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  • The Crisis of Civic and Political Virtue: Urban History, Urban Life and the New Understanding of the City
  • Zane L. Miller (bio)

In the middle of this century, we reached a new understanding of the city that emphasized the importance of individual choices in the past and made the advocacy of lifestyle choices a hallmark of American civilization. This new understanding enriched both urban history and urban life, but yielded some unanticipated and serious consequences, including confusion about the meaning of civic and political virtue and a disrespect for the public interest, both of which intrude on historical work and our lives as citizens.

On the positive side, the new understanding of the city has generated an unprecedented interest in urban history and with it a proliferation of the detritus that usually results from the application of sustained study to a particular field. The products of this effort include not only scholarly monographs, textbooks, anthologies, a journal, and book series but also the establishment of archival collections, museum exhibits and new museums, neighborhood and suburban history projects and historical societies, urban historic preservation projects and associations, the creation of public history and public works history societies—both of which devote a lot of attention to urban subjects—the establishment of a regional and city planning history association, and the creation in the mid-1980s of the Urban History Association, which has enrolled over 600 members, including archivists, historic preservationists, and historical society and museum people as well as urban historians of various persuasions, and which publishes a biennial newsletter, sponsors conferences, and each year hands out awards for the best dissertation, article, and book in American and non-American history.

One might imagine that such an outburst of activity would have led to the discovery and exploration of a variety of new topics in an urban context. And it is tempting to attribute to the city history boom the apparent recent interest in putting an urban spin on the historical study of African Americans, white ethnics, women, the working classes, sports and popular culture, the family, and multiculturalism. Yet interest in the study of these and most other currently fashionable topics from an urban angle is not new. Indeed, almost all of them received attention in the 1920s and 1930s from one person, Arthur [End Page 361] Schlesinger, Sr.; others in these same decades either covered those he missed or contributed knowledge, insights, or conflicting interpretations to topics he addressed. 1

Yet the urbanists of the 1920s and 1930s lived in a different world—one that rested on a foundation of social determinism built around several propositions. They tended to believe that groups formed the basic units of American life in the past and the present, and that individuals acquired their identities and ways of life from the fact of their membership and participation in the life of the group. Schlesinger and his colleagues also tended to argue that groups acquired their identities and ways of life from their history and social experience in places during the past and the present. According to this view the culture of a group could stem from its history and social experience in a territorial place, such as Appalachia, the South, the West, the frontier, a foreign nation, or a particular neighborhood of a particular city. But the culture of a group could also stem from the place of a group on a social scale, measured sometimes in terms of class, occupation, or gender.

Schlesinger and his colleagues also tended to see the culture of groups as deterministically dynamic, as gradually changing because of the influence of “forces” or “factors” beyond the control of group members. Usually, urbanists in the 1920s and 1930s contended that the migration of groups produced intergroup contact, competition, and cooperation from which flowed economic and technological changes that altered the culture of groups, most often in a process that moved some groups from a position of relative isolation in the countryside to a position of intense intergroup contact and interaction in the city. According to Schlesinger and his colleagues, moreover, the history of newly urbanized groups within the city also stemmed from the influence of similar dynamic factors, in...

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pp. 361-368
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