The Soul of the City

|

City: Rediscovering the Center, by William Whyte, New York: Doubleday, 386 pages, $24.95

Although William Whyte does not claim City to be in the same tradition as Jane Jacobs's seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, the two books bear some striking resemblances. Both authors celebrate urban diversity and castigate the deadness and uniformity that has overtaken many sections of America's cities. Whyte, much like Jacobs, attacks practices that "dullify" downtown. It is almost as if, Whyte concludes, war had been declared on city streets, parks, and architecture.

Like Jacobs, Whyte points out that the very design of many modern megastructures, including housing projects, malls, and concourses, has been based on a destructive premise: fear of the street. In contrast to earlier eras, for example, facades are frequently turned away from the street. Such practices have not only served to destroy the vibrancy of street life (as exemplified by chance meetings, peddlers, and street entertainers); they have also caused crime. The crowded street, with its myriad unofficial "police," from hawkers to stoop-sitters, had always been the best form of crime control.

Many reviews have focused on the similarities between City and Death and Life and in particular on each book's ringing defense of urban diversity. Unfortunately, critics have missed the profound disagreement between Jacobs and Whyte over the meaning of diversity.

For Jacobs, it is largely a spontaneous process of trial-and-error experimentation. Failure is as necessary for the achievement of diversity as is success. By its very nature, the process cannot be directed by a central planning office. Indeed, the imposition of master plans only serves to stifle human creativity and impose uniformity. In Jacobs's view, planners do best when they work to foster an open and unpredictable environment for learning through experimentation.

For Whyte, on the other hand, diversity can and should be planned or imposed from above. Armed with stop-action photography (the book is generously illustrated), Whyte observes that the design of buildings, streets, and parks frequently goes against the grain of human nature. Whyte wants to do more than merely proselytize, however. He wants to mandate. Indeed, he supports additional regulations that would result in a society far more controlled, and hence in many ways less diverse, than the status quo. If there are not enough plazas, Whyte concludes, builders should be forced to put them in. Most draconian of all, he would force large-scale developers, as part of the "privilege" of being allowed to build, to lay aside 50 percent of their ground-floor front space for retail stores.

"Mixture is too vital," he asserts, "to be left up to the presumably objective verdict of the market place. It seems rigged against the diverse and the modestly scaled because it is rigged." Yet even a superficial survey of downtown megastructures (malls, stadiums, highways) constructed in the last 30 years would reveal a plethora of subsidies, ranging from low-interest loans to almost routine acts of confiscation. As Jacobs so effectively testified, whole blocks composed of "modestly scaled" shops in America's cities have been leveled through eminent domain in the name of redevelopment. Against this record of political failure, Whyte's willingness to grant even more powers to politicians, albeit in the service of different ends, strains credulity.

The major constituencies for City's program would seem to be regulators in search of new opportunities to ply their trade and, to a lesser extent, the middle-class suburban shopper looking for downtown retail bargains and cultural edification. The sections of the book addressing problems of the less-affluent urbanite are especially unsatisfactory. An illustration is Whyte's brief comment on the almost legendary public-housing fiasco, St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

The high-rise project was initially hailed by leading architects for its progressive design. Nineteen years after construction, crumbling because of vandalism, disrepair, and crime, it had to be demolished. Whyte sums up the project's fate with the revealing query, "Did we have to wait for the dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project…to see that the design approach was wrong?" This, then, is the key prescription running throughout City: fix the design, and all else follows. Virtually nowhere, except for an excellent exposition on the virtues of street peddlers, is there discussion of the negative role played by government paternalism and regulations in undermining community institutions, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship.

Design is important, and Whyte offers many valuable lessons on this score. The quality of design, however, is a poor guide for understanding some of the more remarkable inner-city success stories of recent years. Several public-housing projects, such as Kennilworth-Parkside in Washington, D.C., have witnessed a dramatic decline in crime and welfare dependency since the introduction of tenant management and ownership. St. Louis has a long history of privately owned streets, many of them nestled between extremely run-down blocks of the city. As Oscar Newman showed in Community of Interest, these private streets have much lower crime rates and higher property values than surrounding public streets.

There is little that is distinctive in the design of Kennilworth-Parkside or St. Louis's private streets to account for their success. Much more important is the fact that the residents of these developments enjoy property entitlements in the common areas, including the right to exclude criminals.

Whyte, however, has a rather negative opinion of property rights, as evidenced by his comments on developer-owned private plazas. In his view, these areas should be true public spaces open to all, including "undesirables" such as winos. He has a point in chiding overzealous private-plaza security guards, but it is a small price to pay when compared to the crime-ridden character of genuine public spaces such as New York's Central Park. What shopping mall, private street, or plaza could compete with such a poor record of crime control? Again, Whyte offers little but his poor-design refrain. Not surprisingly, he seems at a loss to explain the high crime rates of cities he regards as the most visually pleasing, such as New York City (a city, incidentally, not well known for its respect of property rights).

Despite these criticisms, there is much to learn from City. The discussion of the positive (and largely unsung) role of street entertainers and peddlers is fascinating. There are valuable chapters on the virtues of gentrification and the increasingly prevalent, and largely private, sale of sun easements. Although Whyte's overall theme is hostile to the prerogatives of private ownership, the examples he cites often illustrate innovative property-rights solutions. In New York City, for example, some store merchants are beginning to compromise with peddlers by charging a rental fee for use of their sidewalk space. Unlike most scholarly tomes, City is written in an engaging, easy-to-read, and provocative style. In this, age of dull-as-dishwater academic literature, these are no small virtues.

David Beito, who teaches urban history at the University of Nevada, is currently editing a book, The Voluntary City.

Advertisement