American cities rot from the center like an old oak tree: Empty and desolate within, they are kept from dying only by the life that surges just beneath the surface of the peripheral bark. Here in Rockford, the flight to the suburbs is commonly blamed on the aging buildings and the unpleasantness of life in the center. As a result of a natural evolutionary process that overtakes all cities, the far east side is growing, stranding churches and neighborhoods like so many beached whales. It just happens.
Much of what makes Rockford ugly and unpleasant did not just happen, however; it is the result of deliberate decisions made by politicians and the economic interests behind them. Influential men bought property on the east side, and it took little to persuade their friends in government to pay for the roads and sewers that accelerated development. Of course, such expenditures on the periphery absorbed the tax dollars that would otherwise have been used to maintain and improve services at the center. The developers did well, as did their politician friends, though at the expense of the rest of the city.
In this, there is nothing new. Men generally enter upon political careers in order to gain enough power to make themselves worth bribing. What is different in the modern American city is not the neglect of old neighborhoods but their devastation. Old cities such as Charleston and Savannah succeeded in maintaining a few of their ancient neighborhoods, while allowing others to turn into slums. When decent people made the developers realize that charm might be made to pay better than suburban monotony, the cry went up in progressive circles for the restoration of old neighborhoods.
No Midwestern city is a Charleston, where I spent many years of my life, but most of them had neighborhoods worth preserving. Here in Rockford, instead of abandoning the downtown, politicians deliberately destroyed every graceful or decorative building they could put their hands on. The historic courthouse, one of the finest in Illinois, was torn down and replaced by an eyesore that Stalin would have rejected. Dignified commercial buildings were razed to make way for the already crumbling MetroCentre, a building so ugly that it could only go unnoticed in Podgorica or the suburbs of Bratislava. The beautiful and elegant Carnegie library was built too solidly to tear down, so the progressives were content to strip off the dome and all ornamentation and give it the appearance of a concrete-block public school built in the suburbs circa 1960.
Now, when the only decent buildings west of Church Street are old St. Mary’s Church and school, the rectory, and the next-door building that houses the Janet Wattles Center, the politicians would like either to raze them or to enclose them within the gigantic criminal-justice mall they are constructing as a monument to their own vanity. When St. Mary’s is included within the grim prison complex they are planning, we shall understand the true meaning of the “wall of separation” between Church and state. A stranger from another century, visiting Rockford or Springfield or Peoria, would conclude that the city had been attacked and destroyed by enemies, and that, in the aftermath of the war, there was no money for reconstruction. Unfortunately, the ugliness of Rockford was inflicted by its citizens—if politicians count as citizens.
Many practical reasons have been adduced for the devastation of American cities: the frontiersman’s habit of moving on, the American obsession with the new, the pattern of ethnic displacement that turns yesterday’s Amberson Addition into tomorrow’s ghetto. Some or all of these reasons have undoubtedly contributed to the bleakness and ugliness that prevail in all but the most beautiful of our cities, but, when men willingly abandon the better for the worse, we must not always believe their dollars-and-cents explanations. With all our resources, we Americans have constructed the world we wanted, and, as it turns out, it is not a dream but a nightmare—the realization of Hesiod’s dire prediction (made nearly 3,000 years ago) that men would so degenerate that, someday, children would not respect their parents.
The great projects of the 20th century—communism, national socialism, and “secular humanism”—were all gigantic mistakes, and perhaps the most deadly mistakes were made by the Progressives, the proponents of an ideal liberal democracy that would set all people, male and female, free from God; free from the inherited authority of aristocrats, bosses, and fathers; and free, even, from the ethnic and cultural identities that make them who they are. In the Republican version, they would all buy and sell with one another in a global free market; in the Democratic version, they would live together in one great government-sponsored daycare center.
This is the vision that shaped 20th-century America and destroyed our cities. It found concrete political expression in the thousands of political projects spawned by the New Deal and the Great Society, and, now that they have led to results like welfare dependency, illegitimacy, drug addiction, ignorance, and crime, they speak of “unintended consequences,” as if they are not the results that everyone ought to have anticipated.
Ignorance is not the answer. If abortion is celebrated in the United States, it is not because women do not know that they are killing their children, but because everything they have been taught to believe about human life and sex and children persuades them that sex and procreation are separable, that every individual has a right to seek personal fulfillment. Abortion and “gay” rights are the inevitable (and inseparable) expression of this point of view.
We do not rear our children, because we do not know what life is all about, and we destroy our cities because we do not know what a city is for. In The Rock, T.S. Eliot raised the question directly:
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God . . .
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle . . .
