The Road to Necropolis

The Urban Prospect.
by Lewis Mumford.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 255 pp. $5.95.

For over thirty years now, Lewis Mumford has been a major American prophet and preacher, calling for drastic change not only in our architecture and planning but in our entire civilization. His latest collection of essays continues to warn that industrialization is creating an increasingly depersonalized and totalitarian society, which in its urban form is evolving “from megalopolis, handicapped by its own growth, to parasitopolis and patholopolis, till it reaches a terminal point: Necropolis, the city of the dead.” The only solution, Mumford asserts, is a return to “an organic, life-centered economy . . . cut to the human scale, so that every organism, every community, every human being shall have the variety of goods and experiences necessary for the fulfillment of his own individual life course.” Mumford pleads for massive economic, political, and residential decentralization, the last to be accomplished primarily by building new towns with neighborhoods that encourage maximal personal contact and the mutual enrichment that results from the mixing of diverse people.


This is an eloquent, if by now familiar, set of complaints and proposals; as such, of course, it is all to the good. The trouble is that Mumford seems to be so dedicated to his prophecy as to be unaware that a few of his ideas—if not in quite the way he has stated them—have begun to receive favorable hearings. Even while he was writing his earlier books on these themes, many of his readers (and many more who have never read him) were already moving to the suburbs to find the small communities Mumford wanted them to look for: what the Levittowners I myself studied called “the peaceful outdoor life,” and “enjoying the neighbors.” More recently, as some of Mumford's dire forecasts have come to pass—the spread of slum violence into middle class neighborhoods, the sharp increase in traffic congestion and air and water pollution—even the cities have begun to pursue a more life-centered and less profit-centered approach to planning.

At the same time, that portion of the younger generation which is now “dropping out” shares—or has adopted—Mumford's hatred of anti-human, giant technology, and is busily experimenting with “communes” and political organizations which try to bring about, through “participatory democracy,” the very decentralization he has long advocated. And the organized ghetto has, of course, come out for the idea of economic and political decentralization within the city, if only as a substitute for the failure of racial integration.


Unfortunately, however, Mumford does not recognize his allies. He rejects the suburbs for their “needless aesthetic dreariness and social monotony,” and he turns on the younger generation for what he describes as its “indiscriminate sexuality.” His vision of the humane society and community is too utopian to permit a good word for any partial improvements or partial sharing of his values.

Perhaps Mumford is too far ahead of his time; our current crises may have to get a lot worse before we can accept the solutions he thinks are required. But for all his vision, he may also be behind the times, preaching the values of another era and advocating a style of life drawn from the past. Although he has often been attacked as a worshipper of the medieval city, his vision of the ideal civilization actually stems mainly from the 19th century. His opposition to modern technology and his belief in neighborly living, civic participation, and enrichment through diversity are all outgrowths of an ideology developed principally by Protestant, upper-middle-class reformers and philanthropists of the late 19th century who felt that the agrarian America which they dominated culturally and politically was endangered by the advent of urban industrialization and particularly by the poor European immigrants. These reformers called for land use control to limit urban growth, and for neighborhood planning, parks, and settlement houses, to re-create small-townish community life and to Americanize the immigrants; they proposed demographically mixed neighborhoods in the hope that once the poor were scattered among the native middle class population, they would cease to form a “dissolute” and “dangerous element.”

Mumford of course rejects the patronizing features that accompanied these proposals for the 19th century's “urban crisis,” but his own new town has some of the Puritan flavor and many of the “character-building public facilities” (although he does not call them that) advocated by the old patrician reformers. Not surprisingly, when such facilities have in fact been provided they have generally been perceived by their intended beneficiaries as citadels of organized moral and cultural uplift, and have been shunned, or simply ignored. Mumford's advocacy of mixing the classes seems equally unenforceable, however desirable it may be, for it also reflects an upper-middle-class reformer's value. People who are sure of their own social status can call for associating with those of lower prestige; people who are not so sure have always found ways of circumventing class mixture when they have had a choice.


In short, Mumford seems to be either unaware of the current tone of America or too unhappy with it to adapt his ideas to any of its tastes. There is, to be sure, nothing wrong with preaching the values of the 19th century or of a single class, although an advocate of public improvements should make some allowance for how the people to be improved upon feel. But Mumford fails to see, for example, that most lower-middle and working class Americans prefer the single-family house with its own back yard to his new town—where private space is sacrificed to maximize parkland—and rightly so, for the back yard is much more convenient for easy child-raising and much more amenable to informal socializing than the public park.

I am not certain that he understands the black poor either, who he believes “lack the family closeness, religious precept and ritual . . . foresight, thrift and self-education” of the European immigrants. And, although Mumford advocates full employment, children's allowances (to stop after the third child), rent supplements, and better housing, he places more emphasis on moral failure than on the consequences of segregation to account for the plight of the “broken” family.

Moreover, his utter disapproval of all modern forms of consumption and culture, both popular and high, hippie and square, will not sit well with even the angriest critics of the American way of life; and the morally wholesome but materially austere community he advocates cannot attract the large majority of Americans who are still learning to enjoy the affluence they have so recently gained. They may be willing to give it up in future generations, when, like some of today's young radicals, they have reached the mountain-top of affluence, or they may have to give it up if the crisis of our society becomes so acute as to demand some sacrifice of consumption privileges in order to provide greater equality to an increasingly impatient underclass. But until then, they are unlikely to view Mum-ford's proposals sympathetically.

Yet whatever the shape of the future, the fundamental defect of Mumford's vision is its rejection of pluralism, for he believes deeply that there is really only one form of the good life, the good economy, and the good community. Although his critique of his old enemies, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, is as sound as ever, and he properly admonishes Jane Jacobs for transmuting her section of Greenwich Village into the ideal community, he fails to see that he too raises his preferences to the status of general truths.

Perhaps prophets and preachers must be single-minded; asking them to look tol-etantly on what people do and want now would no doubt inhibit the impulse and perspective that produce new visions of the good life. Yet if Mum-ford's extensive contribution to American life and social thought is to remain relevant to our current problems and our future hopes, it is imperative that we recognize and examine his biases as well. Only thus can we arrive at some measured appreciation of the numerous proposals and insights—both practical and utopian—which he has urged upon us over the years.

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