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Too long, too clever, both by half
on May 26, 2007
This is a canonical work, and perhaps deservedly so. By that I mean that it certainly covers a lot of ground, for which he deserves credit. Unfortunately, Mumford tries too hard to shove history into Karl Marx's neat little Hegelian theory and ultimately fails to bring his analysis close to a successful conclusion. And for something that pretends to be The History of The City, it certainly lacks the non-Western perspective, as if this was the work not of a world historian but of a well-traveled American or Englishman.
As an example of the first problem, his explanation of early cities leaves much to be desired. Here we have neolithic man living in villages and tending crops. Rather than simply offering a few suggestions as to how the city and king-based government came about, he forces the dialectic into the tale by bringing paleolithic man back and putting him in the place of the brutal warlord-king. Rex ex machina. It was truly bizarre and forces all of the explanations to be backwards from what is most likely the truth. Mumford seems to imply that the savage, paleolithic hunter-gatherers came back, built cities, and then forced the farmers to move into them when I suspect a much more organic process was involved in response to ... what? Marauding bands of warriors? What is the relevant scarcity that would have caused people to gradually transfer their own sovereignty to the king? Mumsford's treatment of the subject is unsophisticated.
As another reviewer has pointed out, he does seem to hit his stride when he comes to Classical Greece, has disdain for the Romans that makes you wonder whether he had been personally impacted by their city life, and then comes back into his stride when discussing the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. I actually found this to be an enlightening section of the book; it explains what I like about cities like Rothenburg, and what I dislike about Washington D.C. In fact, I think one could skip ahead to that part, and stop reading once you hit the early 19th century.
After that, the book becomes a one-sided discussion of the evils of capitalism. Once again, Mumford stops being a historian and tries to interpret everything through a Marxist lens. For a counterpoint to this, I would recommend some of the work of T. S. Ashton.
I tend, however, to agree with Mumford on his observations about the impact of the automobile, but not the cause of it. Capitalism, the belief that government should be confined to a night watchman role, is the opposite of a system which provides government subsidization of the automobile culture the way we do in the US. Prior to the railroads, many turnpikes were privately owned and operated, but Americans loved first the idea of the railroad and then the idea of a system that freed men from dependence on the railroad ... to which they had given birth just 60 years before. The result today is a system which we keep trying to control by ever larger public projects and programs.
In the end, Mumford fails to provide any substantive suggestion as to which way we should turn to create a more livable city. The suburbs and freeways, as unpopular as they are, seem to still be dominant, but I think a generation of people exposed to Mumford's description of the livable Medieval city are starting to do something about it. Unfortunately, the people who share Mumford's politics are now the defenders of the status quo, defending their own investments, opposing building, and forcing people to spend ever more time on the concrete-and-asphault shackles that bind our cities.