Eliot completed The Rock in 1934, 11 years before I was born. The world did not begin going to Hell yesterday. It has been a long journey.
I was thinking about some of these things on a drive, last February, from Masada back to Tel Aviv. My friends and I were speaking of the Jewish rebels who made their last stand at Masada and chose suicide over surrender. They were as brave as they were foolish, but some of them, at least, were fighting for their dream: a community lived in praise of God. What a desolate and godawful place to die in. We had driven to Galilee—where Christ grew up—a day or two earlier, and, on the lakeside hills, beautiful in olive groves and fruit orchards, a man might wish to live forever; at Masada, however, suicide might seem a reasonable option. Turning west, I glimpsed a crude wooden sign pointing the way to Sodom. Sodom got blasted 4,000 years ago, and the landscape ever since has been a grim reminder of what happens to those who violate the laws of nature. Inner-city America, occupied by abortion clinics, drug-rehab and mental-treatment facilities, and jails, tells a similar tale to whose who can read it.
There must have been a reason for putting the cities of the plain where they were. The salt-scorched desert of lifeless rock must once have been arable land. The story we learned in school was that towns and cities developed when early man was able to produce and store agricultural surpluses, which he traded for the food and products of other communities. Trade routes developed, and, at the crossroads of such routes, towns sprang up, which the inhabitants eventually fortified and adorned with markets, jails, and temples. It is a plausible enough story, but about as accurate as other social-scientific fictions—like the pretty myth of the social contract.
In fact, the oldest urban sites to be explored—Jericho, Jarmo, and Çatal Hüyük—all appear to have been built before their settlers had reached the stage at which regular trade was practical. Most early cities in Mesopotamia display two prominent features: walls, to keep out enemies and predators, and temples, in which to worship and propitiate the gods. Of course, the walls themselves can serve a supernatural purpose, as they did at Rome, where the pomerium (the sacred space enclosed by the walls) excluded predators both natural and supernatural. When Rome became the capital of Christendom, her bishop took on the role of defending the city not only from the barbarians but from the demonic forces that hate civilization.
Ancient towns and cities were, of course, economic centers, as they are today, but they were defined more by their walls and temples than by the bazaar. A visitor to Ur or Erech, or, in later centuries, to Babylon or Nineveh, would have been struck by the sight of the great ziggurats stretching up to the heavens, an expression in brick and stone of the human ache for the celestial powers of the sun, the sky, and the storms.
The history of Greek cities is somewhat more complicated. In the Bronze Age, Mycenaean rulers built vast palaces, which must have functioned somewhat also as towns. These Greek palaces, built probably in imitation of Cretan ones, were usually located on hilltops. After the fall of Troy and the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, most of these palaces were abandoned. The most important exception is Athens, whose inhabitants boasted of being autochthonous, both in the metaphorical sense (they were never conquered) and in the literal sense (their earliest kings were born directly out of the soil of Attica).
At Athens, as the population spread out onto the plains and the people set up their market in the agora, the acropolis came more and more to be reserved for temples—not, of course, the great temples of Athena, Erechtheus, and Nike, whose ruins can be seen today, but earlier temples that were destroyed by the Persian invaders, who seized Athens when most of its male citizens had gone off to the ships that mustered at Salamis and sent their families away to places of refuge.
In the classical Athens of the fifth century, the city had two polar identities. The acropolis is where Athenians define themselves in relation to the gods, in particular to their city goddess, Athena; in the marketplace (the agora), they act as citizens, buying and selling and taking part in the social and political life of the city. (Of course, the acropolis was not entirely sacred, and there were temples on the plain, but I am speaking in broad terms.) A successful society is defined by both poles and does not permit the marketplace to be turned into a theocracy of communal values (whether Christian or communist), nor does it turn over the house of God to the money-changers.
In America, though many of our cities began as religious communities, the marketplace has taken over, both in the geographical sense (churches no longer dominate the cityscape) and in the spiritual sense (the values of the market— competition and individualism—have triumphed over the communal values of the Church). Families now consist of individuals claiming rights against one another; homes are places to play with computers, watch our big-screen TV’s, and consume purchases that make us think we are living in a TV show. Ray Bradbury saw it coming 50 years ago in Fahrenheit 451. Montag horrifies his wife’s friends by reading poetry to them and shouts back at one of them,
Go home and think of your first husband divorced and your second husband killed in a jet and your third husband blowing his brains out, go home and think of the dozen abortions you’ve had, go home and think of that and your damned Caesarean sections, too, and your children who hate your guts!
The prophecy of Hesiod has been fulfilled. We can buy anything but a human existence, and our virtual cities of virtual houses with people having virtual sex are as lifeless as the plain where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood.