Culture & Society

The Essence of a City

Are human settlements a divided family, or a single species?

Is tiny Boyce, Virginia, a city? Image Credit: Acroterion/Wikimedia Commons

“The public spirit of the citizens … has again scored a victory. Some time ago the … Railway Company announced that it would erect a new passenger station. … The plans submitted by the railway company did not entirely suit the … people, and they at once started a movement to secure a better piece of ground in order that a more pretentious station might be erected. This is the spirit which builds cities.”

Which American urban settlement do you suppose this jaunty bit of boosterism, from a 1912 newspaper article, was about? Surely a major city like New York, Philadelphia or Chicago; perhaps a pre-car Detroit; maybe a midsized metropolis like St. Louis or Minneapolis?

Not quite; this is a Clarke Courier article about the tiny village of Boyce, outside of Winchester in western Virginia, which in that decade was home to approximately 300 people.

An Analogy From Catholicism

When scientists find a piece of evidence that does not fit a hypothesis, two things can happen. Either the evidence, upon further study, does in fact turn out to fit into the hypothesis, or it voids or alters it.

It is a widely held “hypothesis” today that what we call the “small town” is a sort of lifestyle amenity; categorically, we tend to think, it belongs to the suburbs or exurbs. And both the suburbs and the small town stand against the “big city,” an entirely different, and perhaps slightly frightening, creature.

But this taxonomy may be wrong in a fundamental way. Yes, it is a roughly correct accounting of how we think about towns, suburbs and cities today. But it is mistaken about what the small town actually is, in an ontological sense. (Disclosure: I’m Catholic, and we use words like this.)

A place like Boyce is the evidence which jams the hypothesis. What the small town is, in essence, is an embryonic city. And what the big city is, in essence, is a small town all grown up. They are the same creature.

However, this might sound like a tortured argument. Let me revisit my Catholicism to offer an analogy. Catholics have a devotional practice known as Eucharistic adoration, which involves displaying the consecrated Communion bread—understood to be the literal body of Christ—in an adorned monstrance, and adoring, worshiping and praying to it (i.e., to Him).

To the Catholic, the propriety of Eucharistic adoration is self-evident; it follows so obviously from the belief in the real presence that it hardly feels like a series of arguments or logical steps at all. Yet to the Protestant—even Protestants who do believe Christ is truly present in the Eucharist—it is an absurdity, perhaps even idolatry. Says the Catholic: How can we not worship the Eucharist, if it is Christ? Says the Protestant: Jesus did not tell us to worship or display the Eucharist. He told us to eat it. How on earth can you derive the Corpus Christi procession from the Last Supper?

When you agree with an argument, it can blind you to the fact that it is an argument. And similarly, in arguing for the fundamental urbanity of the small town, I wonder if I am doing something like arguing that the Last Supper is the Corpus Christi procession: making a great logical leap which feels to me like an almost necessary inference. Aware of that possibility, this is my argument.

What Is Urbanity?

We might start by asking what “urbanity” is. Discussions of cities, towns and suburbs tend to be cultural, as do so many of our contemporary debates. Cities, in a circular argument, are where “city people” live. I wrote once about Staunton, a small city in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with a beautiful, classically urban downtown. I praised Staunton’s architecture and urban form, but somebody replied that I was barking up the wrong tree. It isn’t Staunton’s buildings or land use that make it great, the commenter wrote; rather, it’s the patriotism and religious faith of the people.

Perhaps. But I find it curious to see people—inhabiting a town whose old commercial blocks are visually almost indistinguishable from those of Brooklyn or Philadelphia—insisting that “the city” is not an actual thing with characteristics, but a vague idea. Our town is not a “city,” because we do not like “the city,” but we like our town.

But it makes very little sense to define a city based on a nebulous cultural outlook; it makes much more sense to focus on the land use and development pattern. If you strip away the culture-war overlay—“coastal elites” and “flyover country,” debates and conspiracy theories over “15-minute cities,” identifications of “cities” and “suburbs” with political ideologies generally—you will find no evidence that there is actually any such thing as a “small town,” as we currently conceive of it.

