Metropolis Regained

Half a century ago, Grady Clay tracked the fault lines of contemporary urbanism.

Left behind in the Internet era is a rich store of essays on design which have limited cultural presence because they are not online. In our ongoing series Future Archive, we republish significant 20th-century texts, each selected and introduced by a prominent scholar.

Grady Clay, downtown Louisville, Kentucky. [Estate of Grady Clay]

Soon after I first met Grady Clay, in his native Louisville, Kentucky, a large envelope arrived in the mail. Inside were more than a dozen documents — newspaper and magazine clippings, handwritten notes, photocopies, photographs, even some mimeographs, as I recall. They were all centered on the issue of landscape views, a subject I was then working on. With genuine interest, Grady had asked me about my research; he seemed a generous man, and even more so when I received the packet. With the perspective of time — this all happened fifteen years ago, and Clay died in 2013 at the age of ninety-six — I see that the material he sent was not simply the gift of an open-handed spirit. Rather, it was part of his way of working, his way of seeing where he lived, a personal perspective on place gathered from wide and sustained observations, across media and over time. The notes and clippings were an index of a world view.

Clay’s method of firsthand observation is evident throughout his writings, from articles that appeared in the 1940s in Landscape Architecture (he went on to edit the journal from 1959 to 1985) to pieces for The Louisville Courier-Journal, where he worked first as real estate editor and later as urban affairs editor (a post he appears to have invented and possibly the first such position in the nation), and later through a series of commentaries on National Public Radio and various essays for other publications — including one for this journal, written when he was seventy-three, on the football field as “a national unit of psycho-geographic size and shape” that brings an “expanding world down to human conversational scale.” 1 In a 1978 study, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, Clay not only documented an overlooked street type; he also called out an American “obsession with frontality” which, along with short-term development goals, was obliterating an urban resource through neglect, sleight-of-hand mapping, and the agglomerating of superblocks that devoured entire neighborhoods, including their alleys. 2 The premise of much of his writing is precisely to scrutinize and to see for oneself with a sharp-edged immediacy that cut through the overlay of conventional ideas that can crowd out original thinking. The result was always personal and idiosyncratic; often it was apolitical, keeping an arm’s length away from the racial or class tensions inherent in so many of his subjects. But always his writing revealed what the usual categories could not; his descriptions illuminated a range of urban forms and human interactions rarely captured by those more concerned with the orthodoxies of urban theory.

Much of his writing cut through the overlay of conventional ideas that can crowd out original thinking.

Clay traveled widely but remained rooted. Returning to Louisville and the Courier-Journal in 1949, after a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, Clay grappled with the problem of staying current with the swiftly changing city he was assigned to cover. Why wasn’t there a manual? he asked himself. His response was the 1973 Close-Up: How to Read the American City, “a kind of Baedeker to the commonplace.” In the book Clay renounces the norms of urban geography in favor of an original catalogue of place-types based on his many years of crisscrossing the country to look at landscapes and report stories. His catalogue includes the named, well-bounded, information-rich urban center — the “epitome district” — served by symbols and gatekeepers and “packed with visible evidence of complexities beyond itself.” The catalogue also includes the “zones of unpredictable change” that he calls “fronts”; “strips,” which are designed for “easy transactions” and “constant coming and going”; “beats,” or “behavior settings for regular, periodic, recurring movements”; reserves of resources, which might be “materials, minerals, objects, liquids, or energy” — he calls these “stacks” — and their opposite, those areas where “undesirable elements [are] to be pushed over the bank, heaved off the edge, out of sight, out of mind, down into the sink,” with “sink” serving as the label for such places; and, finally, “turf,” places characterized by the “geometry of territoriality” and maintained by private and public partnerships. “Turf is landscape spelled out,” as he put it. Close-Up was more than just a novel effort to rethink the contemporary city. It was meant also to spur readers to look for themselves with fresh eyes. Clay began the book by asserting that despite the analyses of experts, landscapes contained “undisclosed evidence, waiting for us.” And he argued that no theory “can substitute for each person’s own leap into the dark, jumping in to draw his or her own conclusions.” 3

In that era Clay was not alone in looking at the vernacular landscape and the comings-and-goings of the everyday environment. J.B. Jackson had by the 1950s become a strong voice, breaking open the very meaning of “landscape” to reflect cultural practices that bear on the use, organization, and form of the land. Before then the term was used most often to refer to an artistic genre or to the works of landscape designers. Clay was nearly Jackson’s contemporary and each edited an important journal; in fact, based on their parallel interests, Clay, whose Landscape Architecture enjoyed a larger circulation than Jackson’s Landscape, proposed a merger of the two periodicals. Jackson declined but, as Clay said, they “became lifelong friends — a much better bargain.” 4 In those years Clay met another editor who would become a close friend: Jane Jacobs, who was then working at Architectural Forum and beginning to question and criticize various postwar urban planning projects — such as Edmund Bacon’s proposal for megastructures on Market Street in Philadelphia and Robert Moses’s plan for an expressway through Lower Manhattan — for their potentially corrosive effects on ordinary but vital neighborhoods.

