Christopher Klemek. The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. x + 315 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-44174-0.
Reviewed by Ulf Zimmermann (Kennesaw State University)
Published on H-TGS (February, 2014)
Commissioned by Josh Brown (UW-Eau Claire)
Christopher Klemek perfectly captures the dilemma that brought on the collapse of urban renewal in quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then urban affairs counselor to President Richard Nixon, on the very first page: “‘On the morning of the day Americans are landing on the moon ... the air of victory is curiously muted [by] our seeming inability to get things done on earth, especially with respect to cities’” (p. 1). While people are always claiming that something is easy by saying “it’s not rocket science,” the fact is that, in comparison to solving urban problems, rocket science is simple indeed. Klemek nicely documents this by tracing the rise of the functional or modernist approach to urban problems to the point of its ineluctable collapse.
He depicts what he calls the “urban renewal order,” its collapse, and its aftermath, in four sections, beginning with the “interlocking foundations” of this order and then proceeding to “converging critiques” of it, which led to its “transatlantic collapse” and its “aftermath(s).” The pressing impulse to reform cities arose in response to the wholly unprecedented magnitude of their growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulting from an almost geometrically expanding Industrial Revolution that brought entirely new uses to the city--and likewise wholly unprecedented masses of people. Moreover, the successes of that Industrial Revolution--its engineering achievements in particular--had brought with it the confidence (which would, of course, turn out to be hubris) that people could also manage and govern such urban systems.
While these “reformist” impulses were nigh universal (cf. the Progressive movement generally and Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” in particular), the “modernists” in urban design and planning fields followed Louis Sullivan’s injunction that “form follows function.” This notion quickly ingrained itself on both sides of the Atlantic and was enshrined in the charter of the International Congresses for Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1933. It called for the clean separation of a city’s four basic functions--work, residence, transportation, and leisure.
The same urban model, or “Leitbild” (“guiding image”), as Klemek labels it, held sway in both Europe and North America (for Europe, he references German and British examples, and for North America, he confines himself to the northeast corridor in the United States--Jean Gottmann’s “megalopolis”--and Toronto) throughout the period under consideration, yet, as many others have noted, the outcomes on the two sides of the Atlantic have been quite different. While he provides this comparative transnational context, Klemek chiefly foregrounds American urban history. This history was, after all, strongly influenced by many German modernist proponents of this urban model who were forced to emigrate with the rise of the Nazis and thus populated planning and design programs across the United States, with Walter Gropius at Harvard (Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei as students) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology, to cite just a couple of the most prominent.
The new model was first enacted in Vienna, Frankfurt, and Berlin in the years between the end of World War I and 1933. Modernist architects were certainly there aplenty but what enabled them to build massive urban projects, Klemek rightly reminds us, was that these cities then were governed by social democrats, one of whose chief policy goals was to provide good housing for all their constituents. This brought into being such grand projects as the Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) with its 1,285 apartments and 679 houses in a terraced garden setting in Berlin (designed by Martin Wagner and Bruno Taut).
In the United States, the urban renewal order was consolidated through what he aptly sums up as four interlocking foundations. First, American tastes shifted from the Beaux-Arts to modernism. Second, there was a professionalization of “urbanism” which helped create a new technocratic elite that saw itself called upon to reform the city. Third, there was much more federal involvement now that the majority of Americans lived in cities. And fourth, various ambitious redevelopment and reform schemes attracted local entrepreneurs (think Robert Moses).
“Urbanisme” was a familiar concept in Romance languages and it was adopted by scholars like Louis Wirth of the Chicago school, and while he and his colleagues laid out an early American urban theory (this was an interdisciplinary field but sociologists like Wirth were the first to apply their methodology to it), Klemek stresses that it was the numbers trained in the field by newly instituted programs at Harvard and MIT (subsequently the Joint Center for Urban Studies) and then the University of Pennsylvania that consolidated this urban renewal order. They produced the graduates whose names would become practically household words to any and all remotely familiar with the field--Herbert Gans, James Rouse, and Kevin Lynch, among others.
They were able to play such signal roles partly because there was such a great need for their work across the country, as Klemek rightly notes, owing to vastly expanding national needs--the economic crisis of the 1930s, the need for wartime coordination, and the postwar stimulus boom. These all catalyzed increasingly expansive federal involvement--and, as ongoing crises, permitted more policy influence from above. With this, urban renewal proceeded along the three tracks of housing provision, slum clearance, and road building.
Of course now we all know that many of these projects were misbegotten but there were a goodly number of people, as Klemek observes, who recognized that at the time, and while they were not listened to, their voices were the first of what would become a chorus of critiques. Many realized at the time, for example, that eliminating people’s neighborhoods and jamming them into isolated high-rise “machines for living” simply wound up concentrating the very social ills they were meant to remedy.
Klemek divides these critiques into three areas: the dubious sufficiency of such functional segregation, the loss of human scale, and the failure to seek the participation of those to be affected. The Brits came up with the concept of “multiple uses” and contended that what had made London a charming city was the underlying principle that infused the common law--ad hoc incremental (or evolutionary) development, we might say. The Germans similarly reaffirmed the historic “German city” with its urbanity and density. Here in the United States we began conducting social science research that demonstrated palpably that demolishing poor neighborhoods to make way for luxury apartments tended to have negative impacts on the former residents. Klemek appropriately cites Gans’s 1962 The Urban Villagers as a pioneering example.
