Why Did America Destroy Its Great Cities?

08/02/2011 05:23 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

In June I concluded several articles about the legacy of Jane Jacobs with the question, "Why did America destroy its cities?"

What I was referring to was the catastrophe that befell America's great cities in the decades after World War II. How do we explain that Detroit lost two-thirds of its population, or that Philadelphia lost 40 percent? That powerhouse cities like Pittsburgh and Akron and Cleveland hollowed out? That 10 percent of the housing in New York City was destroyed by fire in the '60s and '70s?

While this catastrophe is typically identified with the Rust Belt, it also hit central cities in metropolitan areas that had overall growth in the "new economy," such as Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west, or New York or Boston in the east, or various cities in the south, where formerly viable working class districts lost jobs and working populations, and declined into rundown poverty.

What I'm asking is why, not how. There is a vast literature about urban renewal, suburban sprawl, the building of the freeways, the relocation of jobs out of cities into suburbs and exurbs (and out of the country), etc., but that work is about how the cities were destroyed. Little has been written about the causes of the destruction, yet I suspect that in 50 years that will be the question that attracts the interest of historians.

They will want to know why Americans allowed their cities to become replicas of bombed-out cities in Europe or Japan, why they bulldozed good housing stock or let it burn, why they tore down substantial downtown buildings and replaced them with parking lots, why they ran freeways across and through stable neighborhoods and valuable real estate, why they bankrupted municipal governments and allowed great school systems to fall into disarray, why they drove middle-class residents out and enticed them to leave.

I don't suggest that there was a purposeful rationale, or even multiple rationales, to destroy the cities. The causes are more likely to have been social, cultural, economic and demographic. The question is like the ongoing debate about what caused World War I, and the stakes are similar, as in both cases the question is why robust civilizations committed suicide.

I don't purport to have definitive answers, but in considering the question, I've identified certain "suspects," certain factors that could have contributed. In no particular order, and without claiming this list is exhaustive or definitive:

Cultural bias against the city. In Europe during the same period of economic and technological change cities largely retained their primacy for the middle and upper classes, while the suburbs became the home of the working-class and poor. In the U.S., the single-family house in a faux rural setting became the norm for the middle-class, and even in metropolitan areas that remained relatively prosperous the middle-class largely abandoned central cities. To say that suburban sprawl happened because of favorable governmental policies only begs the question why those were the policies. Did they reflect a bias against cities, rooted in Jeffersonian rural populism?

Changing demographics and racial dynamics. Can urban destruction be separated from the rural revolutions (and federal agricultural policies and practices) that sent black farmers to the cities? Or the changes south of the border that sent Mexican peasants to American cities? Many destructive policies were a direct response to these migrations. Prior to World War II, American cities had absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, going back to the Irish in the early 19th century. Each wave was discriminated against, but the cities, and ultimately the immigrants, flourished. Were our cities destroyed because of racism?

Changes in transportation or other technologies, in particular the impact of the automobile. Many of the more obvious physical manifestations of the destruction of cities are the freeways and the parking lots that replaced so much of the productive urban fabric. Equally dramatic was the relocation of jobs away from ports and railheads to freeways and airports. Yet although America led the way in "automobilization," there are by now many societies around the world that have accommodated mass ownership of cars without destroying their old cities.

Capitalism. As argued in the anti-gentrification writings of Neil Smith (The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City), urban decline through disinvestment should be seen as an expected outcome of capitalism. But then the question is why America, unlike other capitalist societies, did not choose to allocate, or failed in allocating, resources to counteract urban disinvestment.

A failure in politics, ideology or management. This would be the thesis of critics of modernism, in everything from urban design to management, encompassing the arguments in favor of urban renewal from architects like Le Corbusier or José Luis Sert, to the rise of technocracy in place of traditional politics based on patronage. In his book, The Fires, Joe Flood makes this latter argument, blaming the fires that destroyed so much of New York City starting in the late '60s on the "scientific management" instigated by Mayor John Lindsay. While these arguments might appear to fit into the "how" category, it's conceivable that ideology or theoretical thinking could be causal. (In this regard, it may also be worth studying the fact that prior to reapportionment in the 1960s, when crucial decisions were being made about cities, urban areas typically had severely diminished political representation.)

The long-term lure of the frontier. Instead of particular causes that arose in the 20th century, might the destruction of the cities be the result of the acceleration and culmination of the long-term movement in the U.S. of capital -- in search of cheaper labor and land -- from the East and North to the South and West (and now overseas)? (This would still beg the question why the U.S. has had a "throwaway" economy.)

I am sure there are other possible causes worth consideration and study. Whatever the causes, there are more than historical reasons to understand why America destroyed its cities. Many cities have mounted counter-attacks over the past three decades against urban destruction and at times these have been at least somewhat successful. Hopefully these trends are accelerating. But I suspect that it would help understand what needs to be done to revive cities if we understand better the causes of their destruction.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published by City Image Press.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...