The Public Interest

On the death of cities

William C. Baer

Fall 1976

IT is often remarked that American culture attempts to repudiate old age and to deny natural death. As Herman Feifel has said, “In a society that emphasizes the future, the prospect of no future at all is an abomination. Hence dying and death invite our hostility, repudiation, and denial, and assume taboo status.” This repudiation of natural death occurs in the urban realm as well as in personal life. There is a refusal to admit that older cities or neighborhoods can die: They may be “sick” or “deteriorating,” but the belief is nevertheless held by expert and politician alike that with proper treatment these areas will recover to survive forever. Even such authorities as George Sternlieb and Norton Long, neither noted for urban optimism, stopped short of the ultimate answer to the question “Is the inner city doomed?” raised in this journal a few years ago (Number 25, Fall 1971). Sternlieb foresaw the function of the inner city as approximating that of a child’s sandbox, while Long suggested the additional function of “Indian” reservation for the poor, the deviant, and the unwanted. But neither saw fit to dismiss, or even discuss, the following phase-the city as cemetery.

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