As editor and reporter, Clay was part of the tumult — he got into the fight.

Clay was never the activist that Jacobs proved to be; nor were his writings as deeply influential as Jackson’s. But he was always observing the observers, along with the objects of observation, in order to render the politics of city place-making more transparent and, as a result, more available to public scrutiny and skepticism. In “Metropolis Regained,” an essay written for Horizon in 1959 and republished here, he challenges the various parties engaged in the making and unmaking of cities, pitting “unlimited authority” and “the massed forces of inertia and practicality” against public opinion or, in the worst cases, lack of opinion. He bemoans urban schemes that are kept hidden from the public and argues that professional planning expertise is effective only when it is tempered by the informed response of the citizenry it serves. Here in the United States we need, Clay says, “a more critical audience.” Ordinary people should take on greater responsibility for their city. Debate is not only beneficial in the long term; it also replicates the “variety and experiment,” the inventive tumult and unforeseen outlooks of the city itself. In a 1957 polemic in Landscape Architecture he put much of the blame for the increasing and shameful ugliness of the American city and countryside on “those of high spirit and creativeness [who] have neglected their prime duty to get into the fight.” 5


As both editor and reporter, Clay was part of the tumult — he got into the fight. Although even then the field of play was shrinking. Big city newspapers, especially evening editions, were already in decline in the 1950s, the casualty of radio and television; and the hordes of new suburbanites were subscribing to local newspapers — indeed many were content to no longer focus on the problems of the city they had left. In the late ’50s, only two urban critics were publishing regularly: Lewis Mumford, whose “Skyline” column for The New Yorker had begun in 1932 and would run until 1963, and Grady Clay, writing for the Louisville Courier-Journal. 6 To be sure, strong voices on metropolitan topics could be heard occasionally in popular magazines: E.B. White wrote New Yorker pieces on the character of the city 7; William Whyte published meticulous studies of Midtown Manhattan streets and plazas and, as editor of Fortune, commissioned and featured other urban research. And professional journals sometimes featured critique: Ian McHarg’s articles on ecologically sound planning were first published by Clay in Landscape Architecture; figures such as Gordon Cullen, Christopher Tunnard, Herbert Gans, Kevin Lynch, Reyner Banham, and the economist Martin Anderson, as well as Jackson and Jacobs, were frequent contributors to a range of periodicals. Many of these thinkers were in frequent contact with one another. 8

Clay’s technique was simple: walk and look. It entailed walking as straight a path as possible across a city, which inevitably calls into question what we think we know.

At a time of rapid urban change, Clay underscored the vital importance of critical scrutiny in his 1958 essay, “Critics Wanted! New American Landscape Needs Criticism.” 9 Later that year, to much the same point, the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored a conference on urban design criticism. Clay, Jackson, Jacobs, Lynch, Mumford, McHarg, Catherine Bauer, Herbert Gans, Louis Kahn, and I.M. Pei were among the luminaries in attendance. 10 Their exhortations were evidently successful: by the 1960s the ranks of urban reporters were growing. Ada Louise Huxtable signed on in 1963 as the first architecture critic of The New York Times; Allan Temko joined the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961; Paul Gapp wrote for The Columbus Dispatch, Chicago Daily News, and Chicago Tribune; the Miami Herald hired Beth Dunlop; Ian Nairn wrote for the British outlets The Observer and Architectural Review (and visited Clay in Louisville under the auspices of a grant from Fortune); Jo Hindman was a freelance journalist specializing in southern California; and Art Seidenbaum contributed sociologically informed articles to the Los Angeles Times. All these critics looked beyond aesthetic issues and sought to understand the built environment as the always evolving result of complex processes and political struggles.

Clay’s technique was simple: walk and look. In a piece aimed at architecture students, on how to set about designing for the future, he wrote: “If I have a thesis, it is that the human experience is the most important ingredient of the successful City of Tomorrow — and that the only way I know of to judge the qualities of this experience is to get out, walk, and look.” 11 It was an approach to thinking about cities he called the “cross-section method.” Comparable to the archaeologist’s transect when exploring an unfamiliar site, Clay’s method entailed walking as straight a path as possible across a city, which inevitably calls into question what we think we know and therefore expect to see, and allows us to detect all the amorphous areas and awkward adjacencies — the sort of scenes that are rarely in any idealized, mind’s-eye version of a place. In developing this method he was influenced by the writings of Jackson, Lynch, and Patrick Geddes, as well as by a memorable evening walk with Jacobs and also by the many hours he spent on conference bus tours looking out at the passing scenes. He explains the process so that others might take it up: plan your route, take pictures and keep a record of your thoughts, and don’t get “disheartened by what is strange along the route. … It is quite likely that you will produce documentation, the record of unique insights, never before available for that particular place. Do not keep it to yourself. This is pioneering stuff.” 12

Grady Clay’s file cabinet, 2010. © The Cultural Landscape Foundation [Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum]

