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City Lite

Today's city is more a theme park for tourists than a civic center where values and experiences are shared. Does our future lie in a gritty, organic center for culture and urbanity, or in a crabgrass utopia?

December 22, 1996|Thomas Bender | Thomas Bender, professor of humanities at New York University, is the author of "New York Intellect" (Knopf/Johns Hopkins)

NEW YORK — As we approach the end of both a century and a millennium, a century of cities in the United States and a millennium of cities in the West, those of us who love the historical city wonder whether it will survive into the next era of American life.

When urban life was reborn in medieval Italy, the city stood in sharp contrast to the countryside. Even before Italian painters discovered perspective, this distinction found visual expression in art: One unmistakably entered and left the city.

Today, however, the city lacks such clear definition. There seems to be more boundaries within the city than between the city and the larger megalopolitan landscape. Our lives seem to be lived in a surround dotted with sites for economic transactions located in an ever-more pervasive world market; these vast, centerless and borderless areas are laced with invisible electronic connections to the global Internet. How can such an agglomeration be a city? Can such a human settlement focus and intensify human life, as city life has done in the past?

Those Italian paintings that began to explore perspective reveal another aspect of the historic city: It was viewed as a series of rooms, all of which were either public or opened out to the public. Internal conflict was common in the communes of Italy, but civic identity was strong. Investment in the municipal building and the piazza fronting it was substantial--often rivaling the cathedral in architectural distinction. It represented the commune's civic identity.

By these standards, city life at the end of the millennium is substantially weakened. Even measured by the span of our own American century, the civic and public aspect of our cities is greatly diminished. At the turn of the century, the most ambitious undertakings in American cities were public: civic centers, parks and major cultural institutions, like the San Francisco Civic Center and Opera House, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Balboa Park Complex in San Diego, Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library or, a bit later, the Central Library in Los Angeles. Such cultural institutions used to distinguish the city from the suburbs; today museums, after the fashion of professional sports teams, are as likely to be in suburbs and have the feel of a mall.

It seems as if our best middle-class vision of the city today is that of an entertainment zone--a place to visit, a place to shop; it is no more than a live-in theme park. Such a city is a tourist site, even for its residents. More and more of these new metropolites spend their weekends on walking tours or bus tours of the older, historic, ethnic, sections of their own cities. This amounts to Urbanism Lite. This new urban recipe is insidious, for it pretends to offer what it is not. Such pseudo-city culture offers scenes of city life, not the city itself. The City Lite is safe, orderly, simplified. It demands little--and gives little.

There is, however, a grittier city that coexists with the City Lite. The pleasures and diversions of the City Lite are intended to hide this other city from the eye and the conscience. A city populated by minorities, the poor and working classes--more often than not immigrants and people of color--it remains closer to the historic city, though its life is distorted by the powerlessness and economic marginality of its residents. It is a city of streets, of intersections and stoops, of ravaged school yards and much-used public basketball courts.

City Lite denies this city, insisting it has nothing to do with metropolitan culture and can be safely ignored, dismissed, cordoned off. Yet to cut oneself off from this vernacular city seriously diminishes urban culture. The life and culture of the street should not be romanticized. But that culture is part of what is best in city culture as well as what is most embarrassing about it. The strength of a city is all its people--and it is no accident that the last half-century of cultural innovation in the United States has been the product of a complex interaction between the culture of the street and established elite culture, whether one speaks of the development of jazz into a major American art form, or the energetic and visually stunning classicism of George Balanchine's ballets, or the recent Broadway successes, "Bring in Da Noise, Brink in Da Funk" and "Rent."

Advocates of City Lite reject the gifts of the historic city: juxtaposition of peoples and events, engagement with and recognition of the unfamiliar, the risk of understanding and the excitement of invention. The City Lite is a place of easy entertainment, with Muzak in the malls, not art. It devotes itself to consumption, not creativity.

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