Teaford, Jon C. The Twentieth-Century American City: Problem, Promise and Reality. 3rd ed. John Hopkins UP, 2016.

The title of the third edition of Jon C. Teaford’s study of the American metropolis, The 20th Century American City: Problem, Promise and Reality, might just as well have been “Promise, Problem and Reality.” As in its literature, the “real” history of the American city is a rich and complex embroilment between ideals and their material manifestation. In this web of dream and reality, it becomes almost impossible to tell which came first. This, perhaps, goes someway to explaining the dynamics of an urban landscape always striving towards progress yet constantly finding itself haunted by economic downturn, race, and immigration. These complications loop around US cities like the new concrete highways that were, as one Atlantan in Teaford’s book describes, “a huddle of harassed drivers tooting horns, looking blankly at one another and swearing softly” (64). The frustrating, unsolved, polluting deadlock of these issues characterises the narrative of Teaford’s twentieth-century cityscape; they also run all too comfortably into the twenty-first. Teaford remarks that, “at the dawn of the twentieth century, virtually all observers agreed that the age of the city had arrived” (1). This prediction by clergymen, economists, and civic reformers is now confirmed by the literal and metaphorical height cities have achieved in their architecture, populace, and purpose. What to do with these two extremes of problem and promise has always been a question America faces and often finds novel ways of reconciling. Although Teaford’s self-professed “portrait of great beauty and equally great ugliness” (viii) offers no answers, it does detail the history of the parallel lives of materialism and vision that could be said to fit the turns of any American century.

In the background of Teaford’s central conflict, although unspoken, lies one of the most compelling fictions of the age. The two fragile eggs that loom over New York in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby divide the city’s ostentatious and hidden worlds, which are fated for collision. The “portentous menacing road of a new decade” stretches before Nick Carraway as “tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind” (129). When Fitzgerald’s characters leave their bath of mint and ice at the Plaza Hotel, they exit an urban centre that serves both as a refreshing escape from the searing heat of the suburbs and a cold meeting with reality. In a soberingly relevant account, Teaford writes of the slums and street crime that were “fixtures” (159) of cities throughout the twentieth century. His use of the term “fixture” adequately describes the routine presence of poverty in the lives of inhabitants. But it also echoes Fitzgerald’s semi-fictional character Meyer Wolfsheim, based on the real-life gambler Arnold Rothstein, who supposedly fixed the 1919 World Series. This undercurrent of mob connections with the power to orchestrate surface events helps to dirty distinctions between the lower and upper spheres of social design by revealing how quickly one can move through the ranks. Teaford moves on to note a more recent and sinister incarnation of Jay Gatsby who has taken the green light not as a symbol of paralysing potential but as a traffic sign reading “go” and whose ties to the world of “fixing” have been wiped clean to make way for Presidency. In passing, Teaford mentions the “megabuck developers like Donald Trump” (159) who constitute an appropriate marker of how the other half live. He fails to analyse this much further, perhaps due to publishing dates or intended historical impartiality. Had he endeavoured such an analysis however, he might have looked deeper into Trump’s own dubious connections with figures including Mafia lawyer Roy Cohn. These make the current president, in his previous life as a property developer, a living obstacle to the striving of an American working class he would later rely on for votes. Far from acting as a distinguished other, Trump is symbolic of the inextricable ties between a corrupted underworld of rigging and violent persuasion and a golden economic boom.

