The whole class went on a study trip to Berlin last week. The city is mesmerizing in the way it clings to life despite having been the site of tragedy after tragedy in the past century. This made the appearance of renowned American urban history professor Kenneth T. Jackson at the technical university somewhat ridiculous, as he chose to begin his talk by speaking of Detroit.
Jackson, the author of Crabgrass Frontier, is a specialist on the suburbanization of the United States in the post-war era, and he pit the blame for the collapse (there is no other way to describe it) of Detroit on Federal housing policies, racism, and cheap wood-frame home construction. Between pictures of abandoned skyscrapers and mansions, and riot neighborhoods turned to meadows, Jackson built a diagnostic of suburbanization that is entirely political. At no point did he ask himself if Detroit was a good place to live in. From what we know of it, it wasn’t that great of a city. In comparison to the glory that was Berlin, it was a horror. If politics was the explanation for suburbanization, then the suburbs would not be so qualitatively different from the cities. But Jackson never mentioned that. Of everything I’ve read from Americans complaining about suburban sprawl, not once does anyone ask if American cities were good places to live. They weren’t. A few days in Berlin was all it took to understand that.
Unlike Paris, which was a medieval city that was intensively renovated in the 19th century, Berlin was a small burg of 150,000 at the beginning of it, about one seventh the size of London. Berlin’s growth took off in the mid-19th century at a pace and a time similar to New York City, both cities hitting about 2 million in time for the fin de siècle. Berlin is therefore a modern, industrial city of the same class as all the Great American Cities praised by Jane Jacobs. That is why, every time I turned a corner in one of its broad streets and avenues, I couldn’t help but feel “this is what an American city would have been if Americans had known how to make cities.”
American cities have been a mess for so long that American urbanists have been fighting what is essentially a hopeless struggle to save what has never been worth saving. New York City, with its grid plan repeated endlessly, somewhat accidentally became a great city and was retroactively manifestoed by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. The rest of the country was not so lucky. Of the Great American Cities, only three more survived: Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. It wasn’t just de-industrialization and racism that did it. Chaos is synonymous with urbanity in America. The New Urbanists, who promote a more refined form of urbanism, have been labeled as “too suburban” by some of their critics. What they propose is functionally identical to Berlin.
What really happened to the Great American Cities? They annoyed their citizens to such an extent with awful living conditions, high costs and endless political conflicts that the suburbs, with a promise of peace and quiet, easily outcompeted them. The exodus of the middle class then fed the chaos even more. What if Detroit collapsed because the people who ran Detroit were objectively corrupt and incompetent at producing cities?
In Berlin we have a modern city that has faced a hundred years of chaos, and a hundred years of industrial growth beforehand, and come out of it gracefully. The city is economically in no better shape than Detroit. It lived for almost 50 years in a completely artificial state, serving as a demonstration of wealth for both the East and the West. With the wall down, the subsidies were taken away. The population fell lightly over the next decade, and the economic promise didn’t materialize. Today unemployment is around 14% and kids are migrating south where there is better hope for work. There are empty office buildings all over. The city government is broke. Suburban sprawl is expanding. Despite that, Berlin is full of construction cranes. Walking around the lovely Prenzlauer Berg, its buildings restored fresh after years of neglect under the Socialist Republic and now invaded by young families, Berlin does not give the impression of a city struggling. It is what Detroit never was and certainly isn’t today: a place that feels good. This is why people are willing to stay here. This is why private money is funding the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern palace on the wreckage of Palast der Republik, just behind the bigger than life statue of Marx and Engels. There are enough people out there who love Berlin and will sacrifice for it. Berlin will remain a relevant city even as it stagnates or shrinks. It will have everything a state-of-the-art city is expected to have. Whatever needs to be invested will be invested. New train stations will be built and they will work better than any train station you’ve ever seen. (The new Hauptbahnof is a sight for sore eyes.) Some derelict neighborhoods will have to be abandoned, much like some Detroit neighborhoods have turned into meadows. I’m sure the Berliners will find something useful to do with them, perhaps barbecues with curried sausage and sauerkraut. Complexity science tells us you can never stop growing a city, even if it is shrinking in size. The urban fabric has to be recycled. When it stops, as is the case with Detroit, the city is dead.
One thing that is scarcely mentioned about Berlin urbanism today is politics. Berlin is tired of politics. “No more experiments!” was the proclamation of city planners when postmodern architects came swarming in favor of new plans after the reunification. However boring the vision for Berlin may be, it is graceful, dignified, and has gathered popular support. Americans, I’m afraid, are unable to conceive of cities as anything other than political objects to fight over. Everything must be fought over, even the most redundant parking space in Brooklyn. That is why I don’t expect anything other than more chaos to come out of America in the short-term.