Inevitably, Clay would give names to what he came across. This is plain to see in Close-Up and, especially, in Real Places, from 1994, in which the real places include “the burn,” “the dark,” “the furrow,” “the ice,” “the sand castles,” “toads” and “the view.” (The last was his synthesis of the ideas contained in the clippings he would later send me.) These terms were not just authorial flights; they served to crystallize, even dramatize, his insights into the way cities work. Indeed, Clay often depicted contemporary urban change as a kind of theater. In a 1972 essay on the “random, careless, free-wheeling way of life and mobility” that was then, he believed, doing insidious damage to the built environment, he described the “offstage noises” that preservationists — “an oppressed minority” — failed to hear clearly. 13 In the Horizon essay that appears below, Clay takes us back to the 1939 World’s Fair and the Futurama model, which portrayed the “ideal city of tomorrow,” ca. 1960; he likens what he calls “the Voice” — the narration that “insinuated” itself into the ears of visitors — to the patronizing cult of expertise that would produce heavy-handed government schemes and thus sorely test public faith in “thoughtful planning and design.” Later in the essay he writes about the “Fallacy of Unilateral Dedensification” — an ungainly but curiously endearing description of what would later be called, more simply, “sprawl.”

But for Clay naming was more than just a journalist’s tool to sharpen viewpoints (consider “the city-beat” and the “city-proud,” also in ”Metropolis Regained”) or to encapsulate complex issues with a neat phrase or two. New names were the outcome of what Clay called “Wordgame” — a playful process of concocting place names that ultimately was no game at all. “A city is also what we call it and becomes as we describe it,” he wrote. Novel and effective solutions to urban problems did not result from “replaying an old scene with new buildings,” as was the case with so many urban renewal efforts; rather, good solutions happened when we understood and defined those problems in fresh terms. Prescription follows description, he insisted. Likewise, perception follows classification: “Putting together words in new ways is a means of putting together one’s new world.” It also encouraged a dynamic and “continuing watching encounter with the changing environment.” Clay emphasized the importance of language because in his judgment “the ‘urban dialogue’ of our time … is an awkward mixture of elitist architectural terms, of radical shitslinging, and of the manipulative lingo of evangelistic bureaucrats,” all of it untethered from “the hard facts of a living environment.” 14 He went so far as to argue the efficacy of this word game in linguistic journals. 15

‘Putting together words in new ways is a means of putting together one’s new world,’ Clay insisted.

These kinds of critiques, and even a reflexive critical stance toward urban development, are by now familiar; but back then the writings of Jackson, Jacobs, and Clay constituted a minority view. That so many skeptical voices can be heard today immediately following the announcement of big-city development schemes testifies to the chords of social justice such critics struck so persuasively decades ago. For his part, Clay can be seen thinking clearly through the ways a truly democratic city would operate and what it would look like. To be sure, in ”Metropolis Regained” he commends the sociability of “men’s clubs of the nineteenth century” — not exactly a progressive model —but he specifically appreciates their embrace of newcomers and their premise of “face-to-face society.” In this light the reference, however difficult for the present-day reader, uncovers a stratum of tolerance and mutual civility which, in an ideal world, would govern all so that all may occupy the same space as equals. Clay presumes a city of alleys as well as boulevards, architectural monuments as well as beats, strips, and stacks. Clay’s voice is homey, but it is confident, too, at times even censorious. And always he urges readers to see for themselves, to become the critical audience cities need to maintain their health. The breadth and range of his work, as well as its blind spots and idiosyncrasies, demand that readers refine and recalibrate Clay’s conjectural places with the realities in their own cities. The point is not whether Clay followed his cross-sectioning prescription, ignoring racial boundaries and crime statistics; his willingness to see the city for what it was and his urging that we do the same seem to me the most relevant rewards to be gained from reading him today.

The last time I saw Grady we fell into another conversation about architecture and the city. At one point he registered dismay that the term “landscape” had gotten over-exposed, and he recited some of the compound terms he’d been hearing: political landscape, emotional landscape, moral landscape and so on. The power of the word was being diluted, he felt. I agreed that it was a faddish trope but I defended the practice, suggesting that appending “landscape” usefully broadened a term, lending it scope and a dynamic capacity. 16 The resulting compound term could encompass the horizon as well as the near-at-hand, conjuring the forces that enliven and shape everything between. And, I added, if “landscape” had achieved such latitude and energy, well beyond the meanings the term connoted when he began his career, then, to some extent, he had himself and his cohort to blame — or praise. He went quiet for a moment to consider this view and then reached behind him to pick up a bottle of bourbon and refill our glasses.

From Horizon, July 1959.

“Metropolis Regained” (1959)

by Grady Clay

Proud and passionate city! I have rejected nothing you offer’d me — whom you adopted I have adopted, Good or bad I never question you — I love all — I do not condemn anything, I chant find celebrate all that is yours.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1865

Who designed New York? It was Cain, wasn’t it … after he murdered Abel?
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1956

Twenty years ago this summer the ideal city of tomorrow was available for anyone to see. It was the “Futurama,” an elaborate scale model made by Norman Bel Geddes, which formed a part of the General Motors exhibition at the New York World’s Fair. From a train of moving seats in the darkened building a visitor looked down, as though from the air, on a miniature landscape of highways and farm land — and finally on the City itself, with its quarter-mile-high towers sheathed in glass, and soaring among them the four-level, seven-lane, one-directional highways on which you would some day choose your speed: 50, 75, or 100 miles an hour.

