Outlook Tower

- Recommended Reading -

City in History

Mumford, Lewis, 1895-
The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.


It is difficult to assess this sweeping book in a single article. Much of the writing is impenetrable, but it seems more pertinent than when it was published over 40 years ago.

We can't really assess our current situation without understanding how people lived in times past, an impossible task. Peering through time, we fear that their attitudes might be strange beyond imagining. But when we take a critical look at our lack of connections, with each other and with the earth, we ask, "How could this have come to be?"

One answer is that this isn't the first time that we have been through this. The chapter on Rome details the abuses that result from the accumulation of power. An elite given to decadence and a populace bought off with bread and circuses. Our cities explode outside of their bounds. The examples of gigantism that Mumford deplored in his day, seem quaint next to today's architectural and engineering monstrosities. 

"Expansion is everything," said Cecil Rhodes. The notion that a runaway economy can be restrained through collective action is debunked. Any criticism of slow accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority is tagged "the rhetoric of class warfare." This kind of thinking is dismissed as unreasonable and unrealistic. But the assumptions that we make when managing our cities or our stock portfolios are ultimately predicated on the assumption of indefinite, unlimited growth.

Container and magnet:

Our relationship to the earth and the use of technology:

Mumford, who witnessed the debacle of the early twentieth century and who wrote in the darkest hour of the cold war speculated that, as has often happened in history, many of our mistakes in city building would be undone for us through the agency of war. When we emerged the apparent victor of the war against communism, this again seemed a remote possibility and we rejoiced. Now, in the aftermath of the attack of September 11th, the old question arises. "Can we protect our cities?" This book poses a more penetrating question. How can we hold on to our humanity?

"Necropolis is near, though not a stone has yet crumbled. For the barbarian has already captured the city from within. Come, hangman! Come, vulture!"