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Reclaiming American Cities

Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature since 1900

Rutherford H. Platt
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Reclaiming American Cities
    Book Description:

    For most of the past century, urban America was dominated by topdown policies serving the white business and cultural elite, the suburbs, and the automobile. At times these approaches were fiercely challenged by reformers such as Jane Addams and Jane Jacobs. Yet by the 1980s, mainstream policies had resulted in a nation of ravaged central cities, sprawling suburbs, social and economic polarization, and incalculable environmental damage. In the 1990s, this entrenched model finally yielded to change as local citizens, neighborhood groups, and other stakeholders, empowered by a spate of new laws and policies, began asserting their own needs and priorities. Though hampered by fiscal crises and internal disagreements, these popular initiatives launched what the author terms a new era of “humane urbanism” marked by a determination to make cities and suburbs greener, healthier, safer, more equitable, more efficient, and generally more peoplefriendly. In the process, the mayors, architects, engineers, and bureaucrats who had previously dominated urban policy found themselves relegated to supporting roles. As Rutherford H. Platt points out, humane urbanism can take many forms, from affordable housing and networks of bike paths to refurbished waterfronts and urban farms. Often spontaneous, lowtech, and selfsustaining programs, their shared goal is to connect people to one another and to bring nature back into the city. Reclaiming American Cities examines both sides of this historic transformation: the long struggle against patricians and technocrats of earlier decades and the recent sprouting of grassroots efforts to make metropolitan America more humane and sustainable.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-285-1
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: A Train Journey into the Past and Future
    (pp. 1-10)

    Six a.m. is an ungodly hour to begin a train journey (or a book). My ride to New York City one fine summer morning begins at Springfield, Massachusetts, the northern terminus of Amtrak’s Connecticut River valley line. Springfield in its heyday was a major rail hub with some two hundred trains daily and hundreds of passengers thronging the waiting hall and platforms.¹ Today, Springfield’s station is a barebones trackside ticket counter and seating area, as welcoming as a jury waiting room. We file out to the two-car train whose diesel locomotive (the line is not yet electrified) belches exhaust into...

  5. Part I The Patrician Decades, 1900–1940

    • Chapter 1 American Cities in 1900: A Patchwork of Silk and Rags
      (pp. 15-31)

      The dawn of the twentieth century was the sunset for America as a nation of farmers, villages, and mill towns. As reflected in the populist revolt of the mid-1890s, the people of the nation’s heartland felt threatened by forces beyond their control: Big Capital, Big Industry, and Big Cities. (Big Government would be the bête noire of the latter-day populism known as the Tea Party.) Although the nation’s population in 1900 was still more rural than urban,¹ the balance was changing rapidly with rising birth rates and improved sanitation in cities, and with immigrants from the countryside and from abroad...

    • Chapter 2 Competing Visions in the Progressive Era
      (pp. 32-60)

      The assassination of President William McKinley followed by the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt in Buffalo in 1901 would mark an ideological watershed in the evolution of American cities, along with the nation’s economy and political system. In contrast to McKinley—a Civil War veteran and traditional pro-business Republican from Canton, Ohio—the young Roosevelt would be the archetypal “Progressive Republican” (an extinct species in today’s political climate). Born in New York City, educated at Harvard and Columbia, a self-anointed hero of the Spanish-American War, a former everything—New York City police commissioner, U.S. Civil Service commissioner, assistant secretary of the...

  6. Part II The Technocrat Decades, 1945–1990

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 61-66)

      The year 1945—with both V-E Day (May 8) and V-J Day (September 2)—brought to an end the fifteen-year nightmare of the Great Depression and World War II. The spirit of the moment was captured in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a girl in the middle of Times Square. Who realized or cared that Europe had been carved up yet again, this time dividing “West” and “East” by a boundary—soon termed the “Iron Curtain” by Winston Churchill—that would be the political fault line of the cold war? And why worry about the implications of...

    • Chapter 3 The Central City Renewal Engine
      (pp. 67-96)

      “Urban renewal” is a toxic phrase. Broadly speaking, urban renewal encompassed an array of federal, state, and local programs that collectively sought to eliminate slum districts; construct new housing and commercial development under private and public auspices; shore up urban tax bases; and stimulate private investment in the vicinity of project areas. More narrowly, the term refers to the program of federal assistance to local renewal agencies established in Title I of the 1949 Housing Act. Once the mantra of powerful city rebuilders such as Robert Moses in New York, Edward Logue in New Haven and Boston, and Edmund N....

    • Chapter 4 The Suburban Sprawl Engine
      (pp. 97-114)

      “Urban sprawl”—a term as pejorative as “urban renewal”—was a direct result of the second track of America’s postwar housing and development strategy: the “suburban sprawl engine.” As the reciprocal to the central city renewal engine discussed in the last chapter, this phrase refers to the combined influence of public policies and the private sector on metropolitan growthoutsideof central cities.¹ These contrasting sets of policies jointly reflected what the Kerner Commission on Urban Disorders grimly called in 1968 the reality of “separate and unequal” societies in the United States.² A core precept drove both the central city...