Then, as many will remember, there was the Voice, which softly and insinuatingly described the scene from a loudspeaker behind each seat. It is ironic now to recall what the Voice said: “The city of 1960 has abundant sunshine, fresh air, fine green parkways, recreational and civic centers — all the result of thoughtful planning and design.” No building’s shadow would touch another; parks would occupy one-third of the city area. “Who can say,” whispered the Voice, “what new horizons lie before us if we but have the initiative and imagination to penetrate them … ?”

Coming out into daylight, the fairgoer of 1939 could only despair at the contrast between the City of the Future and the city in which he himself was compelled to live. But we, one year away from the millennium prophesied for 1960, can feel a similar despair. The Bel Geddes dream has been coming true, in its way. But what a difference between the dream and its execution! The highways are being built, but at what cost to essential qualities of city life! The tall lowers, gleaming with glass and steel, are rising above the streets of Manhattan — but they jostle one another like dominoes, shouldering their way up toward air and sun.

In retrospect the most ironic quality in the optimistic faith that Futurama City represented was the belief, as the Voice expressed it, in “thoughtful planning and design.” That was a generation which at least thought it knew what was wanted, and assumed that the problem remaining was largely one of how to achieve it. Now we are not so sure. For twenty years we have been getting installments, admittingly small and disconnected ones, on the ideal city as visualized in the 1930s: and the more we get of it, the less certain we are that it is what we had in mind. The city of 1959 — with its mile upon mile of circumferential suburbs, with its stark, efficient office buildings, and its sober, barren housing developments — this city of today is at least in some measure the end product of the dream of 1939, and we are far from wholly happy with it.

A generation of city planners agreed that the solution to urban society is to move people farther apart; the thing to do with the city is to get people out of it.

What we have learned, to our sorrow, is that the vision did not go far enough. For one thing, it looked down as though from a great distance, with the model-maker’s eye, on the buildings in which flesh-and-blood humanity would eventually live; and it saw them, not to human scale, but to a scale designed — as one current critic puts it — “for a race of giant men playing a new kind of chess.” Futurama’s skyscrapers looked elegant enough only so long as you did not try to imagine them close up, in their inhabitants’ dimension. For another thing, those marvelous one-way, multi-lane highways, carrying their many thousands in and out of the city, represented a theory of planning — and a system of social organization — which has turned out to be far less feasible than we thought. It might be called the Fallacy of Unilateral Dedensification.

This is the principle, in varying degree accepted by a generation of city planners, that the way to solve the problem of living in an urban society is to move people farther apart; the thing to do with the city is to get people out of it. The idea stems partly from old American tradition, partly from the brief history of planning as an art. Both have combined to give an approved, deckle-edged authority to what an apparently preponderant number of Americans wanted to do anyhow — leave the city and live in the suburbs.

This mass migration, in volume, is one of the world’s largest shifts of population, yet surely one does not go too far by observing that it has failed in what it set out to do. In 1905 the Central Railroad of New Jersey urged the head of a New York family, tied down to his city job, “to put as many leagues as possible between his home and the Tenderloin, to keep his wife and children apart from the contaminating sights and influences of the metropolis,” and it guaranteed immunity from the “undesirable elements of city environment.” Now, having put as much as forty miles between himself and his desk, the suburban New Yorker has become so numerous that he still crowds against his kind, out to the very farthest rings of stratified, bedroom communities which offer at best a veneer of the rural values. Suburbia promised open fields, then filled them up with houses. It spoke of peace and ended in zoning fights. Seeking the best of both city and country, the suburban pioneers have often found themselves saddled with the worst of each.

Suburbia promised open fields, then filled them up with houses. It spoke of peace and ended in zoning fights.

Meanwhile, back at the heart of the metropolis, the disease of Unilateral Dedensification has been working other ills. The city core, while no one paid much attention to it, has been moving into a stage of advanced decay. We have concentrated so hard on the desirability of getting out of the city that we have almost forgotten the values which have made cities the heart of every civilization: Only recently has the center of American metropolitan districts received anything like the attention that has gone to the fringe; and, now that planners and developers are turning to the job of renewing the downtown quarter, some of them are beginning to wonder if they may not have brought along the wrong tools. The theory that got us into this predicament, after all, is not likely to provide the best way out of it. Perhaps the greater need is for a new way of viewing the fact, the future, the bane, and the unique pleasures of city life.

Our dilemmas have lately given rise to what can be called the Great Urban Debate. So far it has been limited mainly to city planners, to architects, to critics of both, and to journalists whose beat this subject is. These all are, virtually by definition, men and women with a common dedication to the traditional aim of city planning — the most agreeable, healthful, and practicable surroundings for the largest possible number of people. But recently they have been discovering, not without a certain sense of shock, that they are no longer talking about quite the same thing.

