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The anti-urban tradition in America: why Americans dislike their cities

Another election season is upon us, and so it is time for another lesson in electoral geography. Americans are accustomed to color-coding our politics red and blue, and we shade those handful of states that swing both ways purple. These color choices, of course, vastly simplify the political dynamic of the country.

Look more closely at those maps, and you’ll see that the real political divide is between metropolitan America and everywhere else. The blue dots on the map are, in fact, tiny, and the country is otherwise awash in red. Those blue dots, though, are where most of us live — 65% of us according the Brookings Institution live in metro regions of 500,000 or more — and those big red areas are increasingly empty.

The urban-rural divide has existed in American politics from the very beginning. It is a central irony of American political life that we are an urbanized nation inhabited by people who are deeply ambivalent about cities.

It’s what I call the “anti-urban tradition” in American life, and it comes in two parts.

On the one hand, American cities — starting with Philadelphia in the 18th century — have always been places of ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural diversity. First stop for immigrant arrivals from eastern Europe or the American south, cities embodied the cosmopolitan ideal that critic Randolph Bourne celebrated in his 1916 essay “Trans-National America.”

Not all Americans were as enthusiastic as Bourne about cities filling up with Catholics from Italy and Poland, Jews from Russia and Lithuania, and African-Americans from Mississippi and North Carolina. Many, in fact, recoiled in horror at all this heterogeneity. Many, of course, still do, as when Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin campaigned in North Carolina and called small towns there “real America.”

Steven Conn - Immigrants NYC
Italian immigrants pictured along Mulberry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, ca. 1900. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, the industrial cities that boomed at the turn of the 20th century relied on the actions of government to make life livable. Paved streets, clean water, sanitary sewers — all this infrastructure required the intervention of local, state, and eventually the federal government. Indeed, the 20th century city is where our commitments to the public realm have been given their widest expression — public space, public transportation, public education, public housing. And anti-urbanists then and now have a deep suspicion of those public, “collective” commitments.

In this sense, cities stand as antithetical to the basic, bedrock, “real” American values: self-reliant individualism and the supremacy of all things private. The 2012 Republican Party Platform, for example, denounced “sustainable development,” often associated with urbanist design principles, as nothing less than an assault on “the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms.”

Yet while anti-urbanism today is closely associated with Tea Party conservatives, its history in the 20th century is more complicated. The American antipathy toward our cities has been common across the political spectrum.

Franklin Roosevelt, architect of the modern liberal state, disliked cities personally — one of his closest aides described him as a “child of the country” who saw cities as “a perhaps necessary nuisance.” He was, to borrow the title of a 1940 biography, a “country squire in the White House.”

The New Deal reflected that anti-urban feeling. While a number of his New Deal programs addressed themselves to the failing industrial economy of the nation’s cities, FDR’s larger ambition was to “decentralize” cities by moving people and industry out into the hinterlands. This urge tied together the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the program to build a series of entirely new towns. After all, according to New Dealer Rexford Tugwell, FDR “always did, and always would, think people better off in the country.”

A generation later, the counter-culture of the 1960s which had emerged on college campuses in Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere manifested its own version of anti-urbanism. Fed up with what they saw as America’s un-savable cities, they went back to the land in dozens of different communal experiments. So many young people joined the exodus out of the city that Newsweek magazine declared 1969 “The Year of the Commune.”

Whether in the hills of Vermont or the hills of Marin County, communards shared the anti-urban impulse with their parents, who had left the city to move to the suburbs in the 1950s. As Steve Diamond put it in a 1971 book describing a trip from his commune back to New York: “you could feel yourself approaching the Big C (City, Civilization, Cancer) itself, deeper and deeper into the decaying heart.” These rebels might not have recognized their resemblance to their parents, but it was there in their shared anti-urban rhetoric.

Certainly, our ambivalence toward our cities lies beneath our unwillingness to tackle urban problems, whether in Detroit or Cleveland or Philadelphia. But the consequences of our anti-urban tradition are more wide-ranging. Our inability to think in public terms, to address the commonweal, grows directly out of our experience running away from cities in the 20th century. If we want a more effective and invigorated politics in the 21st century, therefore, we will have to outgrow our anti-urban habits.

Featured image: Aerial view of the tip of Manhattan, New York, United States, ca. 1931. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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