Visible Cities

David Lowenthal

Cities are famously seen through the opposing lenses of redemption and corruption. On the one hand they are paraded as the acme of civilization, the locus of justice, truth, and progress, the source of civic freedom. From the City of God to the Renaissance city-state, cities signify fortress and refuge against the mundane, the trivial, the ignorant, and the mere brute in the rural wilderness outside the walled sanctuary.1

But grim reality mocks fair urbane promises. The visions of planners and the hopes of citizens are periodically blasted by autocracy and greed, vitiated by social and physical decay. Cities come to be seen as seats of tyranny and corruption, sources of impurity and subversion, their populace alien, their pursuits parasitical. Sodom and Gomorrah were archetypes of urban evil, Rome an imperial capital prototypical for a self-indulgence that pauperized far-flung vanquished provinces, Roman rule a byword for corruption. The ill-repute of urban Rome passed undiminished from ancient secular to later sacred tyrants; faced by mid-19th-century pleas for reform, Pope Pius IX’s Secretary of State Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli rejoined that the notion of cleansing Rome was as ridiculous as scrubbing the pyramids with a toothbrush.2

The Old World infamy of cities and their denizens escalated across the Atlantic. Although Puritans vaunted the godly image of a City on a Hill, and Philadelphia prospered as the City of Brotherly Love, anti-urban bias grew pervasive in the new republic. Yankees and Southerners alike sited civic merit not in urban elegance but in rural seemliness, linked virtue with farming and village community, villainy with cities and commerce. So corrupting were cities that most states located their capitals in small towns, lest legislators succumb to metropolitan vice. Seats of state government in Albany and Augusta, Dover and Springfield, Jefferson City and Harrisburg, Columbia and Madison reflected mistrust of New York City and Portland, Wilmington and Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia, Charleston and Milwaukee. Despite an isolation so burdensome that “if the State House had not been here” as a mid-19th-century legislator declared, “no man who was not fit for a place in the insane asylum, would believe that its location in Montpelier could be thought of.” Montpelier continued to serve as Vermont’s capital for fear of domination by roisterous Rutland or boozy Burlington.3

Jeffersonian rural ideals remained canonical in political and popular literature even when they had dwindled to being little more than quaint relics in the depopulated countryside. As late as the 1960s, U.S. Information Agency familiarization tours for foreign staff began with a compulsory stay on a family farm in central Nebraska, the last preserve of frugal, God-fearing, Norman Rockwell America. Today, family farms survive mainly in cinematic imag-ery and in such fiction as James Robert Waller’s Bridges of Madison County and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.4

Trans-Atlantic anti-urban antipathies became especially virulent because American cities served few of the functions that partly redeemed the European metropolis. Neither ceremonial sites, seats of high culture, nor sanctuaries of freedom, cities in the United States were quintessentially raw and hustling commercial emporia, constructed with little thought for aesthetic or cultural comity. In the socially stratified Old World, the rights of citizens had been largely confined to urban merchants and artisans; in the democratic, egalitarian New World, the rural yeoman was sovereign. Europe’s Stadt Macht Frei tradition became an obsolete irrelevance across the Atlantic. It was ownership of land and freedom of labor that guaranteed white American liberties; there were black slaves, but few white serfs and no “peasants.”

Two dynamic processes spurred the distinctive form of American urban growth and, at the same time, fueled further hostility toward cities. One was immigration; the other the automobile. America was a land of newcomers from the start, and nationhood augmented the influx of those seeking fortune or refuge. Alien newcomers entered through city ports; most stayed on in urban centers. Immigrant city dwellers, ever fewer of them of Anglo-Saxon stock, comprised a polyglot medley that seemed to depart more and more from rural America in language, culture, and religion. Successive waves of newcomers—German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Russian, Jewish, Slavonic—increasingly alienated Anglo, Protestant, rural Yankees.

Previously scorned as crowded and unhealthy, cities incurred further onus for harboring unassimilable hordes whose alien ways threatened “true” domestic American values. Each successive generation of established Americans castigated cities as sinks of outlandish iniquity, intolerable cancers on the body politic. Antebellum nativists held Irish Catholics to blame for municipal blight; fin-de-siècle WASPs shuddered at Jewish and Sicilian ghettos; 20th-century whites saw slums and crime spawned by black and Hispanic social pathology.