Some of the older generation of planners who look back on their handiwork, or on work committed in their name, have been heard to lament that somehow something has gone wrong, that the letter has been observed at the loss of the spirit. To this their critics have been known to reply, in effect: I-told-you-so — what did you expect to result from a rejection of the essential city virtues, the disorder and vitality so offensive to those who love neat plans, so welcomed by those who value cities for their own sake?

It may help to clarify a somewhat ill- defined debate if I exaggerate to the point of asserting that it is being conducted by two opposing sides. Let me call them, for convenience, the city-beat and the city-proud.

The city, in the view of the city-beat, is the stage-set for the death throes of civilization. It is the source of crime and false values, the playground of conspicuous-consumers. City life is frenzied, enervating, lacking in the quiet from which all great thought emerges. Here other-directed men work out their lives amid the conflicting pressures of increasingly powerful organizations over which they have decreasingly effective control. It is fruitless, so this reasoning runs, to talk of recreating the intimate city of the Renaissance — or even the congenial squares and plazas like Venice’s St. Mark’s, where architecture and instinctive “planning” have combined to form a focal point of city life. We live in a new world, impelled by new forces, and soon new sources of energy will abolish the original necessity for urban concentration. The future lies outward, where man can begin anew in the clean and verdant countryside. The new suburban man, commuting perhaps a hundred miles by helicopter, will be forever free of the city evils: envy, emulation, and conformity.

Such is the argument for abandoning the city to its fate. If this seems excessive, remember that the idea is embedded deep in American ideology and legislation. Here, for example, is Senator Homer Capehart, chairman or the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, commenting in 1954 on a bill to provide for families displaced by slum clearance:

I think it is much better to build individual units for these people … let them live out in the country where they can get fresh air. … This provision has actually no merit at all, no virtue at all, unless it will take the people out or the slums and blighted areas, and give them an opportunity to own their own home. Get them out in the country, away from the city. If it doesn’t do that, it has absolutely no merit.

The city-proud, on the other hand, are unwilling to accept this verdict. They believe that the city is — as it has always been — the hope of the world, the repository of all complicated and therefore civilized things. In the city, man has embodied his highest aspirations. It is his supreme artifact, a testimonial to his organizing skill, a treasure house from which he draws the rewards of genius. Here, in the eyes of the city-lover, is where great ideas flourish. Here the arts find their widest market, the professional and the entrepreneur their most rewarding clientele. Here the mind expands in the turbulence of the day, the companionship of the night, the challenge or other minds. City life is vivid, stimulating, productive. It offers all things to all men — including, when needed, the boon of anonymity. It is the source of innovation and enterprise, ever-changing, a symbol of life itself.

As can be well imagined, in these days of near-compulsory suburban migration, the city-proud are passionate advocates of what they believe to be a just but lonely cause. Perhaps for this reason, their most eloquent spokesmen have been found, not among city planners, but among sociologists, architectural critics, and journalists. Some of their most powerful statements can be found in an outspoken little book, The Exploding Metropolis, all of whose contributors were magazine editors and writers — the two most notable being Jane Jacobs, an associate editor of Architectural Forum, and William H. Whyte, Jr., of Fortune, whose book The Organization Man has set the style for so much viewing-with-alarm of the modern corporate colossi. After examining a variety of the grandiose city-redevelopment projects that are now under way in the United States, Mrs. Jacobs and her collaborators came to the conclusion that most of them were based on a complete misunderstanding of what has traditionally made great cities livable and attractive. The new neighborhoods, she wrote,

… will be spacious, parklike, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and orderly … clean, impressive, monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. … These projects will not revitalize downtown; they will deaden it. … Almost without exception, the projects have one standard solution for every need: commerce, medicine, culture, government — whatever the activity, they take a part of the city’s life, abstract it from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and set it like a self-sufficient island, in splendid isolation.

In England a parallel line of attack is being carried on by Gordon Cullen and Ian Nairn of The Architectural Review. In their special issues, bearing such titles as “Outrage” and “Counterattack,” they have viewed with alarm the disappearance of both urban and rural Britain in a dreary, spreading “Subtopia.” They prophesy that “if what is called development is allowed to multiply at the present rate, then by the end of the century, Great Britain will consist of isolated oases of preserved monuments in a desert of wire, concrete roads, cozy plots, and bungalows.”

Planners on both sides of the Atlantic are appalled by cities that are expanding and disintegrating beyond all social or aesthetic sense. The urgency of the problem was stated recently by David A. Crane of the University of Pennsylvania:

Since 1945, population of American cities has grown by more than 25 million, and during the next decade and a half, 50 million more can be expected. … So far most new development or material improvement has been done on the urban fringes, leaving the older city cores to rot. We can expect our massive energies to be turned with equal efficiency to central area development. [But] if it is like what we have seen in fringe development, this is likely to be the final catastrophe. … What Americans have prodigiously produced is by common consent antiseptic, dull and meaningless at best, and at worst garish, pretentious, and inhuman. … If the values and achievements of civilizations are recorded in their cities, we shall certainly leave damaging symbols of ours.

