Nicholas Lemann whitewashes urban life

Last week was a maddening one for lovers of the New Yorker.  First there was Peter Schjeldahl’s chest-thumping and inscrutable claim that Ryan Trecartin is the most consequential artist of his generation; now, the generally excellent Nicholas Lemann gives an oddly whitewashed perspective on the virtues of cities in his survey of several new books on the subject.
Lemann opens with this:

What people think about [cities] is usually an expression of what they think about class, work, the way society is organized, money and who gets it, and what’s really valuable.

True, but in the US, at least, what people think about cities is just as much an expression of what they think about race; in particular, the mid-century exodus to the suburbs correlates directly to the changing role of blacks in American urban life.  Lemann must know this: he was born and raised in New Orleans, a city so shaped and disfigured by race that it is reflected in each neighborhood’s topography and altitude.  Certainly, the racial component of the suburban dream is well understood, which is why the phenomenon, or at least some very large part of it, is known as ‘white flight.’  The composition of suburbs is now changing but, historically, in its simplest formulation the great appeal of the suburbs — besides the front yard and garage — is that they were a controlled and filtered community, sorted explicitly by wealth and therefore implicitly (and, often, not so implicitly) by race, that was insulated from the risks and perils of random human contact by geography and the consequent reliance on cars, which are little mobile bubbles.  The great appeal of cities is that they are none of those things.
Lemann acknowledges the open, fluid, dynamic, uncontrolled nature of cities, but only in relation to its economic benefits — he describes William Whyte, author of The Organization Man, sitting in midtown Manhattan recording “the random, fruitful collisions of the human molecules” — or as an attraction for what the author Richard Florida calls the Creative Class.  When Lemann mentions race, it is in relation to the work of the sociologist Elijah Anderson, and then (oddly) only to caution that cities are no prejudice-free paradise.  Of course, they aren’t.  But, surely, there is no more innovative force on earth than the cultural and racial intersections that occur daily in cities like New York: it gave us jazz and hip-hop, French-Thai cooking and Brazilian sushi, old Chinese women playing mahjjong and old Jews eating Chinese food on Sundays.  And there is no more retrograde path imaginable than trying to reassert a mythical homogeneity.  The daily confrontation with racial or cultural difference can be a challenge, to be sure, but that is the best thing about it: in cultural terms, suburbs are like the monopolistic companies that stagnate in the absence of direct competition and cities are the ever-inventive free markets — and though the analogy is to business, the repercussions of it are far wider.  Richard Florida’s Creative Class is drawn to cities not because they like Brazilian sushi per se, but because the kind of place that has Brazilian sushi forces them to rethink all sorts of assumptions, constraints, and conventions.  It is possible to be creative in the suburbs, of course.  But really, why would you?


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