On the first page of Cities in Civilization, the eminent urban historian Peter Hall quotes a medieval proverb, “the city air makes one free,” which suggests how exhilarating the first modern cities must have seemed back when nearly everyone in Europe lived in the countryside. Nowadays most people in the developed world live in cities, and the city air is, alas, more likely to make one ill. It is easy, in dismay at the violent, ugly, or unhealthy aspects of contemporary urban life, to lose sight of the splendor and romance of cities; some cities, at any rate, in some epochs. This magnificent history is an effective reminder.
Cities in Civilization considers fifteen Western cities (plus Tokyo) in one or more of their heroic ages. In some cases (Periclean Athens, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan London, Habsburg Vienna, belle epoque Paris, Weimar Berlin), the efflorescence was cultural; in others commercial (Manchester, Glasgow, Hollywood, Memphis) or technological (19th-century Berlin, Henry Ford’s Detroit, Silicon Valley, Tokyo). Still other chapters examine famous public works (the Roman aqueducts, the sewers of Victorian London, Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards, the skyscrapers of New York, the LA freeways) or planning ventures (the model suburbs of 1950s Stockholm, the Thatcherite makeover of workingclass London).
Throughout, Hall is curious about the sources of urban creativity. He trots out various current social-scientific theories and exhumes some old ones. There is “location theory,” based on the principle of “agglomeration”: i.e., resources “cluster” until, in a chain reaction, a critical threshhold is reached and a city blooms. There are Marxist theories, which see new urban forms emerging in parallel with new forces and relations of production. Hall resurrects Hippolyte Taine’s intriguing theory of the “creative milieu”; expounds Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of innovation grounded in business cycles; and quotes Howard Gardner on the creative personality. By and large, however, it appears that contingency rules and that the theories of urban dynamics hall discusses are no more illuminating than most other social-scientific theories. It doesn't matter: the substance of Cities and Civilization is its twenty-one case studies, elegantly set out and dense with interesting detail and intelligent commentary.
One lesson cities teach is that, culturally speaking, money is the root of all good. Whether in the form of aristocratic or bourgeois patronage, government subsidy, or the coins of newly educated mass audiences, abundance energizes art. Like individuals, when cities get rich they get culture. The devout bankers of 15th-century Florence commissioned altarpieces and portraits; the worldly cloth merchants of 16th-century London supported theaters and theater companies. The exception was classical Athens. Hardly anyone in Athens was rich, and hardly any art was private; the audience for plays, buildings, and statues was the entire free adult male population. Of course the exception was only partial: besides slaves and (even more important) a large workforce of resident aliens, Athens relied on tribute from its empire to finance its public works and public art. But still, the Greeks do seem to have been, in art as well as in politics, uniquely egalitarian.
In Hall’s lively account, the histories of money, power, and ego behind the art and engineering take on a nearly equal fascination. He follows the doctrinaire utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and Edwin Chadwick in their long march through the institutions of 19th-century London – prisons, workhouses, waterworks, public health, housing – prodigiously successful but also frequently stymied by establishment inertia or popular good sense. He captures the excitement of Baron Haussmann’s epic transformation of 19th-century Paris – “an extraordinary job, never before undertaken in human history: the rebuilding of an entire city” – as well as the frantic speculation that financed it. Chronicling the music industry in Memphis, he shows how Tin Pan Alley and the major record labels nearly strangled rock-and-roll in its cradle. Very entertainingly, he details the battles in the young film industry between tight-fisted New York moneymen and wild and crazy Hollywood producers. (It may be that New York deserves most of the blame for the “Hollywoodization” of the movies.)
Some of the conflicts involved matters of principle. In the early 1930s a large-scale plan was put forward for New York, sponsored largely by the city’s downtown business elite. Its main purpose was to assure the continued dominance of Manhattan as the nation’s commercial and financial capital, and its main result would have been continued, even increased, congestion and soaring property values. It was attacked ferociously by Lewis Mumford, evoking his now-famous prophecies of “Megalopolis.” Hall reproduces this fateful debate at length, as he also does the mid-century Swedish planning debates. Swedish social democracy put business in the back seat rather than the driver’s seat. “Good-quality, modern housing for all at reasonable cost” was not platform rhetoric but official policy. The results were mixed: a country with no eyesores; though also, some felt, no pizzazz and no privacy. This Stockholm chapter, penetrating and judicious, makes one wonder: if the Swedes can’t get it right, can anyone?
Squeaky-clean Sweden, appearing near the end of the book, makes a dramatic contrast with the spectacular urban squalor encountered along the way. Cities in Civilization is full of local color – and, it must be said, odor. (Not to mention noise: Hall quotes the grumblings of the Roman poet Juvenal that “most sick men here die from insomnia … the movement of heavy wagons through narrow streets and the oaths of stalled cattle-drovers would break the sleep of a deaf man or a lazy walrus” and of the philosopher Seneca, who lived above the baths and had to endure “the whack of the masseur’s hand, the grunts of the gymnast as he swung his dumbbells, the splashing of the swimmer, the roars of the man who sang as he bathed, the yelps of the man who was having his armpits depilitated, and the cries of sellers of sausage, cakes, and other goodies.”) Extreme crowding and the absence of indoor plumbing, garbage collection, water purification, sewage treatment, acoustic insulation, fireproofing, or building codes made life for most of the pre-20th-century urban working classes a medical and sensory nightmare. We’ve come a long way -- though it’s worth remembering that a great many non-Western city dwellers still inhabit that nightmare, even if they have TVs and cassette players to distract them.
Like its subject, Cities in Civilization is crowded and exhilarating. Unlike them, it’s not at all hazardous to health – except, perhaps, if dropped on one’s toe.