“It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London. There is Mortimer’s, the tobacconist, the little newspaper shop, the Coburg Branch of the City and Suburban Bank, the Vegetarian Restaurant, and McFarlane’s carriage-building depot. That carries us right on to the other block.”

—Arthur Conan Doyle, The Red-Headed League

        “. . . the city [polls] comes into existence, originating for the sake of the bare needs of life, and continues in existence for the sake of a good life.”
—Aristotle, Polities

“African-American Males Marching Proudly Forward in Unison Toward a Drug Free Society.” The sign was too big for the storefront on which it was erected, and the recent substitution of the trendy “African-American” for “black” only made matters worse. Funded by a federal grant and run by a coalition of ministers, the group had opened offices in three deteriorating neighborhoods. This particular facility was near a shelter for battered women, though a few vacant buildings, a weed-grown lot, and a nail styling parlor intervened.

My bus jolted its way a couple of miles further up the potholed street to a newly gentrified area. Four hip art galleries sat next door to one another. Signs on one loudly proclaimed a “going out of business sale.” Then came the Free AIDS clinic, a classical record store, the North Side Mental Health Center, and the Global Caring and Sharing Boutique. There, the Tiny Sisters of the Downtrodden, a Roman Catholic order of nuns, sold handcrafted items by Mexican Zapatistas and Tamil separatists (the PLO Candy Department had been discontinued since the peace with Israel, though there were rumors that it would be reopened under the auspices of Hamas).

Like Sherlock Holmes, who prided himself on an exact knowledge of London and could name from memory the businesses on any given street, I enjoyed keeping track of the mercantile affairs of my much smaller metropolis. Leaving the car in its garage once a month, I took the bus which ran through the heart of town, and watched the ebb and flow (mostly the former) of commercial activity. I witnessed two of the three upscale men’s clothing stores abandon downtown for the suburban malls, as had two of the three department stores. One of the men’s shops had been taken over by the Metropolitan Arts Council, and there was talk that the building which had formerly housed the larger of the two defunct department stores might be used by the downtown branch of the Public Library. The expansion of the municipal jail, the new County Office Building, and the local junior college had engulfed a number of other derelict commercial structures. Well, well, I thought, at least it doesn’t look like a burned-out shell, as so many other inner cities do now.

Another pothole jarred my brain out of its comfortable rut: “But they don’t pay taxes,” said a small voice. “Why didn’t you listen to your own lecture?”

My own lecture? It had been that very morning in my upper-level survey of Roman history. I had been speaking of the role of the city in Greco-Roman antiquity. One does not have to be a Marxist (I told the students) to believe that the city IS fundamentally an economic entity. It serves as a base for industry, trade, and banking; in preindustrial cultures, it served as a market for the agricultural produce of the surrounding countryside. Even the site of a city is usually economically determined; the junction of two major roads, proximity to natural resources, the head of navigation of a river, a good harbor, and so forth. But in classical antiquity, the city was viewed as an administrative and cultural necessity as well. Nor were the Greeks and Romans the only ones with that view. The so-called “cities” of the Old Kingdom of Egypt appear to have been ceremonial and governmental centers, as were similar sites in pre-Colombian Central and South America. Civilized life was simply not possible without the city. Consequently, even if an urban center did not fully justify its existence economically, it would be necessary, under certain circumstances, for it to be maintained. In such a situation, the city becomes parasitical, draining more out of the economy than it generates as a commercial and manufacturing hub.

There is an old cliché among Romanists (I had continued in my lecture) that the early Roman Empire was, in terms of its internal administration, a confederation of city-states. The imperial government took care of foreign policy and defense, leaving local government to the civitates. Each city was responsible not only for governing itself, but also for administering the surrounding countryside—the pagus, as it was called. This was all well and good in the East, which was heavily urbanized. But what about the Western portion of the Empire? To be sure, there were here, as in the East, certain districts, such as Italy, Sicily, southern Gaul, and North Africa around Carthage, which was dotted with urban centers, large and small. But there were also vast territories which, when they had been conquered by the Romans, were in a relatively primitive state. The natives were organized into tribes, and though villages may have existed, there were no true cities as such. Areas in this classification included the northern and central portions of Gaul and the Iberian peninsula, and all of Britain. Here, the Romans followed a conscious policy of founding new towns. These fledgling urban centers were not only viewed as administrative necessities, but also as nuclei from which the urban-based Greco-Roman culture could spread into the surrounding pagus. Of course the Roman planners located their new towns shrewdly, with an eye to practical economics. The fact remained, however, that even if there were no economic need in a given location, cultural and administrative exigency might force an urban foundation. Thus it was that from the beginning, many Roman cities, especially in the Western portion of the Empire, may well have been economic freeloaders.

