City: Rediscovering the Center

City: Rediscovering the Center

City: Rediscovering the Center

City: Rediscovering the Center


Named by Newsweek magazine to its list of "Fifty Books for Our Time."

For sixteen years William Whyte walked the streets of New York and other major cities. With a group of young observers, camera and notebook in hand, he conducted pioneering studies of street life, pedestrian behavior, and city dynamics. City: Rediscovering the Center is the result of that research, a humane, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious about the urban environment but seemingly invisible to those responsible for planning it.

Whyte uses time-lapse photography to chart the anatomy of metropolitan congestion. Why is traffic so badly distributed on city streets? Why do New Yorkers walk so fast--and jaywalk so incorrigibly? Why aren't there more collisions on the busiest walkways? Why do people who stop to talk gravitate to the center of the pedestrian traffic stream? Why do places designed primarily for security actually worsen it? Why are public restrooms disappearing? "The city is full of vexations," Whyte avers: "Steps too steep; doors too tough to open; ledges you cannot sit on.... It is difficult to design an urban space so maladroitly that people will not use it, but there are many such spaces." Yet Whyte finds encouragement in the widespread rediscovery of the city center. The future is not in the suburbs, he believes, but in that center. Like a Greek agora, the city must reassert its most ancient function as a place where people come together face-to-face.


William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte died in 1999. His life was celebrated by a generation of urban planners, architects, and advocates. He wrote three major works. The Organization Man, first published in 1956, deconstructed corporate tribal values and offers timeless insight into the postwar psyche. It remains today a brilliant portrait of American values of the ‘50s. The Last Landscape, published in 1968, provided some of the foundation of the modern environmental movement. It talked about green before “green” meant green. In the volume you have in your hands, City: Rediscovering the Center, first published in 1988 and considered the author’s magnum opus, he threads the knowledge of his earlier work into his treatise on the health and well-being of the American city. No other book has been more central to the rebirth of the metropolis than this one. It summarizes the life’s work of a remarkable American whose gift was the ability to observe and make sense out of what he saw.

Holly was utterly and completely comfortable with his White Anglo Saxon Protestant roots. He grew up in the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia. Fancy prep school, Princeton, U.S. Marine Corps, Fortune magazine. By all rights he should have ended up back at Princeton as a distinguished professor of journalism or at the Harvard Business School teaching business ethics. Somewhere along the way something happened: Holly fell in love with the idea of the city and, especially, New York. His urbanism came with the janissary passion of the converted.

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