Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Continuity and Change in the American City

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Continuity and Change in the American City

Article excerpt

The essays in this issue of the Geographical Review speak for themselves, but it is possible to increase their effect as a coherent group by addressing some common themes that are touched on but not fully examined. I have four themes - or, more accurately, burning questions - in mind. First, when speaking of changes in the American city, it is important to keep in mind the degree to which time-specific models are the reference. These models were developed to describe cities during a specific historical era. To what degree, for example, are the models, generalizations, and concepts based on the seminal literature that was developed to describe and explain the industrial cities of the early decades of the twentieth century? Do we see change primarily because we have accepted the urban patterns depicted in our classic literature as the norm? Do we need a more flexible definition of norms in the forever-changing urban areas of the United States in order to write more meaningfully about change?

Second, we need to recognize the existence of both place-specific and universalizing generalizations. Are we in the process of creating new attempts at general models to explain the American city, or are we becoming increasingly focused on how things play out in individual places or locales? Geographers have spent several decades searching for broad and important general patterns, but now the emphasis in many circles has drifted toward the explanation of unique locales. When we discuss patterns in specific places, do we need to stress the generalizing aspects of the processes involved, or can we feel satisfied with a good story about a particular place?

Third, there is the matter of scale. What role does the sheer areal extent of the spatial patterns under discussion play in the interpretation of the relevant processes? Are new, qualitatively different processes under way, or are the main trends in contemporary urban areas due primarily to the massive extent of the patterns? How might we use maps and other visual devices more effectively to explicate these new geographies?

Fourth, what role does the rate or pace of change play in the development of new concerns and generalizations? It may be that change is occurring so rapidly that the literature must always lag behind the current trends. Understanding must therefore always be a sort of fuzzy layering of different and, occasionally, polar opposite events. We may be in the midst of an information explosion, but we still need time to ponder the often-conflicting data that are cruising down the superhighway. Human brains need time to reflect. Every trend requires a temporal perspective.

Before examining the individual essays in this issue, I want to explore these four themes in greater detail. First is the time-specific nature of models. Clearly, many generalizations and models used to describe the American city need to be updated. The old models of urban structure, with central business districts and suburbs, should be revised to incorporate the new reality of the city of realms. But what is new? What are the norms against which we are measuring change? Many of the seemingly radical changes affecting American cities may not be all that new. In some cases we have been there before, though on a different stage and with a different cast of characters. Much is made of the postmodern, post-Fordist city of consumption in the recent literature on urban change. The argument suggests that a shift is under way from cities based on production, with landscapes of industry and labor, to cities of consumption, based on display, recreation, shopping, and the like. On a field trip around the Twin Cities area in 1986, Richard Hartshorne remarked that fifty years earlier a similar field-trip route led only to discussions of production facilities such as factories and mills, but the 1980s focus was on new malls, gentrifying neighborhoods, parks, and other aspects of consumption and the good life. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.