City Lite

Thomas Bender, professor of humanities at New York University, is the author of "New York Intellect" (Knopf/Johns Hopkins)

As we approach the end of both a century and a millennium, a century of cities in the United States and a millennium of cities in the West, those of us who love the historical city wonder whether it will survive into the next era of American life.

When urban life was reborn in medieval Italy, the city stood in sharp contrast to the countryside. Even before Italian painters discovered perspective, this distinction found visual expression in art: One unmistakably entered and left the city.

Today, however, the city lacks such clear definition. There seems to be more boundaries within the city than between the city and the larger megalopolitan landscape. Our lives seem to be lived in a surround dotted with sites for economic transactions located in an ever-more pervasive world market; these vast, centerless and borderless areas are laced with invisible electronic connections to the global Internet. How can such an agglomeration be a city? Can such a human settlement focus and intensify human life, as city life has done in the past?

Those Italian paintings that began to explore perspective reveal another aspect of the historic city: It was viewed as a series of rooms, all of which were either public or opened out to the public. Internal conflict was common in the communes of Italy, but civic identity was strong. Investment in the municipal building and the piazza fronting it was substantial--often rivaling the cathedral in architectural distinction. It represented the commune's civic identity.

By these standards, city life at the end of the millennium is substantially weakened. Even measured by the span of our own American century, the civic and public aspect of our cities is greatly diminished. At the turn of the century, the most ambitious undertakings in American cities were public: civic centers, parks and major cultural institutions, like the San Francisco Civic Center and Opera House, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Balboa Park Complex in San Diego, Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library or, a bit later, the Central Library in Los Angeles. Such cultural institutions used to distinguish the city from the suburbs; today museums, after the fashion of professional sports teams, are as likely to be in suburbs and have the feel of a mall.

It seems as if our best middle-class vision of the city today is that of an entertainment zone--a place to visit, a place to shop; it is no more than a live-in theme park. Such a city is a tourist site, even for its residents. More and more of these new metropolites spend their weekends on walking tours or bus tours of the older, historic, ethnic, sections of their own cities. This amounts to Urbanism Lite. This new urban recipe is insidious, for it pretends to offer what it is not. Such pseudo-city culture offers scenes of city life, not the city itself. The City Lite is safe, orderly, simplified. It demands little--and gives little.

There is, however, a grittier city that coexists with the City Lite. The pleasures and diversions of the City Lite are intended to hide this other city from the eye and the conscience. A city populated by minorities, the poor and working classes--more often than not immigrants and people of color--it remains closer to the historic city, though its life is distorted by the powerlessness and economic marginality of its residents. It is a city of streets, of intersections and stoops, of ravaged school yards and much-used public basketball courts.

City Lite denies this city, insisting it has nothing to do with metropolitan culture and can be safely ignored, dismissed, cordoned off. Yet to cut oneself off from this vernacular city seriously diminishes urban culture. The life and culture of the street should not be romanticized. But that culture is part of what is best in city culture as well as what is most embarrassing about it. The strength of a city is all its people--and it is no accident that the last half-century of cultural innovation in the United States has been the product of a complex interaction between the culture of the street and established elite culture, whether one speaks of the development of jazz into a major American art form, or the energetic and visually stunning classicism of George Balanchine's ballets, or the recent Broadway successes, "Bring in Da Noise, Brink in Da Funk" and "Rent."

Advocates of City Lite reject the gifts of the historic city: juxtaposition of peoples and events, engagement with and recognition of the unfamiliar, the risk of understanding and the excitement of invention. The City Lite is a place of easy entertainment, with Muzak in the malls, not art. It devotes itself to consumption, not creativity.

Art is not made in the City Lite. One can have the South Coast Plaza shopping mall and the Costa Mesa Performing Arts Center facing each other in the vast expanse of post-urban America. But neither represents serious culture; both are merely sites of upper-class consumption. The creative spirit seems to thrive on the very qualities of city culture the suburban ideal rejects, and it is in cities that art is made, whether in lofts on Santa Fe Avenue in Los Angeles or Tribeca or the East Village in New York.

The difference between the historic city and the City Lite is marked by the distance between the difficulty and enrichment offered by art and the comfortable cliches of commercial entertainment. Like sugarless, nonfat desserts, the City Lite lacks real flavor. Better to taste real urban culture--even if with caution and in moderation. The flavor of real food stays with us as lite food does not.

For a millennium, cities have carried history and sustained our cultural traditions, through their universities, museums and libraries and in their physical fabric, with its traces of social succession. "In a city," Lewis Mumford has written, "time becomes visible." The complexity of that history, like the social and physical complexity of city life more generally, nourishes the human spirit, even as it tries it. Life in the Lite City reveals no passage of time, no history. The City Lite does not age; it is consumed and replaced. It is any time and any place--it no longer holds culture nor provides an orientation to past and present for its residents.

There is today an attack on the notions of civic responsibility that make city life possible. This anti-urbanism, more than slightly tinged with racism, finds expression in the crude rejection of the L word. But it is also evident in the physical form of the city; the most ambitious projects today are private, whether shopping malls, "festival" marketplaces, City Walks, Disney on 42nd Street or megastructures, like the California Plaza, deliberately designed as an elite space cut off from the life of the street. Public housing is no more, and the private real-estate industry devotes itself to building defensive, often gated, communities for the middle classes.

Cities have historically been markets, but also much else--places where the possibilities for human growth are unmatched. Aristotle observed that people come to the city to live and remain to live the good life. Either we have forgotten that fuller conception of the city, or we are actively resisting it.

When at the beginning of this century architect Daniel H. Burnham was commissioned to prepare a great plan for Chicago, the literal centerpiece was a grand civic center. So intent was he to emphasize the centrality of public values that he drew a great domed City Hall that probably could not have been built with existing technology. In New York, at the same time, the new Municipal Building, designed by McKim, Mead and White to represent the aspirations of the newly consolidated city, was one of the city's most magnificent skyscrapers.

The economic and political elites of cities did not ignore competitiveness, but neither did they ignore the civic responsibility of the haves to the have nots. Even before federal funds were directed to urban housing by the New Deal, civic leaders as private investors initiated projects to house low-income residents, and over time they developed plans for publicly assisted housing, health care, transit, college education and much more. Historians have criticized these early-20th-century efforts as inadequate but, compared to the current war on the poor, such limited reform would be welcome.

The first half of the 20th century marked the triumph of city culture. Cities were engines of wealth and incubators of creativity--from politics to the arts. But since mid-century, growing suburbanization, both as decentralization of populations and as a cluster of values celebrating the privatization of life, has eaten away at the spirit of urbanity. Suburban values also resist the essential qualities of the city: diversity, the chance encounter, the unpredictable story, the unprogrammed space and activity.

Lite urbanism obscures the social fact of interdependence, thus undermining our civic obligation to nourish a common life. The urban commons is abandoned in the City Lite. But the gritty city survives under the glitter. We may find that its offerings--a sense of time, of place and of civic purpose--may be our greatest asset as we approach a century that will be characterized by global markets, instant world-wide communications and vast movement of peoples.*

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