Sprawling Urban Definitions

Taco Bell sign in Georgia

Taco Bell sign in Georgia

A few days ago I wandered through a gigantic Barnes & Noble in a Baltimore mega-mall. Overwhelmed by the acreage and options, I drifted down the aisles: Literature. Astrology. Manga. Cooking. Investing. When I saw a section labeled ‘Urban Fiction’, I got excited and rushed toward it, imagining a bookshelf bursting with paranoid novels by JG Ballard, Don Delillo, Luc Sante, and Georges Perec. Instead, the shelves were lined with pulp paperbacks: Ride or Die Chick 2, Thug Lovin’ and The Dopeman’s Wife. It was a sharp reminder that the word ‘urban’ is remarkably elastic.

Urban. Is it a positive or a negative word to you? Does it conjure images of a bustling business center or grim housing projects? Does it describe a physical environment or does it suggest a lifestyle?

I often wonder how growing up in a Detroit suburb defined — and distorted — my perception of the city. Although we lived only seven miles north of Detroit, my parents rarely went downtown in the 1980s. I remember the ker-chunk of the doors locking whenever we crossed Eight Mile Road. “It’s safer,” my dad said. And so I began to conjure elaborate and bloody scenarios of masked robbers ripping open the doors of our Pontiac and dragging us onto the pavement. This was my introduction to the city.

In high school, I snuck into Detroit every chance I got. Sometimes I went to late-night parties in clubs and factories. More often, I simply drove around aimlessly and looked at things (much like I do these days, now that I think about it). The city was forbidden and therefore fascinating. After a few successful trips downtown, my childhood fear of the city was replaced by fetishistic teenage awe: the city was exciting, aspirational, and (to deploy another tricky word) underground. Although my sense of all things ‘urban’ became positive, it remained warped and unrealistic until I actually lived in a city. I wonder how this experience compares to someone raised in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. Imagine being a kid with a MetroCard, a lot of mobility, and no fear.

Urban decay. Urban radio. Urban legend. Urban slang. Urban renewal. Urban chic. ‘Urban’ is a screwy word, loaded with axe-grinding and assumptions. We bring our personal baggage to it. Same with ’suburbia’, ‘rural’ and ’sprawl’. As Robert Bruegmann writes, these terms aren’t so much “an objective reality as a cultural concept”. Writing about the repopulation of the Lower East Side in Sprawl: A Compact History, Bruegmann argues:

Gentrification at the center and sprawl at the edge have been flipsides of the same coin. In a typically paradoxical situation, no matter how much the new, more affluent residents profess to like the ‘gritty’ urban character of the place, so different in their minds from the subdivisions of the far suburbs, what makes the neighborhood attractive today are less the things that are actually traditionally urban but those that are not. The most important of these are sharply lower population densities, fewer poor residents, less manufacturing activity, and the things that the Lower East Side finally shares with the suburbs: reliable plumbing, supermarkets with good produce, and a substantial cohort of middle-class residents.

It’s a provocative comparison, although Bruegmann’s confusion of ’traditionally urban’ with ‘poor’ is a red flag. Bruegmann downplays the reasons people enjoy living in the Lower East Side (and he seems primed for a cage match with James Howard Kunstler). Plumbing and produce aside, I believe people move to cities for three obvious reasons:

1. To be freed from the demands of the car
2. To enjoy dignified building stock.
3. To be close to other people (and hence have more options for work, food, friends, etc.)

The last item is the most important. As William H. Whyte observed in his series of groundbreaking films from 1979 called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, “The number one activity is people looking at other people.”

Watch the entire series here. It may seem a little old-timey at first, but stick with it. After five minutes, Whyte’s narration hits a stride that becomes oddly soothing and addictive. Many thanks to Candy Chang and Jan Chipchase for turning me on to Whyte.

Whyte’s work endures because he connects distinct urban behaviors to the shape of our buildings, plazas, and sidewalks. He connects social behaviors to physical space and vice versa. There is no agenda with Whyte. There is no baggage if you stay curious.


This post originally appeared on KinoSport, the notebook of James A. Reeves. Reeves is a writer, educator and designer. He is currently working on a book about America called The Awful Making of an Optimist. He lives in Greenpoint.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

3 Responses to “Sprawling Urban Definitions”

  1. Melinda Wax says:

    James, thanks for hitting every note of the first four weeks of the course I am teaching, Design for Everyday Life, at Parsons/D&M!!!! I will have them read this for fill in with Whyte, Kunstler, Jacobs and Richard Florida!
    You are always so on the mark.

  2. Candy Chang says:

    Great insights James

  3. AG says:

    Great piece, James, and thanks. It occurs to me, though, that you’re forgetting a big reason why people move to the big city: to reinvent themselves. This obviously isn’t going to be true for everyone, but it’s not such a trivial thing, either.

    Only big cities lend themselves to the kind of anonymity (“magna civitas, magna solitudo”) and benign incuriosity that permits one to start over again with a clean slate, to try on one mask after another until finding the one that fits.

    There’s a curious resonance here with Whyte’s work on sidewalk sociality. In his telling, the act of striking up a conversation mid-path owes much of its power and appeal to the paradoxical fact that – being in the middle of the flow – a participant isn’t overly committed to remaining in any one particular engagement. Not being trapped by some obstructive feature of the physical environment means they can leave at any time…and are therefore that much more likely to enter into, and maintain, a conversation.

    If Holly Whyte taught us that low commitment and low risk, in this context, means a willingness to experiment, the same thing is true of big cities and identity. You can try stuff on for size – a haircut, a style, a dietary habit, a declared political or sexual stance – and leave it behind a week later if it doesn’t suit. (Try that in a small town and see what happens.)

    Expressed as a more general principle, I’d say that big cities are all about lowering the opportunity costs of action, and enabling more supple transitions from one planned activity to another. It’s something that I believe can and ought to be designed for in all urban environments.

Leave a Reply