The influx of the automobile exacerbated the physical degradation of American cities and sped their abandonment by elites, first into green and spacious suburbs, later into gated simulacra of nostalgized village communities. Car culture distanced workplace from residence, rendered existing city centers vacuous or lethal, and begot new cities all but devoid of centers. “How many visitors to Las Vegas” asks Joel Garreau, “discover that downtown even exists?”5 Once classically compact and coherent, modern cities have decentered into unbounded formlessness. The amorphous urban sprawl is well conveyed in Italo Calvino’s tales of phantasmagorical cities, whose imagery enfolds the shifting forms and mental constructs of imagined pasts, modern presents, and postmodern futures. In Calvino’s old-time Penthesilea “a girdle of walls rises from the dusty plain; … you pass beneath an archway and you find yourself within the city; its compact thickness surrounds you.” Today, by contrast,

You advance for hours and it is not clear whether you are already in the city’s midst or still outside it… . Every now and then … a cluster of constructions with shallow facades, very tall or very low, like a snaggle-toothed comb, seem to indicate that from there the city’s texture will thicken. But … you find instead other vague spaces, then a rusty suburb, … a street of scrawny shops which fades amid patches of leprous countryside… . Is Penthesilea only the outskirts of itself? … You pass only from one limbo to another.6

Few American cities escape the sprawl of Penthesilea, ever more pervasive and purulent the world over. And the “decay metastasizes” in Eugen Weber’s phrase. “In the suburban badlands, ageing garden cities turn to crabgrass slums. Mouldering centres … with their own feral life and riot tectonics offer only junk-food versions of urbanity”7 amid an ecology of fear, in Mike Davis’s image.8 Urban degradation is global, megalopolis overwhelmingly the haunt of the impoverished. In 1950 only Greater New York had as many as 20 million people; by 1994 there were fourteen such megacities, of which all but four (New York and Los Angeles, Tokyo and Osaka) were in desperately indigent lands. The modern city’s template is less Chicago than Cairo or Calcutta. Even in Europe, international crime and illegal immigration make cities the locus of today’s gravest social ills.9

Impermanence along with formlessness characterizes the modern city. Urban fabric tends to be evanescent, easily erased from local memory. Civic worthies may exalt pride in ancient origins and enduring continuities, but on the ground heritage gives way to entrepreneurial demands for novelty. In the 1960s, New York City planners bragged of demolishing more tall buildings than anywhere else in the world so as to make space for new wonders.10 The genius of New York has been aptly termed “creative destruction.”11 Today’s rage for replacement makes urban structures ever sooner obsolete. Las Vegas supplants its relatively hoary 1980s hotels with postmodern pastiches of ancient Rome; an iconoclastic firm’s sensational reductions to rubble are now famed Vegas extravaganzas.12 The appropriate leitmotif for today’s city fabric is less the rooted tree than the roving bulldozer.

Yet while everyday urban scenes are in perpetual flux, city symbols become ever more commemorative. Accreting monuments and plaques, the tangible and archival past thus palliates, if it cannot shut out, the thin and tawdry present. Sometimes past and present are proclaimed to cohabit: to commemorate the bicentennial in 1976, Boston cast its street signs back in time, inscribing their “Olde Name” above the “New Name.” More often, nostalgia ruthlessly expunges the vernacular present. Ubiquitous memorials to the past in Riverside, California, leave no space for present-day Riverside: the modern world there is confined to emporia of keepsakes and parking garages that service the pedestrian malls.

Such idealized and imagined memories seldom enrich an impoverished urban present. They fail because they are imposed from the top down, because they privilege outsiders’ visions over local perceptions, and because promoters and marketeers, planners and architects, proffer scattered and superficial features rather than socially cohesive programs. Urban dwellers in the real world seldom enjoy the luxury of simple, unambiguous choices between past and present, memory and action, aesthetic and function, ideal and reality; they must instead negotiate tenuous compromises among competing but coexistent needs and values.