At the start of the twentieth century, on a ticket to modernity, America built the roads that would provide its citizens with a new form of transport and its critics and writers with linguistic mileage. These city routes, which spewed out commuters from the margins, replaced packed trams, street-cars, and elevated railroads. The previous unpleasant infrastructures were infamous for providing a journey of “inadequacy and brutality to excess” (9), Teaford notes (quoting from the British essayist Arnold Bennett). Initially, however, a clear passage to the central business district was blighted by stand-still traffic jams that were “eroding the advantages of the new technology” (64). Commuters would wait hours to cover short distances due to the high volume of cars on the road, and the promise of accessibility and movement became the problem of suspension. The progress and luxury of a “new money” lifestyle became stopped, quite literally, in its tracks. This cycle is a repeated pattern in Teaford’s analysis. As one policy strives to make changes, it leaps idealistically ahead of what reality can facilitate. The long lines of automobiles that stretched back to clipped suburban lawns were emblematic also of an economic gridlock. The affluence of the twenties was later replaced by the Depression of the thirties and forties, and the landscape of rapid change that started in the centre of the city and rippled outwards began to show visual signs of stagnation. As Teaford writes, “the building and institutions in the downtown business district of 1945 were essentially the same as those of 1931” (76). The whole city had become fixed as its financial bottom fell out. It would then take Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to set the urban centre in motion again, mobilising the American trait of optimism to produce traditionally un-American policies including “unearned handouts to the poor” (85). This caused “offence” (85) to US values of individual work ethic. However, its necessity and success in re-uniting cities, especially New York, is yet another example of the paradoxical nature of America as it easily and quickly incorporates oppositions into its overall national design.

Instances of attempted social change, such as those in the Depression, can be tracked throughout Teaford’s text as they become secured in one place and undone in another. In his chapter “Toward a New Metropolis, 1980 and Beyond” he describes how, when one section of the economy collapses—this time through the forces of deindustrialisation—another area thrives through the revival of the central business district. Workers pushed out of manual jobs are expected to join a new service economy that promises to boost personal income and capital growth. Here, Roosevelt’s previous social schemes towards such a shift fall short through yet another overreach of ideals. As Teaford writes, the pattern of deindustrialisation was “bad news for thousands of working-class urbanites who, because of a lack of training and skills, could not readily trade in their blue collars for white ones” (159). This resulted in a further and more recent deepening of the gap between the rich and poor in urban areas, when it should have instigated wider social reforms. Where the infrastructure of education was failing its pupils in poorer neighbourhoods including the South Bronx, the overall hope of an “urban renaissance” (159) became visibly tarnished elsewhere. Teaford recalls that “office vacancy rose as an excess of new towers opened their doors to tenants” (159). The city skyline, as it emptied out, loomed over its investors as a gruelling psychological reminder of bad investments and “poor business judgment” (159). Again, unexpected and complicated exchanges were taking place between the top and bottom ranks of society, so that any attempt to separate society into neat distinctions caused more problems than it attempted to solve.

Teaford’s study offers only light-handed analytical commentary after a direct laying out of events. But perhaps this is enough in itself to explicate the complexity of American city life. Lines are unexpectedly crossed in urban areas not only between the rich and the poor but also between persisting boundaries of race. James H. Lincoln observes that when riots broke out in Detroit in 1967, blacks and whites “looted together in the best of camaraderie”; Teaford cites this as evidence of “integrated, equal-opportunity lawlessness” (133). Although the looters were not joined by some higher political motive, the freedom offered in the act of taking material goods became a binding force. This reactionary streak also served as a larger symptom for the “growing unrest and social tension” (134) in the city, as its limits became increasingly defined by capitalism. Once again, events on a micro level are symptomatic of macro urban definitions. But it would be a mistake to overlook the deep racial tension around the African American community as broadly emblematic of the economic situation. The very specific challenge of black life in American cities has been, and continues to be, a recurring feature. Teaford frames these tensions within a pattern of suppression and violence when during the “New York City riots of 1964…there were certain traits that linked the riots…with those of 1965, 1966, and 1967” (131). Once again in Teaford’s analysis, history becomes inseparable from the present when he recalls that “in most cases the violence began with a police incident, an arrest on the street within the earshot of others” (131). Here are the Trayvon Martins and Calvin Andre Reids well before their time, predicted by a history of discrimination.

