“A century or two ago,” begins the voiceover in the 1939 documentary film The City, “we built our church and marked the common out. We raised the town hall next, so we could have our say.” Aaron Copland’s score strikes a bright note as the camera pans over the houses and farms of Shirley Center, Massachusetts, and the narrator continues: “When town meeting comes around, we know our rights and duties, and no harm if we disagree. In all that matters, we neighbors hold together.” Cutting between scenes of local political debates, artisans weaving baskets, and farmers in the fields, the film lays out a vision of communal democracy. “Working and living, we found a balance. The town was us, and we were part of it.”
The makers of The City were hardly backwards-looking sentimentalists. The concept was originally proposed by the housing reformer Catherine Bauer; Lewis Mumford edited the script. The American Institute of Planners sponsored the production, and it was shot by the avant-garde filmmakers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke with a hand from Pare Lorentz, all of whom had ties to the New Deal. The film lavishes praise on the modernist greenbelt developments of the Resettlement Administration, and it was screened in the enthusiastically futuristic City of Tomorrow exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.
And yet the first third of The City is devoted to reminiscing about the New England town, portrayed as an iconic landscape of community and democracy, located chronologically prior to the industrial city’s nightmarish descent into capitalist chaos, and geographically outside its cancerous metropolitan sprawl. These opening scenes express a familiar argument about ideology and place in America: the contention that the town, and particularly the New England town, represents the geographic form most suitable for practicing democracy.
The supposed equivalence between the geography of the town and the culture of American democracy remains powerful today.
This supposed equivalence between the geography of the town and the political culture of American democracy remains powerful today. When a politician needs to demonstrate sensitivity to the demands of her constituents, she may hold a “town hall” meeting. When a suburban developer needs to create a focal point for some generic subdivision, he may instruct his planning team to set aside space for a “town common,” and complete the effect with a faux bell tower. In many cases these attempts to conjure up the spirit of the town are little more than empty pieties. But there are also examples in which the town nurtures a continuous tradition of vital participation — as in the many genuinely public spaces across the country that were originally modeled on the New England village green, or the local governments that have successfully fought back against corporate control of the landscape, rejecting proposals for facilities like oil depots and power transmission corridors.
Communitarian socialists and small-government libertarians, modernizing social reformers and antimodern romantics alike, have sung the praises of the New England town. So how is it that this idiosyncratic form of spatial and political organization, in many ways an accident of the 17th century, and one which never served more than a fraction of the American population, came to be the geographic shorthand for a democratic landscape?
Much like the term “democracy” itself, the town as an architecture of democratic action encompasses both hollow symbolization and genuine radicalism, for it has been pressed into service for fantasies as well as for practical experiments. It expresses nostalgia, but also optimism; it stands for both a whitewashed past and a potentially usable history of countervailing power in American life. Most importantly, in its potent mixing of ideas about place and ideas about politics, the idealization of the town raises important questions about the ideological twists and turns in the relationship between locality and democracy. As the planners who produced The City realized, the design of our communities and the structure of our institutions are intimately linked. In its simultaneous roles as a landscape design, a cultural pattern, and a site of political participation, the New England town offers a case study in the reciprocal relationship between polity and place.
When Puritan settlers first sailed for North America, they left England at just the moment when two ancient forms of geographic organization — the manorial town and the parish — were disintegrating. For centuries, the feudal structure of northern Europe had been based on well-demarcated villages with open-field agricultural land held in common. The era of enclosure, in which common land was divided into private holdings and the peasantry scattered across the landscape, was beginning to revolutionize the English countryside, shattering old forms of rural life that had previously bound people closely to both the land and the social patterns that land supported.
Arriving in Massachusetts Bay, the first colonists brought with them premodern templates of village organization, and infused them with 17th-century ideas about theocratic utopianism and municipal incorporation, leading to a geographic order in the form of nucleated settlements — both physically compact and sociopolitically bound together. The physical environment also reinforced their ideological bias for nucleated communities: New England was poorly suited for large-scale agriculture, with few opportunities for the mass natural-resource exploitation that had motivated earlier waves of European imperialism in the New World. In addition, the colonists were well aware of the threat of raids from native confederations which they themselves had violently expropriated, nervously fortifying themselves against the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Pequots. For all these reasons, the New England town developed early on as a distinct kind of socio-spatial unit: a political, ecclesiastical, and social community laid out as a single cell: physically compact and institutionally bound together.