City governments began to develop curious deficiencies in the area of managerial and administrative expertise. Towns would go head over heels in debt. Monies were lavished on various projects, only to find that funds ran out when construction was only half finished.

By the second century, the imperial government stepped in to clean up the mess. The imperial treasury frequently bailed out municipalities, the result being that once a municipality had received one or two shots in the arm, it became addicted—hooked on “fixes” from the central government.

Don’t we hear many of the same arguments now? Granted that New York City (or Cleveland or St, Louis) has lost most of its factories to the Sunbelt, Japan, Mexico, or to the very hinterland that it was servicing 75 years ago. The big stores have moved to colossal shopping malls in the suburbs. The middle classes are also leaving as their white-collar jobs follow the factories or move to suburban offices. Now that middle-income citizens and the businesses that pay most of the taxes are in the suburbs or even further out, they understandably resist higher taxes for urban subsidies and even more understandably resist mergers between city and suburban governments because these are subsidies in disguise.

Also, urban governments have an often deserved reputation for incompetence and corruption. The city’s population generally comprises two groups: a small, wealthy elite and a growing “underclass,” characterized by illegitimate children growing up in fatherless households, living in crime-infested slums, and subsisting on government assistance. One of five inhabitants is on the dole. Both the urban elite and the underclass tend to support the notion of the city as an administrative, ceremonial, and cultural center. The elite value the economically unproductive and frequently tax-exempt theaters, concert halls, galleries, and libraries springing up like multicolored fungi in the rotting urban core. The underclass want continuance of the government subsidies which form their principal means of subsistence. Ever more intrusive federal, state, county, and local governments rear mighty edifices symbolic of their growing dominance. But these structures yield no more taxes than do the museums of the gentry or the state-funded housing of the underclass. Unable to generate enough in taxes to keep itself going, the city teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, and becomes a permanent drain on the resources of the state and federal governments. But if New York City disappeared, where would we put the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The Fifth Avenue Library? Carnegie (or Severance) Hall? And whoever heard of holding Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in a shopping center?

One innovation of the new social history (I went on to my class) is the study of how space is used. A major difference between the ancient and the medieval city is the shrinkage of public, and the growth of private, space. Roman cities, in particular, remind us of modern urban centers with their relatively wide streets laid out in a checkerboard pattern, their spacious public squares and forums, and their public conveniences: libraries, theaters, basilicas which contained courts and other government offices, schools, and, above all, the great Roman baths. These really functioned as community centers with exercise and massage rooms, lecture halls, and other accommodations in addition to the hot and cold swimming pools that formed the nucleus of the complex. But the medieval town, inside its restricted walls (fortifications are expensive to build), with its narrow, winding, haphazard streets, and lack of public space (typically only for churches or a cathedral with perhaps a small square or piazza in front of it) strikes us as close and dirty. We deplore how the inhabitants of medieval towns often walled in theaters and turned old Roman public buildings into private spaces: arcades for small shops, residences, and the like.

Medievalists have examined lives of saints—a popular form of literature at the time for the literate public—and discovered that most of the action takes place indoors or in other private spaces. By way of contrast, saints’ lives from late antiquity are set mostly out of doors or in public spaces. Constantinople, the largest city in early medieval Europe, shrank in size from about 500,000 in A.D. 600 to approximately half that by A.D. 700. The reason? When the emperor Constantine had moved the capital of the Roman Empire there in the fourth century, he had, in imitation of old Rome, instituted a dole for the poor. For all his favoritism toward Christianity, Constantine’s urban policy was still firmly grounded in pagan antiquity. But the dole was discontinued by the emperor Heraclius 300 years later. Land vacated by the unproductive urban poor was turned to agricultural uses, and working farms grew within the city limits of Constantinople. While the remaining population included bureaucrats and clergy, to be sure, it was largely made up of the artisans, shopkeepers, and traders who generated taxes. Medieval man realized, as the Romans had not, that cities must pay their way.

No one wants a return to the cramped and squalid medieval town of yore. But the Metropolitan Arts Center and the Global Caring and Sharing Boutique pay no taxes. Worse yet, the shelter for battered women and the AIDS clinic are not only tax-exempt but they generally serve a population that pays no taxes. Perhaps our fixation on “the good life” has usurped “the bare needs of life.” We must insist that our urban centers pull their own weight or, like Constantinople in the Middle Ages, shrink until they do so. Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.