- The Death and Life of a Chicago Edifice:Gwendolyn Brooks's "In the Mecca"
Isolation, stratification, fixation, regimentation, standardization, militarization—one or more of these attributes enter into the conception of the utopian city, as expounded by the Greeks. And these same features remain, in open or disguised form, even in the supposedly more democratic utopias of the nineteenth century, such as Bellamy's Looking Backward. In the end, utopia merges into the dystopia of the twentieth century; and one suddenly realizes that the distance between the positive ideal and the negative one was never so great as the advocates or admirers of utopia had professed.—Lewis Mumford, "Utopia, the City and the Machine"
Sit where the light corrupts your face.Miës Van der Rohe retires from grace.And the fair fables fall.—Gwendolyn Brooks, In the Mecca
As Lewis Mumford explains, urban utopias of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries "merge" into the dystopia of the twentieth century because urban utopias rely on a specific way of ordering space, usually maintaining the established order by subtle and less subtle strategies of compulsion. In other words, to achieve an ideal urban society, urban utopias promote the sense that people are a chaotic mass that needs to be ordered through the control of space. In the twentieth century, the negative idealism of urban planning present in ancient urban utopias resurfaces as a response to the sense that the modern city is a dystopia that can only be redeemed by violent reshaping. One of the most extreme cases of reforming undesirable, unbeautiful, and poverty-stricken segments of urban space involves urban planners' response to the "urban decline" of American cities. In response to this decline, mid-twentieth-century planners proposed the "urban renewal" that erased entire neighborhoods and further deepened residential segregation, urban poverty, and racism.
Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their landmark study on residential segregation, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, explain the growing racist response to inner cities in the twentieth century by illuminating the facts of residential segregation. The authors unambiguously indict white public institutions for the construction of racially segregated areas within cities: "The evolution of segregated, all-black neighborhoods . . . was not the result of impersonal market forces. . . . On the contrary, [they were] constructed through a series of well-defined institutional practices, private behaviors, and public policies by which whites sought to contain growing urban black populations" (Massey and Denton 10). In the 1950s in particular, housing segregation reached its peak deepening the decline of inner city neighborhoods. 1 As the above quotation shows, urban planners and ideologues reinforced the ancient idea of "regimentation" and "stratification" that Mumford mentions, but also translated it into a modern version of urban idealism called "residential segregation" to achieve and protect upper- and middle-class white urban utopias.
The discourses with which the planners, designers, architects, and ideologues justified these racially exclusive modern urban utopias, however, did not always contain the word "segregation." These particular positions in urban discourse used terms [End Page 457] such as "urban decline" and "urban renewal" instead to raze whole neighborhoods and erect housing projects in the same racially segregated areas. The discourse on "urban decline" and "urban renewal" therefore not only used the neglected areas of the cities as a metaphor for everything that was wrong with them. Furthermore, it effectively disguised housing segregation and racial discrimination. Displaced residents of the declining urban areas, however, began challenging "urban decline" as an appropriate representation of their lives. As Robert Beauregard notes, the term "urban renewal" was parodied among blacks as "Negro removal" in the 1960s because the urban discourse that disguised acute racial discrimination culminated at this time (164-65). Urban demonstrations, political speeches, gatherings, riots, and revolutionary literature showed the insufficiency of the dystopian concept "urban decline" and its utopian counterpart "urban renewal" to ameliorate the real problems of cities, such as social and racial inequities, residential segregation, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and limited or no health care, that plagued residents born in the neglected parts of cities.
Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "In the Mecca" puts Mumford's hypothesis on negative idealism in utopian...