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Jackson lectures on Cities in America

By
February 22, 2008

Thursday afternoon, Columbia history professor Kenneth Jackson gave the James Fields lecture in American history, which this year focused on the role of cities and urbanization in American history, especially since 1950.

Jackson started out by laying out four basic phases that cities in the United States have undergone. First, cities undergo their early settlement, which can sometimes introduce important precedents, such as the laying out of Philadelphia on a grid. As the cities undergo mercantile expansion they grow larger with their economy. Towards the end of the 19th century many technological changes, such as the introduction of electric power, allowed for mass transit systems to be built and the large expansion of cities. Downtowns became big, important places with such landmarks as department stores (think of the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia) and industrial infrastructure.

In 1945 after the end of World War II, Jackson observed of the United States “we [had] great cities. We [had] great factories . . .we had crushed the axis under the weight of metal.” But after 1950 cities began to shrink with the rise of suburbanization and the deindustrialization of big cities. To emphasize his point Jackson showed two pictures from Detroit. One was of the train station, larger than 30th Street, but not completely abandoned. Another was of the neighborhood where the famous 1967 riots broke out in Detroit. At the time it was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, but today it is almost completely deserted; it “looks like a small town in Iowa.” Many cities are currently in this phase; Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo, Newark, and Cleveland have all suffered major population losses. Jackson spent much of his lecture talking about how this came to be and possible ways that cities could be revived.

American cities differ from European cities in several important ways, said Jackson. Firstly, houses in the United States since the 1860′s have been built using a construction technique known as balloon framing, which is much more efficient and less expensive than techniques in Europe. It has therefore been easier to build larger and larger structures. Additionally there are many social factors, such as education and police protection, that lead people to move outside of a city. In America public schooling, police, firefighting, etc. is all done by the city; there are about 15,000 public school districts in the U.S, a trend that Jackson called “political balkanization and privatization”. It is not uncommon for people to move to an area that is richer (and more segregated) in order to have better schools. Other countries, such as Australia, have these services controlled by more central agencies and are much more homogeneous throughout the country. For example, there are only 6 school districts in Australia.

There is also a vastly different approach to transportation in Europe than in America. European countries emphasize public transportation much more than the U.S. by making gas prices high while heavily subsidizing the public transit systems. $3 a gallon might seem high to U.S. consumers, but in actuality it is rather cheap; in European countries it is often 3 or 4 times that. This has made cars essential for living in modern America. Cities are structured around huge interstate highway systems rather than public transit systems, such as the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, a 16 lane highway which used to be lined with public housing high rises. A new megachurch in Memphis is constructed such that it is impossible to get to it without a car. Additionally, although many cities have rudimentary public transit systems they are inefficient and rarely used. “If you wait around for a bus in Dallas you might as well have a sign around your neck saying ‘I am a loser,’” said Jackson.

Public housing was also constructed in such a way that they were concentrated in undesirable places to live, such as the Robert Taylor Houses next to the Dan Ryan Expressway (the high rises are now being demolished). Public housing was associated with troubled inner city environments and no one wanted to live near them, but in actuality public housing never accounted for more than 2% of the housing in America. The percentage in Europe was much greater, but it was done in a much more spread out manner such that it didn’t overwhelm any areas. The quality of public housing is also generally superior in Europe.

Jackson attributed the rise in suburbanization after 1950 to several factors, some social and some governmental. After World War II individuals simply wanted to live outside of the city. Jackson said that there was “newness in change. Most Americans valued something new.” Public opinion pools said that most Americans didn’t want to live in a used house. Racism and white flight in response to the large migration of African Americans to urban environments also drove suburbanization.

Governmental policy before World War II also played a huge role. In the 1930′s there was a housing crisis not dissimilar to today’s subprime mortgage crisis. The government responded by creating a housing insurance program and the Federal Housing Authority. In setting up the insurance program they decided that they needed to engage in an “objective assessment” of homes, taking their environment into account when assigning their values. Categories that were deemed objectively bad included straight streets (as opposed to curved streets), mixed use neighborhoods (as opposed to neighborhoods only with homes) and neighborhoods that contained “inharmonious racial or national groups.”

These “objective” observations made the government appraisal value of suburban homes rise while those in diverse, urban, mixed use neighborhoods fell. This is the exact opposite of what many scholars and urban planners, such as Jane Jacobs, whom Jackson admires, have found are needed for cities to remain vital. Densely populated, diverse, mixed use neighborhoods are in fact the ideal.

The governmental transportation policy has also led to the decline of cities, according to Jackson, although he acknowledges that many of his critics consider him too much of a transportation determinist.

Jackson closed his lecture with some discussion of the possible rise of the city in America and what needs to be done to bring it about. Jackson said that transportation policy is key. Driving needs to become less central to American lives (perhaps by a huge increase in the gasoline tax) and mass transportation needs to be invested in by the government. Densely populated, vibrant, mixed use urban spaces should be promoted.

And how do you go about doing that one, audience member asked? “Give gay people free rent. And artists,” Jackson said, not completely jokingly.