The Unheavenly Urban Philosopher

James Neuechterlein, First Things, December 1999.


The newspapers reported the death, a few months ago, of Edward C. Banfield at age eighty-three, and in reading various obituaries and remembrances I was forcefully reminded that, although I never met Professor Banfield, he was a major influence in my life. I have read more important and more elegant books on public policy than his The Unheavenly City (1970), but I can think of none that made so much difference to me. He did not change my mind, but he did most powerfully clarify it. After I finished reading the book, there was no more wavering in my political self-definition. I was”and now without doubt or apology”a conservative. It’s been all continuity from there on in.

I suspect that reading Banfield might not have affected me so strongly had I not been in Detroit during the terrifying black riot of 1967. That was a most unsettling experience, and I had been brooding on its meaning in the three years prior to the pub lication of The Unheavenly City . Banfield’s analysis of America’s urban crisis made sense to me not only of urban affairs in general but most particularly of the annual summer riots that had wracked the nation for half a decade after the first one in 1965 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

First Things