Urban Gloom


What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It

By Daniel Lazare

Harcourt -- 353pp -- $26

For the first time, according to the 2000 census, there really are 8,000,000 stories in the Naked City. With years of population decline reversed by immigration and a strong economy, New York City has made real the tag line of the '50s TV show.

So how does one reconcile one of the great urban growth stories of the late 20th century with the doomsaying of Daniel Lazare's America's Undeclared War: What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It? This mélange of history and urban criticism collects some fascinating nuggets. But the central analysis--that cities are dying--seems out of sync with America's recent urban revival. Lazare's historical analysis hits the spot. It's his remedies for current problems that miss the mark.

America has long been ambivalent about its cities. Lazare's strength in this copiously researched book is the light he shines on the intellectual threads of anti-urbanism. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, seemed to favor plagues over urbanites. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, he writes of an 1800 Philadelphia epidemic: "The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation; & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man." The philosophical divide between Jefferson's agrarian democratic vision for America and Alexander Hamilton's urban-oriented federalism is crisply drawn by Lazare. So are the growth of the railroads and the impact of the Progressive movement, which sought to "save" the urban masses by scattering them--and their radical politics--into the countryside. Lazare also gives a thorough recounting of the life and times of his Great Satan, Henry Ford, whose mass-produced cars helped create suburbia.

The weakness of America's Undeclared War is the author's feeble stab at solutions to today's urban ills. Lazare wants a steep gas tax, which would ultimately curb suburban sprawl. Yet he gives only token attention to mass transit, which would promote greater density. Instead of tackling big issues--how to pay for new systems or the racial politics of extending subway lines from cities to suburbs--he spends pages mulling futuristic trains that zip between New York and Los Angeles. The book also ignores the New Urbanism school, which seeks to replicate the best aspects of cities--including diversity and pedestrian-orientation--in the suburbs. Nor does it mention the blurring of the city/suburb divide in "edge cities" such as Fairfax County, Va. While detailing the lives of early 20th century immigrants, Lazare is almost mute on the impact of post-1965 city newcomers.

Lazare exhorts the working class to save the city. Yet he gives no details on how this might happen--especially when bus drivers and factory workers from South Central L.A. to South Boston would move to the 'burbs in a New York minute if they could afford to. America's love-hate relationship with its cities is a complex subject, and Lazare has an admirable grasp of the history. In his next book, one hopes he'll get a better grip on the present and future.

By Robert McNatt

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