THE BUILDING OF OUR CITIES
Hours at Home; A Popular Monthly of Instruction and Recreation 11 (July 1870):206-212.A native of New York City and a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford in 1846, Leonard Kip (1826-1906) spent most of his life in Albany. He was admitted to the bar in that city and practiced law until he retired in 1896. Kip was elected president of the Albany Institute in 1885. In the following year he addressed the Art and Historical Association during the opening of the Albany bi-centennial celebration. Two institutions conferred honorary degrees on him in 1893: Trinity College with the degree L.H.D. and Hobart College, with an LL.D.As a habit, we of the Western Continent have not always hitherto been accustomed to pride ourselves overmuch upon our cities, or upon the abstract attractions of our city life. Listening to the reiterated and somewhat commonplace fancies and argumentations of poetry, as well as to the more practical representations of health and scenery, we have been rather wont to bestow the greater portion of our admiration and affections upon fields and pastures, and the more open and extended inducements supposed to be held out by country life. It is true that we have submitted to all this with occasional heart-burnings and with much secret jealousy of the more favored rival; but none the less have the bucolic persuasions of romance induced us to admit as a sad and incontestable truth, that our cities are mere plague-spots upon the earth; to be tolerated only by reason of the necessities of trade, and never to be looked upon with any emotion of pride or fondness, excepting as we might be occasionally actuated by some insane perversion of taste or weakening, of judgment. And it must be confessed that, up to a comparatively recent period, our cities have presented few attractions to the cultivated eye. In the matter of association, the headquarters of a Revolutionary general, perhaps, or some isolated, quaint residence, remarkable only for being a hundred and fifty years old,--or, in the matter of architecture? a Gothic church or two, or a Doric-columned city hall;-and that was all.
Kip was a prolific writer, beginning with his first published article at the age of seventeen. His first book, California Sketches, came from his experiences on a visit in 1849 to California which he reached after a voyage around Cape Horn, and he later. Many other books and articles followed, including ten novels. His essay on urban planning and development below is one more bit of evidence that this subject was one that attracted attention well before the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, the event often cited as the birthplace of the American city planning movement.
The author saw in the accelerating urban growth of American cities opportunities for avoiding some of the mistakes of the past and in improving living conditions while also enhancing their appearance. Kip condemned the American grid for its dullness, and he admired the irregularities in street alignment found in such places as Boston and Genoa. Paris seemed to him an admirable combination of wide, straight boulevards for traffic that formed the boundaries of large districts marked by less formal street patterns. In this essay he called for "a great comprehensive design" that should guide the location and character of individual public improvements. He thus anticipated, if not in actual words, the call for a comprehensive plan as the fundamental basis for municipal planning.
But of late years it seems as though we were beginning to learn a new lesson upon the subject. A more metropolitan taste is evidently controlling us, and we are gradually losing that olden spirit of contempt for city life and scenes, and little by little gaining for them some more genial habit of respect. And though as yet we cannot expect to love our cities for their associations or antiquity, as so often is the case abroad, we find that at least we can appreciate them for their developing faculties of adornment, convenience, and architectural grandeur. In fact, we are beginning slowly to understand what of itself ought rather to have been accepted from the first as an axiom, that uncleanliness, inordinate disproportion of crime, and a dingy absence of beauty, are not of themselves the necessary concomitants of city life, but are rather mere unholy parasites which long, neglect has allowed to cluster around it; and that it is possible, with good management, to retain the advantages afforded by large massing of population, and not necessarily to assume its disadvantages also. Learning this, we are now gradually taking the matter to heart, as we look around for some way to practically apply the truth; and we can see a new era steadily approaching. We are losing that shamefacedness with which we were wont to speak disparagingly of the city as brick and mortar, and the hypocrisy with which we affected to gloat over country freedom. So, little by little, the stream of cultivation is beginning to set citywards. Men who have made fortunes and wish to retire upon them are now as prone to seek metropolitan life as formerly they were to build their country villas; nor do they feel compelled any longer to apologize for their peculiar taste. Yearly the current enlarges. Some may lament the fact, and with long columns of figures, undertake to prove that it is the commencement not only of country depletion, but of natural degeneracy and corruption. Still the great fact remains; and in view of it we must accept it cordially and look around to see how to make the most of it,--how the swelling cities should best accommodate themselves to the new condition of things,--how most properly they can be made, by fulfilling all their destiny and exerting all their capacity for improvement, to increase the comfort and happiness of those who seek their shelter,--and how, in equal measure, they can attract new crowds of willing subjects within their borders.
