Think Piece

Reconsidering Anti-Urbanism

by guest contributor Max Gaida

By Max Gaida

Although they lived just half an hour by train outside of New York City, I doubt my grandparents ever visited after my grandfather retired in the late 1990s and no longer needed to commute. After all, it was “That City,” the embodiment of crime, filth, and, perhaps most shockingly, liberalism. They were suburban people, content with all the Garden State had to offer, repelled by what could await them in Gotham. Perhaps in this attitude my grandparents are an embodiment of a particular prejudice which runs through American history: anti-urbanism.

In investigating the criticisms of urban spaces that Americans, like my grandparents, have voiced, I have eventually come across an impasse on how to incorporate different sentiments into one reasonable definition of “anti-urbanism.” As historian Steven Conn points out in his study of American anti-urbanism, even defining urbanism is “no small task.” I am not the first to struggle with coming to terms with what “anti-urbanism” really stands for. Pioneering urban historian Charles N. Glaab commented on the same issue in 1963, whilst also pointing out that perhaps the United States was not as anti-urban as was often proclaimed. Urban history flourished in this period, in part as a response to the changing character of post-war American cities, which were rapidly suburbanizing and being refashioned under the guise of “urban renewal.” The destruction of old neighborhoods for multi-lane highways or colossal housing projects animated historians to look at urban environments more closely.

Anti-urbanism is often noticeable in invectives such as that by Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, who asked his Twitter followers: “Serious question: I have to go to New York soon […] I have heard it’s disgusting and violent there. But is it like Walking Dead Season 1 or Season 4?” But what, if anything, is behind the façade of revilement in statements like these? To me, three difficulties in understanding anti-urbanism polemics are particularly striking. First, there are those instances when the criticisms voiced are justifiable because they point to actual features of cities, albeit in an exaggerated way. Secondly, what is voiced as criticism of cities is sometimes not about the urban space per se but about attacking people associated with cities, in particular African Americans. The adjective “urban” has become, in the supposedly neutral language of post-Civil Rights era politics, synonymous with Black people and has been used by presidents since at least Nixon as a dog-whistle (a term that his supporters understand the true meaning of but that simultaneously offers enough plausible deniability to the user). Lastly, what may appear to be an invective against urban spaces can actually be directed toward a broader feature not inherent to cities, for example capitalism or materialism.

Concerning the first difficulty of defining anti-urbanism—that criticisms are justifiable or at least pointing towards actual features of a city—it is informative to look at Thomas Jefferson, possibly the most famous anti-urbanist in American history. Although his opinions on cities were often scathing, Jefferson’s criticisms of the early Republic’s urban areas were not all unfounded. Calling cities “pestilential” or “sores” was surely polemical, yet also not completely spurious, given how the dense quarters of Revolutionary era cities were hotbeds of a vast array of diseases. The fine line between polemic and reasonable criticisms is, however, hard to draw. Perhaps J. D. Vance would argue that his tweet is also justifiable and point to crime statistics or problems with urban sanitation in New York City. This issue notwithstanding, Jefferson’s example leads to the question if voicing reasonable criticisms, even in an exaggerated fashion, can also be classified as anti-urban.

Anti-urbanists are likely to denounce cities as being dirty, hectic, noisy, impersonal, and a host of other disparaging adjectives. Around the turn of the 19th century, this criticism became intertwined with ideas about poverty, crime, and social hygiene. Photographer turned social reformer Jacob Riis, for example, wrote of New York city tenements in his famous book How the Other Half Lives: “In the tenements all the influence make for evil; because they are the hot-beds of the epidemics […] the nurseries of pauperism and crime.” Although not attacking cities as such, Riis and his compatriots saw the density of urban areas as the root of urban problems, and few places were denser than tenements. However, Riis does not blame cities as such. Instead, it is “[t]he greed of capital that wrought the evil” of overcrowded tenements, which were packed with renters to maximize profits. More strikingly, Riis did not shine a light on urban issues simply to denounce cities, but because he believed doing so was the first step to the problems being rectified by city authorities. Cities were thus redeemable and could, given the right conditions, offer a good life to their inhabitants. Riis’ example suggests that anti-urbanist criticism is defined in part by the consequence its author desires. The solution for anti-urbanists is the eradication of the city as such, Riis and his compatriots were instead driven by a desire for improvement.

