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Chapter 3 The City: Film as Artifact Pare Lorentz’s landmark documentary The City, prepared at the request of Clarence Stein on behalf of the American Institute of Planners for presentation at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, is a wonderfully rich statement of the faith that the proper environment could shape better communities . As this chapter demonstrates, however, conveying complex ideas through a visual medium was not a simple matter. As I circulated drafts of the chapter between the filmmakers and Lewis Mumford, the chief intellectual influence on the film, tensions that had surrounded the original production surfaced again, despite the considerable passage of time. The filmmakers objected to the preachiness of the narrative. Mumford retorted that the filmmakers, left to their own devices, would have obscured the intent of promoting a planned environment. What remains impressive is how well audiences received the production, whether for its visual dexterity or its deeper social criticism. However uneven the film appears to contemporary viewers, it manages still to convey concepts central to the thinking of the Regional Planning Association of America. Although the new towns program that The City featured already had been terminated and its principal sponsoring agency absorbed into another government division by the time the film appeared, the film’s survival as a prime artifact of twentiethcentury criticism has deeply informed generations of viewers ever since. Moreover, as Robert Leighninger contends, the high hopes embedded in the new towns effort that ‘‘the mass migration to the suburbs could be carried out in an orderly fashion that would achieve a harmonious integration of work, commerce, recreation, and residence,’’ ultimately found supporters not just in the contemporary New Urbanist movement described in Chapter 7, but also in the private new town experiments at Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland, as well as in the ambitious effort to protect open space in the area surrounding Portland, Oregon.1 PAGE 45 ................. 17669$ $CH3 02-23-10 13:52:17 PS 46 Chapter 3 The advent of the Depression, with its visible signs of economic and social collapse in cities, encouraged the Roosevelt administration to launch the country’s first national study of urban life. With this mandate, in 1937 the Committee on Urbanism issued its first report, Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy. A year later, Louis Wirth drew on his contribution to the report to publish his highly influential essay, ‘‘Urbanism as a Way of Life.’’ In the same year, Lewis Mumford published his seminal urban study, The Culture of Cities. Contributors to these works agreed that the precarious urban condition demanded unprecedented efforts to rouse public opinion for widespread civic and social reform. Yet despite achieving ultimate historical recognition , these appeals had limited immediate impact. Beyond generating a modest amount of editorial opinion, the report of the Committee on Urbanism , as Mark Gelfand points out, failed to gain the attention of either President Roosevelt or Congress.2 Although Wirth took an active role in advocating urban reforms at planning conferences, his growing reputation was nonetheless largely confined to academic circles. Even though The Culture of Cities helped propel Mumford to the cover of Time, he later related his disappointment that ‘‘despite a certain measure of popular success, the book exerted little influence in the United States.’’3 It was scarcely surprising, then, that a group of urban critics would seize on the emerging documentary form as a vehicle for generating public support for their programs. The English already had demonstrated the ability to influence public opinion through film under the leadership of John Grierson. Pare Lorentz’s films The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) had proved the receptiveness of an American audience. Richard Griffith wrote in 1938, The nation-wide success of Lorentz’s two government films has put documentary on the map with a flourish. Never before have pictures dealing with social problems captured the attention of an audience which includes all levels of American opinion. And this popularity, as widespread as it is unprecedented, has raised high hopes among those who have for years wanted to enlist the film as an instrument for social education. Educators and publicists everywhere are hailing documentary as a vivid, urgent method for developing the social attitudes of masses of people, for reconditioning their civic thinking.4 It remained only for architect and community planner Clarence Stein to forge the link between film-makers and urbanologists. In 1938, Stein established a nonprofit corporation, Civic Films, within...


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