Not-So-Grand Plan

The New City, by Stephen Amidon, New York: Doubleday, 445 pages, $24.95

In 1971, when novelist Stephen Amidon was 12 years old, he moved with his family from suburban New Jersey to Columbia, Maryland, a "model town" founded on the idea that comprehensive, centralized city planning opened the royal road to improved quality of life. According to Amidon, Columbia was a "social experiment, a city where poor, rich, black and white were supposed to commingle in near-perfect harmony." Looking back on it now, he sees the city, with its "dizzying, naive optimism," as "a distillation of the country's values and recent history." Amidon's lumbering new novel The New City is clearly based in part on his teenage impressions of Columbia. (The book's press kit includes the autobiographical statement I just quoted.) That being the case, we have to conclude that he finds the country's avowed values fraudulent and its recent history a disaster. Although Amidon seems unusually determined--even for a young American novelist--to believe the very worst of the United States, his latest book is worth taking seriously, if only because it reflects many fundamental attitudes of the disaffected in the generation that will be taking over soon.

As its title suggests, The New City tries to capture the emergence of a new way to plan social space. Set in the early '70s, its action unfolds at the moment that ideas now associated with "the New Urbanism" started taking shape as a leading orthodoxy. The New Urbanism is the planning establishment's attempt to atone for the disasters it wrought in the name of urban renewal and related movements. (See "Dense Thinkers," January 1999.)

In older cities, its advocates foster the creation of the kind of high-density, multi-use neighborhoods that their predecessors razed to make room for immense housing projects and downtown arteries (this time, say the planners, we'll get it right). In new developments, like the one depicted in The New City, New Urbanists try to combat what they see as the baleful influence of "sprawl," which they dislike more for ideological reasons than for pragmatic ones. What they call sprawl, after all, is often the market's way of responding to the large number of people who want a house on a bit of land (which is inevitably cheaper on the outskirts of developed areas). But that means that these people will drive en famille to the store, the school, and the dentist, instead of doing the virtuous, democratic thing by taking the bus or tram with their fellow citizens.

To New Urbanists, "sprawl" implies individualism and not collectivism, and for that reason it is unacceptable. City planning is often a stalking horse for social engineering; as a characteristic manifesto of New Urbanism declares, "Community planning and design must assert the importance of public over private values." The New City, however, is not a paean to the virtues of planning. It's more of an elegy: Amidon's bedrock, if paradoxical, assumption is that centralized control of development is both necessary and doomed to failure. That such a dark vision is based on a fundamentally false premise does nothing to lighten the ostentatious blackness of his despair.

The New City takes place in fictional Newton, Maryland, circa 1973. The plot centers on the families of Austin Swope, the man whom Newton's corporate backers have put in charge of the development, and Earl Wooten, his chief foreman. The friendship between the men and their wives is cemented by their teenage sons, Teddy and Joel, who themselves become best friends roaming through the half-built town and daring each other to jump from the roofs of construction sites. There are no fences, the streets are lined with quaint gas lamps, and, in keeping with anti-car ideology, "you're never more than a quarter mile from a playground or park."

There is, however, a serpent in this Eden. The Swopes are white. The Wootens are black. Once Joel Wooten gets in trouble for his intimacy with a white girl, and once Austin hears a rumor that his employers are plotting to give Earl, instead of him, the coveted job of city manager, the races close ranks, and the horn of plenty is undone.

In the end, Amidon is willing to sacrifice his characters and plot to his big idea: Consciousness of race poisons everything in American life. It overrides every principle and undermines every bond. As is so often the case in novels with a tendentious case to prove, at a certain point in The New City characters stop acting in accord with what we have been shown of their nature, and start acting in the way that they must if the truth of the Thesis is to be confirmed. In the final chapters, Amidon seems almost wholly taken up with the task of getting his characters to bump into each other at precisely the moment that will yield the highest return of poetic justice or bitter irony. At such moments one wishes that Amidon had written the straightforward melodrama that The New City at times resembles.