Ideology, environment, and circumstance combined to give citizens considerable control over group life in New England.
Elsewhere in North America, colonial exploitation took the form of large private holdings centralized in the hands of aristocrats or commercial concerns. The seigneurs of New France, the patroons of the Dutch settlements around New York, and the slave-owning planters of the Southern colonies developed systems of local geography in which the rights of the large landholder were supreme. In New England, by contrast, a combination of ideology, environment, and circumstance led to a system where citizens had considerable control over the conditions of group life. Early town laws in Massachusetts governed not only proper moral behavior, but also decisions about land use, the siting of houses, and the allocation of common resources. When a town became too large to maintain its spatial and social integrity, it would undergo a mitotic split, hiving off into separate towns each with their own full set of religious and political institutions.
During the first century of British colonial expansion in New England, this communitarian logic of town organization rapidly withered. By the middle of the 18th century, most newly chartered towns were little more than speculative ventures, platted out by distant representatives of the Crown and designed to be divided as quickly as possible into privately held lots. In this way, the New England town was modified into a proto-capitalist landscape, and by the time of the American Revolution, the town had lost almost all its theocratic structure and much of its emphasis on geographic centralization and common land tenure.
Yet even towns that were chartered in the mid-18th century retained morphological, social, and political elements of the earlier settlements: land marked out at the village center for religious and civic purposes, “town lots” surrounding a common, and often a town forest owned and managed cooperatively. 1 Above all, the town meeting gave localities in New England a form of institutional legitimacy that did not develop in other regions. A relative of both the church vestry council and the stockholder meeting, the town meeting provided residents with a powerful mechanism for direct political control over their affairs. Although the town meeting system was not identical in every case, it was widely adopted throughout New England, and this local power was always more important than the more spatially diffuse geographic organization of the county. 2 And although the franchise was originally severely limited by the principles of white male supremacy and the precedence of property holders — reflecting the hypocritical universalism characteristic of many strands of Enlightenment thought — the general principle of a body of people governing themselves nevertheless represented a template of local autonomy that powerfully influenced the political revolutions of the 1770s and beyond.
Reality and idealization mingled almost from the start in descriptions of the town system put forward by early theorists of American democracy. The vision of a few thousand people governing their shared concerns and living together in prosperous but unpretentious conditions seemed like the perfect negation of European monarchism, with its grandiose aristocrats lording over exploited peasants and enfolding ever larger territories into the power systems of imperial states. Thomas Jefferson, in spite of his role as a Southern aristocrat and spokesperson for the independent yeoman farmer, heaped praise on New England’s geographic organization. The “townships in New England,” he wrote in an 1816 letter, “are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation.” 3 He hoped that townships would become the model for local jurisdiction in the trans-Appalachian west, insisting that the new states should be subdivided into local “ward” governments “laid on the same basis as that of Massachusets [sic].” 4
Alexis de Tocqueville considered the New England town so fundamental a site for democratic experimentation that he devoted nearly an entire chapter of his 1835 treatise Democracy in America to explaining its significance. Observing that local government “produced greater results in New England than elsewhere” in the young republic, Tocqueville pointed to participatory practices that were made possible by the town’s emphasis on communal structure. A town gave up geographic extension in exchange for political power: its “sphere is limited, indeed; but within that sphere its action is unrestrained.” Tocqueville saw such polities as so organically constituted that he referred to the town itself as a kind of superorganic “individual,” arguing that it “forms the common center of the interests and affections of the citizens.” 5
The town expressed an understanding rarely made explicit: the self in self-government is geographically constituted.