The second problem with defining anti-urbanism is that it is sometimes used as a front for voicing intolerant opinions in a more palatable fashion. The Civil Rights movement made open, blatant, vicious racism politically gauche. As a result, candidates who want to be taken seriously have opted to obscure their vitriolic opinions, hiding behind so-called dog-whistles. (At least this was true for candidates trying to run for nationwide offices like the presidency, although Donald Trump’s election in 2016 indicates a marked shift in what can be said on the way to winning the White House.)  “Urban” is one such term, used as “thinly veiled racial code” by presidents such as Reagan. But if the intended target of an anti-urban invective is not the city as such but covertly its residents, then is this truly anti-urbanism?

Disentangling these two strands proves particularly tricky because of the self-fulfilling prophecy this coded language has created. The reciprocal relationship between space and race in the US is such that as African Americans moved into urban spaces, these too became, like the people inhabiting them, undesirable to the white majority. George Lipsitz describes this process of the spatialization of racism in How Racism Takes Place, emphasizing that “social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual places.” By analyzing spatial processes such as residential segregation or the location of toxic hazards, he concludes that “race is produced by space.” Moreover, Michael Bennett argues that “anti-urbanism functions as the newest form of racism” achieved through a “semantic slippage from ‘Black’ to ‘urban.’” Yet recent works like Kevin Kruse’s White Flight stress that more than semantics were at stake. As urban spaces became more Black, whites left, taking their tax money with them. Municipal governments thus had less capacity to respond to urban problems, leading to the urban crisis of the 1970s in which cities often resembled anti-urbanist screeds: decaying buildings set the stage for rising crime and poverty. Rather than ask what came first—anti-urbanism or anti-Black racism—the mutually reinforcing relationship between the two forces needs to be stressed. Here, rather than trying to disentangle two seemingly distinctive issues to uncover the pure anti-urbanism behind dog-whistles and racism, perhaps the solution is to acknowledge that an outlook like anti-urbanism does not exist in a vacuum. There is no unadulterated anti-urban core inside Reagan’s diatribes against urban populations.

Lastly, anti-urbanists often criticize cities for features that are arguably not inherent to urban spaces but attributable to capitalist modernity. For example, some might accuse cities of being too fast paced, rushed, or hectic. However, when commercial activity is prohibited in cities, for example during a public holiday, the same places that were bustling less than a day before can become surprisingly quiet and peaceful. So instead, when anti-urbanists criticize how hectic cities are, they are, unwittingly or not, commenting on the pace of accelerated work rhythms. Maybe denser spaces simply allow observers to notice how hurried people are to get on and off their jobs or do work, such as deliveries, outside. Therefore, we have to be careful whether a seemingly anti-urbanist screed really is criticizing features inherent to the city or if it is condemning something the city helps make noticeable. After all, a comment on late-Soviet cities’ drab and desolate appearance would not be confused for a universal disapproval of cities as such but understood to be a critique of socialist realism. Similarly, criticisms of cities in the US can actually be pointing at issues related to capitalism, not to density or city life as such.

Although great work has been done on anti-urbanism, the question of what anti-urbanism really is has not been answered fully. If criticizing features (disease, hecticness) of the city, or the people living in it, or things associated with it (materialism, capitalism) is not anti-urbanism, then what is? Perhaps the answer is hidden in the lacuna left by the work of Steven Conn, who focuses on elite thought and its influence on public policy. Yet, like Kevin Kruse argues in White Flight, scholars are mistaken in focusing only on politically powerful actors such as presidents. Indeed, there is a need for analyzing anti-urbanism from below: how it has been experienced by regular people and how this shaped their outlook on cities, politics, and life in America more generally. How, for example, do people like my grandfather manage to commute into a city that they hate for their entire career? And how does this daily experience change their beliefs?

More recent history also deserves to be (re-)assessed. A momentous event like 9/11 is likely to have shifted the debate significantly, proving, in the mind of anti-urbanists, that cities are dangers both to the people living inside them and to the nation as a whole. And as we have entered the 21st century, a new urban crisis has appeared on the horizon. During the early heights of the pandemic, those who could afford to do so deserted cities, possibly changing their opinions towards urban spaces along the way. Perhaps the pandemic will even lead to a resurfacing of the association of dense urban spaces with disease, similar to the criticisms voiced by Jefferson and observed by Jacob Riis. The manifold problems facing urban spaces today—homelessness, an opioid epidemic, financing issues—are not entirely new, and looking at their pasts can inform how we address them in the present.

Max Gaida is a graduate student in North American Studies at the University of Cologne. He is writing his master’s thesis on African American police officers during the Reconstruction era. His research interests include the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the history of anti-urbanism, and the philosophy of history. He aspires to pursue a Ph.D. in American History. He can be contacted via email and found on Twitter @MaxGGaida.

Featured Image: Smog obscuring the view of the Chrysler Building, via Wikimedia Commons.

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