blue-collar mind's Reviews > City Life

City Life by Witold Rybczynski
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Mar 12, 2011

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bookshelves: urban-design-history
Read in January, 2011



I liked Rybczynski’s first book “Home” which observed how comfort, family life, privacy, efficiency (damn those Victorians) and work have shaped the idea of home.

“City Life” is an excellent overview of how Americans have evolved the modern culture of cities which remains, I think, one of our few last exports to the rest of the world.

He makes many useful observations:

•The evolving definition of city, or town or burg. The word city comes from towns that had bishopric seats, and had nothing to do with population. In general, it had religious connotations. gulp.
•That Americans simply brought their urban culture to the rural communities. Therefore, it follows that we don’t have the parallel culture like much of Europe but instead in this country share many of the same ideas and attitudes across regions.
So maybe there is hope for us. (More likely, much of what we now share across this nation starts with American Idol and ends with WalMart.)
•That many universities were built by architects as self-contained towns with a rich patron to bankroll the ideas and little or no opposition to their ideas. That made me pause; since almost all architects and planners come from those environs it occurs to me that their last experience of village life before designing new ones are these mock towns that believe wholeheartedly in the built environment and in a sort of medieval spires/gothic fortress view of life.
Uh oh.
But the most important part of this book for me is his chapter on housing for the poor and the great migration (great meaning whole bunches) of African-Americans to the Northern manufacturing areas. As we need to remember, the post war boom was basically over by the mid-1960s and yet no changes were made in the policies of the US for those who had migrated to where the jobs once were. Housing for the poor reflected that missed opportunity and still does.
I wish this part was longer but at least he attempts to add it to the conversation. I agree that accessibility to many things is still the main reason for city life but I am not sure that I agree that with wireless accessibility, fewer physical cities may need to exist. That may be true, although I feel that theory has been preached since the 19th century (and its advent of the ”annihilation of time and distance”) with the invention of the telegraph, railroads and photography, yet cities continued to grow in importance and size in that very time.

I also wish there was more on the immigrant experience and how it has changed in America and therefore changed cities too. I know that in my own city of New Orleans newly arriving immigrants are now moving to the suburbs of Jefferson Parish as soon as they arrive and not to the city center which worries me. I’d like to hear some perspective on that.
Rybczynski writes well for a wide audience and gives concrete examples of places that illustrate his points.
You can do worse than reading this primer, especially if you are new to the subject or like me, if you prefer less academic views of heavy subjects.
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