The Unheavenly City Revisited

3 posts

Bob Dylan Roof

I've been meaning to write up a post on Edward Banfield's The Unheavenly City for a long time now. This post is only an introduction, but, time and procrastination permitting, I hope to update the thread regularly (feel free to comment.) The next post will cover Banfield's basic theoretical understanding of the modern city, set out in the first chapter of The Unheavenly City , and subsequent posts will flesh out the other qualifications that temper the logic of metropolitan growth described therein. The purpose will be to outline Banfield's conservative sociology of the city and (hopefully) analyze it in terms of contemporary data and knowledge.

Having read just one of Banfield's books means I am not qualified to provide a comprehensive outline of Banfield's politics . A few remarks are still useful here. Despite a theoretical reliance on time preference, Banfield was not an Austrian nor does he appear to have been a libertarian; however, he was deeply skeptical of the purported benefits that political management could bring to city life. Wikipedia notes that Banfield's early enthusiasm for Democratic and Republican attempts at society-building gave way to a deep skepticism of and contempt for constitutionalism. His colleague and long-time friend, Leo Strauss, remarked that he never succeeded in convincing Banfield of the truth of natural law and noted that Banfield always remained a relativist and radical individualist, his reliance on "principles" notwithstanding.

An exposition of The Unheavenly City is valuable now given the current population decline of the major cities, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the immigration crisis, and the degradation of "traditional" morality. Further, many of the vectors of liberal social malaise are concentrated in the city: inadequate housing, schooling, transportation, racial segregation, and class stratification. Thus a conservative sociology of the city is a worthwhile project.

Banfield argues that exponentially growing expectations and social standards outpace the social benefits that can generally be achieved in advanced society, so that a moral version of the law of diminishing returns manifests in the frantic scramble to ameliorate the problems of the city. As the middle- and upper-classes swelled throughout the last century and the number of people with middle- and upper-class values correspondingly expanded, the demands of social reformers mirrored this upward climb and took on their own exponential quality. The question of sustainability then emerged, not just from an economic standpoint (we know that the human race would require something like two earths to sustain the entire population in a middle-class lifestyle), but also from a social and moral standpoint. Many of the putative negative aspects of the city turn out to be byproducts of both the immense progress humanity has made and the disproportionate acceleration of social demands. Depending on the case, the demands of reformers are either misguided calls to remove elements necessary to the progress of society (e.g., cheap, low-quality housing) or demands to ameliorate comparatively innocuous social "problems" (e.g., high school dropout rates).

Methodologically, Banfield relies on a combination of inferences from a priori principles of psychology and empirical data to develop his conservative sociology of the city. While he is mindful of biological causation (he briefly considers the relationship between race and IQ), Banfield prefers to assume the primacy of cultural and economic causes, ostensibly as a consequence of the positive data from the '60s concerning the ascent of the Negro middle class, but also in order to avoid the controversies of the nature vs. nurture debate. To be sure, Banfield's logic of metropolitan growth is shaped by class, race, and other forces, but for Banfield's purposes he need not go any farther than this. Banfield only intends to display the city as it is: imperfect, and virtually impervious to Great Society efforts at improvement.
Bob Dylan Roof
The logic of metropolitan growth

Banfield presents a hypothetical city with a growing population stratified between the well-off and not-well-off, and stripped of race and class-cultural differences. His purpose is to show, first, that given only these elements no omnipotent government can alter the resulting pattern of growth, and second, that government programs aimed at ameliorating the problems of the city that fail to consider the logic of metropolitan growth often exacerbate the problems they are supposed to solve.

The basic model of the city has three imperatives: demographic, technological, and economic. The demographic imperative requires that the city expand vertically or outward if the population increases; the technological imperative requires that the city expand outward if it is more feasible than expanding vertically; and the economic imperative holds that if the distribution of wealth means that some can afford new housing and the time and money to commute longer distances to work while others cannot, the expanding periphery of the city will be occupied by the well-off while the older parts where most of the jobs for the unskilled are will be occupied by the second group. Banfield also adds another element related to the technological imperative: the city originally has a relative monopoly on accessibility by virtue of its geographic location.

Most of the problems associated with the logic of metropolitan growth were already identified in America in the 19th century. Banfield provides an interesting quote from the New York Legislature in 1857:

As our wharves became crowded with warehouses, and encompassed with bustle and noise, the wealthier citizens, who peopled old “Knickerbocker” mansions, near the bay, transferred their residence to streets beyond the din; compensating for remoteness from the counting houses, by the advantages of increased quiet and luxury.

Their habitations then passed into the hands, on the one side, of boarding house keepers, on the other, of real estate agents; and here, in its beginning, the tenant house became a real blessing to that class of industrious poor whose small earnings limited their expenses and whose employment in workshops, stores, and about the wharves and thoroughfares, rendered a near residence of much importance. At this period, rents were moderate, and a mechanic with family could hire two or more comfortable and even commodious apartments, in a house once occupied by wealthy people, for less than half what he his now obliged to pay for narrow and unhealthy quarters.

