GENERAL ARTICLES

The Big City Is Obsolete

George Sessions Perry December 1 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

The Big City Is Obsolete

George Sessions Perry December 1 1946

The Big City Is Obsolete

George Sessions Perry

MY JOB FOR the last few years has been to examine and report on the cities of the United States for the Saturday Evening Post, a job that took me 40,000 miles and during which I covered more than a score of the nation’s biggest, and a few of the smaller, cities. The fact that I had lived both in American small towns and European and North African cities helped me, I think, to see the American cities in perspective. Now Maclean’s has asked if the modern city is obsolete.

Consider the cities of the United States: some

of the newest, biggest, richest, most powerful on earth. I do not know a single American city which has come within a mile of meeting its downtown traffic and parking problems. This is particularly true of New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Atlanta and San Francisco. And the only really thorough way to relieve this problem would be to tear down a major portion of their business sections and start over.

San Antonio, Philadelphia and New Orleans have serious unmet sanitation problems. Their garbage collection is atrocious, and, especially in San Antonio, rats and the typhus-carrying fleas which hop off the rats and onto the citizenry sent its typhus rate soaring. Other of our cities, most particularly Pittsburgh but in winter even Salt Lake City, are filthy and near asphyxiated with their own smoke. Most of the rivers that flow through our cities are more often than not

excessively polluted. Yet these same cities, which must draw on these polluted streams for water, repollute them with their own sewage a little farther down, pollution which the next lower neighbor inherits.

Almost all of these cities are heavily blemished with slums—Chicago has about 50 square miles of them—which usually encompass the perimeter of a city’s business district, and breed disease, crime and misery. Few of our cities, some of them possessing famous parks, have anything like adequate recreational facilities, especially in the poorer sections.

What Are Cities For?

IN THE beginning cities were formed for two reasons. They were a herding together of human beings (1) for protection, since there was safety in numbers, and (2) for trade. After the coming of the Industrial Revolution, cities had meaning and importance as labor pools. These reasons for the existence of the hig city arc now passed or passing.

As for protection, it was proved during the last war that open country was much safer. The cities were the first targets of enemy bombers, and none of our cities, according to the most competent available military information, is even remotely defensible against rocket-borne atom bomb attack, which, at this writing, appears to

The big city is crowded; it's costly...unhealthy...inefficient...In fact, says this town-weary reporter, it’s dying

be what they are going to get in the event of another war. Our huge municipal clots of population and production can only make sudden and swift attack a thousand times more fruitful for our enemies than if both our people and factories were scattered over the face of the land in population groups of, say, 25,000.

Secondly, 'there is the presently accelerating decentralization of American industry. The automobiles in which the United States rides are being built to an ever-increasing degree outside of Detroit. You will recall the Ford Company began scattering its operat ions long before t he war. Note t he future plans of another of our large representative companies, General Electric. Instead of expanding old plants, it. has tripled their number and dispersed their location since the end of the war. Most of the plants are small specialty plants employing from 30 to 1,500 people. According to Charles E. Wilson, president, of General Electric, “There is no doubt in our «minds of t he advantages of operat ing a small plant designed for a particular purpose in a small community.” He also points out the “recognized social and economic benefits for employees.”

The economic advantages of living in a small community are simple: lower costs all along

the line. The rent each citizen pays and the rent of each person he does business with is lower, and it can be reflected in every purchase of goods or services. Continued on page 32

Continued from page 21

The social advantages are at least as manifest. We are all aware of the extra nerve strain and wear and tear which is a part of the cost of city life. Yet now that industry is moving to the small towns, more and more city dwellers are asking themselves: What am I getting for this

premium price I am paying both in money and in nervous energy for the privilege of living in a big city?

They All Get Crosby

The question is especially pertinent in a country of standard brands, standardized entertainment, culture and general services. An A & P store in Rockdale, Texas (population 2,000), offers the same goods and services, generally speaking, as an A & P store in Denver or Washington—the same is true of a Standard Oil gas station in either place, in each of which a bottle of Coca-Cola tastes just the same. Bing Crosby sounds just the same over my radio in Guilford, Conn., as he does over one in a New York apartment. The movies look the same; so do the national magazines. The cars run just the same, with a million times more room than in Detroit. Except inside the cities, transportation is excellent all over the nation, fast by train and virtually

instantaneous by air, as are our telegraphic and telephonic communications from the tiniest, most sylvan, brook-laced and tree-shaded hamlet to any place on earth. Thanks to rural electrification a housewife in the country has the same gadgets, and a much easier job in the dust-free air, to keep a house and its occupants’ clothing clean. She can also deep-freeze fruits and vegetables and meat in time of abundance.

In almost every respect the Industrial Revolution has tended to make cities less tolerable, and to make each of the city’s previously locally monopolized blessings available to the outlands—with the possible exception of excruciatingly expensive luxuries ($25 dinners, $10 theatre tickets, $600 gowns) which not one person out of a thousand in any city can afford.

Though the whole world has been profoundly disrupted and frustrated by the war, it is in the cities where the people, deprived of the stabilizing effect of living close to nature, have been the most deeply frustrated, where the tumult and the shouting are most chaotic, and where life is most bewilderingly complex. To quote Eleanor Pollock, “The cities are hives of frustrated humanity waiting for some little man to come down the elevator shaft and bring them salvation.”

Certainly the acutely high interdependability of people living in a great city has made the metropolis no place to sweat out the labor revo-

lution of the last two decades. For while most of us moderns believe in and seek to protect labor’s right to strike, each of us, at least privately, hopes that the inconvenience attendant on most strikes will accrue to somebody besides ourselves. But if anybody knows how to live in New York without being discommoded during an elevator, subway or bus strike, he is a rare and fortunate fellow. The same is true of a truck strike in Chicago, an automobile workers’ strike in one-industry Detroit or a power strike in Pittsburgh. Yet only national labor disruptions, such as a railroad or telephone strike, directly inconvenience the rural or smalTtown residents.

