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Ed Driscoll

‘Unlike European Cities, No Bombs Fell on this American City’

February 9th, 2011 - 12:15 pm

Back in 1995, Theodore Dalrymple toured one of England’s public housing projects. He arrived independently at many of the same conclusions about England’s public housing that Jane Jacobs did in the mid-1960s regarding America’s then still-burgeoning urban renewal projects, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  It’s probably not all that surprising that most of her findings translate all too well across the Atlantic.

As Dalrymple wrote in his piece:

Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation.I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture.

“A great shame about the war,” I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. “Look at the city now.”

“The war?” she said. “The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council.”

The City Council—the people’s elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering’s air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.

While England’s City Council turned much of its public housing into a Le Corbusier-inspired dystopian béton brut concrete wasteland, it’s remarkably functional compared with much of Detroit. (QED) England’s Guardian recently published a series of tableaux titled “Detroit in Ruins” that make the city really look like it had been overflown by a fleet of Messerschmidts and Heinkels.

Or as Mark Steyn noted while sitting in for Rush Limbaugh on Monday, and then in a follow-up interview yesterday (audio here) with Detroit talk radio host Frank Beckmann:

Steyn, a conservative commentator filling in for Rush Limbaugh on Monday, said the commercial wrongly placed Detroit in a positive light. “We’re now being told that this is the model for America in the 21st century,” he said. “If it is, we’re all doomed.”

Beckmann, who interviewed Steyn during his show today, said he missed the point of the ad and said suggestions that it falsely hid the decay that has gnawed at the city were ridiculous. The goal of the ad, Beckman said, was to sell cars, not tell the world the seamy details of Detroit’s problems.

“We know those problems, he’s not the first to notice them,” Beckmann said. “(The ad) shows a gritty side of Detroit. It shows us how we are.”

On Monday, Steyn referred to a book published last year that showed the city’s ruins, comparing Detroit to European cities reduced to rubble during world wars.

“Unlike European cities, no bombs fell on this American city,” he said. “This American city did it to themselves.”

Beckmann said he agreed with Steyn on some issues: the roots of the city’s decline lay with unions, liberal political leaders and a sense of entitlement.

Beckmann asked Steyn, “What would you have us do, just quit trying?”

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