site itself.” The result of this urban-renewal project, then, was to destroy an existing community, and so create new problems of personal disorientation. A clinical psychologist who studied the West Enders after relocation found that nearly half the women and more than a third of the men had suffered “severe grief reaction or worse.” Two years later, more than a quarter of the women were still depressed by the experience of having been evicted from their community.

By the late twentieth century the failure of efforts to renew and revive the focal “city” was itself a symptom of the attenuation of American life, of the befogging of all distinctions, and of the desperate quest for the new. Urban renewal, like other utopian movements, was plagued by the vagueness of its definitions. What was the meaning of “slum” or “urban blight”? What housing was “substandard”? In some areas the “standard” for decent housing, fantastically high compared even to that in such countries as Sweden, was tied to the rapid pace of American technology. The growth of the American economy had created housing expectations beyond the possibilities of fulfillment. In 1967 a housing unit in the United States was not “adequate” by bureaucratic standards unless it had hot running water, a private toilet and bath, and not more than one person to a room. These definitions of “adequacy” moved ever upward in the expanding United States.

THE FAILURE OF urban renewal and the frustration of paternalistic utopias were but minor episodes in a larger epic, one of the great population movements of history. The movement to the suburbs in the early decades of the twentieth century was an internal migration which for speed was without precedent in American life. Between 1950 and 1960 the suburban population of the United States increased by about 17 million. More than 12 million of these had actually moved to a suburb, either from some central city or from a farm. The census of 1910 showed less than half as many Americans (12 percent) living in suburbs as lived in central cities (26 percent). But the census of 1960 showed almost exactly as many Americans (31 percent) living in suburbs as lived in central cities (32 percent), and the suburban proportion was leaping ahead. While the proportion of population both in central cities and on the farm steadily declined, the proportion in the suburbs grew, and by the late ‘60’s already exceeded that in the central cities. Unless the trend changed sharply, by the end of the twentieth century most Americans would be suburbanites.

The new American habitat was described in a growing literature about the folkways, foibles, romance, and disappointments of suburbia. The focus of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) on the small-town hypocrisies and the follies of boosterism acquired a quaint irrelevance. By mid-century, social scientists were anatomizing suburbia as the very epitome of the American middle class. David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd (1950), A. C. Spectorsky’s Exurbanites (1955), William H. Whyte, Jr.’s Organization Man (1956), John Keats’s Crack in the Picture Window (1957), Robert C. Wood’s Suburbia (1958), Herbert Gans’s Levittowners (1967), and innumerable other books used an updated social science to analyze the major community phenomenon of their day—much as their late-nineteenth-century predecessors had scrutinized the slum, immigration, and the problems of the Melting Pot. There appeared a spate of novels on love and hate, life and death in the suburbs—such as Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and John Cheever’s Wapshot Chronicle (1957)—but suburbia never became the setting for a great epic.

Folk jokes about the “city slicker” and the “farmer’s daughter” were being displaced by tales of suburban wife-swapping. But there were few voices, and almost no eloquent voices, raised in defense of suburbia. The suburban transformation of American middle-class life had taken place, Americans by the millions had moved to the suburb, yet no William Allen White or Sherwood Anderson or Thornton Wilder had arisen to romanticize the new folkways.

In the early twentieth century a new American genre, the “subdivider” (the word in this sense appears to be an Americanism) or suburban “developer” came into being on the urban penumbra. An enterprising promoter would buy acreage on the edge of a promising town, “subdivide” it into lots, build streets and lay sewers, bring in electricity and water, and then advertise for buyers.

The real estate go-getter’s techniques improved. From a high-pressure salesman he became a long-range planner, enlisting all the expertise of the new social scientists. After World War II, when returning veterans and expanding birth rates increased the demand for housing, speculative building enlarged real estate enterprises to a scale reminiscent of the late-eighteenth century and early-nineteenth-century Western land companies. Abraham Levitt, son of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, pioneered in the mass production of suburban housing. Using experience acquired in building houses for the Navy during the war, Levitt and Sons began building suburban towns. The first Levittown, on Long Island, begun in 1947, was a whole new community, with houses (most appliances included) around village greens, where there were shops, a playground, and a swimming pool. The second Levittown, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was begun in 1951 and planned for seventeen thousand homes, including schools, churches (with land donated by the developers), and a large shopping center. Complications in this project came from the fact that the land extended over four townships and several other political units, each with its own regulations and its own governing bodies. The third Levittown, in New Jersey, planned even before the earlier project was completed, was all located in a single township, and would have twelve thousand houses by 1965. In this development, instead of all houses being built to a single design, three types in varying color schemes (from three to four bedrooms, and priced from $11,500 to $14,500) were intermixed on each street. The houses had no basement, but were built on concrete slabs with precut materials on an assembly-line system. Similar “development” cities, like Park Forest outside Chicago, or Bowie outside Washington, D.C., appeared in other parts of the country.