The Fallacy of Unilateral Dedensification bears an important responsibility for bringing us to this pass. We have been misled by the notion that the only thing to do with the city is to turn it into something that is not a city at all, but rather a sort of denatured substitute from which the vital and interesting features, bad and good alike, have been removed. The flight from the city, both in fact and in fancy, dominates our thinking. The fact is that getting out, getting away, is one of the prime themes of the American experience.

We have been misled by the notion that the only thing to do with the city is to turn it into something that is not a city at all.

Historically speaking, when we think of charming urban models we think of the surviving remnants of those middle-sized 18th-century cities from which our history took flight: Savannah, Charleston (“before the rich Yankees took it over”), or the numerous localities in the Western Reserve which grew gracefully into the role of birthplaces for so many presidents. These were the communities where you “knew everybody in town,” where children could grow up exposed to rich and poor, the great and the phony. But with the appearance of industry on the rivers and the arrival of Europe’s immigrants it was not long before this dreamlike landscape began to change.

Within a century (or a decade, in some places) the factories had covered the riverbanks where local boys used to catch their catfish; the city creeks had dried up, the fields had vanished under houses and warehouses, the woodlands close at hand were gone; by the time the bicycle arrived it was a good hour’s pedaling for city youngsters to the nearest hunting ground or crawfish creek. Here and there, preserved by plutocracy (the rich suburbs and the Newports) or by poverty (Annapolis, Natchez, Nantucket), some towns managed to remain relatively untouched by time, to survive into the present and become case histories. But in the main the old scenes disappeared; and what the Industrial Revolution did not destroy, the Transportation Revolution did.

In 1841 a Reverend G. Lewis, minister in Dundee, Scotland, made a prophetic observation which could have been applied to any growing American city of the same period: “The newly opened railways,” he said, “offer new facilities for uniting the business of the town with family residence in the country, and threaten, ere many years, to convert Dundee into one great workshop, with the families of its workmen wholly detached from the notice or sympathy of the families of any upper class.” Clear-sighted as he was, the good Dr. Lewis could not have reckoned with the strength of the frontier tradition in the United States, which extended his somber prospect beyond his most somber expectation. Spurred on by the hope (and often the certainty) of riches Out West, millions of Americans quit the old cities and struck out on their own — the greatest group of land speculators in our history. It is hardly too much to say, as did Secretary of State William Seward, that for a century “the interested cupidity of the pioneer” was national policy. There was an easy buck to be had out where the grass grew tall or, if not there, on the city’s edge. “Buy on the fringes and wait,” said old John Jacob Astor.

Self-interest thus combined with the rivalry between farm and market, the provinces and the metropolis, to embed a belief that “God made the Country, and Man made the City” ever more deeply into the American unconscious. To realize how vigorously this prejudice persists, we need only consider the words of the late Frank Lloyd Wright, in his famous television debate with the real-estate magnate William Zeckendorf in 1956:

Who designed New York? It was Cain, wasn’t it? Cain was the founder of the city, after he murdered Abel. He had incurred the displeasure of the Lord, and he went out and founded the city and here it is, yet. Here is the city founded by the man who murdered his brother, and he is still murdering his brother, isn’t he?

Rural parochialism of this stripe is not confined to yokels or to men of such strong opinions as Wright. Indeed it has a venerable lineage. Did not Thomas Jefferson say, “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man”? Perhaps some modern critics would be willing to argue that Jefferson, in slicing off the top of a Virginia hilltop to provide a platform for his Monticello, was committing a flagrant case of early American “outrage,” but he himself is still revered too highly to be much attacked for his antipathetic views on the city.

But strong support for the Fallacy of Unilateral Dedensification has come not only from these underlying ideas but from the theory of city planning itself. Reducing the concentration of people in a city — as the great English reformer Sir Ebenezer Howard wanted to do with London — is one of the most hallowed principles of planning. The trouble is that what Howard tried to do is a very different thing from what has since been done with his ideas. His solution, the English “Garden Cities” of the early 20th century, did not exhibit that single-minded concentration on moving people out into the country which has characterized American endeavors. Howard did not want towns that would be merely dormitory parasites on the major centers, but self-sufficient communities that would be new (and improved) cities in themselves, smaller and more manageable than the London — “the great wen,” as Cobbett had called it — of his day.

What Howard was after, and what he achieved in the garden cities of Welwyn and Letchworth, was to combine “the advantages of the most energetic and active town life with all the beauty and delight of the country.” He neither believed that one must suffer indefinitely in the city crush, nor that solace and comfort were obtainable only in the wilderness. His object was to build well-financed, fully organized new towns, each with its own central core, thinly settled residential district, and ring of factories and warehouses. All would be surrounded by a strip of permanent agricultural land, to supply fresh produce to the townspeople. This was his “green-belt” — a name that later acquired meaning of its own in America — land which would not lie idle, but would produce both food and rent, not to speak of fresh air and recreation. Owned by the city itself, the green-belt would remain inviolate — a lasting, encircling stretch of amenity.

