Humbling the city

Modern culture has served to humble the city into a sort of exotic and backward, poor relative of the prosperous mainstream culture that flourishes in the malls, and the supermarkets, and on the fields of countless little league games. Worse still, it cuts the urban culture’s poorest off from larger society, and creates in the up-and-coming middle class families, the desire — once the family’s resources are secure — to “move up, and out” of the city as quickly as possible. The values of middle class families could not stay internally consistent in such a place, when they could “get so much more for their money” out in the suburbs. To urban historian Robert Beauregard: “….It is considered a bit eccentric, if not deviant, to remain in large cities, if one has the means to leave.. .the prevailing trends are obvious and made to seem irresistible.”5 The question remains however as to why such a group with so much stake in the system as its primary movers and shakers, would give themselves over to failure, instead of changing that environment to suit themselves? In the next chapter, this question is answered and three trends are presented which seek to explain the middle class’ inevitable abandonment of the central city.

 

The suburbs were not invented in this century, but the middle class preference for a suburban way of life — as the popular imagery of subdivisions and mass consumption have come to be seen — was until the 1950s unavailable to a majority of the population. Wealthy families and a distinctively smaller number of families who made up the middle class at the time took advantage of this suburban preference much earlier, in commuter suburbs which appeared in the United States as early as 1820. In New York, for example, in the wake of an industrial and commercial development boom following the Civil War, young middle class couples in New York found that they were unable to attain the kind of house they had grown up in, and which their parents and grandparents had for their families and servants.

 

The prototypical Manhattan row house, in brick, with a basement, two or three floors and an attic, a large back yard, all set on a lot of 25 feet by 100 feet, was suddenly too expensive for the middle class family. One idea was to divide the space, horizontally but the young couples found this socially unacceptable. The middle-class disdain against having anyone live above or below oneself — sharing a horizontal surface such as a floor or a ceiling — made apartment houses up to that point, unthinkable, and subdividing the single family house suggested a bohemian or working class life. Another solution was to split the cost of land and create multifamily buildings with common services. This too was unacceptable, as it would immediately point to the inability of each household patriarch to provide the privacy expected by his family. In order to maintain the single-family house ideal, young families had only one choice which was to move out to the new suburbs: their husbands went into the city each day, affluent “lonelyvilles proliferated precisely in response to the row house crisis.”

 

There are three main trends which have tended to work with technology in producing Suburbia to become the desired and mainstream form of American middle class life that it is today. The first trend is the long and well-documented American anti-urban ethic, born out of an intellectual distrust of city life for its supposed threat to democratic principles. The second trend is a distaste born from the experiences and conditions endured by families of all social classes in the industrial city. As such, these first two trends can be thought of as “Push Factors”. The third trend on the other hand, can be thought of as a “Pull Factor”. It was essentially the lure of the post-Second World War suburbs, which under Federal Government sponsorship and the wide availability of new technologies, guaranteed and subsidized the long-held dreams of many families to flee the city.

 

 

Anti-urban feelings have existed as long as cities have. The nobles of classical Rome complained about the dirt and noise of their city’s crowded streets, and they escaped when they could to their country villas. But in the United States, an anti-urban philosophy was begun even before there were any problems to be seen in the cities. Early American political thinkers such as Jefferson and Thoreau, extolled the virtues of an agrarian way of life, and believed there was a necessary connection between democracy and rural life which cities threatened to undermine. Jefferson once wrote that “the mobs of great cities add so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body”. But Jefferson did not encounter in his lifetime the problems he so accurately feared for American cities. Early America, was undoubtedly an agrarian society and a majority of its people lived in the countryside. The total population of the American colonies in 1770 was no more than four million. Of this, less than five percent of the populace lived in or around what could be considered urban

 

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March 5, 2018

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