City living is highly appealing to many Americans right now, as astronomical rents in Boston, New York, and San Francisco prove. But big cities like these still don’t strike everyone as “the real America”—which explains why a small-town pancake breakfast makes a much better political photo op than a subway ride.
Today, we tend to associate the anti-urban impulse with right-wing politics, and a recent Pew Research survey confirmed that modern political lines seem to break that way: Conservatives strongly prefer to live with a lot of room between themselves and their neighbors, while liberals like smaller dwellings with walking-distance amenities.
But a new history shows that anti-urban feelings have cut a wide swath through American history and politics. Conservatives have described the city as a hotbed of vice and crime, with an alienating level of diversity and too much government regulation. Over time, plenty of liberals have crusaded against city living as well, arguing for smaller-scale, decentralized towns where people could form what they saw as more authentic communities.
In his new book, “Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century” (Oxford University Press), Steven Conn, a historian at Ohio State University, offers a deep history of that impulse in America, with some surprising twists—tracking how the 18th-century New England village has done time as an anti-urban poster child, and how the federal government has periodically invested large sums in projects intended to decentralize the population.
Conn admits that he’s a partisan: He likes cities. Moreover, he says, anti-urban movements have always benefited those who already enjoy social privilege, while leaving behind immigrants, ethnic minorities, and the poor. On the whole, Conn argues forcefully that we must banish anti-urbanism in order to move forward: “The big problems that we all share are essentially problems of urbanism. And the way we’re going to solve them is by committing ourselves to a positive vision of urban life.”
Conn spoke with Ideas from his home in Philadelphia.
IDEAS: How would you define American anti-urbanism as it developed in the 20th century?
CONN: On the one hand, it’s the deep, deep fear of the messiness of urban life, and particularly the social messiness....In the 20th century as American society became more and more socially mixed, [anti-urbanism acquired] a flavor of xenophobia. It’s a sense of “I want to be closer to my kind, I’m either scared of or angry at these people who are different than I am.” Henry James, when he came back from his [European] exile to take a little tour of the United States, he was horrified when he came back to New York, at all the Jews who are walking around. That’s this really ugly kind of anti-Semitism that’s part of this xenophobic response....And the other piece...is this deep suspicion of the role of government, and the idea that city life, especially starting at the turn of the 20th century, depends on government action and government intervention.
IDEAS: I was surprised to see FDR and Frank Lloyd Wright, who compared cities to “fibrous tumors,” in the anti-urban camp. What’s the history you see, in terms of the political evolution of the idea?
CONN: Anti-urbanists, if we were going to map them out on a left-right spectrum, most of them…would fall to the right of center. And I think that became increasingly true after the Second World War. But...in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and ’70s, even people we might put on the left of the political spectrum, when they imagined utopia, they imagined it as rural....And for some of the same reasons: [The city] is inauthentic, it’s too crowded, the government is on my back.
IDEAS: The anti-urbanists that you look at don’t seem to necessarily want the suburbs as a substitute community. In fact, the suburbs, seen from the perspective of the history you outline, are almost unintended consequences—poorly executed versions of an anti-urban ideal. What was that ideal?
CONN: Starting in the 1920s, but especially during the Depression, [18th-century] New England became, at least for some of these people, the model for where America could go....The New England town is that small community of people who are all, let’s be frank, more or less like each other....It’s that small-town democracy, that town-meeting democracy that people fell in love with....In order to create that mythology, New England gets defined as Northern New England, far away from the coasts. Because on the coasts, especially around Boston but also Providence and New Haven, you get precisely all those different kinds of people that “we” never liked in the first place....So anti-urbanists in a sense rewrote both the history and the geography of the whole region, in order to create this mythology about the New England small town.
IDEAS: You talk about a number of 20th-century decentralization experiments that were to some degree or another funded by the federal government.
CONN: Once the New Deal began in 1933, you had this interesting paradoxical moment. Many, many of the people who were actually running the show were anti-urbanists of one kind or another....And this began at the very top of the New Deal, with FDR himself. His estate was about an hour north of Manhattan and he hated the place; he hated New York and all big cities. So the question was, can the power of the federal government be used...to decentralize the nation? And that’s what they tried....One of [their experiments was] this drive to build small towns, to build new towns on the outskirts of major cities, to move unemployed people out of those places, and to start over again....There were originally 24 of those towns that were going to get built; three of them finally did....The most ambitious of [these plans] was the Tennessee Valley Authority. That whole system of hydroelectric dams and flood control projects was really driven by the desire to attract industries to these very rural and economically depressed areas.
IDEAS: I wanted to ask you about the question of race, which bubbles beneath the surface of this story.
CONN: Starting in the 1950s but particularly in the 1960s, urban questions and racial questions became virtually synonymous, at least in the popular imagination....Cities became increasingly black and they became increasingly poor. So by the 1970s you have this really unholy mix of racial tensions and economic crisis....1975 to about 1985 was a real low-water mark for American cities. New York went bankrupt...Detroit’s economy really began to crumble in earnest...cities were saddled with the costs of poverty. And for many Americans it’s “black poverty,” and so those things became intertwined. And I think that helps explain why the last president who really had an urban policy was Richard Nixon. We certainly didn’t have one with Reagan...there was urban policy in the Clinton administration but it was all under the radar....And to be perfectly frank I rather expected this president from Chicago [Obama] to have had an urban agenda, but not really. Not in the way that people used to talk about the centrality of cities in our economic and cultural and intellectual and social lives.
IDEAS: Many of our big cities are thriving right now. Will Americans of all stripes begin to embrace the city?
CONN: We’re not actually going back to the land, we’re not moving back to small towns, that’s not what’s happening....A lot of suburban areas are in fact becoming much more urbanized. They were originally built as the antithesis of urban life, and now they’re deciding that they want walkable streets, public transportation, and mixed-use developments....You see this outside of Washington, D.C., you see this outside of Philadelphia, you see this in a lot of places now....Even those places, whose very existence was predicated on the idea that we were going to leave the city, are recognizing the advantages of urban life, and one of those advantages is the social mixing. Even those places now are becoming socially more diverse. And in the long run, that is going to reshape our political ideas.
Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.