Rediscovering the Center
William H. Whyte. Foreword by Paco Underhill
2009 | 408 pages | Paper $24.95
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Table of Contents
Foreword, by Paco Underhill
2. The Social Life of the Street
3. Street People
4. The Skilled Pedestrian
5. The Physical Street
6. The Sensory Street
7. The Design of Spaces
8. Water, Wind, Trees, and Light
9. The Management of Spaces
10. The Undesirables
11. Carrying Capacity
12. Steps and Entrances
13. Concourses and Skyways
15. Blank Walls
16. The Rise and Fall of Incentive Zoning
17. Sun and Shadow
18. Bounce Light
19. Sun Easements
20. The Corporate Exodus
21. The Semi-Cities
22. How to Dullify Downtown
23. Tightening Up
24. The Case for Gentrification
25. Return to the Agora
A. Digest of Open-Space Zoning Provisions in New York City
B. Mandating of Retailing at Street Level
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
William Hollingsworth ("Holly") Whyte died in 1999. His life was celebrated by a generation of urban planners, architects, and advocates. He wrote three major works: The Organization Man, first published in 1956, deconstructed corporate tribal values and offers timeless insight into the postwar psyche. It remains today a brilliant portrait of American values of the '50s. The Last Landscape, published in 1968, provided some of the foundation of the modern environmental movement. It talked about green before "green" meant green. In the volume you have in your hands, City: Rediscovering the Center, first published in 1988 and considered the author's magnum opus, he threads the knowledge of his earlier work into his treatise on the health and well being of the American city. No other book has been more central to the rebirth of the metropolis than this one. It summarizes the life's work of a remarkable American whose gift was the ability to observe and make sense out of what he saw.
Holly was utterly and completely comfortable with his White Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots. He grew up in the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia. Fancy prep school, Princeton, the U.S. Marine Corps, Fortune magazine. By all rights he should have ended up back at Princeton as a distinguished professor of journalism or teaching business ethics at the Harvard Business School. Somewhere along the way something happened: Holly fell in love with the idea of the city and, especially, New York. His urbanism came with the janissary passion of the converted.
Is the love of cities peculiar? It's important to put Holly and his book into historical perspective. Through much of the 1950s and '60s middle-class Americans fled the urban core. They had good reason. Pollution, crime, miserable public education, crumbling public transportation, and endemic political corruption are some of the factors regularly cited for urban flight, to which Holly added vagrancies of an architectural and planning profession that had lost touch with the human scale.
There are more than a few of us to whom William H. Whyte had god-like status. He had a romantic vision of the ideal city, a fascination with rules and order—the daily dance of a crowded sidewalk on New York's Lexington Avenue delighted him. He cataloged the manners of the city and understood what density meant to people. He found street characters—like the charming Mr. Magoo, who directed traffic from the sidewalk around Macy's, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a slightly aged shopping bag; or Harry the Husbands Liberation Guy, with his hand-made signs and Fifth Avenue stomping grounds; or the East Side witch, with her clown lips and spitting cackles. The nonromantic or nontheatrical urban characters Holly called undesirables, and his thesis was, if you had the right people there the wrong people would stay away—an intellectual Yogi-ism. That said, what he talked about was logical and had a real street feel to it. As a young student, he inspired me. The first time I listened to him, I walked out of the lecture hall and had a vision of what I wanted to do with my life. We remember Holly for his pixie dust, but this volume reminds us that, at his core, Holly was an indefatigable researcher and highly motivated journalist.
The first two thirds of this book lead the reader through Holly's investigation of what makes a city work. While the examples Holly uses are dated, the information remains invaluable. Both in his writing as in the man, there is the Boy Scout from suburbia diligently and lovingly exploring a city with the same delight evident in Darwin's exploration of the Galapagos. Holly's mantra was that the love of cities starts at the street level—while skylines impressed him, pavement and patches of grass were the abiding building blocks of urban life. This book is filled with telling details, from an exhaustive treatment of the design of stairs to a short history of zoning regulations that governed for decades the design of towers and plazas of the American city. There is primitive power in the tools Holly used to craft his thesis: simple observation, time-lapse Super 8 movie cameras, hand-drawn maps and charts made with press type. He draws material from his work with the Street Life Project and Project for Public Spaces—neither organization having a history of being flush with cash—but like good Marines, Holly and his troops got the most out what they had.
The last third of the book looks at what happened to the industries that left center-city locations and relocated to suburban and exurban campuses. Quite correctly Holly makes the correlation between density and economic health. I know, for example, that my office at the corner of 20th Street and Broadway is one of the easiest places on earth to visit. Yes, someone can call or email, but the power of face to face should not be underestimated. I cannot make the seventeen-minute walk between my downtown home and my office without crossing paths with someone I know. In a city we mix; on suburban campuses we are surrounded and isolated. Holly sneered at the captains of industry who moved their headquarters to be within ten miles of their suburban homes. When this book was first published, many of those companies were troubled. Today some no longer exist.
From the vantage point of a twenty-first century urbanist, there are things this book does not address. There is little about public transportation or the issues of ethnicity and diversity. We know that the American city, for all the improvements in the past twenty years, still faces major challenges in the areas of public education, health care, and affordable housing. Nonetheless, the subtitle of the book is Rediscovering the Center, without which nothing else follows.
All across New York City we have seen the transformation of small urban spaces into clean, beautiful, and well-used small parks. From Tribeca, to the West Village, from Union Square to the Upper East Side, few other major cities in the world can rival New York City's center. The principles outlined by Holly in his deconstruction of Paley and Greenacre Parks have been applied over and over. Perhaps the best dipstick to the health of New York City is the renewed presence of families willing to live and raise their children in THE CITY.
Holly's legacy may be found not just in physical places but in the way urbanism is applied. More than a few of us scattered across New York City and the larger urban planning community were touched personally by our contact with Holly. For all the impact he had through his speeches and seminars and through books like this one, it is his acolytes that continue to cast his strongest shadow.
And what does an urbanist look like? Other professions have their uniforms: banker gray, lawyer stripes, fashionista black. Holly never looked like what he was, which is partly why in person and in print he was so effective. He did wear pin stripes and liked stingy-brim fedoras. He wrote The Organization Man, but he also looked the part. No vampy loafers, for someone who walked the streets, no sneakers, no business-casual Polo shirts. I must have seen him at least once without a tie, but I can't remember when.
I've had three heroes in my life: Jimi Hendrix, the video artist Nam June Paik, and Holly. In my last conversation with him, a year before his death, he talked about the book he was writing, exposing the underbellies of how hospitals worked or, more accurately, didn't. The man had religion and an agenda even at the end. Thanks for reading.