Urban Civilization and Its Discontents

"Urban Civilization and Its Discontents," Commentary, July 1970.  (Adapted from the inaugural lecture as Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University, delivered April 15, 1970.)


What has happened, clearly, is that provincial America—that America which at least paid lip service to, if it did not live by, the traditional republican morality—that America which, whether on the farm or in suburb or small town, thought it important to preserve the appearance of a life lived according to the prescriptions of an older agrarian virtue and piety—that America which was calmly philistine and so very, very solid in its certainties—that America is now part and parcel of urban civilization. The causes of this transformation are so obvious as to need no elaboration; one can simply refer in passing to the advent of the mass media and of mass higher education, and there isn’t much more that needs to be said. The ultimate consequences of this transformation, however, are anything but obvious. We know what happens—both for good and bad; and it is ineluctably for both good and bad—when an urban center liberates the energies—both for creation and destruction; and it is ineluctably for both—of provincial emigrés; what happens constitutes the history of urban civilization. But we do not know what happens, for the sufficient reason that it has never happened before, when an urban civilization becomes a mass phenomenon, when the culture of the city becomes everyman’s culture, and when urban habits of mind and modes of living become the common mentality and way of life for everyone.

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