The City (1939)
January 20, 2005 9:28 PM   Subscribe

The City [Parts I & II, each a 15:00+ minute realPlayer video].
An urban planning film from 1939 that takes a nostalgic look at country life, compares it to the hustle and bustle of 1930s big city life, and presents a utopian alternative. Reviews of The City, Parts I & II, can be found at the Prelinger Archives if you want to read about them before you commit to watching the 30 minute movie. I tripped across this while surfing around on the forums at Cyburbia: The urban planning portal. Also notable: Music by Aaron Copland.
posted by Doohickie (14 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1. Great music.

2. This seems particularly relevant to third-world countries today.

3. I haven't actually finished watching the video yet (I'll do so in a second).

4. Cyburbia is good.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:48 AM on January 21, 2005

A lot of people have been saying The City's utopical alternative is what we'd call a suburb, but there are a lot of important differences. The film advocates small, self-contained, non-sprawling minicities -- they bear more than a passing resemblance to new urbanism, though they do have their design faux-pas (like totally seperate streets for pedestrian and car use).

And, of course, a lot's changed in american cities since this was made (pollution controls, for example).
posted by Tlogmer at 4:21 AM on January 21, 2005

Neat! I'm thinking pretty seriously about ditching my career as a programmer for one in urban planning... so this stuff is pretty fascinating. ("Sides... I don't have a television, so I'm always looking for something to fill the void while I eat dinner...)

Hey... along these lines, what other resources do folks recommend in terms of other, related resources? I've been reading some good books about the rise of homeowners associations, livable communities, and the rise of private shopping malls... but I hunger for more.
posted by ph00dz at 5:07 AM on January 21, 2005

Cyburbia is a pretty serious urban planning community. I bet they could provide more resources for you. I was digging around in there because I was looking for someone who had a web site up a while ago that I can no longer find, and I think he may be a member at Cyburbia.
posted by Doohickie at 5:33 AM on January 21, 2005

Nice, Doohickie! Thanks.
posted by shoepal at 7:28 AM on January 21, 2005

I just met Rick Prelinger at the American Library Association conference this week. For anyone in the Bay Area, they have a really funky and unusual library in downtown San Francisco that is open to the public.
posted by jessamyn at 7:37 AM on January 21, 2005

I'm anxious to watch this video when I get to a computer with speakers, but a little wary. Urban planning policies of this time were focused on making the city become the country, with very little regard for the entirely different social mechanisms of each. The result of these "utopian" visions was the vast gutting of American neighborhoods that occurred from the forties through the sixties, replacing them with freeways and miserable "project" buildings and parks.

For a great write up of the results of these crackers' visions, I recommend the seminal "Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:13 AM on January 21, 2005

this is a classic. heavy, heavy propaganda, though.

While you're at the site, be sure to check out Perversion for Profit
posted by crunchland at 9:18 AM on January 21, 2005

heavy propaganda, though
About half way through the second part, it occurred to me that in 1939, the Nazi propaganda machine was in full gear. I wondered how their propaganda of the time compared to ours... and how each was received.
posted by Doohickie at 10:17 AM on January 21, 2005

Yup, this reminds me so much of the WPA documentaries I've seen; lots of socialist-populist subtext. Not a criticism; it's an artifact of its time in that regard, and it tells an honest story about people's anger at what they saw as "soulless" living conditions. (Of course, the filmmakers didn't grow up there...)

Popular Ethics, I've just been reading D&LoGAC, and I agree with you, this smacks of a naive approach somewhere between new urbanism and the "garden city" acid-trip that was indirectly responsible for the South Bronx of the 70s and 80s.

New urbanism scares me, from what I know of it. It's not that I disagree with the ideals or even the principles and best-practice ideas; it's the very idea of plannign that bothers me. I feel about planning much as I feel about web design: It should spcify only generally, as little as possible, at least from the top down. Let people decide what they want, what they can use. Let natural selection (or "market forces" if you must) drive the form of the city and its neighborhoods.

The thing that gets to bothering people about such an idea, after a while, is that it doesn't solve all the problems. Nothing does, of course. Even if you execute spot on plan and do everything right, some neighborhoods will die. That's ecology in action -- that's how natural selection works. If you get lucky or you're very, very good, you can plan for a complex thing like a city and make a success of it. But generally, I think that's a mistaken enterprise.

The moral, if there is one, I guess, is that the people who live there have to make the decisions about how it works, or it won't. It's the same lesson that you learn if you study software development processes.
posted by lodurr at 11:54 AM on January 21, 2005

In David Gelernter's book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, he suggests that one of the differences between 1939 and today is that the media projected a great air of authority, and that people ate it up and accepted it. Everything was made in simple, declaritive statements, and presented in such a way so that the listener would be foolish to even consider any alternative. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a true feel for how different the world was 66 years ago.
posted by crunchland at 1:21 PM on January 21, 2005

Let natural selection (or "market forces" if you must) drive the form of the city and its neighborhoods.
I dunno- all those "market forces" result in too many Lowes and Applebee's displacing Ambrister's Hardware and Irene's Tavern, if you ask me. The market has too much control right now, since the market is now crowded with giants that roll over the little guy with money and influence.

Everything was made in simple, declaritive statements, and presented in such a way so that the listener would be foolish to even consider any alternative.
Kind of reminds me of the current administration and its lackeys.
posted by Doohickie at 4:26 PM on January 21, 2005

A lot of what seems to be market forces can actually be traced back to local government policies. My town (Ann Arbor) is so inefficient at processing new businesses that the only new stores downtown are high-end chains -- independent stores don't have the deep pockets to pay rent for 8 months while waiting for their pending application.
posted by Tlogmer at 11:21 PM on January 21, 2005

Well, I was using "market forces" as a worst-fit term. I do prefer "natural selection", since I think of this as a matter of ecology rather than economics. If it's pure economics, I agree, you get shit.

But you're right, the outcome ends up the same: Eggs get broken or go rotten in a broken refrigerator, so to speak; and it's all for naught if people don't care about the place where they live. Where both Mumford and le Courbousier failed, IMO, is that they failed at a very deep level to understand what it was that made people love a place. Your neighborhood could be wonderful by most objective measures, and you might hate it; similarly, the neighborhood could be awful by objective measures, and people grow up to love it.
posted by lodurr at 1:39 PM on January 23, 2005

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