If you look at the history of towns and cities, in the 18th and 19th centuries, you will not find any clear demarcation between those settlements which we now call “cities,” and those which we now call “towns.” You will really only find urban settlements, which grew or shrank or stagnated or died for any number of reasons. You will find large, lovely civic buildings; the mixing of housing and commercial uses; a variety of housing options; and dense settlement patterns. And you will find these bits of urban DNA in places ranging anywhere from a few hundred people to hundreds of thousands of people; while these places’ sizes may differ, these characteristics are constants. The places which went on to become big cities did not collectively choose to do so, and those which never grew beyond the scale of a town or village did not decline to become cities.

The people who called these towns home, a century or more ago when they were tiny working cities, would have agreed. Perhaps they still would have distinguished themselves from “city people.” But they would have meant something different by it. Something which did not preclude them from proudly putting their little towns on the map, and copying the grandeur of the city.

A Different World Today

Today, when we talk about “towns” and “cities,” we make the same error as the paleontologist who accidentally categorizes a baby dinosaur fossil as a small dinosaur, and an adult fossil of the same species as a large dinosaur. There’s almost something spooky here: When I look at a small town today, I feel a little bit like an archaeologist who finds a strange artifact and puzzles over what its use might have been. Reading the Clarke Courier article on Boyce, it becomes clear that we have broken continuity with our old selves. Today, the “public spirit of the citizens” of a small town would almost invariably be arrayed against development. Yet that article describes the polar opposite of “NIMBYism”: “The Boyce people are quick to go down in their pockets and contribute to any and every cause which will advance their town. There is no sectionalism or personal feature to be found when the welfare of Boyce is at stake.”

The very same sentences could be written today (with the exception of the archaic English), and a reader would probably assume they were about organizing against a big developer or enacting a strict historic preservation regime. That these sentences instead refer to building things reveals how different the United States was little more than a century ago.

For years, my own hometown in central New Jersey—once the tiny urban center amid the surrounding, then-agricultural township—resisted the redevelopment of a number of derelict or underused properties, citing concerns over flood management, crowding, school capacity and appeals to “small-town character.” In the particulars, these points are arguable and debatable; valid, though maybe not correct. But in the bigger picture, these familiar objections underscore how the general attitude has almost completely flipped.

It is difficult to imagine a small town today advocating for a larger train station, or a train station at all; frequently, such communities view public transportation with skepticism. It is difficult to imagine them greenlighting a building whose facade exaggerates its size and scale, as a couple of the buildings in Boyce’s tiny downtown do. It is difficult to think that the phrase “this is the spirit which builds cities” could apply to a tiny rural village. And it is difficult not to see an urbanity in these places that is absent even in many of America’s large cities today.

Some time between then and now, we underwent a revolution, which not only transformed American land use, but also wiped out the memory of America’s urban settlements, and the mindset which built them and understood them as such. America’s small towns today—to return to the religious analogy—are something like the old cathedrals and archbishoprics of the Church of England, inherited from Catholicism but no longer meaning quite the same thing. They are in some sense historical artifacts, all around us yet revealing a vanished world.

None of this means that Boyce is Manhattan. An infant and an adult are not the same. But they are the same creature. What this means is that nothing fundamental—nothing, really, but the vagaries of economics—separates Boyce from Manhattan. In its very earliest form, a snapshot of Manhattan would no doubt have resembled a small village. In a different world, the trajectory of American settlements would have turned out differently. In that alternate world we might all know about the big inland city of Winchester, Virginia, while knowing little about the quaint riverside town of St. Louis.

What does this mean for us today, and for arguments over land use, housing and urbanism? It suggests that many Americans who live in cities think they hate cities, because we have lost a true understanding of what a city is: a settlement of any size with urban characteristics, rather than a place which signifies a certain lifestyle or political worldview. It means that there is an older American character, supplanted during the age of the automobile, to rediscover. And it means that the whole debate over “turning the suburbs into the city” is barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps we can shed the ahistorical culture-war baggage, and again become a rural and urban country.

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