Photo by U.S. National Archives

Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister (Encounter Books, 314 pp., $25.99)

“The problem of architecture as I see it,” says Professor Silenus in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, “is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.” Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, a volume of essays edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, explores the contemporary problem of “placelessness” in American life and reminds us of the damage wrought by urban planners operating under Silenus’s philosophy. “Men like New York’s Robert Moses and Boston’s Edward J. Logue ‘knew’ what was best for cities, including the urban poor, and in forcing it upon them, demolished countless acres of existing historically rooted neighborhoods in favor of ugly superhighways and grim, soulless housing projects surrounded by vacant, moonscape-like plazas,” McClay writes in one essay.

Bad architecture is regressive. Transportation planner Gary Toth remembers when suburbs were “a place where children played and grownups stopped for conversation”; now, they are “the exclusive domain of cars.” Suburbs make an easy target for chic city dwellers, but McCallister rallies Edmund Burke to their defense, reminding urbanites that “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society . . . is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country and of mankind.” Restated by contributor Mark T. Mitchell, “neighborliness is one facet of place-making. As one becomes a good neighbor, one helps to create the small fibers that bind people and places together.”

Where celebrity architects’ ugly, banal boondoggles are inaccessible to everyone but cultured elites, the best traditional architecture connects with people of any social class. They can stand, for instance, in Grand Central Terminal’s grand atrium and marvel at the technical expertise, physical sacrifice, and artistic genius that construction of the station required. They might also sense that the creators of such a place had confidence in the future and wanted to tell us something of the natural virtues required for building vibrant communities.

This spirit shows some hopeful signs of reviving today. Some new restaurateurs in New York City have outfitted their venues in a cottage style of reclaimed wood tables and mismatched vintage chairs, and their menus feature meats, vegetables, beer, and honey tagged with the local farm, brewery, or apiary of origin. Warm and intimate, such places are welcome respites from midtown mausoleums serving culinary abstract art. For a few hours, one can escape what McClay calls the “standardized, artificial, rootless, pastless, and bland—a world of interchangeable airport terminals and franchise hotels and restaurants.”

In Milwaukee, social entrepreneur Cordelia Taylor was frustrated with the impersonal and ineffective bureaucracy of the city’s social services system. As William A. Schambra’s essay details, Taylor rallied funds and volunteers from local churches with additional support from private donors to purchase and renovate a block of homes. The long-term care facility she founded, Family House, became a welcoming place for children, “a place where adults spoke to them with respect and love.” Volunteers offered homework clubs, martial arts, and cooking classes. “This impoverished neighborhood,” Schamba writes, “began to take on some of the attributes of Tocqueville’s township, becoming a safer place for families and children, a seedbed of personal responsibility and moral principle, and a venue for self-governance.”

Not long ago, my wife and I moved out of the apartment where we welcomed our newborn daughter home from the hospital and where she took her first steps. I checked and rechecked the corners and nooks of our apartment, afraid that we were leaving something, some real part of us behind. Only after we’d unpacked and installed ourselves in our new apartment did the sense of unease leave me. As McClay notes, “what makes a ‘place’ is not merely a loyalty to its past, but the vitality of its present, and the lure of its future.”


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