The Lives of Cities and People

By Wachtel, Paul L. | Tikkun, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Lives of Cities and People


Wachtel, Paul L., Tikkun


BOOK REVIEW

* Between Eminence and Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning, by Chester Hartman. Center for Urban Policy Research, 2002.

A few years back, during a summer spent in southwest France, I was struck by the "bigness" of small French medieval cities and towns. Urban centers of five or ten thousand people felt more alive, had much greater "presence" than do American cities fifteen or twenty times the size. I lived that summer near Cahors, which, with a population of about twenty thousand, felt so much bigger than New Haven, where I had gone to graduate school, that I virtually wore out my computer's mouse checking and rechecking the population figures that were so counter to direct experience.

One of the key components of this feeling of substance and vitality was the absence of suburbs. In most of these cities, right outside the city is the country. The population density is sustained (without high rises, of course) right up to the beginning of farmland. The result is that these small urban centers, retaining many of the physical and interactional features of medieval life, feel like centers in a way that relatively few American cities do. They are places where people congregate, interact, fill the streets, and in the process sustain a surprising amount of culture for their small numbers.

It is easy enough to imagine a course of urban development in which the virtues of the urban centers of the past and the liberating possibilities introduced by technological advances over the centuries were synthesized to yield an increasingly more pleasant and satisfying way of life. Instead, however, in most American metropolitan areas, we have created patterns of housing, commuting, and political organization that have largely turned their back on the age-old patterns in which human communities were constructed.

Chester Hartman's new book, Between Eminence and Notoriety, highlights the folly-and the human costsof this trajectory. Like Jane Jacobs, who wrote the foreward to the book, Hartman knows how cities actually work, how people experience the way our streets and neighborhoods are structured and the patterns of living and human interaction that they foster or inhibit. From the very first chapter of the book (which follows a long and fascinating autobiographical introduction tracing Hartman's lifelong participation in the struggle for social justice and genuinely liveable cities), Hartman conveys a vision of urban planning centered on people rather than on the physical structures that serve (and, so often, misserve) them.

His analysis begins with a particularly interesting case, the redevelopment of Boston's West End in the 1950s and 1960s. The West End is noteworthy because it was one redevelopment project where what went wrong did not hinge on race, so often the hidden subtext in our society. The people who were being moved out of the West End were white, and this circumstance helps illuminate how (in addition to racism) greed, class bias, and sheer stupidity about the nature of human experience and urban life have powerfully shaped the ways our cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas have evolved.

According to the rhetoric and the rationale of the project, the residents of the West End were being forced out of their homes and neighborhoods for their own good, because they were living in a "slum." But as Hartman demonstrates clearly, the people who lived in the West End were, for the most part, stable and hard working, as well as highly satisfied with their neighborhood. As he points out, the income of most West Enders could have enabled them to live elsewhere if they had preferred. The reasons they did not choose to do so had a great deal to do with the neighborhood's greater resemblance to the concentrated and highly interactive towns and villages of earlier times than to the suburban sprawl of the contemporary American landscape.

Hartman later extended his studies of the injustices and ironies of urban "renewal" to a variety of other projects, most notably in San Francisco. …

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