Urban Lite: The City as Theme Park

By Thomas Bender Los Angeles Times | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), December 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

Urban Lite: The City as Theme Park


Thomas Bender Los Angeles Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


When urban life was reborn in medieval Italy, the city stood in sharp contrast to the countryside. Even before Italian painters discovered perspective, this distinction found visual expression in art: One unmistakably entered and left the city. Those of us who love the historical city wonder whether it will survive into the next era of American life.

Those Italian paintings that began to explore perspective reveal another aspect of the historic city: It was viewed as a series of rooms, all of which were either public or opened out to the public. Investment in the municipal building and the piazza fronting it was substantial - often rivaling the cathedral in architectural distinction. It represented the commune's civic identity.

By these standards, city life today is substantially weakened. Even measured by the span of our own American century, the civic and public aspect of our cities is greatly diminished. At the turn of the century, the most ambitious undertakings in American cities were public: civic centers, parks and major cultural institutions, such as the San Francisco Civic Center and Opera House, the Art Institute in Chicago, Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library. Such institutions used to distinguish the city from the suburbs; today museums, after the fashion of professional sports teams, are as likely to be in suburbs and have the feel of a mall. Our best middle-class vision of the city today is that of an entertainment zone - a place to visit, a place to shop; it is no more than a live-in theme park. Such a city is a tourist site, even for its residents. These new metropolites spend their weekends on walking tours or bus tours of the older, historic, ethnic sections of their cities. This amounts to Urbanism Lite. It is insidious, for it pretends to offer what it is not. Such pseudo-city culture offers scenes of city life, not the city itself. The City Lite is safe, orderly, simplified. It demands little - and gives little. A grittier city coexists with the City Lite. The diversions of the City Lite are intended to hide this other city from the eye and the conscience. A city populated by minorities, the poor and working classes, it remains closer to the historic city, though its life is distorted by the powerlessness and economic marginality of its residents. It is a city of streets, of intersections and stoops, of ravaged school yards and much-used public basketball courts. …

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