SUBURBS, UPSTART TOWNS in a new pattern, brought a revival of active, small-town political life. “The suburban town emerges,” political scientist Robert C. Wood has observed, “equipped with a limited constituency, a homogeneity, a type of civic attitude and an amount of leisure which bid fair to put small town democracy into practice for more people and for more governments than has been possible for a hundred years.” Suburbs, with their problems of creating new school systems, new recreational facilities, and new units of government, relived the conditions which accounted for many of the virtues which American historians had found in the “frontier” community. If, as historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick suggested, the special “frontier” origins of American democracy were to be traced not to the backwoods environment, but to the recurrent urgent need to build new institutions for community purposes, then the suburbs really provided a new American “frontier.” The multiplication of suburbs and the trend of population to the suburb proliferated American federalism and multiplied opportunities for political participation. Just as new states and counties and upstart cities had offered new arenas for political democracy in the nineteenth century, so thousands of new suburbs with myriad local problems awakened the interests and political energies of mid-twentieth-century Americans.

In other respects, too, suburbs revived the spirit of an earlier age. Despite the rising divorce rate and other widely advertised forces which loosed the marriage bond, the suburbs, a bastion of the free-standing single-family residence, strengthened home and family. If, as was often observed, the cosmopolitan city enticed the family outside the family residence, the small town in its suburban reincarnation reinforced the home as center. The homogeneity and compatibility which characterized much small-town life in its heyday was found once again in the suburb. On the whole, suburban life was pleasant. If it lacked the cosmopolitan stimulus of the big city or the secure isolation of the farm, it provided other, blander pleasures. “Most new suburbanites,” the sociologist Herbert Gans concluded after living in Levittown, New Jersey, during its formative period, “are pleased with the community that develops; they enjoy the house and outdoor living and take pleasure from the large supply of compatible people, without experiencing the boredom or malaise ascribed to suburban homogeneity.”

But there was a price. In the small town, each citizen had done something in his own way to build the community. The town booster had a vision of the future which he tried to fulfill. The suburb dweller by contrast started with the future—with a shopping center for twice the population, with a school building already built, with churches constructed, with parks and playgrounds and swimming pools. These were as essential to building a suburb as the prematurely grand hotel had been to building a city in the wilderness. In large developments where the developer had a plan, and even in the smaller developments, there was a new kind of paternalism: not the quasi-feudal paternalism of the company town, nor the paternalism of the utopian ideologue. This new kind of paternalism was fostered by the American talent for organization, by the rising twentieth-century American standard of living, and by the American genius for mass production. It was the paternalism of the marketplace. The suburban developer, unlike the small-town booster, seldom intended to live in the community he was building. For him community was a commodity, a product to be sold at a profit. And the suburban home owner often moved into a whole town which had been shaped in advance by a shrewd developer’s sense of the market.

The suburb was the Upstart Town, twentieth-century model, in a world where newer was better. In 1960, when about 70 percent of city dwellers were living in buildings constructed before 1940, only 42 percent of suburban dwellings were that old. The suburb was a world of brand names, of shopping centers, of franchised outlets, and of repeatable experience. Despite the increasing highway congestion, the sense of separateness from city culture was less significant than ever. For movies and radio and television, which brought urban entertainment into the suburban living room, began to make the world of distinctively urban entertainment obsolete.

The suburb was a new version, too, of the American transient community. Instead of the wagon train, where people leaned on one another as they moved across the continent, Americans in suburbs leaned on one another as they moved rapidly about the country and up the ladder of consumption. A small town was a place where a man settled. A suburb was a place to or from which a person moved. Except in a few of the most costly (and speedily disappearing) suburbs outside a few cities, suburbanites did not think of building their town for their children or their grandchildren. They expected their children to live elsewhere. And even before their children grew up, they themselves hoped to have moved to a more “exclusive” suburb. The quest to make suburbs more comfortable, more convenient, and more attractive made them more and more interchangeable.

In the late twentieth century, to move from almost any suburb to almost any other of comparable class anywhere else in the United States was like moving from one part of a neighborhood to another. With few exceptions, the products and services available, and the residence itself were only slightly different. With the addition of air conditioning to central heating as common amenities, soon to become “necessities” for middle-class Americans, even climate had less and less effect on the comfort of daily life. When they moved from the vast vague city to their very own home in the perfect suburb of their choice, they might feel that they were joining not a community of 10,000, but a community of 10 million American suburbanites living everywhere.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!