Unlike other theoretical principles of democracy — for instance, representative assemblies, checks and balances, or constitutional rights — the town’s relationship to political theory was unique in that it referred to a place as much as to an institution, or, more specifically, to the unification of geography and polity. In its original sense, the town was a settlement unit adapted for the ecological and economic conditions of small-scale colonial agriculture in the New England environment. But upon this material geography, the town stacked layers of legal and associative power; it was a jurisdiction as well as a social bloc. It therefore expressed an attitude often assumed but rarely made explicit in theories of democracy: the self in self-government is constituted geographically.
The town in the early American republic was seen by thinkers such as Jefferson and de Tocqueville as part of the dawning democratic experiment. But by the later 19th century, as industrial expansion and waves of migration roiled the structures of American social and political life, the town came to express a two-faced orientation towards history, conjoining an imagined idealization of the past with normative templates for dealing with the crises of modernity. Different interpretations of this history were invoked by different political movements. For some racial purists and cultural conservatives, the town offered a retrograde vision of exclusionary harmony. For others, such as socialists who believed in re-establishing the primacy of political power over economic life, the self-governed town seemed like the seedbed of a radical tradition in American history, an alternative to frontier exploitation and cowboy capitalism.
An 1875 lecture by Arnold Green, a lawyer in Providence, Rhode Island, called the township “New England’s gift to the nation.” Celebrating the town’s role in promoting democratic habits, Green argued that the settlers who established this version of local incorporation had drawn on ancient ideas about civic participation; the town settlers, he said, had “wrought these ideas into their young societies and used them in colonial organization as unconsciously as they used their language.” 6 George Perkins Marsh, the polymath who would later become one of the first American environmentalists with his studies of deforestation, wrote in 1843 that “the true ends of society and human government” had been “first and most perfectly realized by the communities of New England.” 7
Some interpretations of the town reached even further back than the early republic, in an attempt to anchor the vision of place-based polity in the historical geography of premodern Europe. In 1882, Herbert Baxter Adams, the Johns Hopkins University historian who was one of the first Americans to promote a professional, social-scientific form of historical research, took up the question of the “Germanic origin of New England towns” in one of his own contributions to the series of political-historical studies that he edited. Adams considered the geography of New England towns to be “one of the most curious and suggestive phenomena of American history,” and described these villages as the “primordial cells of the body politic.” Cautioning that “it would be easy to multiply the eulogies of New England towns,” he hoped instead to rigorously document how this particular local landscape and political system had evolved.
Adams concluded that to fully understand the New England town, one had to look back to the premodern German mark, which, with its “old system of co-operative husbandry and common fields” had been a site where “liberty was nurtured.” Germanic tribes had brought the mark to England, where it formed the basis of the medieval tun; the word originally connoted “a place hedged-in.” Finally, the New England colonists had copied this pattern onto the North American landscape, where it persisted longer than it had in Europe. What was distinct about the town, in Adams’s reading — as in those of Green, Tocqueville, and Jefferson, and others — was that it merged a distinct, identifiable geographic unit with a body politic, and, in doing so, laid the foundation for a vital group life. Adams argued that “the importance of the territorial factor” was more significant than the Puritans’ religious and political beliefs in shaping the practice of local democracy. The “principle of land community uniting men together upon a common basis and around a common centre” was, in his view, the root of the New England political system — and, by extension, the ideological underpinning of a democratic society. 8
Not everyone agreed with this premodern explanation for New England town organization. Other historians stressed the colonial town’s economic functions, or its adaptation to the population stresses of 17th century colonization. However, in many ways the objective question of how the town had arrived on the shores of North America became less important than the ways in which historians, along with their interlocutors in culture and politics, reinterpreted the town in regard to the concerns of the late 19th century. Adams’s attempt to connect the town to ancient land use was undoubtedly shaped by his belief that “local consciousness” was necessary to make the study of the past “a living science” through which ordinary citizens might fuse history and politics and reinvigorate the place-based consensualism of a cooperative society. 9
