Review Essay

The City and the State

American Urban Planning and the Role of Government

In This Review

Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities
Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities
By Witold Rybczynski
Scribner, 2011, 256 pp. $24.00 Purchase
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
By Edward L. Glaeser
Penguin Press, 2011, 352 pp. $29.95 Purchase

In the years after World War II, New York City decided to get rid of its East Side Gashouse District, a bleak landscape of towering gas storage tanks and six-story walkup tenements. It replaced it with Stuyvesant Town -- a modern "suburb in the city," as its planners described it. The creation of Stuyvesant Town represented a watershed moment in what would become a decades-long movement to revive and modernize the American city. In the 1940s and 1950s, many parts of U.S. cities were crowded and rundown, a condition that stood in stark contrast to the country's emerging suburban utopias. President Harry Truman called attention to the problem in his 1949 State of the Union address, pointing out, "Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others." After Truman's speech, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided federal financing for urban renewal and increased the Federal Housing Administration's role in providing suburban mortgages, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the interstate highway system. The federal government had placed itself squarely in the midst of urban policy.

It remained there until the 1970s, when political power became firmly ensconced in the nation's ever-growing suburbs. Although federal programs have remained important to cities, Washington's central role ended when President Jimmy Carter failed to honor his promise, made standing in the rubble of the Bronx's Charlotte Street in 1977, to rebuild it. Three years later, Ronald Reagan, campaigning for president, stood at the same spot and made the same promise -- with the same result.

After several decades during which scholars also tended to focus on the suburbs, two insightful recent books, Witold Rybczynski's Makeshift Metropolis and Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City, celebrate the importance of the American urban experience today. Rybczynski's is a study of the changing forces and ideas that have shaped urban settlement, whereas Glaeser's is an explanation of why the critics of cities throughout history have been wrong

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