Posted by: jdantos | October 24, 2005

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and the future of cities

I had fantastic conversation with some friends last night over dinner. As the dessert and wine wound down, we got to talking our futures, and where we’d be, and New York came up. New York, or Manhattan specifically, has always intrigued me, as a fundamentally different scope-of-living than most anywhere else in America. My friends, who’ve lived there as well as other places, went beyond all the usual boring comparisons (“the restaurants are open later” or “more arts”), and said that New York simply had “more and different forms of interaction,” in an absolute sense. Living there will get you the closest you can come to getting your head around your existence as but one amongst 6 billion. One pointed out the following quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., found in the introduction to Jane Jacobs book, Death and Life of Great American Cities. (Yes, we’re dorks and read it aloud at the table…) But it’s stuck with me, so I thought I’d reprint it, highlighting the bit that pertains to New York.

“Until lately the best thing that I was able to think in favor of civilization, apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all. When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and houses and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”

I wonder if the quote sums up the collective action problems, and their tantalizing solutions, in cities. Great and combined vs. simple and uncoordinated – the former can only happen in cities. I had a professor once who said the whole of the world’s problems, and all of politics, is a giant collective problem. Personally, the idea of making “the means of living more complex” for a “fuller and richer life” thrills me. Is it all about creating a “critical mass” effect in thriving cities, when the means of living is more complex, and you’ve stepped into a whole new world of possibility and opportunity? This is the chief worth of civilization, according to Holmes, and it may be happening in New York. Therein lies the alluring promise of an “urban age”?


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