Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Book Reviews

anti-urban

Progressives in New York fought to build the city out, instead of up. (Photo: Detroit Publishing Co./Wikimedia Commons)

A Tale of Two Ways to Hate Cities

• September 04, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Progressives in New York fought to build the city out, instead of up. (Photo: Detroit Publishing Co./Wikimedia Commons)

Bipartisan urban loathing.

In the early 20th century, when Americans were fleeing the countryside and moving into cities in large numbers, opposing urban agglomeration would have seemed on par with opposing civilization itself. But for the last century—for as long as Americans have been a mostly city-dwelling people—we have been finding new and inventive ways to hate city life, and to oppose the densification of cities both as a matter of ideology and of policy. Drained of their middle-class residents in the decades following World War II, America’s historic cities fell on hard times, and the fastest-growing “urban” areas today (Raleigh, Dallas) are essentially suburban, characterized by endless sprawl rather than the dense, vertical building of the older coastal and lakefront cities.

The sprawl is no accident, and the policies that encouraged it—from hyper-local zoning laws to federal mortgage subsidies and highway spending—were preceded and accompanied by anti-city intellectual movements, which historian Steven Conn chronicles in Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century. There is the traditional right-wing skepticism of dense living—which associates cities with welfare and crime and an inevitable tendency toward overbearing government, and which Conn covers well—but there are also new, more subtle forms of anti-urbanism from the left, which are mostly undiscussed. These include the anti-gentrification left, which sees urban growth as a bane of the poor and an engine of inequality, and a certain segment of the early environmental movement that was disturbed by cities’ effects on shorelines and natural views.

Conn’s deepest blindness is to America’s most pervasively anti-urban policies of the last several decades.

Conn traces the origins of anti-urbanism to the Progressive Era, around the turn of the 20th century, when cities began condensing and their residents looked to government to save them from the new problems that city life brought. The first wave of anti-urbanism consisted, Conn writes, of a backlash against that government action: “For many anti-urbanists, that expansion of government constituted, in and of itself, a grave concern.” The trend of anti-urban thought continued along these lines, and by the 1950s, those on the right began glorifying “small-town” life and idealizing a sort of pseudo-pioneer rural existence, led by people more self-sufficient, independent, and government-averse than those found in the city. These pioneer folk of the conservative imagination were also, not coincidentally, overwhelmingly white, and the government-dependent urban populations disproportionately black.

This intellectual thread culminates in the modern Tea Party, Conn writes. And in the Tea Party’s stance on cities, there is indeed a deep hostility to urban life that borders on the manic. Conn indirectly references the bizarre right-wing Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, according to which the United States signed onto a United Nations initiative to herd Americans into high-rise public housing projects. (A promo for Glenn Beck’s novel about Agenda 21 promises that “The old, the ill, and the defiant all quickly vanish. Babies belong to the state.”) Cities are hotbeds of left-wing sentiment in America, and a deeply anti-urban strain runs through much of the Republican Party, support for which gets stronger away from urban centers.

But anti-urbanism is a more diverse phenomenon than Conn lets on, and is less tilted toward the right than he claims. He acknowledges a few left-wing strains of city-hatred—urban renewal in the post-war era, for example, with its slum razing and highway building, and the hippie-era back-to-the-land movement, among others—but overall his reading misses a richer history of ambivalence toward cities from the left, which has championed policies that stunt urban growth.

This was true even at the beginning. New York’s Progressives weren’t just upset about the squalid hyperdensity of the Lower East Side, which Conn, perhaps rightly, decries as too packed. The arrival of less densely packed tenements far uptown, in northern Manhattan and the Bronx, also worried them. When the subway reached these formerly outlying areas and developers rushed to throw up six-story tenements—so-called New Law tenements, after reforms passed in 1901, with ample light and air and none of the hygienic issues that plagued their predecessors downtown—some New York Progressives were aghast. They had envisioned the subways opening up land for suburban-style single-family row homes and semi-detached houses, not for more city. Progressive opponents of the new tenements may not have been as viscerally anti-urban as, say, Lewis Mumford, whose small-town boosterism comes in for deserved criticism by Conn. But in retrospect, it’s hard to see agitation against what is now one of New York’s most iconic structures—the improved tenement—as anything but anti-urban.

But Conn’s deepest blindness is to America’s most pervasively anti-urban policies of the last several decades: local zoning codes that impose height restrictions on new building, or tangle new construction in red tape, forcing builders to abandon plans to build up, and instead build out. The result is suburban sprawl. In fact, apart from one line in his afterword, where Conn urges Americans to ease land-use regulations that forbid density and require developers to build parking lots, he portrays zoning—in the rare instances that he mentions it—in a wholly pro-urban light. It’s telling that Conn picks only charmless, unsympathetic examples of anti-zoning activists: “residents in gated communities” in the Sunbelt; an anti-Semitic, anti-zoning crusader in Houston; and “property-rights advocates” who, in the 1960s and ’70s, fought stricter zoning laws across the country.

But the zoning laws that Conn (mostly) celebrates were a repudiation of the city. The property-rights advocates mostly failed, and the 1960s and ’70s were marked by stringent land-use regulations—which almost invariably set caps on density and building height, and forced development to sprawl out dilutely toward the horizons. New York imposed a strict code in 1961 that restricted development in every neighborhood. For more than a century, New York had naturally grown into a denser and greater city: Rows of brownstones were replaced by grand apartment houses, single-family detached homes by garden apartments and tenements, and industrial areas in the city center by residential ones. These transformations were stopped by the 1961 code. Chicago and Los Angeles had their own version of this code, including rules that shut development out of their still highly desirable north and west sides, respectively. Especially on the West Coast, such regulations were often couched in environmental language. To this day, the California Environmental Quality Act remains one of the most potent weapons against denser growth in already-developed areas.

Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century. (Photo: Oxford University Press)

Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century. (Photo: Oxford University Press)

And then there’s another formidable challenge to urbanism, again rooted in the left, that Conn ignores entirely: opposition to gentrification. As cities have come back in vogue, prices have spiraled out of control in desirable areas, most notably New York and San Francisco. Many on the left have become dismayed at how rising rents are pushing out minorities who flooded into American cities as whites fled, and have turned into anti-gentrification activists. That dismay has made them ambivalent or hostile to urban growth of the kind that Conn prescribes.

While Conn does address a few left-wing sources of anti-urban sentiment, he glosses over many others, and tends to portray the American aversion to the city as a more right-wing phenomenon than it really was—and is. The left often couched its anti-urban tendencies in pro-urban terms—the anti-gentrification movement is all about preserving a certain urban composition and aesthetic, albeit one that found its greatest expression when American cities were at their lowest point—but its policies are hardly less detrimental to cities. As New York and Los Angeles, both essentially one-party Democratic towns, see their housing-production dip to Paris-like depths despite enormous demand, it’s time for those on the left, and perhaps Conn, to re-examine their own anti-urban biases.


For more on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our free email newsletters and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Google Play (Android) and Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8).

Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith is an editor at New York YIMBY, a website that covers architecture, construction, and real estate in the New York City area.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.