Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt


Building Jerusalem traces the development of the British Victorian city, from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution all the way through the flight to the suburbs in the 20th century, with an epilogue that brings us right to the present day. Rather than being a dry, general purpose history, however, the book has a very narrow and interesting scope: how the idea of the city was in the minds of it's inhabitants. Ranging from the diatribes of men who felt that England should have gone back to the middle ages, to the vision of the 'merchant-princes' trying to paint themselves as the new Medicis of the new Florence, to the municipal socialist movements of the later 19th century, the book paints an interesting, and fairly balanced picture.


The book was interesting in that it found the good and all these viewpoints, leaving one without any clear idea of who the right and wrong were in the battle for Victorian Cities. Which is all well and good. But then, as they move into the twentieth city, into the emasculation of civic government by central authority, and the dissolution of civic identity by suburbia, you realize that the point, in Hunt's mind, is that these men cared enough to argue, that Victorian cities, for all the filth, misery, social inequality, and everything else, had a soul, a soul that argued and fought and strove and grew.


Living in a city, now - or more particularly in a suburb - I found this aspect of the book very powerful. As he talked about the building of streets and civic building and parks, I realized how structurally uncivic the city has become, at least in the place I live. There is no, and cannot be any, civic center in a gated community, in a Wal-Mart strip mall, or even in the old shopping malls, because these places are all so self-contained. There is no incidental human contact in my city - it's quite easy for me to go an entire day, except at work, without talking to, meeting, or really even seeing anyone outside my family. Society has reformed into a series of private bubbles - the sacred home that no one can enter, the street where we look about suspiciously if we see someone who isn't a neighbor, and where you really hardly see anyone who isn't a kid walking home from school, the car (oh god the car) where we lose all sense of external reality, etc. The effect is so powerful, that even when we DO enter society, we try to create these bubbles of space - Think of the last time you went to the grocery store, how many people can you picture from your trip? Think of the last time you ate at a restaurant, did you talk to anyone who wasn't at your own table? The places where one DOES meet people are either exceptional - University, for instance, where most of us can't stay too long - or somewhat seedy - a singles bar, for instance, where one is permitted to approach someone they do not know.


The glory of the Victorian city was that it was simply too crowded, too human to allow people to live unmoored lives. When one shopped on a market street, one had to talk to a butcher, a baker, a flower seller, a fruit-seller, etc, etc, etc (if you don't believe me, go to a farmer's market sometime - it's amazing (and for my little American-trained mind, somewhat intimidating) how much conversation one must hold simply to buy groceries, and with people you've never met and may never meet again. Cities realize this, of course, and they try to create forums. A library is an example, or a park, or the Riverwalk in San Antonio, or the Zoo, or museums. But the problem is, the city is not designed to bring you to these places. The city is laid out in these increasingly nested shells of separation, with the only shared space being the highways - so all the shopping, living, etc happens largely on the highways. My neighborhood's design, for example, actively discourages one to walk anywhere - even to school. This draws us further into our little indoor worlds, so much so that we become frightened of the outside - where we once felt somewhat confident in letting children live to their own devices, many times we find it intimidating even as adults to enter the world without the protection of a car, a familiar highway, and a bubble-destination. What if there are dogs? What if there are criminals? What if there is traffic? What if there is no sidewalks? What if we get too sweaty and hot?


It is easy and popular to simply blame this on the people. And clearly, there is freewill to be exercised in this situation. At the same time, culture encourages us to follow the trend. How can San Antonio have a vibrant downtown, for instance, when the schools are poorly funded and decrepit in comparison to the burby sprawl of the North-side? How can the city have a vibrant, shared culture, when that culture is designed and marketed as a tool to encourage tourism or attract business investment, rather than a tool to bring joy, or express a civic idea? How can there even BE a civic idea when we do not think of ourselves as citizens of our cities?


It was a very interesting book, one that changed the way I think about things from Socialism, for example (central government socialism takes control from individual cities, thereby making it more difficult for these cities to remain vibrant, soulful entities), to Architecture (the sheer importance the Victorians applied to what style to build a civic building in may seem ridiculous now, but it's a sign that people took the art of their citiies seriously). It made me wish I could be a city council member (I'd work to consolidate funding for allt eh San Antonio school districts, and hand it out by population rather than by income levels of the neighborhood you live in - seriously, it'd solve the problems of rich AND poor neighborhoods in the long run. And, I'd push for public areas of shared work/play space, with free internet and other amenities, which would bring people into a shared space, make business investment cheaper, and get people to think of a place outside there home as a real location. Vote for me!). Highly recommended

6 comments:

Amanda said...

Sorry, I can't vote for you. If you win, I'd have to be a politician's wife, and I just can't handle the media pressure.

hamilcar barca said...

okay, i'm dense tonight. is this about a specific city, or the rise of English cities during the Victorian era in general?

Amanda said...

Jason - what is up with that frickin' huge picture??

Terry - I admit, I've been looking at this book for the last month, thinking it was about Jerusalem. Like the Jerusalem in Israel. Yeah. Jason told me a week ago that it was about Europe and I was floored. That'll teach me to put too much stock in the title...

hamilcar barca said...

heh. my first thought was the same as yours. my second thought was that there's some metropolis in the UK named Jerusalem. i think i'm wrong on both counts.

Jason Gignac said...

English cities in general, though there was a lot of emphasis on the 'shock cities' that really became cities in Victorian times: Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, etc. There was a good sized section on London as well, but London is not the same kind of city as these other ones.

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