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The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues Of Community In America Reprint Edition
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The belief that the ’50s were an fairly idyllic time is not simply nostalgia by those adults who lived through it. Despite the nuclear and communist threats, corrupt political bosses, lack of privacy, racial injustice, constrictive roles for women and the dictatorial rules to be found just about everywhere one went, most people felt pretty good about life. The optimism that exudes from the media of the day is tangible.
So why was everyone so damn happy? Ehrenhalt believes it was the social codes that were enforced by church, family, school and society at large that made for a more content populace. Authority, in other words, makes [most] people happy.
The concept may sound alien to us in 2015 (or in 1995 when this book was published) but it might not be so far-fetched. In one of his stronger arguments, Ehrenhalt says that while there is always a small group of bright and articulate libertarian-minded people who wish to throw off all the chains that bind, most people are not like this. Most people prefer order and a rulebook and get nuts when they don’t have one or when others don’t follow it. The libertarian fallacy is the belief that everyone deep down wants to be like them.
In what sometimes sounds like a cranky old man telling kids to get off his lawn, Ehrenhalt lays the majority of the blame for this lost community at the feet of the Baby Boomers. It was their teeming masses, he says, that were crammed into too-small suburban houses and too-crowded schools. Was it constrictive architecture that eventually drove the Boomers to clamor so loudly about their need for “personal space” and to whip off anything that looked remotely like a shackle?
In the 1950s, privacy, choice and space were in short supply. By the time the Boomers matured, if they knew nothing else, this generation knew they wanted lots of all of these things. In their drive for abolition of rules of almost any sort, the relative calm that was known in 1950s America was seemingly swept away like a rushing river had burst through Mayberry. In its wake, today we have 25 types of toothpaste and over 300 TV channels to choose between. While this might make the libertarians among us rejoice, what about the majority of people who are intimidated by these things and prefer things to be less overwhelming?
As Ehrenhalt says: “It is not the place of the historian or social critic to mock the comforts of ordinary people.”
If the anchors that made for a more stable society will one day be restored, Ehrenhalt believes it will have to come from a future generation who are not so averse to limitations, who welcome a bit more authoritative control, who will gladly exchange a little less freedom for a far less-chaotic world.
Overall, the different areas of Chicago (Parish, Ghetto and Suburb) that are the focus of the book, are well-evoked. The book is a bit less effective at selling the arguments presented as there is little hard evidence given to support them. Nonetheless, Lost City was a thought-provoking read and is worth picking up if you ever wondered how we went from sock hops to Twitter feeds.
Whether you view that time through the prism of the establishment, the dispossessed, or the child of either, you will find plenty here to mull as we approach the next phase of our evolving American culture. A fun, interesting read.
I grew up in a New York City neighborhood during this same period. The parallels are similar as I imagine they might be to neighborhood life back then in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh etc.
The Lost City presents a wonderful examination of neighborhood life back then and leaves one with a longing for the sense of community long gone. That being said, I do not believe it will ever be possible to attain it again.