Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Urban Eden

"In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly?"

Next time you find yourself in Douglas Rae's hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, you could treat yourself to a walk through the campus of Yale University, take in a play at one of the city's three Tony Award-winning regional theaters, or maybe make a morbid visit to the colonial-era crypt off New Haven Green. Or you could opt for an even more unlikely errand. You could haul out Rae's whopping 432-page City, flip through the copious charts and maps that show which buildings used to be on which city blocks, and tour the New Haven that used to be.

I've never been to New Haven, but I think I'd choose the campus tour or the crypt, since City, a book that should beg to be taken to the streets as a field guide until it is dusty and dog-eared, proves regrettably inaccessible. Students and scholars of urban policy—as well as New Haven natives and residents—will consider it a solid and essential resource, and only they will be able to find a technical or factual flaw in Rae's exhaustive effort. But amateur city lovers may find that the tedium of this record impedes much inspiration to cherish urban vitality and lament suburban sprawl.

Rae's effort is impressive if not inviting, sketching a historical arc from 19th-century industrial convergence on downtown New Haven, as farms gave way to factories as the nation's primary economic engines, through the formation of what he calls a "dense civic fauna" of neighborhoods and social organizations, and continuing through the depletion of cities through the mid- to late-20th century, as city-dwellers followed the wider electricity grid and brand new highways right out of town. (New Haven led the nation in spending on this so-called urban renewal—who knew?—making it a good subject for such a ...

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Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Urban Eden
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December 2003

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