It is fortunate that we are so seldom able to foresee the successive growths from a single house into village, and from village into city. If it were otherwise, it is to be feared that, in our feverish preparation for the coming greatness, we should be led into the unhappy mistake of giving up everything to utilitarianism, and, in the initiatory selection of our ground- plan, sacrificing all genial tastefulness to mere cold outline,-- creating a broad, tiresome, and most unpleasant expanse of straight streets and rectangular blocks. In many instances in the West, and one or two in the East, it has happened that some prophetic inspiration of future greatness has led to such a mistake; and these cities, so deliberately and with forethought planned, have become masterpieces of dull, severe, correct, and chilling weariness of spirit. To other places a better destiny has been allotted, and they have passed almost unconsciously through all the stages from insignificance to grandeur, until it is only at the end that the inhabitants have awakened from their contented lethargy and discovered that circumstances have conspired to make their places great. Then they have aroused themselves, and with the air of people who fear they are beginning too late, look with dismay at the tangled labyrinth of their streets and lanes; and, to the extent of their means, hurry to carve out a straight, broad avenue here and there, with moody regret that they can do so little to recover from the neglects and errors of the past. But when at last they have done all that is in their power, they have often created a very pleasant city, in which the convenience of a few straightened streets, conspiring with the natural harmony of those that are irredeemably crooked, imparts to the whole plan a charming mingling of utility and taste.
There is indeed no policy so mistaken as that of desiring a city to be made up relentlessly of square blocks and air-line avenues. As a measure of utility itself it is an error; for though we thereby avoid the depreciation in the value of a few sharp angles, we often prevent that natural centralization of wealth and trade which gives extraordinary appreciation to certain choice quarters; and though the transit from one side to the other, following the most direct line of the streets, may be shortened, yet there can be no such thing as crossing such a city diagonally without passing over an unreasonably lengthened route; while as a matter of simple taste such a place may soon become monotonous in an unpleasant degree. Not merely is this likely to be so in respect of single streets, where we can see the broad route of travel marked out before us to the vanishing point, miles beyond, and, gazing forward as upon the undeviating correctness of a country turnpike, miss thereby the pleasant little surprises which might be continually brought before our eyes from behind unlooked-for curves and corners. Looking upon such a city as a whole, it can scarcely fail to be dispiriting with its regularity,--unimpressive, except perhaps for mere size, a quality which very soon ceases to impress,--and intolerable with its dull uniformity, since when the resident can see the whole street rolled out before him as a diorama, he soon ceases to feel any spark of individual taste, but, catching the spirit of others, builds and rebuilds in the same style as every one around him, and so, in having a house, becomes the owner, not of a home, but merely of a certain number of lineal feet measured off from a rule.
We can mark, in a comparison of other cities, the difference of sentiment that a variation in this matter of plan is apt to produce. There are few more beautiful cities in Europe than Turin, with its breadth of street and correctness of architecture. There are many handsome churches and a gallery, a museum and palace; and one might imagine that a stranger could pass a few days there very enjoyably. But there is something so dispiriting in the universal regularity of the streets, that, in spite of enthusiasm for research, the spirits soon become dampened, and the traveller hastens away with his investigations only half completed. But how when he has reached Genoa--so aptly called La Superba? With what joyous contentment he wanders through its winding alleys, finding new surprises at every corner! How lovingly he learns to recognize certain open spaces as old friends, from the mere incident of so often unexpectedly stumbling upon them, when he had supposed that he was far away! What a joyous relaxation he seems to find in the manner of the people themselves,-far different from the prosy, straightened primness of the Turanese! And how reluctantly he leaves old Genoa at last, preferring to linger on there, if he dared, and forget that Florence and Rome have any claims upon his time.