In this spirit of nuance, memorabilia enable Calvino’s Maurilians to contrast today’s mundane banality with yesterday’s olden charm, viewing each from the standpoint of the other.13 Guiding visitors around the modern city, denizens display postcards of Maurilia as it used to be: “the same identical square with a hen in the place of a bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory.” But the Maurilians know well that it is only through subsequent progress that their nostalgia is validated. The lost grace of the old Maurilia “can be appreciated only now in the old post cards” whereas when it was extant “one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged.” Hence “the traveler … must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret” lest he offend today’s Maurilians, whose orchestration alone has made it possible to synchronize past with present.

Literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture are enlisted to reanimate urban pasts. Representations of antiquity made familiar in Gibbon’s history and Piranesi’s engravings have prepared centuries of Roman visitors in advance. Primed by what they have read and viewed, they surmount the sights and sounds and smells of the present, screening out modern vistas and Vespas the better to savor antique, imperial, Renaissance, and neoclassical Rome, both as ruined vestiges and as perfected reconstructions. (They did not always succeed; Hazlitt complained of Rome’s “vulgar looking streets where the smell of garlick prevails over antiquity.”) “From the late eighteenth century onwards” notes Tarnya Cooper, “visitors to Rome remarked upon finding a city that they already knew, and in which the greatest pleasure lay not in discovery of the new, but recognition of the familiar.”14 Their subsequent recall merged memory of the actual site with that of its representation; the Rome they visited became so saturated with antique impressions that it retained its multifaceted mystique for generations of tourists.

It was Rome’s fame as an imagined palimpsest that prompted Freud’s stunning comparison of psychic memory with urban fabric. Memory retained past along with present mental impressions, architecture expunged the tangible past to make room for the present. Were Rome a mental entity,

The palaces of the Caesars [would still be] standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus … still towering to its old height… . Where the Palazzo Caffarelli stands, there would also be … the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely in its latest form, … but also in its earliest shape, when it still wore an Etruscan design and was adorned with terra-cotta antefixae. Where the Coliseum stands now we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day as bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site also Agrippa’s original edifice; indeed, the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old temple over which it was built.15

Freud meant his “fantastic supposition” to stress the unlikeness of cities and memories. Yet he turned this imagined urban palimpsest into a transcendent visual image for memory. And he went on to show how, like the landscape, the human body absorbed earlier stages of development into later features (for example, the thymus gland evolving to become connective tissue). The power of Freud’s urban simile now alerts us to psychic needs to embroider material urban fabric with imaginative memories.

Perpetual upheaval impels urbanites to cling to surviving tokens of continuity, or else to fabricate others. Just as nations invent pedigrees to shore up shaky regimes, so cities certify fabled origins, heroes, and epochal events through plaques and pageants, preservation and commemoration. To break the national spirit of the Poles, Nazi conquerors destroyed Polish medieval and baroque centers; Poles speedily reconstructed Old Warsaw and other antique splendors so that inhabitants could feel that these jewels had never ceased to exist, erasing their wartime destruction from memory.

Even recent roots may suffice to refresh links with antiquity. The medieval quarter of Silesian Wroclaw (Breslau), whose former German inhabitants had been displaced by Poles from eastern provinces absorbed into the Soviet Union, was also painstakingly rebuilt. What memorial purpose, I asked Wroclaw planners in the 1970s, did such restoration serve? After all, immigrants from the east would not “remember” the city as it had been. The planners agreed that the newcomers would recall no continuity. But they stressed that their children would; for succeeding generations, rebuilt Wroclaw would be the “ancient” city they had always known.

Today, Hollywood films and tourist bro-chures essay analogous memorial functions with less success. Popular logos and icons lack the durable power of the layered palimpsest conjured up by Piranesi and by such literary works as Hawthorne’s Marble Faun. Like operatic costumes of a set epoch, the instantly recognizable images that now betoken “Rome” or “Paris” or “New York” lack convincing connectivity. They give one a sense of being “in the wrong novel or, worse, magazine.” Back in New York after years abroad, a former resident feels that “everything I look at has a frame around it—the seedy parts as much as the affluent.” It has all “been appropriated by fashion editors” and become style without substance.16

To achieve substance, cities need a sense of mission and destiny; this is often expressed competitively. Demands for prestigious memorial emblems have excited endemic urban rivalry. To gain primacy among cities of the Holy Roman Empire, Cologne installed invented relics 
of the Three Kings, purported booties of Barbarossa’s 11th-century sack of Milan, equipped with a similarly spurious pedigree from the Holy Land.17 To aggrandize Paris, Napoleon stripped Rome of its finest antiquities. Chicagoans in the early 20th century were reputedly deterred from acquiring Grant’s Tomb, badly neglected in New York City, only by being unable to figure out how to move it.

