Hitting the Streets : VARIATIONS ON A THEME PARK: The New American City and the End of Public Space, <i> Edited by Michael Sorkin (Hill & Wang / Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30, cloth; $15, paper; 252 pp.)</i>

Share via
<i> Berman is author, most recently, of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" (Penguin), a book about what it means to be modern. He teaches at Harvard and at the City University of New York</i>

One September at the end of the ‘60s, not long after I began teaching at the City College of New York, I saw some students wearing buttons and T-shirts marked “Street People’s Party.” They said they wanted to make the school open, intense, sexy like the streets. Their rap sounded a little sanguine, but I liked it. “Can you get me one of those T-shirts?” I asked. “Sure,” they said, “we’ll be right back,” and that was the last I ever saw or heard of them. I forgot about them for years, but the incident came back to me when I saw this charming book, which reads like a program for the Street People’s Party’s 25th reunion.

The contributors to “Variations on a Theme Park” are united by their love for street life, yet they hardly ever speak about it directly. Instead, they lament its demise in a series of lush and lavish new landscapes--shopping malls, historic districts, private suburbs, underground and elevated cities-within-cities--which all seem to be united around Le Corbusier’s maxim, “We must kill the street!”

Why would anyone want to kill the street? When I first came across this violent invective, years ago, it seemed so bizarre. In fact, it is central to 20th-Century planning, in its ultramodern, garden and “edge” city modes. Editor Michael Sorkin and his fellow writers believe our ruling class conceives of “order” and “disorder” in rigid and regimented ways. It doesn’t want big crowds of people coming together, unless those crowds can be strictly controlled. Its fear of the street translates into fear of people, crowds, noise, energy, trouble, demands--fear of even democracy itself.


Sorkin is an architect, teacher and cultural critic who works out of New York but gets around. His most notable honor so far is that of getting kicked off a panel on the future of Times Square, ca. 1987, because architect Philip Johnson refused to appear in the same room with him. His fellow-writers (five Americans, one Canadian and one Scot) belong to the same cohort, and I am especially attached to it because it’s my cohort too.

These are first-generation New Leftists, people who came of age in the 1960s, the decade of “modernism in the streets” (as Lionel Trilling put it when his students occupied Columbia), the decade when it seemed that we, the people, could change the street and then the world.

In some ways we did, in many ways we didn’t, and we’re pretty banged up inside today. What should we call yesterday’s New Left today? The Used Left, maybe? This volume is a fine sampler of the Used Left. Its authors teach in East and West Coast universities, write criticism, practice architecture, planning or design; one has also practiced rock and roll. Learned, cultivated and well-traveled, they know how to write with power and grace. They could form the core of a terrific ministry. Alas, it will never be.

Not that “Variations on a Theme Park” lacks academic Left cliches: We can find “spectacle,” “hyperreal,” “panoptic,” “carnivalesque”--big words that substitute for big ideas. But while our authors sometimes like to show off how smart they are, they’ve generally got what they flaunt. Still, one shouldn’t enjoy their aesthetic and intellectual play too much, for if you accept what they are actually saying, the whole contemporary world turns out to be dreadful, totally alienated, inexorably evil, and any joy you take in culture, including writers and books like this, only makes you that much more complicit in the whole affair.

“Variations” begins with Margaret Crawford’s essay on the shopping mall--”a completely introverted building type,” as she sees it, that turns its back on the street. The 28,500 malls in North America, Crawford informs us, account for more than 53% of its retail sales. (Is that all?) She gives a lucid history of how “the basic regional mall paradigm”--the most popular size--was perfected, and enjoyed its golden age, between 1960 and 1980. In the Reagan era, however, markets became saturated, competition heated up, and there was a vast proliferation of specialty malls--for furniture, auto parts, luxury goods, factory outlets--while hundreds of S & Ls went bankrupt building malls that never filled up. In the 1990s, the mall may be up against the wall.

All of this is interesting, if not quite earth-moving. But Crawford, perhaps feeling the need to create more of a quake, starts to attack the whole process of shopping, which she calls “the utopia of consumption.” Department stores are among her betes noires : They offer “the invitation to look, turning the shopper into a passive spectator, an isolated individual, a face in the department store crowd, silently contemplating merchandise.” Readers of the Frankfurt School and its followers will recognize this Geschrei . But there’s something perversely arbitrary about it. Why not an active spectator, (as any experienced shopper is bound to be)? Why not an affiliated individual, noisily contemplating the goods?

