Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Before Suburbs, When Cities Were Great

Once upon a time, there were cities with Daniel Hudson Burnham ambition. Published in 1890, the great Alfred Marshall wrote:

When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.

I love the smell of urban agglomeration in the morning. The very air of the city promises innovation, prosperity, and productivity. Why oh why would we kill the goose laying the golden eggs with sprawl? Proximity, dammit, that's the ticket.

That air the children smelled to learn a trade smelled like dirty, filthy trash. But if the godfather of cluster theory says it is magic, who am I to quibble? Before the automobile, cities used to be so awesome:

There are some photographs taken for Harper’s Weekly, before and after photos of street corners in New York in 1893 and then in 1895. And the before pictures are pretty astonishing, people were literally shin-high or knee-high in this muck that was a combination of street gunk, horse urine and manure, dead animals, food waste, and furniture crap.

Good times. Why would anyone want to leave? Talk to anyone who has a living memory of working in a city manufacturing mill and you'll know. It's like exile in the rural hinterlands. From day 1, everyone tells you to get out of the city as fast as you can. But don't run far. Baba still wants to play with her grandchildren. To complicate that narrative, James Parton (1966):

There is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss. Owing to the abruptness of the hill behind the town, there is a street along the edge of the bluff, from which you can look directly down upon the part of the city which lies low, near the level of the rivers. On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld ... It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into -- hell with the lid taken off.

The city was terribly beautiful. The terrible part is the legacy of the passage. It was terrible. It was beautiful.

The anti-sprawl crowd celebrates the beautiful without acknowledging the dead horses in the street illuminated at night by the blast furnaces. My wife's father grew up in urban Pittsburgh. My father grew up in urban Erie, in poverty. Neither one ever told me to go back to the city. Both were proud they escaped. Fear the city. That's how I was raised.

Today, I don't fear the city. I love the city. I went through some years hating my suburban upbringing, feeling ashamed. I love the suburbs, too. The rural? That was my geography of rebellion. I ran off a few times and did the off-the-grid commune. I felt the Bern. Been there. Done that. Celebrate your normative geography of choice.

Early in the 20th century, the geography of choice:

Following World War I, as the United States grew into a more industrial, urbanized country with a diverse immigrant population, this pastoral ideal became associated with places where the white upper classes would go to retreat from the realities of the city. “Eventually,” Mozingo says, “it became associated with middle-class values, turning the single-family house in the pastoral suburb into an aspirational American object. It’s still quite powerful.” At the time, most corporate offices were still in large skyscrapers near a city’s central business district or in a nearby industrial zone alongside the company’s manufacturing facilities. “Executives were often cheek by jowl with their blue-collar workers,” Mozingo says, “even though they were in generally a nicer building of some kind.”

The migrant is passive, duped into leaving the urban for the suburban. Don't forget, following World War I, the city sucked. For most of time, the city sucks. For most of time, being alive sucked. Let's not get all warm and fuzzy about the romantic rural of the 19th century. Let's be aware of how the romantic rural impacted migration.

The migrant isn't passive. She's the agent of globalization. The world turns on her education. The world turns on her migration.

The move from the urban core to the suburban greenfield wasn't some grand conspiracy concocted by Dwight D. Interstate. People wanted out. Some could. Most could not. To this day, African-Americans desire the suburban dream. Make their suburban dream come true.

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