City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The City (1939)

Written in


Urban planning legend Lewis Mumford, together with Aaron Copland (composer of a personal ‘imaginary cities’ favourite, Quiet City) and photographer Ralph Steiner joined forces in 1939 to construct an idealistic film about the potential for ‘new cities’ to arise from the mire that America’s cities were then perceived to be descending into. And I just discovered it’s available at (links below).

It’s a skilfully-edited together montage, infused with progressive ‘New Deal’-era sentiment. And it’s very much of its time. The contrast between the opening scenes of an idyllic rural New England existence – “hominy grits” indeed – and those of the industrial city – “pillars of fire” – are played up for full dramatic effect. It’s a defiantly conservative anti-urban stance. And the solution? Ultimately, modern technology – cue footage of soaring silver DC-3s – enabling suburbia, in the guise of an American form of the garden city. “This new age builds a better kind of city, close to the soil once more. As moulded to human wants as planes are shaped for speed”. Fascinating to see how clear the future seemed to be back then. it transpired that suburbia was a very interesting form in many ways, but it was/is hardly the urban solution also possible – of course, an equally utopian view.

Either way, this is film is an fascinating social document in its own right, with quite astonishing footage of ‘ low road’ industrial America in particular. The scenes of New York – edited together to look like a deathtrap – are like Berenice Abbot in motion, but these earlier shots of a smoky heavy industrial landscape are quite amazing (apparently Pittsburgh and Homestead, Penn., according to a comment below). Similar to contemporaneous shots of the outskirts of Manchester and the east end of Sheffield in the UK. Also apparently, the model suburban development was Greenbelt (or Greenhills?), Maryland. Wonder what happened to it? How did it shape up to the development of New York, say? One always wonders what happened to the kids in films like this – what became of them? The camera holds their gaze several times, contrasting muddy scruffy urban urchins playing in sewers with bright smiling suburban kids, cycling and drawing. What stories lay in wait? But here, you’re also interested in the cities and towns. New York we know about, but what happened to Greenbelt? The narrator closes with no doubt as to the future.

“Have we vision, have we courage? Shall we build, and rebuild, our cities, clean again, close to the earth and open to the sky? … Order has come. Order and life together. We’ve got the skill – we’ve found the way. We built the cities. All that we know about machines and soils and raw materials and human ways of living is waiting. We can reproduce the pattern and better it a thousand times. It’s here! The new city. Ready to serve a better age. You and your children, the choice is yours.”

Here’s the official spiel:

“The Regional Planning Association of America’s plea for community chaotic cities and urban sprawl. Directors: Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke. Script: Henwar Rodakiewicz, from an outline by Pare Lorentz. Commentary written by Lewis Mumford. Narrator: Morris Carnovsky. Photography: Ralph Steiner, Willard Van Dyke, Jules V.D. Bucher, Edward Anhalt, Roger Barlow and Rudolph Bretz. Editor: Theodore Lawrence. Music: Aaron Copland”

And as a comment says:

“Directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke (who later went on to craft Choosing For Happiness), and with a score by Aaron Copland, this is probably the closest thing to pure social propaganda ever produced in the U.S. The New England town of colonial times is depicted as a kind of Shangri-la, where there was “balance.” Contemporary life, on the other hand, is depicted as dirty, noisy and confusing, as we are shown dead trees and muddy children in Pittsburgh and Homestead, Pennsylvania; slum kids and frantic hustle-bustle in midtown Manhattan; and hopeless summer weekend congestion on Rt. 35 in New Jersey. Happily, “the age of rebuilding is here,” and as the film concludes we are whisked away to a New Deal “green city” of tomorrow (Greenbelt, Maryland), complete with happy white people and a laundromat. “Here, science serves the worker,” the narrator proclaims. “Just watch us grow. The scales won’t hold us soon!” Wasn’t that the problem in the first place?”

Available to stream and download in numerous formats (and in a public domain Creative Commons license).
The City: Part I
The City: Part II
[via Pete Marsh – thanks!]


9 responses to “The City (1939)”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    “New York we know about, but what happened to Greenbelt?”
    Greenbelt, Maryland is about fifteen minutes from where my parents live in suburban Washington, DC. (this has the nicest photos, although there are a couple of sites about Greenbelt.) It’s now engulfed by the vastness of DC’s suburban sprawl (as is Columbia, MD, another early planned garden city), but has maintained a lot of its green space. It also has at least one nice Int’l style buiding within it. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same car-centric planning of other suburbs like it; there’s no way to easily walk from section to section, there’s little variation in density, and the center–such as it is–is basically a strip mall.
    As a kid, the only times I remember going there were on class trips to the NASA Goddard center to look at rockets, which was frankly way more fun.


