Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Urban Blight is Nothing New - Check out "The City - Parts I and II" from 1939

Narrator:  "A century or two ago, we built our church and marked the Common out.  We raised Town Hall next so we could have our say about the taxes or whether we need another teacher for the school.  When Town meeting comes around, we know our rights and duties.  And no harm if we disagree - in all matters we neighbors stick together."

From a review of the film: A fascinating film made at the end of the Depression that illustrates the populist, utopian principles of its writer, Lewis Mumford. Mumford, an influential social critic at the time, saw cities as ultimately de-humanizing but he had faith (as the film shows) in the redemptive powers of technology. In hindsight, we can see the limitations of his ideas. The new cities that Mumford writes about are what we would today call suburbs Judging by the film, Mumfords ideas, populist as they are, don't seem to include racial diversity. The new cities also seem to have the same rigid gender roles as the old city; in fact, they reinforce them. As a woman at a primitive washing machine stirs laundry with a stick, the narrator says, Machines needn't break a woman's back; indeed, they can take it and the wife needn't feel cooped up and lonely on washing day. A little gossip or a friendly hand is good for the complexion! Looking at the desolate city scenes in the beginning of the film, its easy to see why people like Mumford would think that abandoning the city center would lead to better lives for working people. Ironically, Mumfords principles were taken to heart after World War II by real estate developers who saw such communities as a way to profit from the veterans who could buy houses with loan guarantees on the GI Bill. Mumford's utopian ideas met with a very capitalist end.