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Reviewed by:
  • City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World
  • Rishona Zimring (bio)
Witold Rybczynski, City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World. New York: Scribner, 1995. 256 pp. $23.00.

Near the beginning of City Life, Witold Rybczynski informs the reader that the ratio of police to citizens in Paris is 15:1,000; in New York City, it is 4:1,000; and in Los Angeles, 2:1,000. The comparison instructs us at the outset to consider why American cities are not more like Paris, with its “aesthetic vision” (p. 24). The hygienic notion of Parisian safety and beauty hovers over the rest of the book, which is by and large a fast-paced, informative history of the American city, told with occasional personal musings from the point of view of a Canadian who has recently moved to Philadelphia. City Life’s historical narrative is a valuable resource: it provides a quick, fairly detailed account of the environmental, social, economic, and technological factors that have contributed to the development of American towns and cities from colonial times to the present day. Always with an eye toward architecture and urban planning, Rybczynski also situates his observations in a strong narrative about the rise of industrialism and consumer culture.

With its opening excursion to Paris, the narrative continues to push us toward a future in which American cities might improve on their own terms, rather than on those of the European past. The book offers little in the way of prescription or critique, however. It stops at brief mentions of cities such as San Diego, Dallas, and Jacksonville, cities based on decentralization and private cars. These are the cities of the future. Will they be armed and policed like Paris? Rybczynski never returns to the ratio of police to citizens, but he does remind us that cities are about “a sense of community” (p. 234)—leaving us to wonder how these car-based, shopping-mall communities will define themselves, what they will destroy, and whom they may exclude.

The challenge of capturing the speed and evanescence of modern city life has [End Page 246] fascinated writers and troubled them as well. Baudelaire, of course, famously depicted the urban environment as the fleeting and ephemeral, figuring those qualities in the mysterious, anonymous prostitute of the Paris poem “A une passante.” The challenge has also been to capture the history of the modern city even as it quickly disappears. It is to this project of history that City Life contributes. Following and revising Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin sought to give the past back to Paris. Benjamin’s Passagen-werk exposed the nineteenth-century “ruins of the bourgeosie.” Cities grow by destroying and rebuilding, so it becomes the task of present interpreters to always resupply us with the layers of the past that lie beneath the surface. For Benjamin, as Susan Buck-Morss instructs us (“The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe,” October 73 [Summer, 1995]: 3–26), this meant exposing the nineteenth-century city as hell. For other writers, the project may not be so critical. Rybczynski’s book offers a relatively optimistic history of the American city without much political charge.

Rybczynski chooses as his precursor not Benjamin (the favored reference point of much interdisciplinary writing about cities) but Alexis de Tocqueville, who provides a standpoint from which to analyze the city as it figures in the democratic experiment and mass society. Like Tocqueville in Democracy in America, Rybczynski offers a critical eye toward the battles between democratization and individualism, between the dollar and art. In the end, though, he tends to be less alarmed than Tocqueville at the perils of mass society (what Tocqueville calls “the tyranny of the majority,” and what Foucault calls power). When Rybczynski offers commentary on the shape of American cities at the present moment, he places himself against the architectural establishment by defending the shopping mall as the new public space. In this, he is less Tocquevillean (Tocqueville was no populist) than he is optimistically Venturian. Though not mentioned by Rybczynski, Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993) comes to mind as a progenitor of architectural defenses of the vernacular.

The...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6520
Print ISSN
1063-1801
Pages
pp. 246-249
Launched on MUSE
1996-05-01
Open Access
No
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