The Good in Cities

English professor Jamin Rowan discusses the benefits of city life in his new publication The Sociable City.

City life can be polarizing: usually people either love it or hate it. When associate professor of English Jamin Rowan moved to Boston for graduate school, he experienced urban life for the first time. “I grew up in a small, central-valley town which was predominantly agricultural,” he said. “This was during the 80s when anti-urbanist feeling was high. People were afraid of cities. They were associated with drugs, gangs, and violence.” Living in Boston, Rowan felt connected to other urbanites he had never met—in shops, cafes, and on the subway. He began to wonder if there was a narrative tradition to explain this attachment he felt, eventually inspiring him to investigate and write his first book, The Sociable City, which was published in 2017.  Overall, Rowan argues that casual, urban relationships are valuable and important. 

Much of the popular rhetoric surrounding cities is negative. Urban spaces are seen as disease-ridden, isolating, and generally unhealthy. “My jumping off point is Frederick Law Olmsted who is most famous for helping develop parks in cities, including Prospect Park and Central Park in New York, and the Emerald Necklace in Boston,” Rowan explained. Olmsted’s concern was crowded city streets. Walking to work, people saw others as obstacles rather than fellow humans, which he believed to be detrimental to human sympathy. The only way people could be connected, Olmsted felt, was within parks—public spaces removed from the streets. Many of his ideas about urban escape are still a main focus in urban design today.

The pessimistic view of cities Olmsted held was common, especially in the 19th century. There is, however, a narrative tradition of the benefits of urbanization which Rowan addresses in his book. The first chapter discusses the settlement movement which was led by college-educated, middle-class, white women who committed themselves to helping European immigrants. Unrelated middle-class women and men lived cooperatively, as “settlers” or “residents”, hoping to share knowledge and culture with their low-paid, poorly educated neighbors. It was believed that these “settlers” would help lower class immigrants adjust to American culture and practice social Christianity. Settlement houses were an attempt to counteract the congested feeling of the industrial cities by facilitating connections between working individuals. Unfortunately, these women were less committed to helping the African-American migrants coming up from the South. Hoping to apply the success the white women had experienced with immigrants to African-Americans, W. E. B. Du Bois saw the settlement program as a means to address racial problems and proposed a settlement house in New York. The house was never built, partially because “it was really difficult to achieve sympathy across racial lines,” Rowan believes. The hope of Du Bois and others like him, though, shows a more optimistic idea of urban living and the connections possible between urbanites.  

Finding positive urban narratives required Rowan to be creative in his sources. Along with the writings of Du Bois and Olmsted, Rowan’s book includes the writings of urban planners, early writers of the New Yorker—including Charlotte’s Web author E. B. White and prolific writer A. J. Liebling—and the designs for an ecological exhibition in the American Museum of Natural History organized by Albert E. Parr. “Everything leads up to Jane Jacobs, who is arguably the most important urbanist of her time. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, changed how we think about cities,” Rowan said. Jacobs, an urban planner, is not a “traditional” source for building a literary history, but her work is fundamental to Rowan’s argument.

Jacobs wrote that building good cities is not about creating intimate spaces. “When we only value intimate relationships, we build poor cities,” Rowan explained. He cited the housing projects of the New Deal as an example of bad city building. To make space for the housing projects, the government tore down churches, restaurants, and stores, tearing down the delicate infrastructure of city life in that area along with them. Rather than tenants going out into the street, the majority of socializing was supposed to happen inside the buildings themselves, but with prevalent crime and drug-use rates in the projects, tenants often felt unsafe to socialize with their neighbors. Suspicion and crime, combined with poor maintenance, led to the rotting of community feeling.  “We’re still dealing with the repercussions of these building projects today,” Rowan commented.

Good cities have places for people to gather: restaurants, art venues, public squares, religious buildings, and community centers. “When we value and celebrate those more casual, fleeting interactions . . . we build cities in a different way. People feel more connected; they have an identity and camaraderie that doesn’t happen any other way.” Rowan continued, “I think there are real political repercussions [from good city design]. There are great democratic possibilities and energy in urban life—great ways to see a bigger picture. You vote and think differently when you share the subway with people who aren’t like you, people who live differently.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers new publications from the English Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Image: Theresa Bernstein, Merry-Go-Round, 1913, Brigham Young University Museum of Art