Howard’s great book — originally titled Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), but later changed to Garden Cities of Tomorrow — is now required reading in the urban planning schools of the Western world, and has shaped the thoughts of two generations of planners, architects, land developers, and legislators. But his ideas suffered a sea change when they were imported into the United States. Certain details — green fields within residential blocks, walkways which connect homes and schools without crossing streets — showed up in the New Deal’s famous Greenbelt towns, and in isolated examples like TVA’s Norris, Tennessee. John Nolen, with his designs for Mariemont, Ohio, and Kingsport, Tennessee, helped encourage American enterprise in this direction, as did the better-known team of Clarence Stein and Henry Wright. Yet the latter’s Radburn, New Jersey, built at the end of the 1920’s as a “town for the motor age,” offered the humane, green-grass qualities that Howard had been after, only in a dilute, suburban form — and Radburn, far from being surrounded by a protective belt, has now been swallowed up in the all-inclusive New York urban sprawl.

The green-belt itself, in the process, was sentimentalized into something Howard could not have recognized. Where he had intended it to have a positive function, both aesthetic and economic, the New Deal Greenbelt towns converted it into a protective barrier — in typically suburban fashion — against commerce and vulgarity. “Each town,” read a Resettlement Administration press release on the occasion of President Roosevelt’s visit to Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1936, “is surrounded with an area of woods and farm land which will protect the lawn from undesirable commercial or industrial developments.” And, one might have added, from jobs.

In any event, these conscious efforts to “plan” new towns were the exception. The vast majority of American attempts to make a “garden city” followed the example of our first recorded community with that name, a Long Island suburb designed in the middle of the 19th century by Alexander T. Stewart. It had nearly 8,000 acres (nearly twice the size of Howard’s Welwyn) and — what was more important — a railroad connection to New York City. Like Riverside, near Chicago — a “naturalistic subdivision” of winding streets and greenery, laid out in 1869 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux — this was little more than a speculative residential project, tied to the city by the umbilical cord of a commuters’ railroad. And these two, rather than the self-sufficient garden cities of England, proved to be the forerunners of today’s mammoth suburbia.

From the beginning, the American green-belt towns were dominated by the old homestead idea: every man should have his own piece of land to “develop” as a garden. The somewhat more pressing question of where Everyman was to earn a living was grandly ignored. Greenbelt in this respect was no more than a small-town version of Futurama where, to the delight of General Motors, everyone would have to drive to the distant metropolis — at 75 miles an hour — to find work. Clarence Stein himself, a guiding force in American town planning, now sees that this was a mistake. Looking back on the three Greenbelt communities that were built (in Maryland, Ohio, and Wisconsin), he writes in his book, Toward New Towns for America: “Although these three are among America’s outstanding demonstrations of New Towns, it must be admitted that they all missed out on the score of industry.”

There was to have been a fourth — Greenbrook, New Jersey, “a complete garden city” — that did call for an industrial district. But local opposition and the threat of court action prevented it from being built. Subsequently, this region of New Jersey has had a tremendous industrial boom, one in which “Greenbrook” would undoubtedly have shared. Thus were we deprived of our one opportunity to find out whether the Howard idea, properly tested, could have taken root in America — and so we were left with nothing to go on but pale and irrelevant imitations, and with the rampant and overarching example of unleashed suburbia everywhere upon us.

So much for the background of our dilemma. For myself, after some extended tours through the mid-sections of a dozen American cities — and the urban planning offices in many of them — I can only say that all great movements start in murmurs, and that I hear murmurs. It is one thing for the city-proud, most of them New Yorkers, to defend their private vision of that many-faced goddess’s charm; it is quite another for the inhabitants of equally chaotic but less dramatic cities to adopt similar views. Yet that is what I find — widening rings of curiosity about what can be done to save, to know, to appreciate, and to improve the city as the great place in its historic sense. These New Urbanists are not so much partisans in the Great Debate as products of it, and they might reason somewhat as follows:

We believe in the city, they would say, not in tearing it down. We like open space, but hold that too much of it is just as bad as too little. We want that multiplicity of choice which the city has always offered, but is now in danger of losing. We want the same financing for a city house as for a suburban split-level: good transportation to and from work, without wasting hours on subways, buses, or in traffic. We like the intimacy of the crowd, but we like also to escape from it — we like the busy downtown plaza, but also the pleasant walkways of a residential district. We are appalled at your civic centers, your housing projects, and your expressways. They seem designed to be self-contained mechanisms for performance, procreation, and propulsion. We come to the city seeking community, pleasure, jobs, and other people; you seem to be destroying the first, demoralizing the second, decentralizing the third, and displacing the last. We like it here — only give us a break!

The New Urbanists do not, I think, consider city planners to be the villains, for as a group planners could hardly be held responsible for even a modest portion of our urban ailments. The professional planner in America is still a small-time operator; he gets little encouragement and less status; and, when the municipal pecking order is established at city hall, he usually winds up far down the line with the assistant traffic engineers. Unlike his British counterpart, the American planner seems fated to assume the gentle role of umpire, often on the sidelines, and can expect to be rewarded with an occasional barrage of pop bottles in the form of budget cuts.

The professional planner in America is a small-time operator; in the municipal pecking order, he usually winds up far down the line with the assistant traffic engineers.

