Streets for People

Streets For People: A Primer For AmericansStreets For People: A Primer For Americans by Bernard Rudofsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seeing the title of this book and cover photo, I assumed it was going to be an earnest, pseudo-technical argument for a more pedestrian-friendly city planning; an early example of the dozens of wonky New Urbanist blog posts I’ve read, with perhaps a lingering flavor of midcentury Modernist utopianism. But it turned out to be quite different. Rather than an argument, it’s more of a description of American streets and a comparison between them and those of other countries (particularly Italy, but also other places in Europe, and occasionally the Middle East, North Africa, and Japan), and rather than serving up reasoned explanations and social science evidence, it has silky sarcasm and loving descriptions of ancient European wisdom and modern American folly. To me that meant a wonderfully pleasant surprise.

The flavor of Rudofsky’s writing can be conveyed by quoting a couple of his epigrammatic captions to the photographs, most of them taken by the author: “Among the quirks of many Old World people is an aversion to dirt. Quaint customs and a general reluctance to face the realities of modern life leave them hopelessly behind the times; their very streets intimate that progress has passed them by. Litter, stockpiles of garbage along house fronts, dog excrement on the sidewalk–all the urban hallmarks of prosperity are absent.” “Averse to strolling, Americans are fond of marching. Parades rank high among their penitential exercises and usually are held at a time of year when the weather is at its most forbidding. Pelting rain or biting winds can always be relied upon to quicken the step of marchers honoring Saint Patrick or Macy’s, New York’s foremost patron saints.” “Venice’s maze of walkways and water streets is anathema to the motorist who pines for the day when he will be able to drive his car right into Piazza San Marco, the world’s most gorgeous parking lot, albeit lying fallow through the years.” Personally, I eat this up. But it does make me wonder why.

There’s a certain pleasure, which I think as a critical-thinking liberally-educated ‘intellectual’ I think I’m not supposed to indulge: the pleasure of having your own ideas and opinions reflected back at you. It’s definitely a problem when you spend too much time hearing only like-minded voices, but on the other hand, probably everyone has some ideas and opinions idiosyncratic enough that it feels like nobody shares them, a very lonely condition. When you find a book or article which articulates these unpopular positions, it’s a wonderful feeling. And that’s the difference between this book and the wonky New Urbanist bloggers: rather than a vague approximation, it’s the actual way I feel. I never thought I would find a panegyric to maze-like jumbled streets, covered walkways, strolling on bridges, public fountains you can drink from. There’s even a chapter called “In Praise of Stairs”! And what’s more, Rudofsky is speaking my language: a New Urbanist might explain that a central pedestrian-only square leads to economic growth, or whatever, but Rudofsky presents it as a self-evident aesthetic good, even a moral good. These things aren’t means but ends. He doesn’t see cities like a video game, machines consuming x food and outputting y cash or z industrial production, but places for people to live and enjoy.

So that’s why I love this book, and it may also be why you can’t stand it. Some of it is outdated. Some of it might seem unnecessarily snide, especially to American patriots and progressivists (I don’t mean “progressives” in the euphemism-for-liberal sense) who believe teleologically that technology and science only move in a positive direction. It certainly doesn’t offer any policy recommendations or positive actions YOU can take to make things better. Rather, it only reminds you that another way is possible, something which we seem to need constantly to be reminded of.

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