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Hitting the Streets : VARIATIONS ON A THEME PARK: The New American City and the End of Public Space, Edited by Michael Sorkin (Hill & Wang / Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30, cloth; $15, paper; 252 pp.)

March 29, 1992|Marshall Berman | Berman is author, most recently, of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" (Penguin), a book about what it means to be modern. He teaches at Harvard and at the City University of New York

One September at the end of the '60s, not long after I began teaching at the City College of New York, I saw some students wearing buttons and T-shirts marked "Street People's Party." They said they wanted to make the school open, intense, sexy like the streets. Their rap sounded a little sanguine, but I liked it. "Can you get me one of those T-shirts?" I asked. "Sure," they said, "we'll be right back," and that was the last I ever saw or heard of them. I forgot about them for years, but the incident came back to me when I saw this charming book, which reads like a program for the Street People's Party's 25th reunion.

The contributors to "Variations on a Theme Park" are united by their love for street life, yet they hardly ever speak about it directly. Instead, they lament its demise in a series of lush and lavish new landscapes--shopping malls, historic districts, private suburbs, underground and elevated cities-within-cities--which all seem to be united around Le Corbusier's maxim, "We must kill the street!"

Why would anyone want to kill the street? When I first came across this violent invective, years ago, it seemed so bizarre. In fact, it is central to 20th-Century planning, in its ultramodern, garden and "edge" city modes. Editor Michael Sorkin and his fellow writers believe our ruling class conceives of "order" and "disorder" in rigid and regimented ways. It doesn't want big crowds of people coming together, unless those crowds can be strictly controlled. Its fear of the street translates into fear of people, crowds, noise, energy, trouble, demands--fear of even democracy itself.

Sorkin is an architect, teacher and cultural critic who works out of New York but gets around. His most notable honor so far is that of getting kicked off a panel on the future of Times Square, ca. 1987, because architect Philip Johnson refused to appear in the same room with him. His fellow-writers (five Americans, one Canadian and one Scot) belong to the same cohort, and I am especially attached to it because it's my cohort too.

These are first-generation New Leftists, people who came of age in the 1960s, the decade of "modernism in the streets" (as Lionel Trilling put it when his students occupied Columbia), the decade when it seemed that we, the people, could change the street and then the world.

In some ways we did, in many ways we didn't, and we're pretty banged up inside today. What should we call yesterday's New Left today? The Used Left, maybe? This volume is a fine sampler of the Used Left. Its authors teach in East and West Coast universities, write criticism, practice architecture, planning or design; one has also practiced rock and roll. Learned, cultivated and well-traveled, they know how to write with power and grace. They could form the core of a terrific ministry. Alas, it will never be.

Not that "Variations on a Theme Park" lacks academic Left cliches: We can find "spectacle," "hyperreal," "panoptic," "carnivalesque"--big words that substitute for big ideas. But while our authors sometimes like to show off how smart they are, they've generally got what they flaunt. Still, one shouldn't enjoy their aesthetic and intellectual play too much, for if you accept what they are actually saying, the whole contemporary world turns out to be dreadful, totally alienated, inexorably evil, and any joy you take in culture, including writers and books like this, only makes you that much more complicit in the whole affair.

"Variations" begins with Margaret Crawford's essay on the shopping mall--"a completely introverted building type," as she sees it, that turns its back on the street. The 28,500 malls in North America, Crawford informs us, account for more than 53% of its retail sales. (Is that all?) She gives a lucid history of how "the basic regional mall paradigm"--the most popular size--was perfected, and enjoyed its golden age, between 1960 and 1980. In the Reagan era, however, markets became saturated, competition heated up, and there was a vast proliferation of specialty malls--for furniture, auto parts, luxury goods, factory outlets--while hundreds of S & Ls went bankrupt building malls that never filled up. In the 1990s, the mall may be up against the wall.

All of this is interesting, if not quite earth-moving. But Crawford, perhaps feeling the need to create more of a quake, starts to attack the whole process of shopping, which she calls "the utopia of consumption." Department stores are among her betes noires : They offer "the invitation to look, turning the shopper into a passive spectator, an isolated individual, a face in the department store crowd, silently contemplating merchandise." Readers of the Frankfurt School and its followers will recognize this Geschrei . But there's something perversely arbitrary about it. Why not an active spectator, (as any experienced shopper is bound to be)? Why not an affiliated individual, noisily contemplating the goods?

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