  2. Andrew Avatar

    ..and of course Molly is the expert on this topic. She wrote a wonderful paper on the German origins of the Garden City movement.


  3. no, 2 self Avatar

    latest discoveries:

    New (sub)Urbanism: The Copyrighting of Public Space’…Warren Wimmer’s attempts to photograph Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, Cloud Gate. When Wimmer set up his tripod and camera to shoot the sculpture, security guards stopped him, demanding that they show him


  4. Joseph O'Hagan Avatar
    Joseph O’Hagan

    I’d like to use a few clips from “The City” in another documentary film I’m producing/directing. Does anyone know where I can obtain a broadcast quality tape copy of this film??? By the way, I grew up in Greenbelt 1965 to 1984 if anyone has questions about life in Greenbelt.


  5. Richard Markosian Avatar

    I find your commentary on “The City” interesting but contradictory. Lewis Mumford was one of the most outspoken critics of suburban sprawl and the ever-widening of pathways leading in and out of cities. Mumford wrote about the “garden city” and the use of pedestrian and bicycle pathways as the ideal mode of travel through cities. Considering “The City” and its importance as a social historical propaganda document, I can’t connect the ideas presented in “The City” with Mumford’s beliefs. Also, how do you label the film as “conservative” when New Deal propaganda was liberal/progressive?


  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Richard. Are you in fact saying it’s the confluence of Mumford’s beliefs and this film that’s contradictory? I’m suggesting it’s conservative as the presentation of truly new urban progressive developments e.g. New York, are edited together to make them look entirely horrific (of course elements of them were, but the idea of the modern city itself is progressive despite that), and the given alternative is to ‘return to the soil’, which is surely a conservative message.
    There may be immense value in Mumford’s use of pedestrian and bicycle pathways of course, and they’re not mutually exclusive with the city (or indeed the motor car, when done creatively). I wouldn’t dispute that. But the ‘garden city’ also has limits as a progressive suggestion for urban living, no?
    As for New Deal, I’d describe that loose affiliation of ideals and strategies generally sprogressive, like you say. Though within context, remember, and progressive in America is conservative elsewhere. Note: I’m not saying the New Deal was, just that those terms are value-loaded and highly contextual.


  7. Pat (Phillips) Stanley Avatar
    Pat (Phillips) Stanley

    I am an avid lover of the City of Greenbelt. I even wrote an article called, “Where is Gary Peacock, Anyway?”. He was my first ever boyfriend in 7-8th grade at Greenbelt Junior High. Where IS he now?


  8. Craig Avatar

    I know this is an old thread, but someone might find this interesting. There is a new DVD of “The City”, with a new soundtrack. As well as these extras:
    – The City (1939) – with the original 1939 soundtrack, featuring Morris Carnovsky (narrator) and an orchestra conducted by Max Goberman
    – Which Playground for your Child: Greenbelt or Gutter? (2000) – a documentary from the Greenbelt Museum featuring interviews with three Greenbelt “pioneers”.
    – George Stoney in conversation with Joseph Horowitz (2007) – a legendary documentary film-maker revisits The City.
    More info here:
    It will be available at the end of January. It is available for pre-order at Amazon…


  9. Ron Prerov Avatar

    So you’re wondering what happened to Greenbelt, huh? Let me tell you …
    Even in the five years since this was posted, there have been some interesting changes in the perception of the Greenbelt area.
    Development projects fell through. Crime in PG County stayed in the spotlight, including a high-profile incident in which a corrupt county executive and his wife tried to dispose of giant sums of pay-to-play cash, right before their house was raided. One hiding place? Her bra.
    Montgomery Co., DC and now even much of Baltimore have surpassed PG county in most quality-of-life areas. If Baltimore’s red line gets built, as now appears at least somewhat likely, that will probably continue.
    Greenbelt may bounce back — any hypothetical orange line extension to Fort Meade would probably inject interest in the area, for example — but for that to happen, it will have to mimic the successes of Montgomery County’s best places, which is to say it must become a lot more urban.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: