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The City

Angela Starita


quickly-formed cliché of the pandemic was the notion that New Yorkers had headed upstate in droves searching for a permanent escape from the city and from what has been characterized as its everyday indignities—the crowding of subway cars, the obscene cost of coffee, the lack of domestic appliances viewed as essential as a toilet in most other parts of the country. ("I deserve a washing machine," a friend declared from the depths of quarantine.) The retorts came quickly too—most famously Jerry Seinfeld's takedown of James Altucher, a writer and investor who had announced in August that “New York City is dead forever.” A realtor I know honed the claim to the more precise, "Manhattan is over." It's unclear to me just how either man defines this moribund state, but I take it to be part of the general wisdom of recent months that New York has run its course, that the pandemic has invoked a hyper-speed version of post-war America with everyone running for the suburbs, and cities left to those without the proper will or money to get out, culminating in a replay of the mythological crime-ridden New York of the 1970s. (With extraordinary good timing, last July Netflix released their “Fear City” about the take down of the city’s mobsters.) But what fascinates me is less the validity of these claims so much as the speed at which the ideas took hold—and how very similar they are to other moments of crisis in national history—national history as opposed to local because New York has long been stand-in for American urbanism.

Of course, the idea that the city is a place to escape is an evergreen trope: Augustan Romans took refuge if not in the countryside itself then in its image as the locus of simplicity and peace proffered in poetry. William Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite contemporaries saw the growing industrialization of cities as threats to community and built a design philosophy around nostalgia for the Gothic. The modern granddaddy of these head-for-the-hills schemes was Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, an idea the peripatetic Howard proposed in 1892 with compelling drawings that still speak eloquently to anyone despairing of the crowds and filth endemic to any city worthy of the name. Built on the idea that cities should be limited in size, Howard—a British native who briefly emigrated to the United States in a failed effort to become a rancher— envisioned what he called the “town-country,” a self-sufficient city with housing, civic center, and workplaces all within the boundary of a circular greenway. Howard’s famous “three magnets” drawing makes plain the appeal of such a scheme: will people be drawn to the town with its “closing out of nature” but filled with “social opportunity”? Or to the country where residents experience “long hours–low wages” as well as the “beauty of nature”? Naturally, the answer lay in the town-country filled with “bright homes and gardens,” “plenty to do” and, as Howard succinctly put it, “no sweating.” These British garden cities would be connected to each other via train lines making for a network of equal-sized, decentralized municipalities. Most of all, Howard’s scheme leaned heavily on a vision of nature as spiritually enriching and completely under human control.

After World War I, planners zealously adopted Howard’s vision of the new city, seeing the war’s unprecedented destruction as an opportunity to refashion urban space and create an incubator for making better citizens, preferably ones not bent on annihilation. The garden city’s purported integration of housing, labor, and nature was just the sort of conduit for social experimentation that progressive-minded reformers and architects thought could ensure less bloodshed, more community. In the US, Lewis Mumford was probably the garden city’s best-known advocate, living in New York City’s iteration of the form, Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. He once described it as “an exceptional community laid out by people who were deeply human and who gave the place a permanent expression of that humanness.”

His contemporary and sometime lover, Catherine Bauer, was a passionate advocate for rethinking house design and providing quality housing for the poor. She oversaw the writing of the Housing Act of 1937, a momentous piece of legislation that allocated funding for both “slum clearance” and public housing. When the New York World’s Fair Committee invited her to design an exhibition for the 1939 fair, she proposed a model town to be built so visitors could experience first-hand the possibilities of reorganizing cities along the Garden City model. It never came to pass, but an accompanying movie made by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke was completed and shown entitled The City. The film taps into state-of-the-art mass media in an effort to spread the group’s new towns gospel, most famously advocated by its scriptwriter, Lewis Mumford: controlled growth of cities, walkable distances between residential, commercial, and civic spaces, limited through-roads, and maximum green space. In their view, cities as exemplified by late Depression-era New York were fatally flawed, corroded and corrupt behemoths that had lost all sense of scale and rhythm, or as Mumford might have put it, of humanity.

The modern manufacturing city portrayed in the film is oppressive and all-consuming with gargantuan smokestacks shadowing the lives of workers and their children who live in barely-standing wooden houses with no indoor plumbing. In one long shot, men file into factories as if they’re fodder to satisfy the hunger of a great machine. Children are unattended by anyone but themselves, and though some look like they’re having fun, the movie’s score, written by Aaron Copland, makes it clear that as far as the filmmakers are concerned, playing in the street and abandoned lots will certainly not produce the next generation’s best citizens. An even bigger threat is the city’s chaotic transportation—streetcars in competition with buses and cars in the city, and the unlucky family that tries to escape only encounters more traffic on the highways out of town. One group abandons their car and settles for a picnic on the side of the road. Even food has become mechanized in this merciless landscape: eight-slot toasters shoot out a morning meal for office workers at a lunch counter who drink endless cups of coffee from an industrial-sized urn and served by a counterman, whose face is never shown—just his arm thrusting plates and mugs at his customers, who themselves have no time for small talk but rush out into the street. Outside, commuters and apartment dwellers gawk at a man felled by a streetcar, his body lifted onto a gurney and taken away by ambulance.

It’s all very pitiful for these trapped citizens, but fortunately a new movement is underway, one that will restore the order and decency found “in old New England towns,” as the narrator, Shakespearean actor Morris Carnovsky, reminds us. In fact, the first five minutes of the movie is occupied with recreating what the script calls an “18th century New England village,” though nothing moors it to a particular past; only the horse-drawn carts let us know we’re in some pre-dynamo era. The film’s third section shows the modernized version of this New England village—the city we should aspire to—though to most eyes, I’d venture, it looks like a suburb with unusually old tree stock and lots of good bike paths. But the narration chastises anyone who makes such an assumption: “This isn’t a suburb where people play at living in the country.” No, it’s a town-country, a place where children are free to play outdoors without fear of automobile traffic and where neighbors work on communal garden plots. There are brooks and tall trees but lots of nearby neighbors too. This section was filmed in newly built Greenbelt, Maryland, a project of Rexford Tugwell and FDR’s Resettlement Administration. And it will come as a surprise to no one that the citizens of The City are all white and gender roles are solidly fixed. Still, despite its lack of awareness of anything outside a vision of Anglo- Saxon harmony, the film does raise questions about the wildly deleterious impact of manufacturing and coal-based industry on our air, water, food supply, and health.

If my description of The City seems arch it’s only because I’m surprised at how very unsubtle the movie is. Mumford was a critic of formidable intellect, and while his ideas about what a city should be smack of a proselytizer’s zeal, his work could never be dismissed as simplistic. Likewise, Bauer was highly versed in community housing efforts both in the US and in Europe, projects that were grounded in complex debates that considered very real limitations of municipal law and budget. While some of what they advocated could be criticized as exercises in social engineering, Bauer and Mumford could never be accused of fantastical thinking: their interest in architecture and planning was less an aesthetic statement so much as a social one.

So the ham-fisted quality of the movie is all the more inexplicable, at least from the perspective of 2019 when I first saw it. But when I rewatched a few months later, well into Covid quarantine, the depiction of run-for-the-hills citizenry looked remarkably similar to the world fashioned not only by the New York Times real estate pages, but by neighbors and friends. Many were taking cover and comfort in a tone of knowing pessimism—though they almost certainly knew nothing at all, had no exceptional insight about the future of the city. Still, the narrative in my world was oddly consistent: if you can get out, get out. It’s the very same quality of panic that animates the middle section of The City that made the movie feel so relevant in the year of pandemic.

My own version of this panic has surfaced as obsessive checking of used car listings. I am well into middle age, and until this year have never owned a car or even considered owning one. But now that fact feels like deprivation, as if I’ve missed a rite of middle–class American passage. (“I deserve a car!”) Equally absurd, I feel guilty for these thoughts as if I were abandoning New York and New York-hood. Hadn’t I seen the episode of The Odd Couple a million times, the one when Oscar wins a car and it proceeds to be a vehicular albatross until it’s finally towed away? And I love the opportunities that walking gives you—the up-close details of streets and buildings and the chance conversations that stay in your head much longer than you’d expected. But during the worst months of the pandemic a car felt like the pull rope divers take into the ocean, the security of knowing I could get out if I needed to, as if a car, simply by virtue of owning it, could instantaneously transport me to the city of Bauer’s fashioning.

Of course, this all echoes the weeks around 9/11—all the questioning of what you’re doing living in Brooklyn, an island east of another island, the rest of the country feeling like a mainland that can only be reached by perilously crossing two rivers. And it hits private nerves, not just collective ones: as a child I lived in Jersey City, one block from a major highway, a large dye factory, and scores of small manufacturers and trucking firms. To visit my aunt in Union, a Newark suburb 30 minutes away, my father had to drive us through the terrifying landscape along the New Jersey Turnpike where the Bayway Refinery’s massive, burning smokestacks required everyone to roll up their windows and hold their breath. It seemed endless—the massive oil tanks crowding both sides of the highway. Throughout childhood, I regularly daydreamed that I was the last person on earth, and I could live wherever I wanted, the pleasures of the world’s gardens and houses and swimming pools at my disposal alone. But first I would have to commandeer our giant Oldsmobile through that cursed strip of road to get to the calm of my aunt’s town, my ideal. It was a place I treasured for its rustic fences and slanted roofs with dormer windows. Of course, the Elysian vision of her house and her neighborhood has since given way to the knowledge that it was a town of lower middle–class whites, the kind of place that in more recent years fell victim to the opioid epidemic. Still, the essential idea was in place: you have to run through the gauntlet of the New York megalopolis to get to safety. I hadn’t seen The City yet but I innately understood its premise.

From the perspective of 12 months of isolation, though, the frenetic middle section of The City offers the most poignant summation of why anyone would choose to trade space, dishwashers, cars, and gardens for chaos. The coffee shop scene—meant to convey the pervasiveness of machines and our slavery to industry—instead captures a particular form of intimacy afforded by a counter stool. A distillation of the best of city life, it is the equivalent of a theater seat where you can pick the drama you prefer: noting the unimpeachable memory of the counterman repeating an order to the cook; meditating on pies and layer cakes in refrigerated display cases; at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, talking to a stranger about the brief window of time each year when shad roe is on the menu. What makes the counter stool a sacred space—not a phrase I’m using with irony—is the way it provides an option to participate or remain anonymous—you can enter into the scene or not, but either way you’re a part of a tableau that cannot be fabricated alone in your apartment or driving your car. Still, getting back on the subway—often the ultimate in New York spectacle—or sitting inside a crowded restaurant fills so many of us with an unfamiliar dread: is the option of anonymity still available in a world of airborne virus variants?

Urbanists like Mumford’s contemporaries Clarence Stein and Henry Wright were all about making communities that provoked those sorts of counter stool interactions but within the context of “nature,” albeit a highly curated version. Stein and Wright were the authors of what became known as the “Radburn Idea,” the urban plan behind, about a dozen** towns, including Greenbelt, Maryland, where the third section of The City was filmed. Stein and Wright, with funding from a group called the City Housing Corporation (CHC) which boasted Mumford and Eleanor Roosevelt on its board, built their concept around the “superblock,” an extended quadrant of houses built on the periphery of land lots with communal gardens and walkways at the block’s center. Cars—in the role of anti-nature—would be relegated to curb parking or garages on the edges of town. Kids could roam free through gardens to reach playing fields or maybe a community pool, untouched by traffic or smog. Sunnyside Gardens was the CHC’s first project. It was built between 1924 and 1928 while Queens was undergoing an extraordinary population boom as a result of the new 7 subway line: between 1900 and 1930 the borough’s population grew from 153,000 people to over a million. Builders responded with street after street of single- and two-family houses. Stein, Wright, and company saw the work of individual developers as a money grab with no consideration of the elements that can transform a set of houses into that ineffable and vague concept of “community.” The acres of empty land next to a subway line 15 minutes from midtown struck the group as an opportunity to apply Howard’s Garden City ideas right in New York.

