Return to the Unheavenly City

Craig Trainor, "Return to the Unheavenly City," Quillette, May 17, 2020.

Revisiting Edward Banfield’s classic work in light of current public policy challenges.


The late senator, statesman, sociologist, and New Yorker Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Moynihan balanced one truth with another, in part to show that neither side enjoyed a monopoly on wisdom. Had he offered these competing visions of politics and culture without describing one as “conservative” and the other as “liberal,” however, it would have admitted the possibility that one was more accurate than the other. And whether or not that is in fact the case matters—not merely for philosophical reasons but for political and social reasons, too.

In 1970, American political scientist Edward Banfield had explored this apparently innocuous question in a monograph entitled The Unheavenly City: The Nature and the Future of Our Urban Crisis. The book proved to be so divisive that a slightly revised version appeared just four years later entitled The Unheavenly City Revisited (the edition reviewed here), in which Banfield sought to address the complaints of his critics. Nevertheless, Banfield’s work drew great praise as well as opprobrium, and it has arguably dated better than the preferred theories of its critics. In 2008, Edward Glaeser, an urban affairs expert and professor of economics at Harvard, described it as “one of the most contentious, interesting, and insightful books ever written on urban policy.” On the 50th anniversary of its first edition, it deserves a reconsideration.