Thinkers like Adams who leaned towards a genteel vision of progressive social reform saw the town as a template for organic solidarity, counterpoised against disturbing trends of the Gilded Age, with cities exploding to previously impossible sizes, and large-scale industrial activity enmeshing ever larger areas in complex webs of interdependency. For others, however, the same crisis of modernity was characterized by the introduction of foreign ethnic influences, labor agitation, and party-machine politics. In this view, the historically fossilized town seemed appealing not for its proto-socialist utopianism, but for its racially marked association with Yankee ethnic “stock.” As the historian Joseph S. Wood writes, the diversity of landscapes that had in fact characterized colonial New England towns were retroactively homogenized during the late 19th century into a single pattern of elm-lined villages populated by flinty rustics. This historic simplification, in Wood’s view, was a desperate attempt to locate “Anglo-Saxon cultural superiority and New England centrality in the formation of American nationhood.” 10
Whatever the political conclusions one drew as a result, around the turn of the last century it began to be a matter of accepted fact that the town was unproblematically synonymous with the communal aspects of democracy. The ubiquity of this belief is indicated by a striking passage from a 1916 tourist handbook:
The early New England town was not a mere place of abode nor a collection of ordinances. The freemen, each with his obligation to the community, to his church, formed in truth a community with a communal sense and something of the spirit of communism. … [The] New England town meeting as a social institution remains unique, its only modern parallel the correspondingly pure democracy of the Swiss Cantons. 11
At this same moment — and amidst many of the same intellectual ferments — professions were taking form that would come to play a pivotal role in designing new American landscapes. In the late 19th century, during the same years in which a historically purified vision of the town was coalescing, landscape architecture was emerging as a discipline in the United States. By the early 20th century, urban planning would follow in its wake, and both practices were permanently shaped by a vision of the town as the ideal democratic landscape. Whether the reference was explicit or implicit, the equivalence between place and polity seemingly exemplified by the New England town became a key component in the working ideology of theorists and practitioners alike. A trace of this belief even persists in the American Planning Association’s present-day slogan, “Making Great Communities Happen.”
At the turn of the last century, as a historically purified vision of the town was coalescing, the disciplines of landscape architecture and urban planning were emerging in the United States.
Andrew Jackson Downing, the garden designer and proto-landscape architect whose magazine The Horticulturist defined elite taste in the 1840s, had been an early admirer of the New England town, praising Massachusetts’s “flourishing villages, with broad streets lined with maples and elms, behind which are goodly rows of neat and substantial dwellings, full of evidences of comfort, order, and taste.” 12 Frederick Law Olmsted, a Downing protégé, would similarly come to see the town’s aesthetic order and community spirit as the interlocking desiderata of his design practice. While supervising a mining estate in California in the 1860s, Olmsted contrasted the come-and-go quality of the western frontier to the sense of belonging and mutual responsibility that characterized New England’s well-ordered towns. A faith in the “solidarity and cultural unity of the idealized small New England town,” as the historian Robert Lewis argues, undergirded Olmsted’s principles of urban landscape reform, even when working in metropolises like New York or Chicago. 13
Sometime in the 1880s, near the end of his career, Olmsted drafted a manuscript that his son, also a landscape architect, would later reference in a 1905 report on small-town design. In this essay, the elder Olmsted recalls a childhood trip to a Connecticut town, remembering it as more beautiful and functional than any of the “improvements” introduced by 19th-century landscape designers. In the organic unity of the town, Olmsted believed, “there was one consistent expression of character, and that character simple, unsophisticated, respectable.” 14 Despite a chronological and geographical association with the expanded, industrializing cities of the late 19th century, we should therefore interpret landscapes like Central Park in New York or Franklin Park in Boston in light of Olmsted’s attempt to preserve the principles of the pre-industrial New England town — above all, the centering of a community on a common landscape which would provide an alternative to the scattered individualism of commercial land development.
