The Sociable City: An American Intellectual Tradition by Jamin Creed Rowan
As the twentieth century wore on, Jamin Creed Rowan tells us, a "rich, but somewhat dispersed" (153) tendency emerged in certain quarters of America's intellectual life. Quite unlike nineteenth-century moralists whose remedies for the industrial city's "crises of affect" (44) and "sensory famine" (122) would reinstate premodern channels of interpersonal sympathy, those promoting an ethos of sociability had another form of mutuality in mind. A lineage of writers both famed and forgotten came to articulate a new style of "fellow-feeling" that was consistently less [End Page 345] committal, cloistered, ponderous, and often just mawkish than preexisting mantras of "community" had enforced. "Sociable" urbanists came to recognize that people could productively be strangers together in public, at once alone and ineffably bound up in their fleeting association. Appreciative of social difference in close proximity, exploratory across its seams, and attuned to the force of unplanned encounter, the writers convened in The Sociable City offer an alternative mode of interaction in and with urban space. In Rowan's able hands they mark out a new intellectual prehistory of those postwar voices that cut hardest against the urban renewal consensus, and they equip future observers to deal nonnostalgically with the ongoing recomposition of public life.
Rowan identifies five sequential stages in the development of this new sensibility, prefaced in Georg Simmel's 1911 essay "The Sociology of Sociability," an appreciation of the "pure essence of association, of the associative process as a value and a satisfaction" (110). Each stage commands a chapter. Chapter 1 provides a subtle new reading of the Progressive Era's settlement-house movement in specifically affective terms. Chicago's Jane Addams "stretched" (17) what had been a domestic, fairly moralistic crusade, opening it to a more public and variegated sort of sympathy that could explode the boundaries of family or class. Chapter 2 considers the affective investments of New Deal urbanism. Rowan leans on the didactic, Brechtian theater it sponsored, such as Arent's One-Third of a Nation (1938), for evidence, and presents as an unambiguous contraction the retreat to "calcified" (46), pre-Progressive models of mere "intimacy." These effaced kinds of interaction, he holds, were the intended outcome of New Deal public housing and an impediment to more complex, properly twentieth-century ways of being-in-common.
The next two chapters, certainly the most novel and surprising, center literary and scientific thinkers who have escaped urban geographers' attention. Chapter 3 heralds the first major rejections of "sympathy" discourse, most capaciously in the interwar New Yorker's "A Reporter at Large" section, which saw E. B. White, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, and others scour the city, amused, for idiocultures of social and economic life—movie houses, boxing gyms, walking clubs—and their characteristic spaces. Each of these little worlds might be called a socio-spatial "ecosystem," and as Rowan shows in chapter 4, another group of thinkers at mid-century soon imported precisely that vocabulary from [End Page 346] the life sciences to "solidify and expand" (99) the sociable tradition. The key institution is New York's American Museum of Natural History, the key figure its director, Albert Eide Parr, and the key insight—that organisms, thickly interdependent across species and with their environments, generally, pace the Chicago School, cooperate rather than compete—vividly on display in the museum's Warburg Hall, which opened in 1951 and for the first time visualized mammalian life as organized into something other than quasi-nuclear families. Visitors, Rowan suggests, drew similar conclusions about cities and their possibilities for interracial alliance. The chapter, rewarding well in excess of this glancing summary, then pivots to the pages of J. B. Jackson's Landscape magazine, which published credentialed cultural geographers (and Parr himself) for many years and, on Rowan's telling, finally consolidated the "midcentury ecological urbanisms" that, redirected, would inform the great rebuke of urban renewal.
Jane Jacobs is in some ways the book's explanandum, and in chapter 5 Rowan adds new dimensions to her ongoing reappraisal as a node in the intellectual history of urbanism. Peter Laurence has lately demonstrated the breadth of her influences and contacts—including with life scientists, and with the geography department at interwar Columbia—and Samuel Zipp has mined her shorter writings on informal economic exchange, especially her early journalism, for a heterodox vision celebrating "markets without capitalism." By the time we get to chapter 5, which cites some of the same sources to adumbrate The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) as an ecology of affect, the outlines of what the author will extract from Jacobs seem overdetermined and a bit unsurprising besides. More than the forebears who populate The Sociable City, she worked to "delineate and prescribe urban forms capable of instigating sociability" (128), and Rowan spends several useful pages reviewing her proposals to redesign superblocks of public housing by, for instance, running neighborhood streets through them. His intellectual history materializes in ways that will intrigue geographers. Mainly, however, Jacobs is a synthesizer who "codified and extended, rather than originated," the sociable way of seeing and feeling, putting it in "cultural formation" (127). Less charitably, she "packaged and sold" (152) it to suggestible postwar readers of paperbacks on the urban scene. Unnamed until now, it has been an ambient feature of middlebrow urbanism ever since.
Rowan is something of a partisan for the mode of emotional engagement [End Page 347] he documents. More than once, he adduces Richard Sennett's notion of the "tyranny of intimacy" (7, 133). He seems to second Jacobs's remark that "togetherness" is a "nauseating" (134) ideal by which to organize urban life. The social-realist melodramas of the New Deal, spelled out in embarrassing detail, for him mark the "exhaustion" (69) of sympathy, a "simplified and unimaginative discourse" (74) that "will inevitably fall short" (70) of channeling urban variety into something nourishing and new. Rowan and his thinkers enshrine "sophistication" of thought—a watchword of the early New Yorker—"nuanced and enriched" (13) emotional palettes, and a Trillingian "complexity" in all things. He shows a refreshing skepticism toward sentimentalisms on the right and left alike—sententious old saws regarding the family bond on one hand, ready-made "consciousness" or "brotherhood" on the other. Although he acknowledges that Jacobs could descend into romanticism—the famous "sidewalk ballet" scene from Death and Life can come off as a laissez-faire fantasia—he mostly commends her urge to cast "webs" of association in which the units, always under construction, are "peoples," not "persons" (134).
The Sociable City is an act of recovery, a taut intellectual history dense with insights on the surfaces and depths of urban life. It is also, albeit more obliquely, a work of advocacy. Geographers attentive to just about any of the episodes constellated within will find truly new ways to situate and debate the sense they made.