It is time someone said a good word for our cities. With unmentionable slum conditions, snarled traffic, architectural anarchy and mounting air pollution, they are incontrovertibly appalling. Living in a city block that can hold its own with almost any for visual disarray and stylelessness, and within a city area where the air-pollution index is reckoned the highest in the nation, we editors are unlikely to indulge in fantasies of urban eulogy. But on sober reflection, we wonder if things are really so much worse than they used to be.
Sighing for the good, clean, prewar days, our oldish friends affirm that things are really much worse. Yet, as we look over stacks of impartial photographs, we see evidence that such days were neither specially good nor at all clean. True, while city smells may be less nauseating than not so long ago, noise and noxious gases are surely at an all-time peak. Statistics show, however, that today's slums are less crowded and are probably less inhuman than they were two generations ago.
A good deal of demythologizing about our cities is gathered in the lead article of the January 22 New York Times Magazine by Irving Kristol, co-editor of the quarterly The Public Interest. In the past 50 years, for example, the percentage of Americans living in large cities has remained just about stationary. As in 1910, roughly one-tenth of our population inhabit cities of over one million, while less than a third live in what are cities by any definition. The great growth is in suburbs, where, more than ever in the past, people now work as well as live. Further, New York, often thought of as the typical city, is really the least typical. For even in as large a city as Philadelphia, 70 per cent of the homes are owner-occupied. Moreover, traffic congestion, claims Mr. Kristol, is no worse than it was in 1900 or 1850. We do have more vehicles, but (save for poor, untypical New York) we also have a corresponding improvement in thoroughfares.
Meanwhile, while most of the rich live in suburbs, as they always did, thus avoiding many city taxes, the cost of keeping up our cities mounts steadily. Thus, the central city continues to be inhabited by the poor, especially the newly arrived poor, who haven't yet managed to escape to the suburbs. The problem today, however, is not simply the same old problem. It is exacerbated by the "revolution of rising expectations."
This phrase is, of course, anathema to those who prefer to believe romantically that the "good old days" were just about the best of all possible worlds. Today, instead, the poor are no longer reconciled (if indeed they ever were) to living in subhuman squalor. Thanks to the mass media, which make the advantages of American standards so obviously desirable and apparently accessible, no housewife can be satisfied to cook, clean or wash in the same old way. Needs that were
not felt as needs, so long as they were unsuspected, become acute, and whatever welfare is provided lags far behind what is demanded. If some put this down to simple human greed, a more human view would see rising expectations as only a normal, right development.
If we are to have cities—and it seems they are here to stay—we must continue to push and lobby and insist on their improvement. Slum clearance, greater security, cleaner air, a modicum of urban beautification must be constant imperatives, even while we realize that cities may be no worse than before. The fact that they were a disgrace in the past can be no pretext for our allowing them to remain a disgrace.