In 1937, LIFE magazine ran Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic photograph of a highway billboard extolling the “American Way” because it had created the “World Highest Standard of Living.” However, the United States was still struggling with the greatest depression the world had ever seen and the billboard provided a startling contrast between the reality and the slogan. You can see the photo of people lined up in front of the billboard waiting for free food on any number of web sites. I have decided to parody that billboard because, one, the message it intended to portray depended entirely on how you define “highest standard of living,” and, two, it depicted a way of life that is no longer relevant or even reflective of our nation today. Not only are our demographics changing, but the suburban way of life it more or less subtly promoted is being challenged. Over the last seventy-five years, the suburbs have not lived up to their billing and more and more people are returning to city life in search of economic opportunity and cultural fulfillment. They are, in effect, changing lanes. To find out why our cities may be the “silver bullet” we are looking for to restore the American Way, read my review of Vishaan Chakrabrati’s important new book “A Country of Cities” in “Current Events.”
A “Silver Bullet” for Rebuilding America
Any bold and controversial idea, if it cannot be ignored because it offers solutions to pressing problems, must withstand criticism and offer irrefutable evidence of its validity. In his latest work, “A Country of Cities,” Vishaan Chakrabarti certainly does the latter and does not try to avoid the former. His contention that city living is a “silver bullet” that, when well aimed, can open the way for a new era for America that is environmentally sound and economically stimulating and which contests the subsidized and managed perception that a place of your own in the suburbs is the American dream. In doing so, he raises the visibility of the contribution cities can make to our national future while, at the same time, demonstrating how our natural environment can be preserved and strengthened.
Despite irrefutable evidence that cities are already or can become the repository of economic, intellectual, and cultural fulfillment for the 81% of the our population that lives in or near our larger cities, the appeal of the suburbs remains strong. That appeal is clearly captured in the iconic thirties highway billboard entitled “World’s Highest Standard of Living” which implied that the perfect family of Mom-Dad-Boy-Girl happily ensconced in an automobile on its way in or out of the suburbs is “The American Way.” Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of that billboard showing it partly obscured by a line of poor folks waiting for free food illustrates the challenges of poverty with stunning effect. Coincidently, proving how cities can create better access to economic opportunity is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Chakrabarti in his book. In the section entitled “Cities, Prosperity, and Globalization,” one sentence sums up what he goes on to prove: “Not only do city planning professionals have an interest in more efficient land use and denser development patterns, so do the millions of people who want new economic opportunities, upward income mobility, and the long-term financial stability that is increasingly commonplace in successful cities today.” Chakrabarti makes no claim that poverty will suddenly disappear once cities are accorded their due place in the hierarchy of our tax system, nor does he suggest that the greater economic opportunity in the cities is any less dependent upon education and training, individual initiative and delayed expectations than it ever was. However, he does effectively point out that cities can provide greater access to opportunity because, among other factors, they are home to enterprise. In his statistically-laden work, he shows that 90% of our GDP and 86% of our jobs are generated in our metropolitan areas. As someone who has studied rural issues for years, this accounting of economic opportunity comes as no surprise. Unfortunately, General Motors, at the 1939 World’s Fair, its exhibit revealed its vision of the future by having miniature cars whip along wide highways to pristine subdivisions at convenient distances from the inner city, which blatantly implied that the “American Way” was to abandon cities at the very time they were becoming the centers of economic vitality. GM’s less visible version of the future was characterized by their buying up and shutting down many of the inter-urban rail systems in America, thus the paving the way for paving over of the natural landscape. They were clever about it, too. The American dream portrayed in advertising was that automobiles provided “the freedom of the highway,” thus equating owning an automobile with “the American Way.” Living in a large city is a shared experience made better by collective action that mitigates economic and social disparity. By contrast, a home in the suburbs is presented as an affordable sanctuary where the drawbridge can be pulled up and security assured by homogeneity. To some, including me, nothing challenges our national allegiance to equalitarianism than the borders erected by “affordability.” Among the many issues confronting rural America, for example, is the steady decline of the public school systems, acerbated by the growing popularity of home-schooling and the ready acceptance of private education by those who can afford the tuition. Those who embrace home schooling and private education, because they are concerned about the quality of education or the safety of their children, are the very folks who could make a difference in the public school system.