Nor do the New Urbanists believe that the answer is to give planners unlimited authority — over zoning, the design of buildings, the flow of traffic, the countless trivial obstacles that get in the way of all administration. They do not believe that change will be meaningful unless it comes about in the public mind. They would like to see a more critical audience for proposed urban plans, a more general acceptance of responsibility for what shape the city takes, a more sympathetic regard for its undeveloped potentialities. They welcome the scattered example of cities that have gone ahead on their own — as San Francisco has done with Maiden Lane, or as Fort Worth proposes to do — to restore the human dimension in the downtown core; and they look with hope, if with some skepticism, on the attempts to make new shopping centers into more reasonable facsimiles of a community meeting place — a place for talk, for random encounters, for passing the time of day.

They would like to see the construction of city highways brought down to human scale, so that the city is not made uninhabitable merely in order to make it accessible. They would like to see some better way of clearing slums without bulldozer tactics, of preserving and emphasizing historical landmarks as focal points, and if possible of creating those visual backwaters and out of-the-way corners that give any neighborhood its character. They would like easier opportunities for all kinds of people to meet, more coming-together places, where strangers can gather casually without an introduction or a ticket — places with some of the qualities of the men’s clubs of the 19th century, where you can expect to be received even if you do not know anyone there. They would like, in other words, more ways of substituting a face-to-face society for a bumper-to-bumper society.

They would like, though they hardly expect to see it, an official sanction for variety and experiment. As it is, the smallest proposal for change must do battle against the massed forces of inertia and practicality. There is also a wasted interval of silence between a proposal, let us say, for a new highway (“It’s just on paper, way off in the future, so you needn’t be concerned.”) and the moment when a hearing is held and the stupefied public discovers that heavy commitments have been made and no comments are welcome. As a result, neighborhood associations come together spontaneously only on a crisis basis — to prevent somebody from doing something, like destroying a playground or tearing down an admired building. This is all exactly the opposite of what there should be, which is some sort of permanent organization solely intended to help people wind their way through the mysterious complexities of city government — a “city agent,” perhaps, just as we have always had farm agents to do the same for rural people.

All these ideas of the New Urbanists spring from their conviction that the city can be saved, but not by denying its nature. The city, they believe, generates innumerable devices for ameliorating the human lot, and we would do well to study these — even where at first glance they look disorderly and disreputable — before abandoning them. Cities have been around too long for our generation to desert them so precipitously. As that admirable humanist Leon Battista Alberti put it in his Deiciarchia, “The necessary things are those without which you cannot well pursue life. And as we see, man, from his emergence into this light to his last end, has always found it necessary to turn to others for help. But then cities were created for no other reason than for men to live together in comfort and contentment.”

About the Series: Future Archive

This is the latest installment in a new series, Future Archive, funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The archival text appeared originally in the July 1959 edition of Horizon Magazine.

  1. Grady Clay “Run It Down the Field Again Fellows,” Places Journal, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1990.
  2. Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource (Louisville: Grady Clay and Co., 1978).
  3. Grady Clay, Close-Up: How to Read the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, 1980), 12, 64, 72, 87-88, 110, 127, 143, 153, 11.
  4. Grady Clay, “John Brinckerhoff Jackson 1909-1996,” Landscape Journal 16:1 (Spring, 1997): 19.
  5. Grady Clay, “Landscape, USA: Who Did It?” Landscape Architecture v. 48 (October, 1957): 43-46.
  6. See Peter L. Laurence, “The Death and Life of Urban Design: Jane Jacobs, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New Research in Urbanism, 1955–1965,” Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2006), 161. Laurence’s source is William Wheaton and the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Urban Studies, “A Proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation for a Conference on Criticism in Urban Design” (June 12, 1958).
  7. These were anthologized in E.B. White, Here Is New York (New York: Harper, 1949).
  8. See Peter L. Laurence, “Jane Jacobs, the Townscape Movement, and the Emergence of Critical Urban Design,” in John Pendlebury, Erdem Erten and Peter Larkham, eds., Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 222-23. Jackson, of course, was far more interested in areas outside major cities.
  9. Grady Clay, “Critics Wanted! New American Landscape Needs Criticism,” Architectural Review (April 1958).
  10. Laurence, 2006.
  11. Grady Clay, “Plenty of Action in the Square,” Journal of Architectural Education Vol. 13, No. 2, (Autumn, 1958), 31.
  12. Grady Clay, Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America’s Generic Landscape (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), xiii. He describes his method in further detail in the preface and introduction to Real Places: x-xiii; xviii-xxiii.
  13. Grady Clay, “Townscape & Landscape: The Coming Battleground,” Historic Preservation, Vol. 24, No. 1, January-March 1972.
  14. Grady Clay, “Wordgame,” Close-Up, 17-22.
  15. In the March 1990 issue of Names: Journal of the American Names Society and in the summer 1991 issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics. He also founded and directed the Gazetteer Project.
  16. A quick look on the Google Ngram viewer shows the word nearly doubling in frequency of usage from 1940 to 2000.
Introduction by Sandy Isenstadt, archival text by Grady Clay, “Metropolis Regained,” Places Journal, November 2015. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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