Through the influence of figures like Olmsted, the town became a touchstone for an entire generation of designers and reformers. John Nolen’s 1927 New Towns For Old, an influential text for the first wave of professional town planners, sketched a historical geography of several towns, including Cohasset, Massachusetts, as examples of the “survival of old-time New England community life.” 15 Another 1916 handbook on the principles of city planning commented, as if echoing Olmsted’s earlier opinion, that “it is difficult to imagine anything more pleasant in its simple dignity than the New England village green.” 16
In Lewis Mumford’s influential 1924 review of American architecture and design, Sticks and Stones, the notoriously acerbic critic complained that almost all the regional traditions brought to colonial America were profit-oriented and exploitative; it was only in New England, he concluded, that one might find a “pattern … for the community as a whole.” Garden city reformers of the 1920s were establishing “the common holding of land by the community, and the cooperative ownership and direction of the community itself” as the “essential elements” of modern urban design. Mumford pointed out that these supposedly innovative principles had been hiding in plain sight all along: “the fact of the matter is that the New England village up to the middle of the 18th century was a garden-city in every sense that we now apply to that term.” 17
Even artists and designers without strong connection to American political traditions or interest in small-scale romanticism could fall under the spell of the town model.
Ideas about the town’s democratic form were delivered to the Modernist era with such widespread commendation that even designers who had little connection to American political traditions and little interest in small-scale romanticism, could fall under the spell. Walter Gropius, the German architect who founded the Bauhaus before fleeing to the United States and taking up a position at the dean of architecture at Harvard, praised the town model in a 1945 lecture on postwar urban development. “The New England Town-Meeting,” Gropius enthused, “offers a good example of the sound democratic community set-up.” Following from the town’s example, he proposed that future urban plans should ideally be organized into “self-contained neighborhood unit[s]” of about 5 to 6,000 people. 18
If urban theorists and designers who otherwise agreed on very little could agree to praise the New England town, thinkers with widely varying political attitudes likewise continued to see their own principles reflected in the vision. On the right, Robb Sagendorph founded Yankee magazine in 1935 in the town of Dublin, New Hampshire, infusing his publication with a suspicion of both foreign and federal influence, and proposing the New England townsperson as a racially and ideologically pure version of sturdy, self-sufficient Americanness; Sagendorph often published Robert Frost, a more complicated narrator of northern New England’s white identity, who memorialized vanishing agricultural towns that were rapidly losing population. 19 Meanwhile, the Marxist novelist and critic Granville Hicks, during his political transition from Communism to a more communitarian democratic socialism, published Small Town (1946), an ode to the wisdom of local democracy, and E. B. White, a liberal who campaigned insistently for world government in the aftermath of the Second World War, found himself drawn to the coastal town of Brooklin, Maine.
The painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell made the town the iconic setting for countless patriotic depictions of American values — the signal example being The Four Freedoms, published in consecutive issues of The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, based on scenes from Rockwell’s period of residence in Arlington, Vermont. In 1938, Thornton Wilder published the simultaneously experimental and sentimentalizing play Our Town, set in the imaginary Grover’s Corners (a fictionalized version of Peterborough, New Hampshire); and in 1947 the radical team of architect-sociologist brothers Paul and Percival Goodman proposed the town square as the template for an “integration of work, love and knowledge” in their utopian planning guide Communitas. In 1971, the ecosocialist Murray Bookchin, heavily influenced by Mumford, moved to Vermont, searching for “an organic community, a community that has a sense of identity and personality,” where one might develop, in contrast to the atomized cities, “a more rounded body politic in a more rounded vocational and physical environment.” 20
In all of these cases, the idealization of the town and its symbolization as a landscape of democracy was premised on the belief that a human-scaled, consensual, communitarian social order — the Gemeinschaft of premodernity — was possible only where a union between place and polity had developed. But what did this mean in a world of increasing industrialization, interconnection, and interdependence? Already in the 19th century, mass political parties, debates about international trade, and large-scale social conflict over issues like slavery or factory conditions were characteristic features of democracy. Even as historians were celebrating the image of a participatory democracy consisting of neighbors meeting face to face, global empires were crushing and exploiting subject populations, capitalists were erecting factories and engorging themselves on fossil fuels, and new communication technologies were making it possible for political opinions to sweep across continents. And while some artists and thinkers were celebrating the organicism of the town, others saw it in a more sinister light — as in Arthur Miller’s comparison between Puritanism and McCarthyism in The Crucible (1953), or in Catherine Bauer’s warning that repurposing the 18th-century town model for 20th-century neighborhood planning might cause reformers to veer off into “domestic isolationism.” 21
Is the vision of the town a nostalgic daydream, a willful negation of the vertiginous forces of modern life? The conditions that led to the creation of a neat, cellular division of incorporated towns in the colonies of New England have long since vanished — indeed, they were already passing into the mythologized past by the end of the 18th century. No group of a few thousand people is a cultural or economic island and, for that matter, no such self-enclosed unit has existed for many hundreds of years. So does it make sense to treat such artifactual landscapes as key signifiers of democracy? The urban planner and federal administrator Robert C. Wood found much to love in his hometown of Lincoln, Massachusetts — but ultimately concluded that it was “a very pleasant and hospitable anachronism.” 22
Certainly many of the town’s venerated democratic principles have been hollowed out and converted into empty signifiers.
