Friday, November 22, 2013

City Air Makes You Free

The city is literally civilization.  Cities - not nations or American “states” - are the engines of creation and progress. Geniuses can be born anywhere; but they come to the city. Farming is everyone’s bread and butter, but cities buy their foods from all the farms in the world. Agriculture was invented in the first cities as a consequence of division of labor in an industrial society. While dressed as a federal union of disparate states, the American republic is culturally a very large city. 
  • The City by Max Weber (Translated and edited by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth), Collier Books, 1962.
  • The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1969.

Chase Tower left and Comerica right in Austin
Max Weber investigated the fundamental sociology of the city, given that cities have different origins. Some began as armed camps, others as markets, production centers, consumption centers, or extensions of the household of the strongest local warlord.  However established, the essential function of the successful city is to be a marketplace.

Today, we accept the plurality of cultures in a modern city, but it was a radical idea that you could disassociate from your family and form new bonds with co-workers and customers in guilds and the fraternities, regardless of their own ethnic origins.  Cities always have attracted distant people.  Athens prospered because of the metics, free Greeks from other cities, but forever non-citizens within Athens. 

In the Middle Ages, if you could evade your manor lord for a year within the city walls, you were free.  On the other hand, everyone was expected to contribute to the defense of the city.  Men who work for a living have no time for training, so the city depended on firearms for protection: easy to use and devastating against an attacker.

Also in the ancient city and paradigmatic to the medieval city, political power rested within an elected council.  Democracy and urbanism are intimately related.  Also in the medieval city, women were enfranchised. The city erased previous classes, patrician and plebian, granted that it created new statuses. While some of them were heritable, most were not.

Reading Weber through modern eyes, it is easy to find all of those elements and many others within the society of the United States of America.  We are literally a bourgeois (burgher) society, a nation of cities. That is also the underlying thesis in Jane Jacobs’s The Economy of Cities. 

Frost Tower
Her major premise is that groups of hunters came together at fixed sites which became permanent trading settlements. Division of labor was an inevitable consequence.  From that, agriculture and herding became distinct occupations. This created the crossbred hybrids that we associate with the agricultural revolution.  Gardening requires land and soon farmers moved outside the cities.  Jacobs marshals her evidence and concludes the first chapter with an easy challenge.  Today, electricity is critical to the city and the largest electrical production factories are found in rural areas. In some distant future wrong-thinking archaeologists might conclude that electricity was invented on farms and exported as surplus to cities.  In fact we know that plows, tractors, fertilizers, everything that a farms needs is produced in cities. Jacobs argues that this has always been true.

Moving forward, she explains how complex divisions of labor come from new work invented to supplement existing products and services. She discusses the industries of Birmingham, England, contrasting them with Manchester.  To frame her presentation, she begins with the brassiere.  Invented by Ida Rosenthal, it epitomized the commerce of the city. First, it was a secondary product: as a dressmaker, Rosenthal was searching for a specific solution. Then, it became an independent product according to division of labor; and it spawned subsidiary industries in metal fasteners needed for production. Most subtly, the Maidenform Bra did not meet the needs of Ida Rosenthal’s clients: they would have preferred to keep their dressmaker, rather than have her abandon them for a new enterprise. 

Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions, that is the story of the city.

Cities enjoy explosive growth when many different kinds of enterprises come together in one place. Some succeed; many fail.  The creation of new work is the engine that pumps life into the city. Let its economy become dependent on a single industry and contraction, recession, and depression cannot be avoided.  Any city that enjoys and encourages an uncontrolled riot of many disparate economic activities will survive and thrive.


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