walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

William Whyte, _City_, the actual review. Sort of.

Subtitled: Rediscovering the Center

I couldn't find a kindle version so I bought one used. I intend to keep it, altho I hadn't thought I would want to when I bought it.

I guess I'll start by saying that I cannot imagine a universe in which I do this book or its author justice by reviewing it. William Whyte was a brilliant, careful, exuberant participant in urban life, well-connected, full of brilliant insight and a fantastic observer who followed the data where it led him, even if that meant having to throw away hypothesis after pet idea after firmly held belief before finally stumbling over the truth when someone complained about his assumptions. It's absolutely worth the time to carefully read it, with frequent interruptions to dig up additional information wherever your curiosity leads you. It's long -- he clearly couldn't include every single detail that might have been helpful to a reader and besides a number of years have gone by and he makes predictions that can be checked.

Whyte's research is so unparalleled and occurred over a long period of time, so it's tough to argue with his observations and dangerous to claim they are not applicable. But just because he observed something doesn't mean we have to agree with how he valued what he saw, much less his predictions about how given buildings and complexes would age. Part of the fun of reading _City_ is that it is _not at all current_. Published in the late 1980s and the research dating from the previous decade-ish, his analysis falls in the empty space between New Towns (which were showing real problems) and New Urbanism (which had not really come upon the scene yet): he values urbanism, favors pedestrians but has not yet come out whole-heartedly against the car, and his reflexive nostalgia for a denser urban environment recognizes that tower development with dead plazas is unhelpful. While he doesn't go as far as some (by, say, becoming completely anti-open space and opposed to all development above a half dozen stories), he does identify some of the major issues: loss of sunlight, a lack of street-level amenities (places to eat, pee and sit), blank walls, a loss of affordable space to incubate businesses (he spends very little time on housing), the problems of allowing cars to park in the CBD, etc.

Whyte has an unusual degree of clarity about what zoning has to offer and the problems with various approaches to it (no pie in the sky by and by on offer here). Even better, he understands the ecosystem of zoning: the importance of community groups applying pressure to planners and zoning boards to the pros can push back on the developers instead of just agreeing to everything that shows up.

That's all fantastic.

Here's the problem: Whyte's city is Lexington, and only for a particular stretch of it (he's an honest man, and he says as much). He visits other parts of NYC, and other cities around the country, but he is so connected to a certain class level, and its scurrying to and from lunch and office jobs and getting haircuts and shopping and getting in and out of subways and commuter trains and so forth that I'm not entirely certain he realizes that there's a whole other group of people who are school teachers and police officers and fire fighters and construction workers in the same city, never mind all the recent arrivals not just to the city but to the country (and NYC has them now and had them then). He mentions that lack of blue collar jobs in some cities -- and how that is a huge problem, one that wouldn't be fixed even if the office parks had been retained by cities instead of lost to the edges of their metropolitan area, and he even compares cities that did a good job of managing the transition from manufacturing to something else. He is even sensitive to issues like cities creating skyways or underground concourses that are disproportionately used by white office workers, leaving the streets to black people who ride the buses (and he even mentions the bus/train brown/white divide). But his office workers are lively and real in a way that no one else is, and I can't quite figure out why. (Even the most detailed bag lady described was a college grad.)

So I guess I'll end by saying that we could all learn a huge amount about how to observe a city (and some of what to look for) by reading this book -- I highly recommend it. But I would also encourage anyone who reads this (or any other programmatic book about cities) to listen carefully for what isn't being said about who the camera isn't focused on. Whyte has this great bit where he describes how corporations decide to leave a city (and he nailed it -- the process was exactly the same in the late 1990s as it was back then, and the impact on a corporation was the same as well), and who follows the corporation when it moves and how their new lives work (or don't) in the new context -- and who stays in the city and how that works for them. If you can hold in your mind the people whose opinions _don't_ drive those decisions, but who still have to find a place to live and a way to get to work and some way to make the paycheck cover everything, you can intuit at least the general shape of the many missing pieces inevitable in a topic so large and so important.
Tags: book review, non-fiction

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