As Teaford makes clear, the new urban dynamic is far more fractured and diverse than a black and white divide. One distinguishing feature of the twentieth-century city is its rising level of immigration along with the visible impact this has on American culture. He frames this community as “The New Ethnic mosaic” in which the longer-standing black and Mexican immigrants are joined by newer communities including Cuban, Korean, and Filipino. These communities favoured areas such as Southern California and Miami, overcrowding affordable housing and converting garages into accommodation. They also displaced some of the more long-standing African-American neighbourhoods, setting in motion new waves of transient immigrants that continue to pressurise urban areas. In 1991, two Korean supermarkets in Las Vegas were looted and burned, reminding the immigrant population that even their established landmarks of community were not immune from attack. In their ethics of inclusivity, American cities have always opened themselves to these fragile tensions and, as with other problems, the promise may partially hope to catch up to its ideal form. Cities such as New York function on a neighbourhood-and-district design and have proved complicated yet sustaining symbols for an ethnographic study of heterogeneity and symbiosis. In 1961, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities set out a sort of manifesto for this by calling for an urban development that encourages a diverse mix of classes and ethnicities to live within the same streets. The more recent pressures of gentrification have tested the sustainability of this diversity as poorer residents see rent prices rise. However, the idea has persisted in the mind of the American city to such an extent that it has seen partial success; as Teaford notes, it takes some time for citizens to acclimatise to demographic and structural changes.

In a strange episode in his chapter “Suburban Triumphant, 1945-1964,” Teaford cites the opening of the Southdale Centre in Edina, Minnesota. The seventy-two store mall served as an escape from the city or the closeting picket fences of suburbia in which there was enough conformity that “a neighbor’s bizarre dream would not become the community’s nightmare” (107). But the shopping centre also served as a tourist attraction. On a Sunday afternoon when the stores closed, 75,000 people drove to the complex in order to stroll its walkways, free of vendors, and window shop. The mall was an initially fascinating destination, and it would take some time before it settled in as a well-used and familiar feature of suburban life. Here citizens became chronological immigrants in their own country, removed from the current epoch as its landscape changed rapidly and demanded a constant re-positioning of the self against hypermodernity. Years before the creation of a “global elite” who frequent airport lounges and chain hotel lobbies, shopping malls were an exhibit much like those at P.T Barnum’s world fairs, an exotic sign of the future for which people were still preparing. This was an indicator of the coming metropolis as a “place of play, tourism, leisure, culture, and residence” (177). Exciting as this was, it also instigated a more passive form of violence than that perpetrated against ethnic minorities, through a consumer society that manipulated spending power and out-of-work hours when spectators caught up enough to participate in the performance.

In his short personal essay “My Lost City,” F. Scott Fitzgerald finds New York to have all the “iridescence of the beginning of the world” (22). He is compelled to live not as a detached observer but as an archetypal citizen of the city’s “disordered mind” (28). He finds himself bawling in a taxi “under a mauve and rosy sky…because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again” (26). His realisation in paradise is offset immediately by its momentary existence. Later, these skyscrapers will have limits set in the “awful realisation that New York was a city after all and not a universe” (30). Teaford joins in Fitzgerald’s recognition of a process of fossilisation in the city, of an inevitable end and what he describes as the “urban wasteland…an American acropolis” (190). Fitzgerald’s apparent early onset of nostalgia towards the present is representative of the broader pace of Teaford’s city as it continually strives ahead of its own capabilities and loses some of its original promise in the process of manifestation. Images of decay in places like Detroit now feature heavily in the recent fetish for photographs of urban ruins. By the end of the twentieth century, Teaford notices their edges coming into view as the only possible end to repeated and inconclusive conflicts. This end has not yet become an epidemic, and certainly not in New York. But its possibility poses a problem that asks for a new sort of contract moving into the twenty-first century: that of sighting a possible end to capitalism and the drawing up of a new economic and social framework. Teaford draws a complex picture of the problems faced, and his portrait promises no definitive solutions.


Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin, 2000.

—. “My Lost City.” The Crack-up with Other Pieces and Stories, Penguin, 1976.

Teaford, Jon C. The Twentieth-Century American City: Problem, Promise and Reality. 3rd ed. John Hopkins UP, 2016.


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