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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.


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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.

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