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Cities on a Hill: : A JOURNEY THROUGH CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURES by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 426 pp.)

October 26, 1986|Alan Peshkin | Peshkin has studied American communities since 1972. His latest book, "God's Choice" (Chicago), is about a fundamentalist Christian school and community

Ihappen to like journeys, whether they are the travels of a Paul Theroux, the personal ventures of a Ved Mehta, or the fictional excursions of a John Updike. Frances FitzGerald joins my list of admired journey-takers who see insightfully and portray articulately what they see.

FitzGerald's journey is to four metaphoric "cities," places, according to Puritan John Winthrop, so visionary they compel "the eyes of all people upon us." Her places are "social experiments" located in the Castro section of San Francisco where gays predominate; the fundamentalist Liberty Baptist Church of Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.; the retirement community of Sun City, Fla., and the New Age commune of Rajneeshpuram, built by the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in central Oregon.

In FitzGerald's view, her four communities, notwithstanding their differences from each other and from most American communities, are "quintessential American" because each embodies the notion that people can "start all over again from scratch." They can, as she says, "reinvent themselves."

Her accounts are based on long, repeated personal visits to each community, buttressed by historical, survey and census data, as well as by frequent recourse to scholarly writing. She means to inform, and she does, writing with an edge that derives from "being there," though seldom tinged with the self-indulgent "look at me being there."

FitzGerald's four American places unite their respective participants by virtue of circumstance (for example being gay or elderly), purpose, and, possibly, a sense of community. Each group's pervasive distinctiveness not only joins its members, it also, save for Sun City's elderly, places it at odds with nearby and distant groups. While the elderly are increasingly political nationwide, their ideology and practice do not "offend" and threaten as does that of New Age commune members, fundamentalists and homosexuals.

By 1978, the Castro's gay community was a "world apart from the rest of the city," having developed the leaders, habits, customs and institutions that mark the life of a distinct group. We learn that Mayor George Moscone had attended the annual drag ball for the third time, and that San Francisco's 100,000 gays comprised "one out of every five adults and one out of every three voters."

Though FitzGerald does discuss the Castro's "social experiment," she tells us considerably more about the political leadership, activity and strength of the gay community as manifest in the successes of Harvey Milk, the reactions to his assassination by Dan White, and the profound confusion created by AIDS.

Similarly, we learn about Falwell's constituents: their Bible-centeredness, discipline, respect for authority, and love of sports. Clearly, however, FitzGerald is more fascinated by Falwell's immense Christian empire and his complicated evolution as a major political figure--pollsters ranked him third most influential in the nation's private sector after Lee Iacocca and Dan Rather--than by his Liberty Church members.

FitzGerald continues to create a fine sense of being in a different world as she moves next, and most briefly, to unincorporated Sun City's 8,500 middle-class residents, characterized by busyness, orderliness, cleanliness, and relative homogeneity, and finally to Oregon and the Rajneeshees. Their red-hued garb, communal living, and worship of work did not unduly threaten their neighbors. Their political muscle did. The internal and external disasters that eventually destroyed the commune claim most of FitzGerald's story.

If FitzGerald's four visionary "cities" do exemplify the indomitable American spirit and our capacity, if not our propensity, to "reinvent ourselves," her accounts of them do not elaborate the social experiment they reputedly contain. Moreover, her conclusions that they are "anti-intellectual" and "ahistorical," cases of "pragmatic experimentalism" that "build a new world on hostile ground," emerge more as pronouncements than as corroborated statements. But her pronouncements provoke reflection, as do the communities themselves. FitzGerald fails to deliver all the goods she promises; nonetheless, her book is lively and informative and well worth the price.

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