It’s no surprise that 9/11 caused me to wonder why I live in New York City. I don’t have a job that is easily movable, but still: why stay in a place where your chance of being caught in a terrorist attack are exponentially greater than in Bowling Green, Ohio, or Eugene, Oregon? While the attacks caused personal consternation, they also prompted intellectual ones: why do people move to the city?
As a cultural historian, I’m more interested in the ineffable qualities of life in the past rather than statistics and demographics. I knew that the 1920 census showed that more people lived in cities than a rural environment for the first time in the nation’s history. I also knew that it was a short-lived prominence: the sway to the suburbs was significant by the 1950 census. But the numbers couldn’t convey what I believed to be the aspirational pull of cities and urban life – not just the possibility of a job but the hope for a different kind of life. The pull that kept me and many others in New York City and Washington, DC, after 9/11.
I found those ineffable qualities in an unexpected source. One of the best-known efforts of the Works Progress Administration was the photographic project of the Farm Settlement Administration, more commonly known as the FSA/OWI collection (OWI was the acronym for the Office of War Information, which took over the photographic project in 1942). This collection boasts such famous photos as Arthur Rothstein’s capture of an Oklahoma dust storm and Dorothea Lange’s portrayal of despondency in “Migrant Mother,” each icons of the Great Depression. The project’s formation began as a way to document rural America in the face of massive migration and hardship in the farms and rural lands of the country. But alongside the photographs of that desperation are the places to which farmers and migrants were moving: cities. In spite of an avowed concern with rural life, photographers of the FSA/OWI also documented the pull of the city and the intrusion of urban life into country ways.
The photographs in To the City focus on new aspects of urban life such as the mechanized level of traffic that cars brought about; the cultural attractions from “high” to “low”; and the renewed possibilities of citizenship, particularly in the war years. One of my favorites is a photograph by John Vachon that he titled “Window Shopping,” which displays a sole shopper gazing at suits in a large empty lobby of a clothes store (p. 67). The photo captures not only the shopper’s determined intent but his reflection in the window creates a new vision, as his mirrored head sits atop a mannequin displaying a dapper new suit. In the midst of the Great Depression, the anonymity, commerce, and diversity of the city offered more dreams, more chances to see another vision of the world in which one was composed, attractive, and sure of where one was going.
If the role of cities in world affairs has come to be a tenser one since the 1930s and ‘40s, through the crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s to today’s terrorists’ schemes, it is useful to remember when and how cities have also been the focus of opportunity and aspiration. To the City gives grain, tone, and detail to the larger societal swing toward life in the metropolis, whether in residence or in the imagination.
Featured image: Vachon, John. Window Shopping, July 1941, Chicago, Illinois. FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.