Surprisingly, given his palpable ambition to say something about the latest phase of suburbia, Amidon does not seem very interested in creating a sense of place. After a few shrewd, early scenes showing how in planned communities something as simple as building a wall can become the subject of endless, touchy negotiation, the plot almost wholly detaches itself from its environment, and the spruce enclave becomes little more than a painted backdrop for a series of increasingly lurid confrontations.

As a result, Amidon has produced a novel in which an attempt at serious social commentary is to some degree trivialized by the sensationalism that surrounds it. Unlike the Roman Polanski film Chinatown (1974), from which Amidon for a second time borrows the idea of using public utilities as a symbol of pervasive ill (the first was in his 1993 novel Thirst), The New City never forges a compelling bond between the tragedy played out by its characters and the larger world in which it is enmeshed.

In fact, most things in The New City do not seem very new. Even the characters are secondhand, from principals such as the wounded vet haunted by memories of 'Nam down to the supporting cast, which includes both a "wizened old-timer" and a "wily old country lawyer." Ironically, that unoriginality is what makes the novel sadly fascinating: The New City embodies the home truths that circulate in the world as portrayed by National Public Radio (Amidon has worked as a commentator on American issues for the BBC), and Amidon probably reflects the beliefs of many thoughtful people today.

Hence, he has little faith in the ability of planners, governmental or corporate, to realize grandiose visions, and mocks those who think that human nature will be transformed the moment people find themselves presented with an "abundance of public space" or an "equitable mix of housing." Yet he seems to accept the notion that the alternative to planning is that amalgam of chaos, race hatred, and ever-more-apparent social injustice that we all "know" the modern world to be.

Never alluding to the fact that plan-ning schemes like urban renewal created many of the problems to which the planners in The New City are trying to respond, Amidon finds himself between two views of the world, one dead, the other powerless to be born. Rightly skeptical of the idea that a city (or a society) can be founded anew by adherence to the master plan, he has not yet heard anything about the beneficial tendency of anonymous processes--above all, markets--to coordinate the activities of people with differing and even conflicting ends.

Such a mindset borders on willful ignorance, as the evidence is all around him. Consider, for example, detested sprawl itself, the thing that Newton was invented to forestall. Advocates of centralized, governmental planning point to "strip" or "ribbon" development, characterized by miles of shopping centers flanked by main roads from urban cores, as a signal instance of wasteful, undesirable expansion. What many fail to acknowledge is that strips are sometimes the result of government intervention in the shape of zoning or various forms of subsidies for developers. What they seem determined not to admit at all costs is that strip development is in many ways highly efficient, and that it reflects the preferences of many ordinary people.

Move a block or two away from a typical strip, and you are likely to find yourself on a quiet residential street whose inhabitants are as close to the shops and services they need as were most residents of the now idealized 19th-century town. Sprawl makes it possible for an awful lot of people to have a nice yard, to live on a street without much through traffic, and to be near the supermarket. That's no mean accomplishment. Such efficiencies, moreover, are not the result of a master plan but the cumulative effect of the decisions of individual home buyers looking for lower land prices and of businesses following their customers beyond what used to be the edge of town.

Sprawl, properly understood, should teach a lesson about the way that the unsupervised actions of individuals can spontaneously give rise to structures serving their needs, much as the unsupervised competition of plants and animals gives rise to stable ecosystems without the benefit of a presiding engineer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who hanker after the job of engineer judge the results to fall woefully short of the ideal they have concocted for themselves.

Such lessons, however, are not in keeping with the temperament of a writer like Amidon, who has an unmistakable streak of Puritan idealism running through him. As one of his characters puts it, "People are animals," desperately in need of a stern guide to lead them into the peaceable kingdom but incapable of producing one from their ranks. A very American novel, The New City is the latest retelling of William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, which chronicles the gradual diminishing of the pilgrim settlers' hope and zeal, and which remains our archetypal account of dreams deferred. The updated version suggests not the anxiety of a people suspended between God and the devil but rather the uncomfortable paralysis of those who believe that modern humanity faces a sad choice: planning or chaos. Amidon has made a small contribution toward keeping such souls misinformed.

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