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Cities and Memory

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Cities and Memory

An Englishman reflects on his travels in urban America. Autumn 2015
Arts and Culture

The first time I visited New York, between 40 and 50 years ago, it was a place of ill repute, at least among foreigners. Rumor and report made the city sound like a low-intensity war zone, and you would find yourself regaled with advice on how to stay safe there, un-mugged and un-shot. On no account wander about at night, you were told, and if you insist on going out after dark, get into and out of your taxi at your point of departure and your destination, without deviating. Do not think of going to, or even passing through, Harlem. The rules to follow in New York were like an updated version of those followed by Transylvanian peasants in Dracula.


Illustration by Garry Brown

I survived, but I doubt that that had much to do with my state of paranoia, induced by what other visitors, but also some residents, told me. My one brush with danger was on Madison Avenue near 57th Street, early on a Sunday morning. I was waiting at a bus stop with an elderly lady when a gunshot rang out, producing a ricochet and a puff of smoke in the street, about five or ten yards away. The old lady turned to me impassively, having taken no evasive action. “I’m telling you,” she said, “this city is a bad place.”

Since then, I have traveled to cities far more dangerous than New York ever was: Monrovia, Mogadishu, San Salvador. In the first, every institution had completely broken down; in the second, they were only halfway there; and in the last, death squads roamed the streets while guerrillas loosed rockets into the city, and one was asked (politely, I must say) to leave one’s guns at the door before entering a supermarket. But I was young and naive when I first came to New York, and I arrived from a city then famed for its safety and civility: London. Indeed, London was so safe that, by age ten, I was free to roam it on public transportation without anyone concluding that I was a neglected or an abandoned child. Nowadays, the police and social services doubtless would get a call—probably for good reason—if a ten-year-old were seen alone on the streets.

Just under a half-century later, the level of civility in the two cities has switched: New York now feels safer than London. I have in recent years enjoyed walking dozens of city blocks after midnight in Manhattan without apprehension; I would hesitate these days to walk such a distance in London after midnight. Some London boroughs have more robberies in a month than all of Great Britain did in a year a century ago.

Differences in policy almost surely produced this reversal of fortune in the two great cities, at least as far as crime is concerned. New York decided that the “root cause” of crime is the criminal’s decision to commit it, which, in turn, is strongly influenced by the likely consequences to him of doing so, a theory easy to understand. London adhered to the theory, propounded by criminologists, that the root causes of crime are multifactorial and so complex as to be almost incomprehensible—vast social forces the direction of which somehow must change if crime is to fall. In other words, New York treated criminals and would-be criminals as individuals with powers of reflection and decision; London treated them as inanimate objects, mere vectors of forces. Contrary to first impressions, New York’s approach was more respectful of people than London’s, which, quite apart from its practical failure, led to all manner of equivocation, special pleading, dishonesty, condescension toward perpetrator and victim alike, and confusion as to the proper role of the police. As violence rose, the police in London (and elsewhere in Britain) increasingly took on the appearance of military occupiers instead of the traditional unarmed civilian force that they had hitherto been; or, as one commentator put it, they became paramilitary social workers, more concerned to protect the feelings of certain designated groups than the lives and property of all. The police became bullying without efficacy, the worst possible combination; and the confusion of roles led to their demoralization. If London should learn from New York, then New York should learn from London, the power of bad example being as great as that of good.

After my first visit to New York (also my first to the United States), I then traveled to Detroit. This might seem an odd choice of destination, but I had a cousin living there. Detroit was a different kind of city from New York, and one that I discovered that I did not much care for. It had not yet imploded; the auto industry still seemed like an unstoppable generator of prosperity, and I had no inkling of the developments that were not only to lay the industry low but also destroy the city as comprehensively as a civil war might have done.

Detroit was an apartheid city, de facto though not de jure. (Later in life, I experienced the real thing in South Africa. By then, I had developed a taste for danger, though I had also learned that dangers are usually exaggerated in the recounting.) In Detroit, I was warned of the peril of running into groups of blacks on my own, but this remained mere rumor to me, for the segregation was so effective that it was like good prose style, according to George Orwell: one didn’t notice that it was there.