The Debt of Their Fathers

Most of our older cities are the inheritors of enough liabilities due to political graft and extravagance from both present and earlier generations to be burdensomely loaded with debt. Take Philadelphia, Boston and Jersey City—all with heavy debts, high taxes and ramshackle municipal plants.

To assess the educational advantages of the small town over the city or vice versa depends largely on one’s point of view. Along with the city’s often better - trained and better-paid teachers and more elaborate plant, there is usually overcrowding and certain other dubious environmental factors, as opposed to some of the advantages of raising children in a small town.

Certainly no one has yet come forth as the champion of city living as a promoter of health. In most Eastern and Midwestern U. S. cities, smoke, particularly in winter, is a nasal and pulmonary irritant which pecks away at lungs and noses that must breathe, besides smoke, secondhand air from many other people and buses—air which is heavily loaded with carbons dioxide and monoxide. Crowded urban transportation facilities keep the common man in possession of the common cold through much of the winter. In the nature of things, cities are the happy hunting ground of epidemics.

The concentration of wholesale markets continues, like industry, to disperse over the land. This tendency has been retarded in the past by habit, the preference of country buyers for a reasonably anonymous fling at city fleshpots, and the ordinarily greatly superior facilities of the cities in respect to hotel accommodations, restaurants, legitimate theatres and night clubs.

But the trend, growing out of the actual pressures of daily living, is, apparently inevitably, in the direction of decentralization of people and production to smaller municipalities. And it follows that such a trend cannot become a living reality without gaining a certain disquieting momentum. As a city begins to decline in population and wealth, its troubles become compounded in unexpected directions—just as a growing town can assimilate countless toxins, since there is a general accretion of all values, which in turn engenders a bullish exuberance that of itself accomplishes all sorts of minor miracles.

The most striking example of this tendency in the United States is Los Angeles. It has a thousand things wrong with it, yet these are things that cure themselves, or are simply overshadowed by new and dazzling manifestations of that booming city’s dramatic growth.

But there are more Bostons, Cincinnatis, Pittsburghs, Philadelphias and

Baltimores than there are Los Angeleses. For that matter, Los Angeles, Houston or Corpus Christi, all growing fast, are less significant as examples of the trend of the American city than expressions of the regional vitality of the fastest growing and most dynamic sections of the United States: the West and Southwest. Besides there is a definite and real reason, one that grows out of actual benefit I to human beings, for Los Angeles’ growth, since it has the finest yearround weather in America.

Flight to the Suburbs

But the ordinary American city, unable to fulfill the essential needs of human beings, except at an exor! bitant cost in money, annoyance, nerve strain and being generally done out of the simpler pleasures of life, would seem to be faced with the necessity ■ to fight, and that very inventively,

I for its life and some logical reason I for its existence.

The trek from city to suburb began i about 1900. And in almost every I ensuing year—most particularly in recent ones—there has been all the more reason for the acceleration of this trend as city life became more barren and rural life more fruitful,

I as U. S. industry, which largely molded j the functional aspects of the nation’s life, elected to follow the Ford precept. Again, too many people living together just naturally get in each other’s hair. Why else do suburbanites spend two hours a day going to and coming from a job located in a place they can’t bear to live within 50 miles of? Yet those who live inside i the city not only pay higher taxes and are often bereft of the solace of a back yard, but must also face the exhausting bidaily free-for-all of going to and from work from whatever i distance. There is, moreover, the daily battle for lunch, in which millions of people must participate in order to have, in the same downtown district more or less within the same hour, a bite to eat between breakfast and dinner. With the exception of Philadelphia, where shop people, taxi drivers, etc., are markedly more polite than in any other big American city, there is also the constant irritation of the especially abrasive manners of most city people in public. Crime, certainly organized crime, tends to gravitate to the cities. Due to nerves and overcrowding, most especially to the latter, there are more flare-ups of race preju-

dice, which sometimes is expressed in riots.

To do the essential jobs of supplying decent living conditions as well as economic opportunity, a job which modern cities are failing to do, they must, unless they are to sicken and shrivel and succumb to the Llight that affects Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Portland, Maine, be (1) reconceived, (2) rebuilt in a way that makes them healthily functional places for men to li\ o and prosper physically and spiritually, and (3) in many cases refinanced. Somehow the elements of privacy, serenity, the individual dignity of the private citizen, and, perhaps, even that ultimate luxury, some association with nature as it burgeons and fades with the seasons, must be brought to the city dweller.

Plans Not Good Enough

I have been privileged to see the future plans of most U. S. cities, as worked out by their expert planning commissions. 1 don’t know of any set of these plans which, even if fully completed, at the cost of however many hundreds of millions of dollars, will make its city as good a place to live, for the average citizen, as the average U. S. town of from two to twenty thousand where, for example, noise abatement is not an insoluble problem, where, instead, it is no problem at all. Here there is no organized crime, no really important opportunities for graft. People look upon their neighbors as recognizable human beings instead of as “the masses,” as people from whom you expect human reactions and people who expect human reactions from you and hold you personally accountable, instead of thinking of you as one of the millions in a radio audience, who are and behave like a herd.

As a machine for turning out relatively content and responsible human beings under 20th century circumstances, the nonurban community, I believe, is the more efficient system, and that not merely in North America but all over the world people are beginning to have a more unerring ability to determine what’s good for them.

In my opinion there is no doubt about the question of whether or not our cities are obsolete. My answer, for whatever it may be worth, is that they are emphatically obsolete. So far as U. S. living, is concerned, they are gaslit anachronisms. ★