The Sociable City: An American Intellectual Tradition

The Sociable City: An American Intellectual Tradition

The Sociable City: An American Intellectual Tradition

The Sociable City: An American Intellectual Tradition

Synopsis

When celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted despaired in 1870 that the "restraining and confining conditions" of the city compelled its inhabitants to "look closely upon others without sympathy," he was expressing what many in the United States had already been saying about the nascent urbanization that would continue to transform the nation's landscape: that the modern city dramatically changes the way individuals interact with and feel toward one another. An antiurbanist discourse would pervade American culture for years to come, echoing Olmsted's skeptical view of the emotional value of urban relationships. But as more and more people moved to the nation's cities, urbanists began to confront this pessimism about the ability of city dwellers to connect with one another.

The Sociable City investigates the history of how American society has conceived of urban relationships and considers how these ideas have shaped the cities in which we live. As the city's physical and social landscapes evolved over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, urban intellectuals developed new vocabularies, narratives, and representational forms to express the social and emotional value of a wide variety of interactions among city dwellers.

Turning to source materials often overlooked by scholars of urban life--including memoirs, plays, novels, literary journalism, and museum exhibits--Jamin Creed Rowan unearths an expansive body of work dedicated to exploring and advocating the social configurations made possible by the city. His study aims to better understand why we have built and governed cities in the ways we have, and to imagine an urban future that will effectively preserve and facilitate the interpersonal associations and social networks that city dwellers need to live manageable, equitable, and fulfilling lives.

Excerpt

On February 25, 1870, Frederick Law Olmsted addressed the American Social Science Association at Boston’s Lowell Institute. As a result of his leadership in the design, construction, and ongoing operation of New York City’s Central Park during the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s, Olmsted had become one of the nation’s most vocal interpreters of urban life. Although he would eventuallytry to persuade his Bostonian listeners of the civic value of building their own version of Central Park, he began his speech by telling them what they, no doubt, already knew— that the processes of urbanization that had radically reshaped their city would continue to transform the nation’s landscape. Unlike many of his fellow urbanists, Olmsted was only mildly troubled by the “amount of disease and misery and of vice and crime” to be found in cities, assured that “modern Science” would quickly fix these problems. He expressed much more concern for the city’s corrosive effects on the social interactions among its inhabitants. in what may be one of the earliest and most genteel descriptions of road rage, Olmsted explained that when he and those gathered to hear him walked “through the denser part of a town, to merely avoid collision with those we meet and pass upon the sidewalks, we have constantly to watch, to foresee, and to guard against their movements.” Such navigational wariness demanded of urban pedestrians a careful “consideration of [others’] intentions, a calculation of their strength and weakness, which is not so much for their benefit as our own.” On the city’s streets and sidewalks, Olmsted fretted, “our minds are thus brought into close dealings with other minds without any friendly flowing toward them, but rather a drawing from them.” the city’s built environment encouraged those who moved through it to regard each other “in a hard if not always hardening way.” Olmsted despairingly informed those gathered at the Lowell Institute that the mentally and emotionally “restraining and confining . . .

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