cover image City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World

City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World

Witold Rybczynski. Scribner Book Company, $23 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-684-81302-8

In this elegant, concise and unfortunately unillustrated historical survey of North American urbanism, architectural historian Rybczynski (The Most Beautiful House in the World) tells more than the familiar story of the life and death of American cities. Resisting the depressingly common equation of grime and dilapidation to urban authenticity, Rybczynski argues that ``city'' and ``suburban'' are categories as polemical as they are descriptive. There are familiar villains here--Rybczynski assails the cul-de-sac entanglements of cookie-cutter subdivisions, and his assessment of the 1950s public housing projects that grafted European modernist ideas onto the North American cityscape with tragic results for the poor is withering. But there are also unexpected heroes, most notably the garden suburbs of the 1920s and '30s (including his own neighborhood, Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill), which combined good design with strong civic consciousness to create urban spaces outside the traditional city. While Rybczynski admits a nostalgic preference for old-fashioned downtowns, he acknowledges that in most places, America's inextinguishable urban impulse has migrated elsewhere. (Sept.)