In like manner, looking at our own side of the water, we can compare two other cities,--Philadelphia and Boston. The one is severely rectangular--the other is a twisted net-work of lanes and alleys, with no more apparent method of arrangement than the frost lines upon a window-pane. In the one place the people are coldly proud of their city, admiring it for its size, counting and recounting its population, and often making their boast of the number of its houses; but all the while seeming to supplement their pride with little real affection. In the other place, there is found mingled with the pride which indulges in much boasting, an undeniable love for the city as for a dear friend. In the eye of the Bostonian it is something which peculiarly belongs to himself, and no alien person can ever hope to fitly share the proprietorship with him. Strangers coming may get lost in the twisted maze, or, almost as bad, may find themselves continually brought back to their starting-point; and the Bostonian, looking on serenely, feels his love for the city increased by the pleasing comparison of his own familiarity with it. He never gets lost. He was born and brought up to the labyrinth, and it has no unexplained puzzle for him. Even at three years of age he could run away from his nurse and wander around the seven-sided block and safely find his way home again. And in his grownup passing to and fro, he has discovered little quiet short-cuts, where he meets so few people that in time he comes to look upon those secluded passages as a sort of peculiar revelation to himself alone, to be enjoyed by him in exclusive ownership. The inhabitant of the one city glories in it as one might delight in the vastness of his favorite hotel,--the dweller in the other cherishes a love for his city, as one learns to gather to the heart a snug, crookedly made up, rambling little home. And even in the matter of a comparison of homes, we know how much more readily a quaint, twisted-up dwelling, full of dark passages and unexpected staircases, will attract our regard, than will a squarely planned residence of the customary four-story-and- basement pattern.
Perhaps in its presentation of a pleasant combination of well- controlled streets and others left to wander loosely at their will,--of public convenience properly subserved in a few essentials and civic taste otherwise suitably preserved, there is no modern city which can rival Paris. In it we find a kind of formal ground-plan that serves its uses of easy communication and yet is partially hidden by other features from too glaring obtrusiveness. There is the river running with tolerable directness through the centre of the city,--broad quays on either side,--upon the right a long line of palaces and gardens, and upon the left a row of legislative and scientific buildings. Crossing these at right angles, the splendid Boulevard Sebastopol a reasonable distance around, an encircling boulevard, not too accurately defined, and holding river, quay, and Boulevard Sebastopol as the tire of a wheel will enclose four spokes. Beyond all, another longer boulevard, forming one more enclosing and roughly drawn circle,--and in among these prominent avenues a network of smaller alleys and streets, confusing the senses at every step. Through these we wander at will, finding a new prospect at each turn, and invariably pleasantly losing ourselves. Losing ourselves, that is, with the full knowledge that we cannot be disagreeably led out of the way; for when, after a while, we begin to tire of the ramble, we have only to continue on for a minute or two longer in some particular direction, and lo! there comes a clearer light ahead or at the side, and the houses recede, and we are in one of the broad skeleton boulevards, and can at once leave the twining mass of nerves and find our way home again. This is what has come from letting a city take care of itself for a few centuries, until its characteristics have become fixed, and then supplementing them with such few improvements as modern civilization imperiously demands; and this is perhaps the only manner in which a city can be made thoroughly pleasant to the eye of taste, as well as convenient for carrying on its necessary avocations.
Every city cannot, however, be like Paris. Left in the same approved manner to follow in its upward growth its own impulses and carve out its separate conformation, subject only to subsequent partial correction, it can only become that which circumstances and situation will allow it to be,--better or worse, in proportion as accident develops it for good or bad. Therefore we will leave this topic, as one which will admit of being discussed aesthetically, but in practice can be but little affected by the criticism or supervision of man, and we will turn to other matters wherein direct labor can have its due influence. Nor in this shall we give attention to the common affairs of drainage, and paving, and the like. We all know and acknowledge the necessity of these. From schoolboy times we have been shown how the Romans, when building cities, gave early attention to a grand system of sewerage, and how that, if we do not now copy and even improve upon their ideas, we shall be held recreant to the cause of an advancing civilization. We are daily told that our streets should be better paved and our wharves improved, --our lighting conducted upon more liberal principles,--our public buildings constructed with more economy and taste. These things have become an old story, well conned by every one; and, as such, need not be enlarged upon. What we would now do in noting the building of our cities, would be to throw out a few suggestions, which of right should be considered axioms, but which, like so many principles that, after final settlement, become so glaring in their truth as to excite our wonder at never having noticed them before, in this present day of their slow birth are hardly recognizable as principles at all.
Of these perhaps the most important consists in the fact that we should awaken to the necessity of liberal expenditure in promoting the comfort and elegance of our cities, and freely comprehend that, while no great improvement can be made without the provision of large funds, so our experience of the past shows that few great expenditures for public good have ever been entered into without bringing with them their reward and repayment. We do not mean, of course, that money cannot be too lavishly spent, or public works be inconsiderately constructed. On the contrary, we have abundant examples among us wherein unscrupulous officials have knavishly wasted the people's property to no good purpose, thereby not only adding to the sum of taxation, but also producing well-founded distrust of all future suggestion of city advancement. We simply mean that when, as we have likewise examples to prove, great works are beneficially undertaken and are prosecuted with honorable and painstaking spirit, there can hardly be found an instance where even lavish expenditure in behalf of really magnificent conceptions has not, in the end, been found to be a source of civic profit, pleasure, and congratulation.