But Sunnyside had a built-in limitation, a dormant virus that came to life 40 years later. As it turned out, Queens had been divided into city lots even before the CHC began to build its model town-city. Property lines were drawn to give homeowners rights to their backyards up to the middle of the block, the usual division of city lots. That left Stein and Wright with no communal space for gardens, the essential element of Howard’s scheme. Their solution took the form of a 40-year deed restriction that gave residents the part of their backyards closest to their houses while the other half of the yard would become part of a shared space. Blocks were divided into three to four sections called courts, and each court had a communal garden.

The first residents of Sunnyside Gardens were largely sympathetic to the communitarian aspects of its design and were a mix of white- and blue-collar workers—teachers, doctors, restaurant workers, chauffeurs, mechanics, social workers. The houses sold out quickly and the community got to work tending their communal plots of land. But in 1964 when the first of the deed restrictions expired, the neighborhood was two generations away from those ideals: homeowners declared rights to their full backyards and the greenways were soon cordoned off with a jumble of fences. Twenty years later a group of residents pushed to bring back the gardens but that required buy-in from every person on a court, a hard sell to many first-time homeowners who had little to no idea about the neighborhood’s history and had no intention of forfeiting that most touted of American ideas, the claim to a piece of land no matter how small.

Of course, what gives that idea so much currency is that it’s a dream that isn’t particularly American at all: my father from Italy, my uncle from Yugoslavia, my neighbors from Bangladesh: they all wanted and want a piece of land to give them financial security and the chance to be free from the dominion of other people, to say fuck off, I want to be alone or I want to put a rusted car in my front yard or I feel like building a chicken coop. But take a walk in Sunnyside today, and there’s no doubt that the few courts that returned to the original plan have got it right: while the others have a gloomy, forgotten-world quality, the shared courts have elegant, small-scaled gardens with a children’s book kind of charm.

That struggle to share space or not is the same pull animating many of us in these waning days of the pandemic: we long for each other; we want to be free of each other. The glory of emptiness hit me during the pandemic spring, when I had reason to leave my home in Brooklyn to travel to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A car service was too expensive, so I steeled myself for the subway, plotting how best to avoid infection: would standing instead of sitting afford extra protection? Should I put on another pair of plastic gloves once I got off the train? But my fears dissipated once I realized that the subway had transformed into an idealized version of itself: clean, empty, on time and, it seemed, a system designed wholly for me. Most of my trips were to the new Q station at 68th Street where the train deposited me on wide-planed platforms and the only sound was the hum of the escalators continually running for no one. The same emptiness above ground, but I found none of it sad; in fact, it was thrilling. I’d walk south and realize what extraordinary luck I had—to enter that very old daydream of being the last person alive and getting to see buildings baldly announcing all the city’s ambitions with no human-scaled distractions.

But that was a state that had charm only with the promise of human return, just as my daydream, an escape from the loving oppression of family, was only a pleasure with the certainty of its falseness. Like everyone, I’m dreading rush hours and cheek-by-jowl concerts, narrow supermarket aisles and museums without timed entry. But the term “critical mass” has never been so relevant: New York can never be a town-country and we’re better for it. The chaos and rage borne of human contact is as much a reminder of life as any contemplative garden, maybe more. Of course by those lights, it’s our fate as New Yorkers to be reminded of our humanity on the hour. But I’m waging on the millions of gentler interactions—the ones with Joaquin the counterman at my diner, say—to give me far greater sustenance than any sharp-elbowed crowd can take away.


Angela Starita