Tuesday, May 7, 2013

City Life by Witold Rybczynski

Source of book: I own this.

Occasionally, my wife brings home random books that were available for next to nothing. In this case, the book was one that I wanted to read, but had been planning to check out from the library. However, considering it cost 50 cents or less, it was actually more economical that the gas to travel to the library.

If I had to describe myself, I would have to say that I am not a country boy. I was raised primarily in the Los Angeles area, but I don’t think I am exactly a stereotypical urban denizen either. Like a great many in this country, I grew up in suburbia. I have lived in detached houses on individual lots, and traveled by car rather than public transportation. I have always spent time in the outdoors, including the wilderness, so I am not really a “slicker,” but I haven’t ever really experienced small town or rural life.

Anyway, one important skill to have if one wishes to live in a large, sprawling city like Los Angeles is that of navigation. Getting from one place to another can be a bit of a task if one does not know the basic layout of freeways and streets. I honed this skill as a child, and even then became interested in maps and how cities were structured. I was interested enough that I used to spend weeks drawing my own cities, towns, and subdivisions on dozens of attached sheets of paper. (I seem to have lost these, but I still have a collection of house plans I designed while in Junior High, complete with exterior elevations. I considered studying engineering before settling on the law.) And then, eventually, I became hooked on SimCity. I spent many hours playing around with different layouts and ideas, from cities with grids to cities designed to maximize property values. 

The original Sim City. Anyone else remember this?

But how do cities get their structure in the first place? To what degree did a master plan such as those I created play a role, and how much just happened?

Rybczynski explores a limited facet of this question in this book. A complete history of the development of cities would take multiple volumes, so he focuses on the development of the city in the United States. He also brings in cities such as Venice and Paris on occasion as a contrast or illustration.

I became acquainted with Rybczynski through his occasional articles on architecture in publications such as the Atlantic and the New York Times. He has an intriguingly international background, born to Polish parents Edinburgh, raised in London. He taught architecture in Montreal for a couple decades, before moving to Pennsylvania. I found that his writing was accessible, but informative. City Life was written nearly 20 years ago, and is one of several of his books that I would love to read.

There is plenty of interesting history in this book, with a particular focus on the designs and redesigns of Chicago. Time is also spent on important designers such as Frederick Law Olmstead, and on influential writers such as Tocqueville and Le Corbusier.

One new thing I learned was the origin of the word “ghetto.” The first, created in Venice to house Jewish refugees, was called the New Ghetto: the New Foundry or ironworks.

I also found interesting the three types of layout philosophies as described by Kevin Lynch. The first is the symbolic layout, such as Washington DC and other capitals in the old and new world, designed to symbolize some idea, religion, or philosophy. (DC shows the separation of powers, for example.) Second is the practical layout, which usually is in the form of a grid, and is calculated to maximize practical use. The third is the organic layout, which characterizes medieval towns which grew around the terrain, and is often characterized by crooked streets. All three can be found in cities throughout the world. Los Angeles itself shows characteristics of all of the layouts in different places.

History sometimes reveals surprises, and the biggest one in this book was the fact that several of the supposed “modern” ills of American cities were not in fact caused by the automobile, but existed long before. For example, sprawl began immediately. Christopher von Graffenried, the Swiss baron who founded New Bern, commented that “in America they do not like to live crowded, in order to enjoy a purer air, I accordingly ordered the streets to be very broad and the houses well separated from one from the other.” He wrote this in 1710.

Another surprise in this vein was that homogeneity of culture and consumption pre-dated television, malls, mass retailers, and mail order catalogues - to say nothing of the internet and the automobile. Tocqueville attributed this to the “spirit of equality.” In the 1830s.

The author also spent time on housing projects, poverty, and race. While I grew up in a poorer, primarily minority area of town, I never lived in a true ghetto, and certainly nothing approaching a true housing project

My knowledge of the horror of the “projects” comes primarily from books such as The Cross and the Switchblade by the late David Wilkerson and The End of Youngblood Johnson, which was a pretty bleak inside view. As Rybczinski points out, the problem with the projects wasn’t primarily an architectural issue - although they were often ugly - but one of stigmatization. The high rise blocks contributed to social isolation by concentrating the impoverished and removing them from mixed neighborhoods. By making the projects radically different from the housing for middle class, it made a line of demarcation. Unsurprisingly, the upwardly aspiring residents soon left for less stigmatized housing, while the projects ended up collecting and concentrating the poorest of the poor, with many soon housing welfare cases only. 

The infamous Cabrini Green project in Chicago.
This issue continues to be an important challenge in urban planning. There is a tension between those who wish to live in homogenous neighborhoods and those who wish to see more diversity of race, social, and economic status. I have seen a rise lately in the number of communities that are gated, in an attempt to keep the “undesirables” out. One wonders if this is a continuation of the same impulse that led many of the early planned developments to have racial restrictions in the deeds. (Even though these were ruled unenforceable in 1917, some developers continued to put racial restrictions in deeds until 1948. I actually ran across one of these deeds in one of my cases a couple of years ago. It was for a development near Mission Bay in San Diego. Right there on the deed: no “Negroes” can own the property or be a member of the property owners’ association.)

As the author points out, the suburbs are far more mixed than popularly believed. I certainly can attest that here in California, many - probably most - middle and lower middle class neighborhoods are an interesting mix. The problem for cities remains dealing with the “ghettos.”  This book is not a social science prescription, and the author simply notes the issues and the ways that architects and city planners have attempted to address the issue. If there was an easy, simple answer, then I suspect we would already be using it.

This book is a quick read, full of interesting history and ideas. It isn’t too technical, but focuses more on the stories than on the details of design.

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