Sunday, May 15, 2011

Start with the End

"An urbanism that joins Mumford's panoramic communalism to Jacob's street-level sensibility is especially attractive as Americans confront the daunting challenges posed by global climate change...Cities...can provide the experiential grounding necessary to build popular enthusiasm both for the new Mumford/Jacobsian metropolis and an America prepared to reassert its egalitarian heritage."

Larry Bennett, The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism

As in much professional writing and storytelling, where we end is sometimes where we should have started. I'm afraid this is the case with this confusing book. It is as mixed up as our current cities and maybe that's the best we can expect. We ride a seesaw between Jacobs and Mumford, Washington and Daley, concentrated poverty and mixed-income communities, the first, second, and third cities, and so on. There's not much analysis of power, economics, or demography. And the question of whether the metro versus the city is the best unit of analyis doesn't make much of an appearance until the last chapter. Bennett seems to take plans and planning more seriously than most.

But I found a lot to enjoy in The Third City. Bennett covers most of the current literature about Chicago, has a very thoughtful reflection on the multiple sources of Richard M. Daley's urban investment plans, and has produced a superb analysis of the mixed-income experiment in Chicago.

Unfortunately, we also get caught up in his conceptual confusion about Jacobs and Mumford, the three cities frame, Daley as "manager of detail" and Daley as the financial bankrupter and patronage boss, Chicago as a "city of neighborhoods" in a nation of cities who believe themselves to be "cities of neighborhoods," and a post industrial future in a country yearning for advanced manufacturing. We are admonished for believing in old tropes about Chicago, but the old keeps popping up and the new isn't quite so new. It is a confusing time.

Oddly, I end up agreeing with Bennett's grand finale about the future of cities. I'm just not sure what it means.

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