Monday, July 16, 2012

My last thoughts on the sad plight of American cities - and the promised solution.

The modernist utopia of the city as a machine for living (Le Corbusier) is gone, together with the rest of modernist utopias: Communism, fascism, Nazism. I can recommend an excellent book by Mark Mazower "Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century" which describes the utopian tide that swept over the West in the aftermath of the butchery that was World War One - and its result in the even greater butchery of World War Two. So I will not mourn the loss of Detroit as a Fordian model for the future city, in which disciplined armies of uniformed workers produced uniform Models T for the uniformly happy citizens.

On the other hand, the deadly boredom of the suburbia is unsustainable, both economically and socially. I'm sick of seeing empty streets, occasionally relieved by a waddling figure of gargantuan proportions (this is, if the street even has a sidewalk).

So here is my own utopian solution. Bring in those "hungry multitudes" of Mexicans, Indians and Chinese who still believe in the American Dream abandoned by most Americans. Dump them in the ruined heart of Detroit, Oakland, Buffalo NY and similar urban wastelands. Promise them a path to citizenship if after five years they are still living in the city, paying taxes and have opened a small business or found a job. Send them back if they move to suburbia.

It's not going to happen, of course. There is no political will for doing something like this. And am I not contradicting myself, by mocking modernism's social engineering, while indulging in a social engineering of my own?

Very well, so I contradict myself, as Walt Whitman said. It is still the only way. Without it, American cities will die, while cities in the rest of the world (especially Asia) will grow and prosper. And cities are not only cultural and economic centers but a way to avoid the ecological catastrophe of cancerous growth, unrestrained traffic, and greenhouse-gas pollution.

On the other hand...On a recent visit to Oakland CA, which looks like Detroit's depressed sibling, we suddenly heard a buzz of human voices in the desert of abandoned buildings. We followed the sound...and were engulfed by a crowd of shoppers. They were all Chinese. Oakland's Chinatown on Sunday was so bustling that some dim-sum places had waiting lines. (Oh yes, the mayor of Oakland is Chinese).

"What is the city but the people?" Shakespeare, Coriolanus.            

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