A Manifesto for the Present
Vishaan Chakrabarti has spent twenty years in a highly productive career that combines architecture with city planning and development. He is also a close friend of my daughter, Alyson, who is an architect in the same city: New York. Through her, I have followed Vishaan’s career, heard him speak, and now have read his book, which should become the catalyst for a national colloquy on how America is going to not just survive but proposer in this and the coming centuries. He calls his book a “Manifesto,” which implies that there is a solution to the “great national challenges of economic stagnation, environmental degradation, rising public health costs and decreasing mobility.” In fact, Chakrabarti has said on the Charlie Rose show that if the nation diverted tax dollars from nurturing urban sprawl and instead invested a like amount in America’s cities, it would be the sought after “silver bullet” because it would unleash a new era of progressive and prosperous “stewardship of our nation and our planet.” From a nation of rapacious “highways, houses, and hedges,” we could become a renewed nation of “trains, towers, and trees.” This is a monumental leap from the suburbanization so encouraged and supported by national policy to a new policy that would be, at the very least, result in a much more rational use of land and resources. In my opinion, it is long overdue because it is clear that current policies are not sustainable but are dangerous to our nation and the world. I have long been a fan of Chakrabarti’s position because I have see first hand the impact of those policies, from the institutionalization of the mortgage debt deduction to the scorched earth policy of early urban renewal, which unintentionally led to further suburbanization. The most recent experience was my train ride between NYC and my home in Winston-Salem. Paradoxically, North Carolina is one of the few states well-served by AMTRAK. But, because of years and years of neglect of our rapid rail system, we do not have a consistent approach to moving people as well as freight. A trip that in many countries would have taken six-seven hours took 14.
“A Country of Cities” is an important book. In the first place, it is compelling in its presentation. Do not expect a heavy tome of academic density. Instead, enjoy a serious work filled with good design, easily understood graphs and axioms that could serve as clever bumper stickers. My favorites are “Driving across the country is a joy, driving to work is folly” and “If you love nature, don’t live in it.” However, the advocacy in the narrative of the book is what makes it a manifesto, not the good design. The facts that fill the book will fuel the debate. And even though there will be many who have never thought of cities as holding the key to the future, there are many others who have long endorsed what Chakrabarti has proposed. Only a select few, however, have been as willing as Chakrabarti to mold this advocacy into an integrated approach to dealing with the panoply of national problems. Over the next several weeks, I will do my best to present those Chakrabari’s “solutions” in such a way that it encourages further inquiry. Among the questions I will ask are: How do we enhance the quality of life among the poorest of us who live and work in the city? How can cities help us reduce the reliance on fossil fuels? How do we provide ample green space for recreation and relaxation? And perhaps the most impotent question of all: How can we increase economic opportunity within a short train ride from home?” These are not easy questions, but Chakrabarti has addressed them and, through his research, is convinced that a better American way is to embrace and nurture the economic and social needs of the vast number of people already living in our cities and those who choose to move there by putting them on a level playing field with the vast amount of resources we are spending plowing up a vast amount of acreage for single family homes.
A confession: As much as I find Chakrabarti’s arguments compelling, I am not so certain I would be such an earnest advocate if I hadn’t had my own “little piece of paradise:” twenty acres in central Virginia where I played in the dirt for a dozen or so years. I am somewhat stuck in the mentality of a time when escaping the asphalt of the city to become a pretend farmer was something to look forward to in your golden years. It may not have turned out that way for me. but no where in his book does Vishaan denigrate small towns or rural living. In fact, following his plan for the cities would make those places more sustainable. They have their place and their appeal will always be with us. What I think he has proven is that large cities have their place, too.