The Disfigurement of the American City, Part 1

by | Mar 20, 2000

Cities in Canada and western Europe-at least all the ones that I've seen-are charming and convenient. In contrast, American cities seem awkward.

The United States is the greatest society ever on earth. Nowhere else has there ever been achievement on the scale that has occurred here. It was Americans who invented the electrical circuit, the semiconductor, Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll music, countless medicines and cures for diseases, and who eventually sent men to the moon. Although Americans didn’t invent the automobile, an American invented the method by which they could be made cheaply enough for almost anyone to have one. There are countless other examples of achievements by Americans, which all help to give the United States the greatest standard of living the world has ever known.

Yet despite all this, there is a strange situation existing in the world today that warrants some explanation. While cities in other developed countries seem to be charming, vibrant, lively, exciting and convenient places in which to live and work, many American cities seem sterile, worn, deteriorated, and inefficient. For example, Travel and Leisure magazine took a poll of its readers as to their favorite city; Sydney, Australia topped the list. London, Paris and Rome have long been known as hot spots for romantic getaways. The Ginza in Tokyo is probably the world’s single most vibrant commercial spot, bar none. Toronto, a medium-sized city as world cities go, is more cosmopolitan than many far larger American cities. From what most people tell me, the most beautiful urban environment in North America isn’t in the United States; it’s Vancouver, British Columbia.

In contrast, Los Angeles, though it is home to many of the world’s most productive people, has been described more times than I can remember as a cumbersome place that people love to hate, a place where one “wakes up in the morning, puts on his car, and goes”. (The same could be said for many other American cities, i.e., Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Atlanta, Tampa, Kansas City, Orlando, and Minneapolis, just to name a few.)

In fact, in all of my dealings with people throughout the world, I found a disdain and disgust for American cities even though also I almost always found at least general awe-if not approval-of Americans and America in general (San Francisco was an exception, and some people liked Manhattan in New York City).

Based on my own observations I tend to agree.

Cities in Canada and western Europe-at least all the ones that I’ve seen-are charming and convenient.

Downtown areas are densely developed and are lively much of the time, with a good mix of stores, offices, and residences. The outlying neighborhoods tend to be compact, close to downtown in all but the biggest cities, and are well-taken care of, with a good mix of housing types. Mass transportation is good, allowing easy access to downtown and to other parts of town; in many cases, one does not even need to use a car at all to get to most places. In short, life in such places, though nowhere near as satisfying overall as it is in the United States, is strangely better in at least this one aspect.

In contrast, American cities seem awkward.

Downtown areas are sterile and lifeless, particularly after dark, in all but a few of the largest cities (i.e., New York, Chicago, San Francisco, D.C., etc.). They also tend to be unattractive places pockmarked by vacant lots and surrounded by vast parking areas. There are few stores and even fewer residences. The outlying neighborhoods closest to the downtown tend to be desolate and dangerous ghettos full of poor people, particularly poor blacks. Outlying neighborhoods further from the downtown often consist overwhelmingly of single-family homes, and commercial developments built at very low densities. Everything is far apart and mass transit service is meager to nonexistent; what little mass transit there is tends to be concentrated in inner cities and is used for the most part by only very poor people (New York is again an exception, as are some of the larger east coast cities). A car is necessary in most cases to get around, leaving anyone who cannot drive at a serious disadvantage.

This all seems to be the opposite of how things should appear. After all, it is the United States, rather than Canada or Europe, which overall has the higher standard of living, and it is the United States where on balance most people would rather live if they could.

So what accounts for the incongruity?

Modern intellectuals are quick to attribute the disfigurement of American cities to the greater degree of egoism and capitalism found in American society. For example, they claim that it is individualistic to want to live in single-family homes and drive private automobiles (hence the bromide about Americans’ “love affair” with the private automobile). They also allege that capitalism causes Americans to shun poor people and racial minorities and live far from them in distant suburbs. Improvement of American cities, they claim, does not require more political freedom, but rather less in the form of strict land-use regulations, to curb what they call the “excesses of runaway capitalism”. Up until now, modern intellectuals have essentially gone unanswered on this issue. In truth, however, the problems of American urban areas are not the result of individualism or of “runaway capitalism” or any other kind of “capitalism”.

They are actually the result of statism-a unique kind of statism the particulars of which were never replicated in other developed countries, but statism nonetheless. All of the negative attributes previously cited-the sterile downtowns, desolate ghettos, spread-out suburbs, poor mass transit, racial segregation, and automobile dependence-are not the result of capitalism and the free market, but rather of their opposite: they are products of arbitrary government interference in the economy, American-style.

There are four government programs that have caused much of the disfigurement of American cities. These four are Public Housing, Federal Housing Administration, Urban Renewal, Interstate Highway System. [1]



[1] There certainly is public housing in other countries, and there are expressways that are the equivalents of our interstates. However, the premises behind these programs in other countries were different from those in the United States, so their effects were different. For example, public housing in the United States was only for housing very poor people, on the grounds that the free market couldn’t provide such housing. Consequently, American public housing projects isolated poor people from opportunities to escape poverty. However, in other countries, public housing was for everyone, on the grounds that housing is a government responsibility in general. Therefore, while housing projects in other countries certainly have their problems, they didn’t have the effect of isolating poor people as they did in the United States, since both poor and affluent people live in them. Regarding urban expressways and interstate highways, in the United States, such highways were (allegedly) for the purpose of evacuating cities, so they burrow into them in wheel-and-spoke fashion; in other countries, such highways stop outside of the inner cities and do not burrow through developed areas as they do in the U.S. Look at Michelin maps of European cities and the Rand McNally Road Atlas for North America to make the comparison.

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Mr. Willenski is an attorney in South Florida. He has also lived in Hertfordshire, England.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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