Coming Back to the City

The American city has taken quite the rollercoaster ride over the past 70 years. For the half century following World War II, anti-urban sentiment managed to keep pace with the United States’ unprecedented affluence, creating glistening suburban landscapes that surrounded increasingly troubled urban cores. Eight of the ten largest US cities in 1950 recorded their historical population peaks that year (only New York and Los Angeles continued to grow after that census).

This trend has reversed itself in the past couple of decades, of course, and most cities have benefited from the newly widespread appeal of urban living. As Mark Twain reminds us, though, history tends to rhyme rather than repeat itself, and the rebirth of cities is no exception.

A few months ago, Marc described a phenomenon he called Earbud Urbanism. Contemporary technology as epitomized by the iPod, he wrote, now allows us to replace our actual surroundings with personalized content, one sense at a time. Kazys Varnelis made a similar point last week, just before the 30th anniversary of the Sony Walkman. The Walkman, he wrote, symbolizes the recolonization of US cities just as boomboxes (perceived as “sonic assault devices”) symbolized the height of urban tension and decay.

Why, then, did cities become more appealing in the 1980s and 1990s? Perhaps Earbud Urbanism contributed by making it easy to ignore the unsavory elements of urban environments. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, cities teemed due to lack of choice: If you wanted to do certain things you needed to be in the city. Now, our choices have increased exponentially, and comparatively few people truly need to be located at any one place in order to do something. Everyone’s loved ones are just a virtual arm’s reach away, consumer products can be delivered to some of the most remote places on earth, and one can practically run a business without rolling out of bed. The physical locations of jobs seem to follow people to where they’ve decided to live, instead of the opposite.

Perhaps the suburban fortess mentality of the postwar era gave way to a subtler kind of fortress mentality. The affluent who have chosen to return to the city have come back on their own terms, not the city’s. Many inhabit condos that are sealed off from the surrounding urban environment, with plenty of parking infrastructure to facilitate driving everywhere else. The same high-end chain stores, also with ample parking, have even filled in the formerly industrial spaces of many cities (Chicago’s Clybourn Corridor, for example). And when we do have to venture outside of our comfort zones on foot, of course, we have our iPods to keep us company.

(Photo from Flickr user fensterbme.)

1 comment:

Ben said...

Interesting post. I was thinking about the question you asked, "why did cities become more appealing in the 1980s and 1990s?"

It may sound trivial, but I think at least part of the reason was because our popular imagination began to suggest that city living was cool again with shows like Seinfeld and Friends. They made it seem fun and safe, and appealed to young people who didn't want/have a traditional family. Certainly that's not a causal factor, but I think it went a long way to shift the mindset for a lot of people.

I was wondering something. You made a point that perhaps people choose the city because with technology "few people truly need to be located at any one place in order to do something."

Wouldn't that mean that people would choose not to live in the city? If you don't need to be in any one location, why would people go to a central location like a city?

Just wanted to see your take on it. Very interesting discussion!