Books: City Life

I don’t remember when I bought this book, or exactly why – though I’m sure one reason was because it is by Witold Rybczynski. I don’t know how to pronounce his name, but I know that I have enjoyed – and learned from – other books of his I have read (though I see from the list here that I haven’t read all that many of them).

His website explains how he comes to write the sort of books he does.

I don’t write to promote an idea, or to advance a grand theory. Mostly I’m just curious about how things work. Why are our cities the way they are? Why does one building move us when another doesn’t? Why do some cultures live in houses, and some don’t? Who invented the weekend? Where did the screwdriver come from? For me, writing is a way of exploring a subject that intrigues me—and hopefully will also interest you, the reader.

I first read his book Waiting for the Weekend, which I found fascinating because it dealt with a subject that is pretty much taken for granted in our culture, but that is hardly universal throughout different cultures and eras. I have Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture on my bookshelf, but as it has a bookmark about thirty pages from the end, I don’t know whether I ever finished it (something I can easily remedy during my mandatory time off work next week).

City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World is Rybczynski’s exploring the subject of “Why are our cities the way they are?” In particularly, why are our North American cities (Rybczynski is from Canada) different from European cities?

When I went to Spain in the summer of 1981, I had never lived in a city before. I was familiar with Hartford, CT, having grown up in nearby Newington, but I had also visited New York City on a few occasions and I knew that Hartford was too small to give a real idea of what it was like to live in a big city. I marveled at various features of Valencia, but I had no idea which were foreign to me because they were Spanish and which simply because it was a city.

One characteristic which I knew was different from American cities was the lack of suburbs. It always struck me as so odd, approaching the city after having taken an excursion elsewhere, to see open fields extend right up to the edge of the city. When I used to take a bus from Newington into Hartford, I had no idea exactly when I crossed from town into city. But while there were villages not too distant from Valencia, there were none immediately outside the city.

Another difference I noticed between places I had lived in the U.S. and the cities I visited in Spain was how the streets were named. In Newington, there were a number of streets named for trees (the high school is on Cedar St., and Maple Hill Ave. has side streets named Spruce, Hemlock, Pine, and Juniper, among others). Even streets that didn’t have names of trees had the word “wood” in them – Knollwood, Deepwood, Brentwood, and the trio of Northwood, Centerwood, and Southwood.

Hartford is bigger, but it also has a Cedar St., an Oak St., and a Walnut St. It also has many streets named for people, but except for those named for presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison), I have no idea who they were. (In the case of Newington, my father was able to tell who many of the streets had been named for, including the fact that Church St. had been named for a Mr. Church, and it was coincidence that it now had two churches and a synagogue.)

The town where I went to college was not only named for a tree (Cedarville) but has, besides Cedar St., an Elm St. and a Walnut St. Other street names are simply descriptive: Bridge St., College St., East St., North St., and School St. I’m not sure how many places I had visited or lived in before my trip to Spain, but I knew these types of street names were very typical.

In Valencia, it was quite different. We lived in an apartment on the Avenida Baleares. The Baleares are islands off the coast of Spain (including Mallorca and Ibiza, very popular tourist destinations). There was no connection between this street and the islands other than the name, however. Other streets were named for prominent authors, artists, explorers, and political and military leaders. (This meant, of course, that street names changed from time to time, as political leadership of the country changed.) The longer I studied in Spain (on my second visit I spent nine months in Madrid), the more street names I recognized for their significance in Spanish culture and history.

Rybczynski goes back to the history of medieval Europe to show how cities developed there. Requiring walls for defensive reasons, cities were always more closed packed and their borders well-defined. There was not only safety but prestige to being a citizen of a city, so people did not want to live outside their walls. Even after the walls came down, or became irrelevant as the city spread beyond its original borders, city dwellers had no urge to seek a more rustic life. Their cities were centers of culture and sophistication – as well as being the home of one’s extended family.

Cities in on this side of the Atlantic developed as commercial centers, not cultural centers. Town planners (and I was surprised to learn how many towns and cities had been planned, as I always had the impression that there were very few examples of these) might have had aesthetic goals in mind, but market forces always shaped the ongoing development of cities and towns. (Rybczynski also points out that the distinction we make between city and town is another new development, which explains why I always had trouble figuring out which word to use to explain what I meant in French or Spanish.)

It’s hardly surprising to learn how the vast amount of space available shaped American city-building, or how the idea of individualism affected architecture. I was surprised to find, in Spain, how rare the free-standing house was. Even in small villages, each home seemed to share an outer wall with its neighbor. Here the private home became the ideal, and as a child I could not imagine anyone living in an apartment by choice. (As a homeowner now, I often think how nice it would be to just be able to call the landlord to get the plumbing or light fixtures repaired.)

The one part of Rybczynski’s book that I found somewhat tiresome was the history of how different architects and city planners tried different ideas in various cities. I have never visited most of the cities mentioned, and I had trouble visualizing much of what Rybczynski discussed. Some photos and diagrams would have been helpful in this regard. (I found the discussion of cities I have lived in or visited much more interesting.) After a while, the names all sort of ran together, and I just looked for mention of any really new ideas.

When Rybczynski’s history finally caught up to the post-WWII years, then I got interested again. I lived for a year in Levittown, PA, so I knew exactly what Rybczynski was talking about there. I had read about, though never seen in person, public housing projects and the disasters some of them became. Rybczynski does a good job explaining why such projects turned out the way they did, precisely because of the way they were constructed (not because they were public housing, per se).

I have met people who really enjoy city life. They feel invigorated by the variety, the sense of energy, and the new ideas, people, and products constantly being introduced. But most Americans, according to data Rybczynski cites, would prefer – if given the choice – to live in a small town. They want the sense of community that comes from being able to know one another. Considering how often people move these days, I don’t know how much that ideal actually exists in reality. But I know the feeling – having moved as many times as I have, I find it hard not to envy co-workers who have lived in this area their whole lives, and who have friends and family in abundance.

(By the way, Rybczynski tells us that it was apparently William Penn, when laying out the city of Philadelphia, who started our tradition of naming streets for trees.)

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3 Responses to Books: City Life

  1. modestypress says:

    You probably have ten thousand books on your list of books to read, so you can ignore this. But I am finding the following book interesting.

    Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable. Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why. Crown Publishers.

    Some reasons that I think might fit your criteria for interesting books:

    Well researched.

    Studies topic from unfamiliar and unusual perspective and presents new and surpising information.

    Possibly useful and helpful to people who read it regardles of their political or religious perspective.

  2. Margaret says:

    Thank you for your suggestion, Modestypress. I like to read books that don’t necessarily fit my political and religious perspectives (which I believe are close to Pauline’s), and I think Pauline does too.

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