A little more than 10 years ago, I read one of the most wonderful—and deeply flawed—books about cities I’ve ever picked up. It was called, “City: Urbanism and Its End.” If you can get your hands on this book, I recommend it. My own copy is coffee-stained, dog-eared, highlighted across its 432-page expanse (not counting notes, bibliography, and index), and marked up with scribblings in the margins. Good luck doing that on your e-reader.
The backstory of the book is fascinating. The author, Douglas W. Rae, was a professor at Yale and chair of its political science department in 1990 when New Haven, Connecticut, Yale’s hometown, elected its first African-American mayor. The new mayor asked Rae to be his chief administrative officer, and Rae accepted. This, then, is a Cinderella story in reverse: where the ivory tower professor descends to city hall and finds . . . a god-awful mess. Exactly how awful isn’t explained. (He says the city was in the grips of “its worst fiscal crisis since the 1930s.”) It couldn’t have been much fun because, in less than two years’ time, Rae resigned and went back to Yale to ponder his experience.
The result isn’t a memoir but a dissertation on New Haven’s troubles. And not just troubles in the 1990s but over the past century, beginning in 1910 when, as Rae explains, urbanism was at its peak in New Haven. What followed, in his telling, was a long and more or less steady decline in population, economic vitality, housing stock, civic involvement, political health, and neighborliness. Along the way, some tried to halt the decline (one mayor became a national leader in urban renewal). But in the end the city was overwhelmed.
If this sounds depressing, surprisingly it is not. The book reads like a mystery that opens with a murder. After examining the crime scene, Rae leads us through the victim’s promising early years, through a series of bad decisions mixed with circumstances beyond the poor fellow’s control, and then on to his demise—in search of a good mystery’s two most important questions: Who did this, and why?
Three things help carry the book along. First, as serious academics go, Rae is a good writer. When he drops you into different periods of New Haven’s history, you understand them.
Second, Rae tells his story with a clever structure. It consists of doing what I just said: Dropping you into several periods, starting with New Haven of a century ago, where he introduces you to the mayor, a well-meaning small-business man and civic booster named Frank Rice. Then he skips to the 1950s and 1960s, when New Haven was in steep economic and social decline and, hoping for a revival, elected the visionary Richard C. Lee as mayor. (More on him later.) The remaining chapters are about the succession of . . . OK, let’s be blunt . . . hacks who followed Lee.
Finally, the book is helped along by Rae’s interest in decision making and his sympathy for those making decisions. So while he doesn’t think much of Rice, whose tenure was untroubled in a way no mayor could imagine today, he explains in an evenhanded way why this mayor’s highest priorities were . . . building sidewalks.
Of Dick Lee, who directed a flood of federal money into reshaping New Haven—to disastrous ends—Rae is similarly sympathetic. Given the problems New Haven faced in the early 1960s, who wouldn’t have done the same? In fact, as I read the book, it occurred to me that Lee’s greatest problem might have been his own ambition, intelligence, and political talents. A lesser mayor (say, Frank Rice) might not have found all that federal money and figured out how use it in leveling entire neighborhoods.
As for those who followed, Rae offers a shrug. Urbanism is over. What could any mayor do?
As I read the “City: Urbanism and Its End” in 2004, its first flaw was as apparent as its subtitle. Urbanism’s end? Somebody forgot to tell the cities.
As Rae was writing, cities were in fact in the middle of a great revival—a reversal of fortunes no one could have foreseen in the brief period Rae was in city hall and apparently he missed on return to the ivory tower. (Well, not entirely. On page 421, he has a small section titled “Another Urbanism?” that hints something may be going on, though he never says what it is.)
But the deeper flaw is sometime I’ve noticed in the years since I first read it. It is Professor Rae’s analysis of how city governments steer their cities. And let me be as sympathetic to him as he was toward New Haven’s mayors. This may be an area where being a political scientist is a liability, not an asset. That’s because political scientists have trouble making sense of local government since they are naturally more attuned to state and federal government. As I’ve written elsewhere, if you try to understand city hall the way you do state capitols and the federal government, you’ll miss the mark. They are fundamentally different creatures.
That may explain Rae’s belief that city governments were always “weak players” in the realm of power who became steadily weaker as urbanism waned. “Focused on the city of 1990,” he wrote, ” . . . the end of urbanism meant the end of thinking about city government as a pivotal and more or less autonomous power system.” And it’s not just city governments that were weak and slow-moving, in Professor Rae’s eyes. So were cities themselves. “Most American cities,” he writes, “are sitting ducks, unable to move out of the way when change comes roaring at them.”
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Given their weakness and slow ways, how could city after city have staged amazing economic, social, and physical revivals in the past 20 or 30 years? How could New York have come from its “Bronx is burning” chaos in the late 1970s to the safe, vibrant, seriously overpriced city we know today? Or San Francisco? Or Minneapolis? Or Seattle? Or Houston? Or even my own city of Atlanta, where neighborhoods that were all but abandoned in the 1980s are filled today with loft apartments, brew pubs, boutique charcuteries, and tattooed hipsters on bikes and motor scooters? In fact, I’ll bet that not far from Professor Rae’s office, there might be signs of urbanism’s comeback even in New Haven.
That’s because urbanism never really ended in America. For a host of reasons, it receded for a while but eventually was revived because we needed it . . . for artistic and economic creativity and even (hello, Yale!) to produce a certain kind of education, one that teaches people to live and work amongst diversity.
And perhaps because he’s wrong about urbanism’s death, Professor Rae is wrong as well about local government and how it works. It isn’t so much a forum for decision making as it is an important part of the assembly line of change in cities. Mayors may help plan great civic projects and city councils certainly have to contribute some of the parts. But they do so with the knowledge that, for anything of consequence to succeed, others in the community must add their parts—including the business community, nonprofits, volunteers, charitable foundations, and neighborhood groups. This collaborative approach isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a unique strength of cities. In fact, that may be why it was such a disaster in the 1960s to give Dick Lee all that federal urban renewal money. It allowed him to stop working with neighborhoods and start working on them. And as it turned out, he didn’t know better than they what they needed.
Having said all that, let me repeat. I like Douglas Rae’s book. In a way unlike any other, it takes you inside city hall at different periods and into the life of a city that has always struggled with great economic, political, and social forces. It helps you understand how different mayors saw the city and why they acted as they did. Finally, Professor Rae makes a convincing case for what cities have lost in the past century, although I would add that there’s much we’ve gained in those years in health, prosperity, and social justice.
But read it with the knowledge that political scientists, even those who’ve spent a while in city hall, have trouble understanding cities. And keep in mind, too, that there’s a missing chapter, the one where New Haven and other cities rediscover urbanism and find incredible new opportunities buried in old streets.
Oh, and please ignore that subtitle.