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Tales of the city

Building Jerusalem The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City Tristram Hunt Metropolitan Books: 448 pp., $32

January 29, 2006|Phillip Lopate | Phillip Lopate is the author of "Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan" and editor of "Writing New York" and the forthcoming "American Movie Critics."

HOW is it that British cities went from being dirty, overcrowded eyesores swollen by the Industrial Revolution to splendidly burnished repositories of civic institutions and humane social services -- only to fall into dismal neglect in the 20th century, from which they are only now beginning to emerge? Tristram Hunt tells this complex, epic story with dazzling clarity and organizational brilliance in "Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City."

Hunt teaches modern British history at the University of London, writes regularly for periodicals and appears often on television. His high-journalistic writing style, while blessedly lucid, sometimes falls into the overly perky manner of academics trying too hard to woo a popular audience. Glibness aside, this book is a triumph of scholarship, sound judgment and synthesizing skill. I know of nothing equaling its scope and ambition in American urban studies, and the relevance of the British experience to our own cities shines forth on every page.

The author combines the physical and intellectual records, reanimating long-buried debates about aesthetics and local governance. The squalor of the mid-19th century city of Queen Victoria's day comes alive in testimony by physicians and clergymen. William Blake's poetic characterization of industrial urban England as "dark, satanic mills" is cited along with Dickens' description of Coketown in "Hard Times." There are also cogent summaries of commentary (mostly very negative) about contemporary cities by such esteemed thinkers as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris and Thomas Babington Macaulay. All this high-minded criticism prepared the ground for the astonishing transformations of Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds and London.

Although no book about the Victorian-era city can afford to overlook London, and the author gives the capital its due, he writes with more enthusiasm about the others. Perhaps it is because London already has been studied so much, but also because he is keen on showing how the decentralized metropolises of the north, which did not receive national subsidies, nevertheless pulled themselves up by their bootstraps; built magnificent town halls, libraries, museums, hospitals and piers; provided cheap gas, clean water, modern sanitation, sewage and affordable housing; and tinkered effectively with street patterns. His heroes are such business leaders as Birmingham's Joseph Chamberlain, who worked first within volunteer societies and later through town councils to improve their cities.

Hunt's thesis, or agenda, if you will, is that what he calls "the great middle class" played a historic role in developing Victorian-era cities, investing their energies in civic activism because cities were places of freedom, tolerance and sympathy for industrious strivers. (No doubt he is also trying to rehabilitate the middle class from the Thatcher years, when it was perceived as a selfish, privatizing force.) He also credits such dissenting religious sects as the Methodists and Congregationalists with a large share in creating the urban improvements.

English manufacturers and merchants -- prosperous but insecure, vulnerable to charges of mammonism and philistinism -- were much given to emulating their continental neighbors. First the Gothic Revival reigned, influenced by Walter Scott's chivalric novels and neo-Gothic architect and reformer A.W.N. Pugin's tirades, and it was even argued that this ecclesiastically tinged medieval style was the proper patriotic English expression for great national buildings. Then the Italian Renaissance had its day, thanks in part to Ruskin's writings on Venetian style and the Medicis' Florence. British visitors were awed by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann's overhauling of Paris with stately boulevards and sought to import those beaux-arts configurations. Finally, Hellenic influence began to be seen in neoclassical architecture.

Beyond the Victorian fashion for all things Greek, Hunt argues, there was the tempting model of the city republic. "The city republics of classical Greece had combined the civic ideals of the urban middle class: local self-government, internal liberty, a culture of rationalism and, crucially for civic identity, the combination of commercial success with aesthetic vibrancy."

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