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William Whyte : Ensuring That Cities Give People a 'Place for Dreams'

July 22, 1990|Scott Simon | Scott Simon is host and chief correspondent of National Public Radio's Saturday news show, "Weekend Edition." He interviewed Whyte at the sociologist's office in Rockefeller Center

NEW YORK — William H. Whyte enjoys stories in which the accidents of fortune win out over the deliberation of planning. He recalls the time when the buildings of an industrial office park were finished and inhabited before connecting sidewalks could be laid. "Wait," he recollects the architect saying. "Hold back a few months and see where people walk. That's where you put the sidewalks."

At the age of 76, Whyte is an elder statesman of urban design who still cultivates the outlook of a rebel. "Street Corner Society," first published in 1943, is still widely read in college sociology courses. Whyte was one of the first American thinkers to suggest that the modern American city was not some monument to be plotted, paved and puffed up to expectations, but was something that had already taken shape--out of a gorgeous conglomeration of different peoples, passions and dreams. "What the city has to do--still more important than ever, I think--is to give people a place for dreams."

He was born in Springfield, Mass., and educated at Swarthmore, Harvard and the University of Chicago, where he became a professor of sociology. Some of his more than 14 books appear to be technical tomes--"Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry" (1948), or "Higher Yielding Human Systems for Agriculture" (1984)--that attracted a reputation outside their industries and disciplines because of Whyte's wit and insights. The largest part of his academic career was spent at Cornell, where he taught industrial relations, applied anthropology and social science.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 29, 1990 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Column 5 Opinion Desk 3 inches; 102 words Type of Material: Correction
William H. Whyte--The biographical information in the introduction for last week's interview with William H. Whyte was incorrect. Whyte was born in West Chester, Pa., and educated at Princeton, where he graduated in 1939. After writing for Fortune Magazine, he was appointed a distinguished professor at Hunter College, New York. His many books include "Is Anybody Listening?" (1952), "The Last Landscape" (1968), "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" (1980) and the influential "The Organization Man" (1956).
Several books mentioned in last Sunday's introduction, "Street Corner Society," "Human Relations in the Restaurant Industry" and "Higher Yielding Systems for Agriculture," were written by William F. Whyte.

"City: Rediscovering the Center" (1989), out in paperback, represents the conclusions he and 10 years of students developed by observing the way people conduct themselves on the streets of Manhattan. The sociology is footnoted; but Whyte's enthusiasm and affection for urban peoples is what stands out.

Today, Whyte commutes daily to his mid-town Manhattan office, overlooking Central Park. It is not the post-card view; water-towers, scarred gravel roofs, alleys and fire-escapes fill most of his window, but you sense these features captivate Whyte more than the rolling green plain of the park that lends a sense of peace to the city. "I like to see the guts of a city working," says Whyte with a gesture to the view. He offers visitors a cup of coffee, then sets out on a 15-minute voyage that involves rinsing, heating, brewing, pouring and maneuvering through hallways and storerooms in his office building, to return with a single, graciously presented cup. "Dr. Whyte," says a secretary in an office across the hall, "loves going off on one of his adventures."

Question: You say that there seems to be a holy war going on against the streets in our major cities, and the miscreants are not necessarily muggers and scoundrels, but often urban planners.

Answer: Exactly, exactly. They are doing all sorts of things for the streets--except strengthening them. They are putting the streets up in sky-bridges. They are putting streets in underground concourses. What they are not doing is strengthening the good, old streets as we know them. The street, I figure, is the river of life of the city. You stick it underground, you put it up in the air, and you have diluted your constituency. It deadens the city.

Q: Doesn't that come in response to the fact that urban planners and architects and retailers and hotel owners concluded that people were frightened by a lot of what was going on in the streets?

A: Yes. A man put it very well to me. I had been jumping on him, saying, "Why are you pushing these off-street streets, and also the megastructures," and he said, "OK, they are somewhat anti-urban. But we will never lure people, middle class, back to the city unless we offer them security from the city." That's the reason for these huge megastructures that look like fortresses . . . .

Like in Detroit, the Renaissance Center . . . for example, they have that great big berm--sort of a long hill--which actually contains their air conditioning. It is part of what is meant to be an invitation to come in and be safe from Detroit. I think that some of us have thought, "That's a hell of a way to sell the center of the city." It's defensive, it's apologetic. Heavens, the way you get people back into the town is to say, "Hey! We have something here that you will like."

Q: Why does it seem that so much of what has been designed to revitalize the city has not worked, and rather more of what just naturally fell into place seems to survive?

A: I think that some of the things were sort of doomed.

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