And where is all this solemn silence? Hard to imagine it in any mall in Los Angeles, Crawford’s home town. This image seems to stem less from her own (or any woman’s) experience than from a bunch of theories by 19th-Century males about why modernity is no good. Maybe if some of those guys had done their own shopping they wouldn’t have felt so alienated. But what’s her excuse?


The grittiest essay in the book, and maybe the most troubling, is Neil Smith’s discussion of the Lower East Side. In the 1970s, arson became its leading industry and huge wholesale drug operations established fortresses in the ruins. People’s lives were threatened both by building collapses and by the drug culture’s unending and so often losing struggles for survival. In the midst of this maelstrom, a new wave of young artists emerged, using Expressionism to integrate the subject and some- times the process of disintegration into their art. At first these artists were painting in closets while driving cabs or waiting on tables for a living. Some established galleries in the neighborhood, however, where they managed to sell local art at surprisingly steep prices, especially to Europeans. A few were getting explosively rich.

This art scene generated a tidal wave of real-estate speculation, turning the area’s poor people (many of them, ironically, artists) into homeless people. Within three or four years, though, the art boom had played itself out like a Klondike mine; blocks of empty storefronts today look not unlike the ghost towns of the Old West.

Through most of his essay, Smith walks a fine line between competing and contradictory realities; often, however, he falls off. A park redesign that enlarges and adds playgrounds becomes “an assault on the parks,” for example, while any attempt to rehabilitate buildings merely “effaces social history” and “wipes away the city’s history of homelessness and poverty.” Artists betray their inhumanity by trying to make art out of social contradictions. (Smith no doubt thinks that crafting an essay out of this same material is OK.) Ultimately, Smith’s reasonable distrust of the neighborhood’s new, upscale life seems to get twisted into a paranoid hatred for any sort of life at all.

Mike Davis’ dourly brilliant essay, “Fortress Los Angeles,” reflects his persistent obsession with the LAPD, its security systems, and what he calls the increasing “militarization of city life.” Police power has been central to white visions of Los Angeles ever since the Watts riot and the vast literature it evoked. (For blacks and Latinos, of course, it was central a long time before that.)

Davis’ police portrait stands out in its focus on hardware and its attention to mechanical and electronic detail. But I doubt this matters as much as he thinks. Real eruptions of police terror, like the assault on Rodney King, depend on pretty low-tech equipment available to any Neanderthal. What makes terror work, in California or Calabria or Cambodia, is a collective conviction that the organization is invulnerable. But the most striking innovation in recent years is the high quality of surveillance that citizens now direct against the police.

In the King case, in the 1988 police riot, in Poland all through Solidarity’s great years, ordinary people, amateurs with camcorders, gained the power to reshape events by exposing them in the flesh. But there was a market for their revelations only because those political cultures had opened up, so that plenty of people were ready to see that their officials were mortal.


In much of the world today, information technology and political awareness have developed simultaneously. When their trajectories converge, there is a great opening for the democratization of surveillance. Today’s breakthroughs in video parallel the use of photography to expose the horrors of tenement and factory life in democracies a century ago. In any age, citizens can be empowered as well as imperiled by the going technology. But they need to be told, and shown, that what’s there for Daryl Gates is there for them as well.

Sorkin, the best writer in the bunch, does the police in different voices. He slips in and out of literary voices, sometimes within the same sentence, and his slippage can tell us both about the largeness of the Used Left’s sensibility and about its ongoing identity confusion.

One of his voices is ebulliently theatrical, in a sort of Noel Coward manner. We can hear it in the book’s brilliant title, and in a throwaway line like “the inaugural address of Prince Albert, a Mouseketeer avant la lettre .” Another voice, in a sort of Paul Goodman-Raymond Williams key, fuses prophetic moral indignation with a post-Hemingway rhythm of stripped-down disenchantment: “The privatized city of bits is a lie.”

