Paradise City Lost

In Harvard Design Magazine, Marshall Berman reviews Michael Johns’ The American City in the 1950s.

All over America, from the biggest cities to the smallest, the FHS [Federal Highway System] worked as an engine for ripping up downtowns. In just a few years, hundreds of solid city neighborhoods turned into fragments lodged between freeways and entrance / exit ramps. Thriving businesses found themselves cut off from their customers. Venerable streets became parking lots. Beloved hotels and department stores, so vital to civic identity, were forced to close.

Even as the FHS ravaged downtown, it created overpowering reasons for moving, “offers you can’t refuse,” as the wiseguys in The Godfather said. Capital, jobs, and people took the offers and left. Meanwhile, millions of Southern and West Indian blacks poured into Northern cities in search of the entry-level jobs that were disappearing fast. Meanwhile, a heroin epidemic spread, leading to a prolonged explosion of violence. It happened all over, but cities felt it worst. Everyday city life got harder and scarier.

Our two political parties recognized that there was big trouble, but they dealt with it in very different ways. Democrats offered programs to help people in trouble (“Model Cities”); Republicans blamed them and punished them for the trouble (“planned shrinkage”). Still, they shared an underlying desire to change our cities from centrifugal into centripetal places, where energy went “flying from the center” to the edges.