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 archive.org (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!]
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