Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century, by Steve Conn (Oxford University Press, 392 pp., $34.95)
The American political Left is now heavily associated with cities, but it wasn’t always so. Proto-Democrat Thomas Jefferson once claimed that the “mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores to the strength of the human body.” William Jennings Bryan and prairie populists criticized cities as thrones of parasitic capitalism and exploitation. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal explicitly focused on rural concerns; where it did address urban concerns, it often provided an incentive for people to move out of the city. The National Industrial Recovery Act, the Resettlement Administration, and most importantly, the Federal Housing Administration, set the framework for the American suburban boom, with mortgage guarantees encouraging single-family home acquisition and tilting the field of housing purchase forever since in favor of buyers and against renters.
One merit of Steve Conn’s Americans Against the City is a frank accounting of this past. Conn is understandably hostile to policies that explicitly favor the rural or suburban over the urban. The Interstate Highway system, he argues with ample justification, ruined countless urban neighborhoods in the name of progress. Large-scale urban renewal did the same. But while Conn doesn’t hesitate to eviscerate the architects of the highway system wholesale, he’s repeatedly eager to offer at least partial excuses for the tremendous missteps of the urban renewal crowd. Why? Because they possessed the twin left-wing graces of compassion and a willingness to spend public money. He grades on a curve; good intentions count in his book.
Conn outlines both left- and right-wing critiques of various urban renewal policies, but weights them differently. Left-wing criticisms are deemed undeniably true, while right-wing views—even those Conn generally agrees with, such as Martin Anderson’s The Federal Bulldozer—are dismissed as being anti-government. It’s a grating pattern, repeated throughout; Conn wants us to remember the good intentions behind a failed program, while reminding us of the bad faith of the failed program’s critics.
Anti-urban government policies undoubtedly contributed to urban decline in the late-twentieth century. City dwellers flocked to federally underwritten homes in suburbs connected by federally constructed roads. Sprawling Sunbelt cities looked nothing like their predecessors on the East Coast. Those who moved there, as Conn rightly notes, were often small government conservatives suspicious of government spending. Largely absent from Conn’s narrative of the growth of suburban and Sunbelt America, however, is mention of the crime, dysfunction, and high costs that drove people out of the cities in the first place. Conn views cities as powerless vessels, tossed asunder by waves of national scale.
Migration from the cities to the suburbs wasn’t all rosy, to be sure. Urban problems followed along with the people, and heavily suburban cities often proved worse at dealing with these problems than their more densely packed predecessors. Conn’s criticism of the legacy of sprawl is strong, and his account of suburbanites’ complaints rings true:
They complain about all the time wasted in traffic, and they lament the ugly sameness of it all. Most of all, they report that these places leave them feeling alienated and alone. They mourn the loss of some sense of community that these sterile physical and social environments have failed to give them. On the other hand, many of them reject the idea that any collective public action can or should be taken to address these problems.
Trouble is, Conn hates the suburbs so much he can’t bring himself so much as to acknowledge their benefits. Movement from the cities to the suburbs wasn’t driven simply by tail-finned, Goldwaterite selfishness. Compared with a life of urban renewal, school busing, crime, and crushing taxation, life in a cul-de-sac offered far more real community to millions of Americans. Whatever you think of them, the suburbs have clearly satisfied the hopes and wishes of many Americans more effectively than cities have over the last half-century.
Urban America is in better condition today than it was at the dawn of the progressive era. Some conservatives remain hostile to urbanism even now, when it boasts many more functional examples. This faction, as Conn notes, often opposes even sensible efforts to improve cities. But the best means of winning over these conservative suburbanites is not by lambasting them as anti-urban reactionaries, but by acknowledging that they have excellent cause for suspicion.