The reasons for my dislike of Detroit were otherwise, however. It was the seeming deadness of the city that disturbed me. Detroit had a center, but nobody lived there: after work each evening, everyone decamped to the suburbs, where they seemed to live in isolation from one another and where human relations, if they existed, were shallow and unrooted, as if everyone expected the neighbors to move away soon and so avoided deep attachments. The suburbs, quiet and spacious as they were, seemed to vitiate the purpose, or at least the pleasures, of living in a city, while not compensating for their loss by the pleasures of real country living. Even their comfort seemed suffocating, as if it were a kind of bribe, or an offer that no one could refuse, in return for living in the way that they did.

My reaction to Detroit’s suburbs was purely conventional, but you always experience your reactions as if you were the first person to have thought of something. I little thought that my complaint was that of hundreds or thousands of intellectuals before me. I was still a long way from my present realization—it has taken many years and much voyaging to attain it—that every place is interesting, albeit in its own way. Even boredom has its interest, for it is at the root of all kinds of baroque pathology.

Detroit was my first experience of a city without public transportation. It existed only in a token way, and to all intents and purposes was useless if you couldn’t wait all day for it. To go anywhere, to do anything, a car was essential. Without one, you were like an anchorite in the Syrian desert, though with air-conditioning. The suburbs were far too spread out for effective public transportation without massive subsidies. This struck me as disastrous from the standpoint of quality of life. The car, supposedly a symbol of individual freedom, became instead an instrument of an informal servitude, adding two, three, or even four hours to the workday: it also added periods of isolation, frustration, irritation, and—frequently—rage. It is one thing to drive on the open road, like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows; it is quite another to be but one driver in a seemingly endless procession, thundering or crawling to and from work, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, spending a tenth of one’s waking life behind the wheel. The very sight of the traffic in Los Angeles appalls me, and it would terrify me to have to participate in it. Perhaps such traffic is an inevitable quid pro quo for the great benefits of modern existence, and perhaps my horror of traffic is idiosyncratic, a personal taste, or even merely snobbish; I have certainly been fortunate in having been able to arrange my life so as largely to avoid it.

After visiting Detroit, the possibility of living without a car became a personal criterion of desirable city life. For this, a good public transportation system is necessary; and that can exist only in a city with a dense enough population. Many have written about the problems of overcrowding, with psychologists performing experiments on rodents in cages to demonstrate the bad effects on conduct of lack of space; but the negative consequences of under-crowding in cities are less often emphasized. For family reasons, I have recently spent a lot of time in Paris, a city where the advantages of not having a car far outweigh the occasional disadvantages, thanks to the city’s density and its highly efficient public transportation system. A car would be a nuisance, an anxiety, and a needless expense; even taking a taxi is often pointless if one is looking to save time.

Since my first trip to Detroit, decades ago, the city has become the Mogadishu of the American Midwest, with drawbacks far worse than merely aesthetic. I have not returned, for my cousin has long since fled the city, like almost everybody else who could; the nearest I have come to Detroit since then is Dearborn. Looking at Detroit in the distance from my hotel bedroom, I felt a rekindling of my former taste for danger; but my request to pay a visit to the city was regarded as too perverse for my hosts to take seriously, and my time in Dearborn was too short to arrange such a visit myself. But the fate of Detroit is a powerful reminder, if such were needed, that foolish and corrupt policies—and the city pursued many, from solvency-eroding public-worker pensions to vituperative racial politics that drove out the middle class—can destroy any degree of prosperity and bring ruin to multitudes.

After Detroit, I traveled the United States by Greyhound bus, as was then de rigueur for impoverished young foreigners visiting the country. (It says something of the change in my circumstances that, until I checked on the Internet, I was unsure if Greyhound buses still existed. Knowledge of a country can decline with experience, as well as increase.) It was by traveling by Greyhound that I lost my subliminal fear of America’s cities, caused by the selective reporting in the press of crime, gangs, riots, and racial hatred. Bus stations are wonderful vantage points for observing the human comedy, no less in America than elsewhere; and by the time I reached Atlanta, I was not afraid to reply to the young black man who approached me for a monetary contribution “for the brothers in prison” by asking exactly how many brothers he had in prison. He retreated as if I were dangerously mad; I think he expected an immediate accession to his request as a result of his mixture of faint but discernible physical and moral intimidation, the latter as if I were personally responsible for the imprisonment of his brothers, or at least responsible for the social conditions that supposedly led them to commit the crimes that led to their imprisonment—social conditions of which I was, ex officio as a white, the beneficiary, and for which I was therefore obliged to make restitution.