We remember once reading a pleasant little account of the progress of Marseilles. The city, having become fired with sudden zeal for improvement, borrowed money and proceeded to open new streets; and at once those streets began to pay for themselves in increase of valuation. Then, taking fresh courage, the city borrowed more money and laid out a park; and with the same satisfactory result. After that a gallery and museum, and new markets and quays, and what not; and ever with the same agreeable conclusion as to cost. In fine, no matter how much the city went into debt, its revenues insisted upon increasing in corresponding ratio, and at the end of a few years it was vastly richer than when it had started in the race. All this was several years ago. What Marseilles has since then become,--whether there has been any success in that attempt of indebtedness to catch up with capital, we do not know. We all know, however, to what a pitch of magnificence Paris has attained by reason of concerted effort, and how abundantly the increasing wealth of the Imperial city is sufficing to meet even the immense debt thus created. And we have evidences that the force of its example is infecting other European cities with similar zeal for improvement, so that in every direction the great capitals are laying out avenues and parks, and turning insignificant lanes into broad boulevards. Only in America does the public temper seem to falter and fail to catch the spirit of the times.
It is true that we do a little something, and that once in a while we congratulate ourselves upon some addition made to our metropolitan health or convenience or beauty. A street is widened here, or a public park laid out there,--and so far it is all very well. But the trouble is, that these efforts are mere disorganized fragments of what should constitute a great, comprehensive design, to be prosecuted with force and energy as a whole; and that, when we accomplish even the smallest results we feel disposed to praise ourselves too highly for our enterprise, to be too leisurely occupied over it, and, at the end, to rest too long before undertaking any additional design. We would fain lay out a new street, for instance; and after years of civic wrangling it is done, or, as likely as not, left undone, because some one may be indirectly going to make something out of it. We decide to put up a public building;--and other years are wasted in first selecting a site and then a plan. While, at each step of the way, we calculate the cost so dolefully, that at last we become horrified at the task we have set ourselves; and the dread of any further expenditure so surely mingles with our complacency over the labor finished, that a long period is certain to elapse before we recover sufficient equanimity and courage to press forward again. Since calculations must be made, is there no way of causing the people to understand that a calmly digested plan and a liberal expenditure for instant, elaborate, and wide-spread improvement is the most far-sighted economy that could be adopted? In the prosecution of comprehensive schemes for new public works, and for the tasteful elaboration of what has already been achieved, large sums must be spent, it is true; and yet there can be little doubt that good and sufficient drainage, well-paved streets, new avenues cut through and old ones enlarged, markets rebuilt, and stone or iron wharves replacing rotten wooden ones would, up to a certain point, lead to an increased valuation abundantly sufficient to satisfy the additional burden.
And this brings us to one further and last suggestion. Having our cities laid out and fully built upon, then comes the question of their beautifying and adornment. In some respects this is a topic kindred to the former one, for the chief germ of its complaint is public apathy and indifference, want of knowledge about what should be entered upon, and too elate satisfaction at what has already been done. To many persons the question of civic decoration is a novel one, for it seems to them that when clean, straight streets are laid out and lined with costly buildings, and all such mere matters of comfort, convenience, and easy intercourse attended to, the whole thing is finished. They cannot comprehend that in every city there are waste places which should be made pleasant and that there must always be, here and there, quiet corners which should be turned into bowers of beauty, and which, by contrast with the angular and more artificial surroundings, will be certain to confer upon the passer-by a pleasure far beyond that which they might otherwise give. While of those who admit the necessity and propriety of such adornment there are very few who understand all its hidden capabilities, and who are not meekly content with the slightest approximation to what should be looked upon as actual necessity.
