Paul Dorn: Review of Variations on a Theme Park
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Variations on a Theme Park:
The New American City and the End of Public Space
Edited by Michael Sorkin
Review by Paul Dorn

Review originally published in the John F. Kennedy University Bulletin, Spring 1992

Cover of Variations on a Theme Park

Humanity's history is one of concentration. From the small, scattered bands of hunter-gatherers in ancient antiquity to the contemporary sprawling industrial metropolis, the trend has been toward ever-increasing population densities. Science, medicine, technology, language--every development of human creativity has served to propel this trend further. Every great cultural institution--universities, libraries, museums, symphonies, cathedrals--depends upon a large population base to sustain itself.

Concurrent with the growth of cities has been the development of more democratic forms of government. An atomized and dispersed population lacks the critical mass necessary to govern itself democratically; tyrants step in to fill the vacuum. But as people are drawn together into larger urban units, they begin to recognize their common interests, their common oppressions and their common goals. In short, they develop a sense of community and eventually begin to work collectively to improve their situation. Civilization, literally defined as social organization of a high order, has been the welcome result. But with the current crisis of US cities, caused by more than a generation of conscious neglect, democratic forms of government become increasingly difficult to maintain.

This is the central theme of an important new book, Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. Edited by Michael Sorkin, former architecture critic for the Village Voice and author of The Exquisite Corpse, and featuring essays by several leading academics, Variations on a Theme Park presents a comprehensive overview of the problems facing US cities. The main contention shared by all the writers is that the decline of the city, with its consequent erosion of community and civic institutions and also popular resistance, threatens to further consolidate economic and political power into the hands of an ever-smaller elite.

This theme is not new. Previous radical thinkers responded to the attacks on minorities and the poor in the 1960s, disguised as "urban renewal." One example might be Marshall Berman's seminal work, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity,with its withering critique of Robert Moses' destruction of vital ethnic neighborhoods in New York City. Moses, the force behind the Cross-Bronx Expressway among other urban atrocities, was merely the vanguard of a calculated effort following World War II by government leaders who sought to undermine popular resistance by diffusing it.

To seriously address all the problems confronting cities--poverty, racism, transportation, housing--was prohibitively expensive. Instead, government leaders pursued the less costly alternative, subsidizing the flight of a portion of urban dwellers. The construction of superhighways, the GI bill and the Veteran's Administration's low-cost mortgages were all designed to create a suburban, primarily white middle class loyal to the ruling elites. The cities would become the repositories of those populations that had the largest grievance against the status quo--namely minorities and the poor. The previous popular resistance of urban residents, well organized in unions, community groups, political clubs and so on, was diminished. Those who remained in cities were labelled the undeserving underclass. Others who escaped became a bedrock support for the political and corporate establishment. The sense of community was shattered: "our fair city" became "my backyard."

This urban agenda, together with all establishment power, was challenged considerably in the social upheaval of the 1960s. But with the decline of the popular movements of that generation, the elite agenda acquired new momentum. Reagan's cynical neglect of cities was the culmination. Variations on a Theme Park takes up where earlier radical thinkers left off. If not exceptionally deep, the collection is broad, providing an historical examination of the deliberate policy decisions that have resulted in the near collapse of urban living, and with it, urbanity.

The lead essay by Margaret Crawford, an instructor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, examines the development of suburban shopping malls. According to Crawford, malls represent an alternative "sense of community," a neatly commodified version of the community destroyed along with cities. Scientifically sited according to market and demographic studies, the malls offer an false sense of public space, of public interaction. But they are private space, the only tolerable interaction is the commercial exchange. They also present an intense contradiction: stimulating the desire for material goods without offering the means of satisfying that desire.

This elimination of the public space so necessary for nurturing and maintaining democracy is also taken up in essays by Edward Soja and Trevor Boddy. Soja, who teaches urban planning at UCLA, examines the development of Orange County as an "exopolis," an urban mass without a center. Boddy, a teacher at Carleton College in Ottawa, examines the development of pedestrian skyways in Minneapolis, Calgary and Edmonton. Justified as infrastructural protection against climatic extremes, Boddy argues that they are in actuality protection for middle class residents from the underclass, lumpen denizens of the city.

Protection for suburban visitors is an enormous preoccupation for city planners. Mike Davis, the author of the widely acclaimed City of Quartz, contributes an essay on the militarization of Los Angeles. Private security is a large growth industry, and protection has gone to extreme lengths, including barbed wire enclosures to protect garbage, sprinklers to prevent homeless from sleeping in parks and doorways.

While the overall critique is persuasive, one shortcoming of Variations on a Theme Park is its overwhelming pessimism. The book seems to reinforce the notion of social division, into a counter-posed urban "underclass" and a suburban middle class. There seems little to hope for in terms of a united opposition against the greater deterioration of democracy. The dynamic of capitalist development, according to the writers collected here, seems to negate the importance of geography. With the development of computer networks, teleconferencing, fax machines and cellular phones, industrial production can occur anywhere. Corporations are no longer dependent upon the large pool of labor provided by cities. They can relocate production where ever costs are lower, and maintain corporate hegemony.

However, this overlooks the possibility of an alliance between the suburban middle class and the urban "underclass." The initial division between these two groups was made possible by the rising economy following World War II. The ruling elites could afford to subsidize the infrastructure investments that allowed some whites to escape the city. Today however, those who live in the suburbs are experiencing many of the same problems that confronted city dwellers a generation ago: inadequate transportation options, lack of open space, drugs, higher housing costs, etc. The ruling elite can no longer afford to simply buy off the middle class; it must increasingly demand concessions from them. It is possible that the middle class, if it can break from the ideology that suggests an urban "underclass" threatening its lifestyle, could unite with city residents to demand life hospitable to all. It would seem that the political lead for this would have to come from city dwellers, if they can preserve and expand the availability of public space.

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