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

‘The City’ (1939)

Written in


How the idea of suburbia was created in the popular imagination

(Ed. This piece was first published at in 31 January 2005.)

Urban planning’s Lewis Mumford, together with Aaron Copland (composer of a personal ‘imaginary cities’ favourite, Quiet City, amongst much more) and photographer Ralph Steiner joined forces in 1939 to construct an idealistic film about the potential for ‘new cities’. These suburban towns and cities would arise from the mire that America’s cities were 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”.

It’s fascinating to see how clear the future seemed to be back then. It transpired that suburbia was a very interesting form in many ways, of course, and also contributed to huge wealth creation, albeit unequally. But it was, and is, hardly the only possible urban solution, despite the certainty and confidence of this film, and the many others made at the time.

Either way, this is film is an fascinating social document in its own right, with quite amazing 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, Pennsylvania, according to a comment below). They’re similar to contemporaneous shots of the outskirts of Manchester and the east end of Sheffield that I’m more familiar with.

The model suburban development portrayed in the film was Greenbelt (or Greenhills?), Maryland. What happened to it? How did that place shape up to the parallel development of New York, say? One always wonders what happened to the children in films like this — what became of them specifically? 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, for all these children?

So, New York we know about, but what happened to Greenbelt? The narrator closes with no doubt as to the future, and which direction to take.

“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?”

I’ve uploaded a version here, and it’s also available to stream and download in numerous formats (and in a public domain Creative Commons license) in two parts, from The City: Part I and The City: Part II

Related: the 1935 Swedish social propaganda film favouring cars over people in streets, I described in this post.

View at

Ed. This piece was first published at in 31 January 2005.


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