Certainly many of the town’s venerated democratic principles have been hollowed out and converted into empty signifiers. Politicians speaking on national TV, whose campaign budgets come from distant big-money donors, wax poetic about local communities. Racist school boards appeal to the principle of locality to stave off integration plans, while local planning authorities jealously guard their independence even as commuters and development dollars glide across municipal borders.
In fact, after heaping praise on the New England town in Sticks and Stones, Mumford cautions that “to hold to Gothic precedent in the hope of re-creating the medieval community is to hope that an ancient bottle will turn potassium permanganate into claret.” 23 A meetinghouse, a village green, and a cluster of gracious houses alone cannot make an organic collective or a vibrant democracy; cobblestones do not magically make people trust the goodwill of their neighbors. It is not the superficial forms of the New England town that are worth replicating, but rather the more elusive forms of social organization that situate people in place-specific communities and give them direct political legitimacy in matters of crucial importance, allowing them to keep questions about political economy, land use, and future development under the purview of collective decision-making power. If the project of 20th-century neoliberalism seeks fundamentally to locate control of economic activity both structurally and geographically beyond the realm of the sovereign state, then the town represents one historical example of economic and communal life developing inside, rather than outside, a discrete unit of political geography. 24
These more abstract qualities of place, community, and democracy were those that the makers of The City tried to highlight for contemporary use, as they linked the historical New England town to radical garden-city developments like Radburn, New Jersey (built by the City Housing Corporation on a garden-city model in 1928), or Greenbelt, Maryland (built by the federal Resettlement Administration in 1937). This interpretation of the town elevates social solidarity over individual enterprise. It makes an attempt, at least, to organize settlement patterns into forms that acknowledge and adapt to local ecological conditions. It emphasizes the equal right of its citizens to not only participate in but actively exercise power over group decisions — and, although this was at first woefully limited by racial and gender exclusions, the New England town did come after decades of struggle to enfranchise all its resident adults. Most importantly, “democracy” in the trope of the town does not signify a narrowly formalistic practice of voting and laws, but rather a broadened participatory system incorporating education, the means of livelihood, architecture, neighborly exchange, cultural life, and the arts.
The town gives us an example in which a fusion of geography and politics can be democratically sustained.
The social theorist Hannah Arendt, having read Jefferson’s praise for the New England towns, interpreted his theory of local democracy as part of a radical vision about places and politics that was left “utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists, and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself.” Comparing the New England townships to the Paris Commune, the Räte of the 1918 German revolutions, and the soviets of the Russian Revolution, Arendt argued that the fusion of geography and social life was necessary in order for people to think of one another as equals. It was within these “spaces of freedom,” as Arendt called them, that an alternative to mechanistic, formalistic political systems could begin to emerge. 25
Without this kind of substantive assertion that places establish an essential foundation for the principles of solidarity, equality, and mutuality — that is to say, the principles that constitute a robust rather than schematic practice of democracy — it is all too easy for the politics of place to become a politics of ineffective nostalgia, naïve littleness, and vacant signifiers. The big-money politician’s “town hall” and the mass developer’s “town common” can do nothing to replicate the union between landscape and democracy, because they do nothing to reassert what Mumford described as “robust political life, with effective collective action and a sense of renewed public responsibility.” 26 We should treat places not just as abstract geometries, but rather as the sites where people come to forge a life in common and decide how they would like to share that life. How can this fusion of geography and politics be democratically sustained? Although imperfect, the town gives us one working example.