Sorkin’s third voice is futuristic and technologically determinist, delivering lines like “phone and modem render the street irrelevant.” Here Sorkin seems to join the chorus against the city. His fourth voice sounds amazingly like conservative political philosopher Edmund Burke: “The familiar spaces of traditional cities, the streets and squares, courtyards and parks, are our great scenes of the civic, visible and accessible, our binding agents.” But today’s cities are beset with “an atmosphere that has the potential to irretrievably alter the character of cities as the preeminent scene of democracy and pleasure.”

This is the flowing cadence of civic oratory, a voice that speaks as if it has all the time in the world, because it speaks for eternity. From its lofty heights, it calls down eternal blight on the “sophisters, economists and calculators” (as Burke called them) whose grubby schemes and speculations corrupt and betray civic glory.

Sorkin seems to be offering us a narrow choice. Either modern technology prevails--in which case all cities we know are finished, doomed, kaput , forget them; or city life can endure, but only in “the familiar spaces of traditional cities.” It’s not clear where we can find these: certainly, on this book’s testimony, nowhere in North America; for that matter, from the way Paris and Florence get dissed here, probably not in Europe either. So if we want to promote the glories of urban life, it seems that we can do it only by falling back, or somehow throwing ourselves back, into a time warp.


And yet, if we give any of the great urban republics of the past a serious look, it will be hard not to see all the categories of people--women, Jews, blacks, foreigners, manual workers, slaves, etc.--that they have excluded from “the public.” Indeed, exclusions and exclusiveness may have been the most powerful “binding agents” holding these communities together. But humanists of the late 20th Century want more: We want city communities where nothing human will be alien, where no one will be left out.

Sorkin cites the medieval slogan, “City air makes free,” which he contrasts with the reality of city life today; he should have remembered that it was a slogan--some- thing like “one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all”--and thought again about actually existing medieval cities, and who was really free in them and who was not. The biggest trouble with the politics of nostalgia is that it forces us to lie to each other and to ourselves about who we were and who we are.

Mike Davis longs for Paradises Lost that are less remote. One is drawn, he says, from “photos of the old (Los Angeles) downtown in its 1940s prime,” featuring integrated crowds, Anglo, black and Mexican, “of all ages and classes,” sharing space. Here he hungers not for any racial integration that he has actually experienced, but for an image of integration. In fact, those 1940s photos are spillovers of World War II propaganda, fantasies constructed by the Popular Front imagination, the cosmos of kids in Frank Sinatra’s “The House I Live In,” the multiracial Brooklyn Dodgers in “The Kid From Tompkinsville,” the integrated bomber crew in “Home of the Brave.”

The generation that made this book, including me, all grew up on these images, and they helped to define the dreams of the 1960s New Left, dreams that still live. Fine, but it is crucial to remember the difference between Hollywood dreams and real lives.

I said earlier that the overarching metaphor of this book was the modern street. Sometimes our authors have used it as a symbol of cozy enclosure, as in the writings of urban critic and historian Jane Jacobs; sometimes as a symbol of public openness and communion, as in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Out in the Street”: “When I’m out in the street, girl / Well, I never feel alone. / When I’m out in the street, girl / In the crowd I feel at home” (from “The River,” 1980).

Never formulated clearly here, but underlying both romances, is a dream of a street that can crystallize political awareness and growth, a street where strangers can come to know each other and act together to create a new community. Something like this may have happened--in 1776 and 1789, at many moments in the 19th Century, most memorably and tragically in the Paris Commune, in 1917-18, in the best moments of the 1960s, in Eastern Europe and China in 1989.


What really happened we’ll never know, but our dreams and fantasies of the street can help us construct a coherent vision of a city we’d be proud to live in, in the century to come.

One of the most striking graffiti in Paris in 1968 said, “After the barricades, the beach.” For Parisians, who don’t have much beach, the beach made sense as a Utopian symbol of public happiness. Americans have lots of beaches (Southern Californians probably most of all), and they’re far lovelier than the ones in France and Europe; but the American beach isn’t Utopian, it’s someplace, just across the freeway, it’s there . America has its own very different deprivations, and its own special forms of fantasy and collective yearning. If the American people ever rise, maybe they will inscribe their walls with the words: After the barricades, the street!

BOOKMARK: For an excerpt from “Variations on a Theme Park,” see the Opinion section, Page 6.