These aesthetic and social critiques were joined by what he calls the “outsider’s revolt”--most emblematically Jane Jacobs and her outright rejection of this urbanist establishment. Klemek nicely traces how Jacobs became involved in this and wound up achieving such legendary impact (I will leave you the pleasure of reading this for yourself). Jacobs is pivotal here because she both joined the professional debates--indeed, entirely redirected them--and led popular opposition to further implementation of this urban renewal order. This came to her Greenwich Village neighborhood in the form of a plan from Moses to bisect Washington Square with a major traffic artery, and beating Moses at his game there was what first gave her public prominence. (She would go on to help prevent the “Los Angelization” of Toronto.) A further outsider impulse came from the growing enthusiasm for fixing up older houses, which had an early start in the Village, as Klemek notes, but was greatly accelerated by “sixties” sentiments and would lead to widespread gentrification. This was, he adds in a nice touch, the era bookended by the popular television shows Sesame Street (1969) and This Old House (1978), both with very traditional urban motifs.
These critical attacks on the initially progressive, liberal urban renewal order summoned up rather substantial “I told you sos” on the neoconservative front--see, for example, Martin Anderson’s Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal (1964) and Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City (1970). If, as Banfield put it, there seemed to be no way to articulate what “the public interest” was in terms of an urban plan, then the best policy would be to do nothing. (Klemek does note the irony that it had been an earlier generation of reformers who had done away with the urban political machines that had previously held cities together.) But the neoconservatives’ time in Washington had not come yet.
Before that, the fiery 1964 riots in Harlem and Watts led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of “War on Poverty” on the one hand and the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development the following year on the other. (While Klemek correctly enumerates these events, I would add that the creation of a new cabinet-level department typically signals an administration’s highest level of federal attention. At the same time, this was the year serious civil rights legislation began, which directed federal policy efforts more toward people than toward places.) What had finally been acknowledged--at great expense--was that the problems of cities were not technical, not amenable to “rocket-science” solutions, but political and “people-centric.” But this would not be politics (or people) that the “silent majority” cared about and hence Nixon’s subsequent urban policy became “benign neglect” (as Moynihan had recommended he practice in regard to the “racial issue”).
Urban policy would soon meet the same fate in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but in Germany the urban renewal order was sustained by broad political support, promoting “critical reconstruction” in Berlin, for example, with the retention of the nineteenth-century block scale. That may have been, I am tempted to speculate, because around that time Germany had not yet begun to experience the massive flux of immigrants whose ethnic differences would soon confront Germany with the same problems Britain and the United States were trying to deal with. (Britain had experienced its first pogrom directed against blacks in the Notting Hill Gate riots of 1958, which would lead to significant social science research work both there and in the United States.)
But the urban renewal order would eventually collapse there as well, and Klemek sees three common effects coming out of it: a generational split between first- and second-wave new (urbanist) professionals; a search for a new design methodology--citizen advocacy planning, that is, the planner as facilitator serving the needs of residents rather than some grand architectural or planning scheme; and a revised “Leitbild” and corresponding aesthetic vocabulary that went beyond the purely functional modernist ideal and embraced the value of the vernacular. Here we are gradually getting to the “maximum feasible participation” LBJ had called for and that Jacobs had fought for beforehand.
The urban renewal order failed, Klemek rightly adds, not only because it did not consider the people who were affected but also because its planners did not sufficiently consider the economic viability of their projects, a factor especially salient in American cities (so much more reliant on own-source financing than cities in Europe). Thus Klemek is judiciously able to conclude “that had planning proposals been better grounded in the workings of urban communities and economies, their support would have continued” (p. 245). But instead of looking at those mundane realities, most of these urbanists looked upward to Platonic ideals of how cities “should be” and how citizens “should live” and, as Klemek notes, in a way brought about their own demise by trying to inflict those ideals on localities at (economic and social) costs vastly too great for them.
Klemek has given us an excellent comparative--and indeed quite comprehensive--history of the rise and demise of modernism and some insight into the beginnings of the “postmodern” solutions we must seek. In his concluding chapter, he writes: “Given the transatlantic scope of this study, there is an overriding irony in its conclusion that, even in the context of globalized forces and convergences, it is politics--and moreover the most local of political cultures--that ultimately shapes our cities in a very material and social sense” (pp. 239-241). Shades of Tip O’Neill! How urban politics can work most successfully, reconciling those interests that Banfield and others seemed to find irreconcilable, Klemek demonstrates by summoning up Clarence Stone’s “urban regime theory” (Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 ). This is based on Stone’s research on the surprisingly successful governance of Atlanta since World War II. This theory resolves earlier debates over elitism versus pluralism on the one hand and economic determinism on the other. Grossly oversimplified, Stone’s “regime” consists of the city’s business economic elite and its electoral political elite, which must resolve the tensions between them to succeed. This approach gives due attention to Coca Cola’s global aspirations and to Atlanta’s citizens’ local needs.
Finally, why the different outcomes? An explanation Klemek finds “convenient” is that the more adversarial political cultures of the United States and Great Britain produced much more overall anti-statist residues, which continue to inhibit larger urban policy initiatives. Beyond that, he sensibly does not want to venture into realms of “national character” and “political culture.” Speaking for the United States, from the perspective of teaching urban policy, I would add that the mere concept of “planning”--smacking always of “socialism”--it is anathema to Americans generally (unless, of course, it is real estate development).
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Ulf Zimmermann. Review of Klemek, Christopher, The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin.
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