The whole course of our city ornamentation shows this. In a spasm of reform, we banish from our streets all unsightly wooden awning-posts, and then stand enraptured at our perfection of taste; and while we remain thus entranced and gaping, wealthy telegraph companies, who in any other land would be obliged to purchase their right of way over the roofs, plant, unreproved, along our streets, great ugly trunks of half grown pine trees, not even turned by the lathe into decent symmetry, and giving the look of actual trees which have gradually lost their bark from frequent blazing by countrymen afraid of losing their way. We resolve upon a railing about some little square, and months are consumed in making the contract, discussing the work, and afterwards chronicling its slow progress. We plant our squares with grass and believe that we have done our best; but if we look abroad we will see in Paris every open space or pleasure-ground, even the borders of the long Champs-Elysées, gleaming with all the richest glories of any well-matured private flower- garden. We plant here and there a mere squirt of enormous power and call it a fountain, and it uses so much water that we cannot afford to let it play more than an hour or two each day, while we remain in blissful ignorance that we could take from abroad ideas for artistic bronze or marble groups, which in themselves it would be a pleasure to gaze upon, and which by their economy of water could be allowed to throw up their sparkling jets unceasingly from morning until night. We think that we would like a statue; and we sedulously record the advance in the subscription, the contract with the artist, and the general progress of the casting, until after years of expectation the statue arrives, and, in our exultation, half of the population turns out in mass and loses a day in what is called inaugurating the work. Meanwhile, perhaps that very day in Paris, or Vienna, a splendid statue is quietly put into place, and thereby, without excitement or long-talked of preliminary, a new attraction is added to the hundreds that have been placed there before. The consequence of all this apathy, easy satisfaction, and want of enlarged, comprehensive system upon our part is, that instead of making our cities beautiful they are almost absolutely without any decoration at all. Here a statue, it may be --there a poorly designed fountain basin; but it is a question whether in all our cities together, from Portland to San Francisco, we could gather together as much worthy, noticeable art as smiles upon us from the single open space, the Place de la Concorde.
In some respects, indeed, we have improved upon the cities of the last generation. Looking back upon them with a critical eye, we can now see that there was little in them to attract. Even in the best streets we can remember only ill-built jumbles of shabby brick houses, with here and there one carried up to four stories to excite our complacent admiration; rough cobble-stone pavements, and clumsy wooden awning-posts lining the sidewalks. Here and there indeed, a note-worthy building, but altogether so few that in an hour's time we could exhaust the whole merits of the place In a material aspect there is a great stride in the present appearance of our cities; and some among us, seeing this, might be disposed to rest awhile, as though the good work were already done. But to the truly metropolitan spirit it is only just begun. Prophetically we can look forward and see the picture as it will be spread out twenty years hence if the proper ideas of enlarged and continuing improvement are stimulated. We can see the business portions of our cities almost entirely rebuilt, and with magnificence,--underground railways affording new facilities for intercourse,--beautiful bridges spanning the rivers,-- perfectly systematized drainage, paving, and lighting,--wooden wharves replaced by others of stone or iron,--new and elegant halls and markets studding the thoroughfares,--new churches, such as we do not now dream of,--galleries and museums to vie with those of Europe,--and every public square a bower of loveliness, with its wealth of flowers, statuary, and fountains. This, in a greater or less degree, is for any city no far-off prospect, to be toiled up to with long-protracted anxiety, and waiting, and endurance; it is the natural result, to be freely and coolly taken as a matter of right, if the true, enlarged metropolitan spirit is properly cultivated throughout the country. It is what, perhaps, will some day happen almost of itself; but it can be made to commence at once if the necessity for a liberal principle of action be acknowledged and its practice be fostered.
Then, perhaps, the long-standing jealousy between town and country may die out, never to be renewed; since each will be recognized as holding its separate place, to which the other should not hope to aspire. If the city with its attractions draws strength from the country, it will send back both beauty and intelligence from its overflowing stores of art and education. Having learned so magnificently to glorify itself, it will teach the country to put on new charms, and to banish old deformities, so that in the end the now plain country-house will become a creation of taste, appropriately adapting itself for its needs; and the roads and by-ways no longer made hideous with unsightly rail fences and standing pools will be flanked with broad green hedges, and learning in actual fact to imitate romance, will blossom with loveliness and smell sweet with bordering roses. To the city will be surrendered the domain of art and architecture, and to the country that of rural culture;--each giving up for the embellishments of the other whatever it can most appropriately contribute from its own exhaustless treasures. And so at last the two, no longer like bitter rivals, but rather as brother and sister will go down the path of time united in friendly appreciation, gathering new ideas with which to give increase to our civilization and refinement, and even in their intercourse shedding happiness and pleasant contentment upon each other.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: email@example.com To Top of Page To Homepage