    • Chapter 5 Battling the Bulldozer: The Indiana Dunes and Other Sacred Places
      (pp. 115-130)

      One balmy afternoon in early September 1967, a group of new graduate students in the University of Chicago Department of Geography, including me, perched on a sand dune facing Lake Michigan to discuss humans and the Earth. Our interlocutor was Gilbert F. White, an international authority on water resources and natural hazards. “Mr. White” (University of Chicago faculty traditionally eschew the title of “Doctor” as superfluous) posed a series of Socratic questions, weighing our replies with his kindly but skeptical gaze. Little did we then appreciate that the restless and windblown landscape that surrounded us was the “birthplace of ecology,”...

    • Chapter 6 Legacies of Sprawl: A Witch’s Brew
      (pp. 131-152)

      What a strange and dysfunctional metropolitan America we have created. Five decades of efforts to “manage growth” have amounted to the equivalent of “whistling in the wind” against the suburban sprawl engine driven by government and corporate technocracy. Sprawl has continued to flourish like kudzu, paving and building over farmland, forests, desert, wetlands, prairie, mountainsides, barrier islands (see figs. 4.1, 4.2). Disparate swatches of yesterday’s sprawl, scattered among a myriad local government fiefdoms, share little except their physical linkages via labyrinthine highway networks on which tens of millions of drivers of cars and trucks waste time and money struggling from...

  7. Part III The (More) Humane Decades, 1990–Present

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 153-156)

      “How Ordinary Citizens Are Restoring Our Great American Cities”—the apt subtitle of Harry Wiland and Dale Bell’s book (and popular PBS series)Edens Lost & Found—eloquently attests that “humane urbanism” is thriving at many scales in such large cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Proactive city mayors like Richard M. Daley (Chicago), Michael R. Bloomberg (New York), Anthony A. Williams (Washington, DC), and Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles) have redefined the role of municipal governance. Where local governments once marched in lockstep with the drumbeat of federal, state, and corporate priorities, they now also respond to goals...

    • Chapter 7 Replanting Urbanism in the 1990s: A Garden of Acronyms
      (pp. 157-188)

      The decade of the 1990s saw the beginning of the end for top-down urbanism described in parts I and II. The Patrician Decades with their well-meaning aesthetic pretensions had long receded into planning history textbooks by 1990, though many individual patricians continued to play key roles in devising and funding new urban agendas, such as the many urban greening projects spearheaded by New York’s mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Likewise, the postwar hegemony of technocrats that decimated the nation’s older cities while driving the suburban sprawl engine receded in its unquestioned authority—most dramatically signaled by the demise of New York’s...

    • Chapter 8 New Age “Central Parks:” Two Grand Slams and a Single
      (pp. 189-202)

      Older American cities are richly endowed—even cities that themselves are no longer rich—with parks long ago established by visionary civic leaders, local philanthropists, and creative park designers. In 1634, the Boston Common was established by the earliest Puritan settlers for grazing of livestock, training militia, outdoor exercise, and burial of the dead, and the “hanging of unwelcome Quakers.”¹ Based on English precedents, colonial town commons or greens later became treasured public parks at the core of many New England cities and towns, today serving as venues for community festivals, sports, farmers markets, political gatherings, and the parking of...

    • Chapter 9 Reclaiming Urban Waterways: One Stream at a Time
      (pp. 203-222)

      Cities have long had a dysfunctional relationship with the rivers and streams that once nurtured them. Local waterways like Boston’s Charles River or Houston’s Buffalo Bayou historically linked ports with interior hinterlands, while also supplying inhabitants of their valleys with potable water, edible fish, water power, waste disposal, recreation and, in arid regions, irrigation. But by the late twentieth century, industrialization and urban sprawl had left countless urban streams polluted, channelized, dammed, diverted, and ecologically barren (see chapter 6). “Black bottoms” of physical and social malaise have festered in neighborhoods built along or above forgotten urban streams.¹ Even as federal...

    • Chapter 10 Humane Urbanism at Ground Level
      (pp. 223-248)

      In 2009, a hefty and lavishly illustrated new book—Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City¹ by ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society—transfixed the chattering classes of the nation’s largest city. After feature articles about the book appeared in theNew York Times, National Geographic,and elsewhere, and a summer-longMannahattaexhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, it became an instant sensation. Its message: contemporary Manhattan occupies an island that hosted incredible biodiversity, forests, wetlands, ponds, and beaches at the time of Henry Hudson’s accidental visit in 1609.² That natural landscape...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 249-250)

    The spectrum of humane urbanism across the country is broad and open-ended, defined as it is by local ingenuity—“ideas bubbling up in new ferment”—instead of top-down fiat. Humane urbanism eschews grand plans, textbook designs, and mega-development that breeds gentrification. Its aesthetics evolve not from established standards of architectural and planning design, but from the spontaneous palettes of mural artists, urban gardeners, building renovators, the melee of street fairs and ethnic festivals, and the rainbow of people—diverse in age, race, life style, wealth, and apparel—who share urban spaces and experience.

    Grassroots efforts to make communities more “humane”...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 251-284)
  10. Further Reading
    (pp. 285-286)
  11. Index
    (pp. 287-299)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 300-300)