Competition for symbolic terrain can be fruitful, as in Britain’s Leeds and Bradford, twin cities enriched by 19th-century cloth manufacturing. By the mid-20th century both were bankrupt, their huge factories idle, their grandiose civic buildings moribund. War-battered Leeds rebuilt itself in modern style; Bradford remained in neoclassical dereliction. Lacking a viable productive alternative, in the 1980s Bradford embraced heritage tourism. The monumental premises of Titus Salt and other magnates became museums for the display of Victorian industrial technology and civic betterment.

Horrified by this sellout to a cozy fancied past, Leeds civic spokesmen censured Bradford’s heritage as a perversion of history sanitizing a sordid saga of child labor, starvation wages, prostitution, and other ills. Leeds printing presses unleashed a flood of pamphlets on the evils of the Industrial Revolution, laced with lurid quotes from parliamentary inquiries and court records. Both Leeds and Bradford benefited in consequence. Tourists in each city gained by being privy to rival narratives, one based on architectural relics, the other on archival remains, the two complementing even while contradicting each other.

Cities are often framed in multiple and conflicting images. The viewer’s own stance may hide or highlight various representations of the urban scene—architects’ visionary creations, residents’ vernacular traditions, the decays and accretions of time. These alternative options are exemplified in Calvino’s two-faced Moriana. On the one hand Moriana flaunts “alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass. [But] you have only to walk in a semicircle [to view] Moriana’s hidden face, an expanse of rusting sheet metal, sackcloth, planks bristling with spikes, pipes black with soot, piles of tins, blind walls with fading signs, frames of staved-in straw chairs, ropes good only for hanging oneself from a rotten beam.” The two images are immiscible, “a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper with a figure on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other.”18 Those who criticize and those who celebrate cities often find themselves similarly disjoined, incapable of discourse because they confront the utterly unlike.

Novelty and habit likewise yield contrary cities, one of form and color that excites amazement, the other of lackluster utility that dims all vision. In Calvino’s Phyllis, the newcomer rejoices in

[All] the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses … At every point the city offers surprises to your view… . But [the longer you stay, the more] the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes… . You distinguish … a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible; [you simply follow] the shortest way to reach that certain merchant’s tent, avoiding that certain creditor’s window… . Millions of eyes look up at windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page.19

A blank page is what many modern cities seem bent on, embodying Calvino’s denatured Phyllis in monotonous vacant facades. Urban designers too often pander to the incurious eye, the insensate habitué, the jaded resident who endures without complaint the banality of the gigantesque, as if boredom were an unavoidable concomitant of utility.

The pages of urban memory deserve to be enriched with quotidian variety, telling city stories of every kind. How and by whom can such stories be generated? The contrasting strategies of Bradford and Leeds offer one provocative approach, stressing vividly opposed perceptions of urban social pasts. Memorializing particular ethnic and community histories, by highlighting seminal sites and routes with narrative, public art, photography, and recurrent celebrations, bears fruit in Los Angeles and elsewhere, stimulated by such self-generating ventures as Dolores Hayden describes.20 Just as folk in all walks of life habitually recall earlier stages in their lives through photos on mantels and dressers and walls, so can they enlarge their sense of self and community through collaborative projections of memory in public spaces.

Such efforts may require an initial impulse from institutional agencies and will also benefit from being monitored by those skilled in translating memorial and historical urges into visual and tactile form. But unless they are rooted in popular inspiration, and continually refurbished by public creativity, these efforts will remain superficial, ephemeral, and alien veneers, rather than durable urban enrichments.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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Issue No. 1