Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore's American Urban Form offers a delightful primer on American urban history, cast not in predictable textbook language but as the biography of a "representative" city (known simply as "the City") that is neither Boston, Philadelphia, nor New York but an uncanny blend of the three. Whittemore's delightful line drawings make this fictional site an all the more believable place; his continually revised distant topographic view, placed at the opening of each of nine chapters, gives the reader a convincing look at the overall form of the city and spread from its seventeenth-century colonial founding to its current incarnation as a multicentered, sprawling "global city." Within these chronolgically arranged civic portraits (which capture such archetypal moments as, for example, "The City Overwhelmed, 1860," or "The Polycentric City, 1975"), Whittemore's more detailed depictions of particular structures—drawn as much in the lighthearted spirit of contemporary artists like R. Crumb and Ben Katchor as in the manner of a traditional architectural renderer—make us feel as though we are looking at a place we might have passed last week, rather than at a figment of the artist's imagination.
Making the visuals more believable—and lending them greater meaning—is the text itself, into which Warner and Whittemore have distilled a thousand familiar and distinctive details of the literature of American urban history. The result is a single, quick-moving tale that captures, in its outline, the essence of many such stories—of [End Page 81] older Northeastern cities, to be sure, but of U.S. cities more generally. From its early position as the "puppet of transatlantic capital" to its aspiring status, four centuries later, as a "hot spot for world-dominating economic and artistic creativity," the City comes full circle within a global economy of migrating labor, trade, natural resources, and ideas (pp. 34, 137). Readers familiar with the more conventional texts of the field—and there are many out there—will enjoy recognizing particular features of the story as near-duplicates of particular sites or events in another actual metropolitan area. History readers less familiar with the literature of urban architecture, planning, and development will nonetheless find plenty of familiar moments of American history interwoven (and rightly so) into the more particular story of the growth and continual reshaping of the city. This is at heart, the authors remind us, an American saga, and the range of their historical discussion redeems urban history from the potential misconception that it somehow tells anything less than the story of the nation itself. Even the storied frontier is, as Richard Wade reminded readers more than a half-century ago, urban.
Nonhistorians, for their part, will still glean much from the authors' close eye for urban detail—a method they credit to such earlier writers as Grady Clay, Kevin Lynch, and Alan Jacobs—and its technique of drawing from commonplace sights a larger set of questions and problems. Here is the 1970s city center, with its "stark modernist landscapes of broad, treeless, windswept plazas framed by concrete civic structures" (p. 122); there is the fussy street work of the most recent planners with "improved sidewalks, sidewalk plantings, bump-outs, curb cuts, raised crossings, [and] bicycle lanes" (p. 142). Each of these details is as telling as it is familiar, and while Warner and Whittemore make no real effort to break new ground in that telling (the story is lightly footnoted, the bibliography at the end solid and useful but far from comprehensive or up-to-date), they nevertheless display a constant knack for weaving landscape, finance, politics, and ideology into one seamless narrative fabric.
The strength of the book, in the end, suggests its weakness. A wonderful print artifact, a gem in its simplicity, straightforwardness, [End Page 82] and visual unity, American Urban Form offers plenty of historical detail and social critique but stops short of the sort of moral narrative that characterized Lewis Mumford's pioneering work—an approach that Warner, given his...