Americans have a long history of living with an eye on the horizon, seeking something shiny and new.
The first religious communities of New England, founded to escape the tyranny of the established churches in Europe, led to Roger Williams and others leaving those new settlements for Rhode Island to escape the tyranny of the Puritans. The Jeffersonian search for freedom in land led to grid-and-garden patterns of development across much of the Midwest and West and, eventually, the push out of the city into the “land” of the suburb. Communitarian journeys to places like New Harmony, the Shaker villages, and (a personal favorite) the 19th century English town of Rugby, Tennessee are part of the story. Henry Ford noted that, “We shall solve the problem of the city by leaving the city,” so Ford, George Pullman and other industrialists, up to and including today’s Silicon Valley elites, have constructed company towns and “E-topias” to build something new in the land of opportunity.
All of these examples and many more are part of Alex Krieger’s new book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present. Krieger, longtime professor in urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a practicing urban planner, has written an accessible book about the many strands of utopia that have shaped the American landscape and personality.
And what a collection of big ideas it is!
We read about Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a society of homesteaders and Ebenezer Howard’s garden suburbs. Frank Lloyd Wright’s decentralized “Broadacre City” is covered, as is Walt Disney’s planned community of Celebration, Florida. General Motors had ideas of “magic motorways” which could connect to Le Corbusier’s urban “towers in the park.” Frederick Law Olmstead and his disciples worked to create urban public spaces in cities open to a broader public, while Robert Moses pushed slum clearance in exchange for freeways. There are chapters on Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful movement and Las Vegas, the casino city in the desert. Levittown and Jane Jacobs’s urban village all fall into Krieger’s description of our American utopian vision. You may not agree with all of Krieger’s assessments, but there are many other examples he could have included to make his point.
The book succeeds in showing how strong the vision for the “new” is in American life. There is much to like about the idealist fervor that is a long-time element in this country. It has brought many achievements and advancements. But Krieger’s work also highlights the ways that this tendency to discard the past and its “limitations” wastes resources, runs roughshod over existing populations and communities, and—in the end—is a way of running away from, rather than facing and addressing, our problems. In a different context, the words of author Isabel Wilkerson fit here as well. We refuse to see that our country is “like a really old house” where we don’t want to go into the basement. However, “if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril.” Krieger’s book shows that we have often run away looking for other utopian visions, hoping that what we are ignoring will just go away. But, as Wilkerson asserts, “Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it.”
Krieger notes in his preface that to write about utopian visions can seem “Pollyannaish” when one considers “many of the nation’s dystopic features.” I agree to a point, and found his work missing a deep dive into some of the uglier results of the vision of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. Yet Krieger largely succeeds at what he set out to do in examining the utopian impulse in America.
The book begins with an extensive look at Thomas Jefferson, who harbored a well-known disdain for cities. Krieger quotes historian Joseph J. Ellis in describing Jefferson as someone “who combined great depth with great shallowness, massive learning with extraordinary naivete, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception” and then adds that this is a “near-perfect description of a utopian.” Many of the others highlighted in the book display similar tendencies. Their visions are rarely fully realized, and what does come to pass often results in serious unintended consequences.
In a short postscript, Krieger highlights a handful of themes focused on ways forward to keep the vision but change how our utopian experiences have benefited the few at the expense of the many. His most important desire is that the tendency to decamp—”to go West, young man”—should continue to wane. We have our cities of the future now, but they require maintenance, repair, and revitalization. Given great inequalities and increasing environmental challenges, we must focus on that important work in the years ahead instead of leaving what we have and striking out again for some imagined utopia over the horizon
More to come…