My taste in American cities was, and remains, purely conventional. I liked New Orleans for precisely the reasons that everyone likes New Orleans. Moreover, it was indissolubly associated in my mind with A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. It was partly for this reason, and partly for its history, that New Orleans incarnated for me what American suburbs seek to deny or eliminate: the tragic dimension of human existence. Tragedy is not absent from those suburbs, of course; ineluctable, it is a dimension of, and not an irruption into, human existence. But in New Orleans, it is not hidden and is therefore potentially usable for artistic purposes. Art is, among other things, consolation for the tragic: that is why so many of the best American writers have been Southerners.

All the other American cities that I liked had cores that were more than just centers of business with extensive dormitories attached. Chicago and San Francisco seemed to me the best, and also—here, I suspect, many will disagree because their dislike of central government colors their response to it—Washington. I could not warm to Houston or Los Angeles, though I think I might have liked the City of Angels in Philip Marlowe’s day. And if the Cubans of Miami were ever to return to Cuba, that city would lose all interest for me.

For the European visitor, the architecture of American cities is what strikes him first, favorably only to a limited extent. The Chicago School, for example, is incomparably superior to any equivalent modernist architecture in Europe; and the Chrysler Building in New York is undoubtedly a masterpiece of twentieth-century architecture. No one can remain unimpressed by the sight of Manhattan lit up at night, one of the wonders of the world—though increasingly equaled by other cities in this regard.

The upward thrust of American architecture has been copied throughout the world, successfully in Asia but unsuccessfully in Europe, where skyscrapers tend to be shabby, unconvincing, and out of place. The reasons for this lack of imitative success are several. First, such architecture requires either enormous capital or cheap labor, or both. Dubai, for example, could not have been built without an almost inexhaustible fund of inexpensive labor from South Asia, but the result is a modernism far more imposing than anything in Europe. In Europe, the buildings go upward, but the economy goes sideways. When I look from my balcony over extra-muros Paris, for example, what I see is not Chicago, Hong Kong, or Singapore, but Novosibirsk. The City of London—the financial district—looks like a Dubai where land costs were prohibitive, labor was not cheap, capital was insufficient and had to be cheese-pared, and architects were desperate to leave a mark by designing buildings of original but ugly shape, one known as the gherkin and another as the mobile telephone (when mobile phones resembled odd-angled bricks). Any American city is better than this.

American modernist architecture is convincing compared with the European variety because America is modern, whereas Europe, ever since the end of World War I, has merely tried to be modern, limping sadly after a model. American modernity is native to its soil. European modernity is highly ideological, or at least theoretical, with either fascist or Communist roots. Le Corbusier, an architectural totalitarian with strong fascist leanings, wrote his preposterous manifestos in the imperative mood, in which repetition—which Napoleon said was the only rhetorical device of any political value—served for argument and the author’s assumption was that the past should be cleared away as so much dead wood. (See “The Architect as Totalitarian,” Autumn 2009.) In America, modernity produced the buildings; in Europe, the buildings were supposed to produce the modernity. The European way was a form of magical thinking, a little like the Zambian attempts to catch up with the rest of the world by building imitation rockets, or a hotel in Nigeria that advertised itself as “ultramodern” because it was 14 stories high and built in 1970s style. Never mind that the hotel was moldy inside because the air-conditioning in the hot, humid climate worked only intermittently and the windows had been sealed on the assumption that open windows were bad for air-conditioning, or that the guests had to carry their luggage up many flights of stairs because the elevators usually did not work: what counted was the appearance of modernity. At a slightly higher level of sophistication, such is what the French call the état d’âme—the moral preoccupation—of European architecture. Almost everywhere it has resulted in a visual hell.

American cities were built, relative to European ones, on a tabula rasa. The difference between them and the modern parts of European cities is the difference between a fruit plucked directly from a free-growing tree and a fruit raised under artificial conditions, picked unripe and transported under refrigeration halfway across the globe. But I am a European: for all my admiration of American modernity compared with its European equivalent, I prefer to be awed by more intimate beauty rather than overawed by the sheer size of Man’s productions, however glassily elegant they may be. In other words, I am a man of the past, not of the future.

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