This state of tenantry comfort did not, however, continue for long; for the rapid march of improvement speedily enhanced the value of property in the lower wards of the city, and as this took place, rents rose, and accommodations decreased in the same proportion. At first the better class of tenants submitted to retain their single floors, or two and three rooms, at the onerous rates, but this rendered them poorer, and those who were able to do so, followed the example of former proprietors, and emigrated to the upper wards.

The spacious dwelling houses then fell before improvements, or languished for a season, as tenant houses of the type which is now the prevailing evil of our city; that is to say, their large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones (without regard to proper light or ventilation), the rates of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street; and they soon became filled, from cellar to garret, with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded or squalid as beggary itself.

Banfield describes how the report went on to blame previous managers for failing to adequately legislate in order to reverse or eliminate these problems. Thus the problem of bureaucratic central management had already emerged in 19th-century America.

Likewise, the process observed with disquiet by the New York legislature continues to operate today, moving toward the inevitable conclusion of decentralization. Residential areas are first bought up and replaced with factories and businesses. The well-off move out to avoid crime and noise, of course, but Banfield’s data suggests that the primary reason is the allure of cheaper, more spacious living in the suburbs. Moreover, the central-business and –industrial districts follow suit as the city loses its monopoly on accessibility through the development of feasible transportation, business districts catering to the new suburban class, and the horizontal factory. The only exception is the tertiary sector – service jobs requiring face-to-face interaction – which provide employment for only a select few. Since low-skilled workers cannot afford to follow their jobs to the suburbs, the city ceases to operate as a staging ground for upwardly-mobile, low-skilled immigrants. A perpetual lower-class forms and the city becomes something like a sandbox “where the poor and the unskilled (the children) are left to occupy themselves with governmental social welfare programs (toys) while other people (The grown-ups) go about the serious business of making money.” (paraphrasing George Sternlieb).

Thus the logic of metropolitan growth produces two sets of problems depending on the presence of industry and the continuous supply of low-skilled labor. If low-skilled employment remains available, the problem of overcrowding and squalid living conditions remains. Once low-skilled industry leaves, the city begins to stagnate and tax revenue declines as each successive cohort of well-off leaves for cheaper, more spacious living. In either case slums, with their attendant moral baseness and economic depression, remain a problem.

Ordinarily cities would respond to such problems by either jettisoning excess populations to colonies or expanding their boundaries and incorporating the upper-class diaspora into the tax base. In America neither of these options was viable in the 20th century, and instead we were forced to endure the various counter-productive managerial solutions of the SWPL class.
Bob Dylan Roof
Dumping more TL;DR here

The managers believed that the flight of the well-off from the city deprived the less-well-off of moral and economic role models and divested the city of economic productivity. Moreover, they believed that the principle cause of the exodus was urban blight and crime. This conviction was reinforced as the well-off returned to the communities they left to find trash, unkempt homes, vacant lots, and dilapidated tenement housing. It never occurred to anyone that those who replaced the well-off (the new inhabitants of the old communities) were only looking for cheaper and more spacious housing, caring little for the appearance of the neighborhood or blight.

The managers set about developing programs that ultimately aggravated the problems of metropolitan growth. The initial improvement of transportation, through the development of the highway system, facilitated the first exodus from the city. Improvement of public transportation only compounded this problem by subsidizing the flight of industry, commerce, and white people from the city. In response to the problem of low-quality housing in the cities, the managers created the Federal Housing Act, which subsidized home building outside of the cities and favored the white middle class.

In order to entice the well-off back to the city, the managers then engaged in urban renewal programs that drove the cost of living and housing up and forced the lower class out. Thus, the highway system and housing programs paid the well-of to leave the city for the suburbs, while the urban renewal and public transit programs paid them to stay in or move back to the city. Here we see the effects of the cosmopolitan liberal approach to management that understands society as a series of injustices to be remedied in a wholly-disconnected and piecemeal fashion.

Having examined recent approaches to the problem of metropolitan growth, Banfield then turns to the example from New York above in order to consider what the legislature could have accomplished if it had the means available to our own managerial class. Banfield suggests that if the legislature had adopted housing codes requiring the demolition of substandard dwellings, New York would likely have never grown into a metropolis. In order to grow, cities must become centers of industry, which means they must have a supply of cheap labor, which means they must have a large supply of housing that the cheap labor can afford. Removing the slums and the incentives for the well-off to leave the city and the not well-off to move to the city ultimately means arresting the development of the city from a small-scale polity to a metropolis.

“If society had been willing to accept a curtailment of the rate of economic growth for the sake of preventing overcrowding and bad housing in the city, it would have prevented people who could not support themselves properly from coming to the city at all. By restricting the supply of labor in the city, the authorities could have forced the price of it up. The old mansions would be in New York, but not the Statue of Liberty.”​