America emerged from the Second World War as a nation reinvigorated. The War had not only woken us from the Depression, but the nation's total victory had usurped Europe in its place as the seat of global economic and policy dominance.
The war also awoke the nation's true scientific and industrial promise. That, together with the heady vapors of victory, stoked an optimism and compelling vision for the future. A future first, and briefly, of Le Courbusier's (not to mention the Jetsons') radiant cities the even more compelling vision of a future free of the city altogether.
Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) captured that future on film. An antiseptic future of detached lots and cul-de-sacs where even recent immigrants like the Martinis could live in clean suburban splendor. All brought by benevolent land speculators — an army of George Baileys down at the building and loan, financing the American Dream.
Unlike the past, the future would, first and foremost, be clean. Fresh air. A backyard for the kids. Your own car.
From that vision quickly came its analog. If you could make clean, you would make virtuous. A simple solution for an optimistic nation. What problems remained, what lingering poverty in particular, could be solved easily. All you had to do was clean it.
And so began a backflow from the suburbs to the cities. George Bailey had built utopia on the greenfields. Now it was time to do the same thing to the cities. We'd skipped over the radiant part before because we weren't so sure of how to do it. Now we did. All we had to do was clean them up.
And so was born one of the greatest shibboleths of the baby-boom generation. Urban Renewal. The way to fix the cities, the way to fix the slums, the way to imitate the gleaming suburbs was to, like the suburbs themselves, start over. The bulldozer, the wrecking ball and Alfred Nobel's dynamite became, to city planners, what a bottle of Mr. Clean was to a suburban housewife.
A way to clean it all up.
And that's what we did. The bulldozers rolled through places like Chicago's Bronzeville. They rolled through Newark, New Haven and Pittsburgh. As they did, they tore asunder an intricate fabric of civic life. The corner shops. The kids playing in the streets. Dirty, yes they were, but they were also functional.
And they were destroyed. In their place went up radiant concrete towers, full of promise. Cabrini Green. The Robert Taylor Homes. Pittsburgh's downtown interstate highways (designed on the premise that they would entice suburbanites back downtown).
Bloomington's Pigeon Hill.
Selling the vision of a village so desperately in need of saving that it had to be destroyed were, of course, those with a financial interest in the vision's execution. The real estate interests, along with the usual compliant cadre of elected officials and just-below-the-radar technocrats.
You know, the politician who, wearing his heart on his sleeve, urges the city to condemn a neighborhood so that a developer can rebuild in it a radiant city. The zoning boards and building commissions that step in to make sure none but exactly that spec'd by the developer can be legally built, putting in the fix.
And, of course, the bleeding-heart supplicants who stand aghast wondering how a) anyone can live like that and b) how anyone can object to the area's redevelopment and improvement in living standards.
Never mind the fact that none of the people "living like that" will be able to afford to live in the redeveloped, radiant, city.
The scrape-off will scrape off more than just old buildings. It will scrape off a community.
Hands over the city
I must admit that I always thought Urban Renewal was a particularly American affliction. But then I got the opportunity last month to see a real jaw-dropper of a film, Francesco Rosi's Hands over the City (1963).
Hands is It's a Wonderful Life's evil twin. The story of Naples, Italy, in the early 1960s. The story of Naples undergoing Urban Renewal. The story, with subtitles, of the urban growth machine.
Rod Steiger gives a tour-de-force performance as Nottola, the slightly greasy but highly successful developer who, while building a gleaming concrete highrise in one of Naples' lower-class neighborhoods, accidentally causes an adjoining, older building to collapse, killing several.
A scandal ensues pitting factions of Naples' city council against one another, all of this against the backdrop of an election year. The developer-friendly establishment council members rally to Nottola's defense, arguing with the city's building department's support, that everything was done to code, that everything was done to practice.
The progressives, led by a socialist councilman named De Vita, want blood. They argue for the residents displaced by Nottola's gleaming towers, and they argue against a system rigged for the wealthy.
In the middle is the middle. An earnest center-right physician who finds himself increasingly unable to abide his party's cynicism, and those on the center-left who find themselves unable to abide De Vitta's bulldog tactics.
In the end, it's the newly-elected mayor who must forge a consensus. Will he listen to the council moderates and block Nottola's appointment to the building commission? Or will he cave to the realpolitik of the status quo?
I won't spoil it for you. Rent it. As you watch, think not only of Pigeon Hill but of Renwick, Canterbury, Whitehall, and Finelight.
And, while you do, have a little fun and see if you can put some of our contemporary names to Rosi's Italian counterparts.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. -- Speaking of Thomson and Finelight, congrats on the new job, former Mr. Mayor.