The Decline of American Cities: Lewis Mumford's 'The City in History'

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Portrait of Lewis Mumford, December 13, 1957.

"Like a stopped clock," the author Lewis Mumford asserts in this 1961 appearance at a Books and Authors Luncheon, he has been exactly right twice.  

The first time was when he wrote The Culture of Cities in 1938. This book "pointed out the imminent disaster of cities" in face of the rising tide of Fascism. Mumford recounts with pride how his book was smuggled into Occupied Europe and used by many underground networks to educate the young town planners in how they would reconfigure their urban environment after defeating the Nazis. This time, Mumford claims, we in the United States face a similar threat, not from Fascism, but from "the motorcar." 

The city, he warns, "has been disintegrating before our eyes." He uses, as a warning, Greensboro, N.C., which is called the Parking Lot City. What this increased emphasis on cars has done is diminish the value of the city as "a place where people meet face-to-face." European cities are also becoming Americanized, to the extent that one can no longer enjoy a drink outside a Parisian café without being overcome by noise and fumes. Confronting this gloomy future, Mumford hopes his current book, The City in History (1961), will offer some hints for deterrence. He also points out  two recent glimmers of hope: the movement thwarting Robert Moses' plan to have a four-lane highway go through Washington Square and the residents of New Jersey rising up against a proposed "jetport" in the Meadowlands.  

Born in 1885, Mumford was that rare and peculiarly American phenomenon, the self-educated scholar. Though he studied at the City College of New York and the New School For Social Research, ill health prevented him from taking a degree. It did not impede, however, his far-ranging intellect. His early works were of literary criticism, rediscoveries of the Transcendentalists and Herman Melville. But what he is chiefly remembered for today is his fascination with the city, its architecture, and the study of the urban phenomenon in general. As Mumford indicates in this talk, the subject was clearly one whose time had come. The Humanities and Social Sciences website notes:

The Culture of Cities…publication in 1938 marked a turning point in his extraordinary six-decade writing career, thrusting him into the international spotlight and onto the cover of Time. So sweeping and insightful was Mumford's analysis that thereafter he was acknowledged as an authority on urbanism in its multitudinous aspects: historical, formal, social, economic, and political.

Mumford de-emphasized technology as man's defining achievement, arguing that language and communication were the essential elements of civilization and that the city, where all kinds of relationships could be established, was in fact the great invention of society. For this reason he eschewed the word "technology" and preferred the word "technics," which encompasses both the human and social aspects of invention and tool-building progress. Although a prolific writer (he was for many years architecture critic for The New Yorker magazine) Mumford also gained a considerable following from his personal appearances. His biographer Donald L. Miller noted: "As a lecturer, he exuded strength and power, and an almost Olympian certainty."

Mumford's opinions often epitomized the direction of progressive thought at the time, arguing vehemently for the United States' entrance into World War II and just as forcefully, 30 years later, for the country's exit from Vietnam.  His early work extolled the potential the new urban lifestyle held, while his gradually souring on the city over time reflects the disillusionment of a generation. (Ironically, he left New York City rather early, settling in a small house in the town of Amenia in Dutchess County. This too could be seen as presaging the "white flight" that so devastated cities after World War II.) But, as the New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger notes:

Mumford was among the first critics to remind us that bigger is not always better; in his later years, he came to exaggerate that view so much that he seemed almost to be saying that big must be bad. Yet even at his most angry, Mumford's criticism was always informed by a desire to see architecture in a social context. His eye was never seduced by the beauty of form; he consistently sought to view architecture in terms of social purpose, and made his judgments accordingly. Today, as we come to the end of a decade of visual overkill and social indifference, his standards seem in one sense out of step, in another, desperately needed.

Indeed, the problems Mumford posed in The City in History (which won the National Book Award) are still those bedeviling urban planners and city-dwellers today. In their holistic approach to technology and its place in the social fabric, his arguments have taken on an even greater urgency in the computer age. Eugene Halton, writing for the University of Notre Dame website, recounts how:

…he shows in lucid detail how the modern ethos released a Pandora's box of mechanical marvels which eventually threatened to absorb all human purposes into the Myth of the Machine, the title he used for his two-volume late work. Mumford strongly believed that so long as men and women desire face-to-face contact, cities will endure in one form or another. Accordingly, the Culture of Cities will remain a relevant text for the present-day and future reader who will necessarily place a higher value on such contact as cyberspace renders it less frequent. Cities can become "eutopias", good places, but only if men and women will them to be so. Never was a goal so simple or so elusive.

Mumford died in 1990 at the age of 94.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.