Commentary Magazine

Families Against the City; The Uses of Disorder, by Richard Sennett

Magical Mystery Tour

Families Against the City: Middle-Class Homes of Industrial Chicago, 1872-1890.
by Richard Sennett.
Harvard University Press. 258 pp. $8.50.

The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life.
by Richard Sennett.
Knopf. 198 pp. $5.95.

Richard Sennett, whose works and ideas have come in for enthusiastic attention in recent months, would seem to propound a thesis whose essence had already been broadcast—and with far greater succinctness—by the Beatles: “. . . yesterday, love was such an easy game to play,/Now I need a place to hide away—/Oh I believe in yesterday.” More specifically, Sennett believes that the American middle class has been so badly frightened by the grim realities of modern urban-industrial life that, since the 1880’s at least, it has desperately sought a hiding place, a sanctuary it located within the confines of the so-called nuclear family; moreover, prior to the retreat into the domestic fastness, life, according to Sennett, was more varied and rewarding.

Sennett sets forth these notions first in Families Against the City, which purports to analyze, “in historical fashion,” the reasons, as he sees them, for the withdrawal into the family, a development he regards as an impediment to the proper handling of external social reality. Pursuing the theme in The Uses of Disorder, he then comes up with some measure of cure, suggesting that if our cities are to be made livable again a restructuring of the family and a return to elements of a previous order are called for. Unfortunately, Sennett’s historical foundation is laid on scholarly quicksand and his remedy for the social disease he perceives in contemporary American society is in fundamental respects more dangerous than the illness he diagnoses. (It should be noted that a substantial portion of Sennett’s history and his prescription for urban health are based on the sociological and psychological models of such masters of social science as Erik Erikson, Philippe Aries, and Talcott Parsons. Troubled as I am by what seems to me to be his ill-considered and strained use of several currently chic social-science approaches, I prefer to let others more “professional” in those fields take Sennett to task for this. I am simply reminded of the fable of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” with Erikson as the master and Sennett as the apprentice—and we all know what happened when that unfortunate youth toyed with his master’s magic.)

Families Against the City makes use of new and refined historical methods, particularly the tracing over time of family units through manuscript census records and annual city directories, to derive rather unimpressive conclusions. For his purposes Sennett chooses to survey what he regards as a representative neighborhood, Chicago’s Union Park, a once-fashionable, upper-class section fallen upon parlous times because of changes in the city’s economic and demographic structure, and by the 1880’s reduced to a shabby-genteel, lower-middle-class district. Working from a sample of the records of some 12,000 individuals and 1,000 fathers and sons, between the years 1872 and 1890, he derives the following data: Most Union Park residents lived in nuclear-family units, with few children per household. The children, particularly the males, first left home at a relatively advanced age; the men did not marry until they were earning an adequate income and hence tended to be considerably older than their wives. Social and occupational mobility between the generations was limited.

Now, there is very little that is striking or necessarily false in these findings. Other students of social mobility in 19th-century America, Stephan Thernstrom for example, have discovered similar trends. What is shocking, however, are the conclusions which Sennett draws from the raw material—conclusions, moreover, not established by the historical sources. Sennett, to accommodate his Tendenz, must prove that the nuclear family represents an unsuccessful adaptation to urban life and indeed provided only an illusory escape from the emerging industrial city. He must establish that the rise of such family units was responsible for the limited pace of social mobility and transformed the cities into wastelands. In order to do so, he concocts a mishmash made up of ill-assorted parts of Dreiser, Handlin, and Erikson. Unable to uncover the dynamics of everyday family life from city directories, Sennett presses into service Sister Carrie’s Union Park relatives, the Hansons, to prove the joyless, circumscribed nature of lower-middle-class city life. Not taken into the master bedroom by the census records, Sennett states as hard fact several unproved, and most likely unfounded, assertions advanced by Oscar Handlin to the effect that middle-class families in late-Victorian America would not countenance “artificial” birth control and limited family size by regular abstention from sex. From this dreary picture of American family life, there emerges, as Erik Erikson’s psychological model requires, that stock cartoon figure, the henpecked, suburban father-husband, whose occupational immobility and sexual frustration make him unable to prepare his children to cope with the now dominant urban society.



Because the vast majority of present-day Americans live under circumstances and in neighborhoods not significantly dissimilar from those of Sennett’s Chicagoans of a century ago—so runs the argument in The Uses of Disorder—we can now better comprehend the crisis of our contemporary cities and take the appropriate remedial action. But history, I believe, teaches lessons at variance with Sennett’s. For instance, the intense, female-dominated families he ascribes to the genteel, middle-class American way of life were perhaps as prominent among the immigrant working class. Certainly, the progeny of those storied, domineering, overprotective “Jewish mothers” were not unduly disadvantaged in the race for upward mobility. And only recently, one of my graduate students in England has called my attention to the positive role played by British working-class mothers in advancing the careers of their sons; the evidence exists not only in the more familiar writings of D. H. Lawrence but in a whole sub-species of literature dealing with working-class life. The “Jewish mother,” it would seem, is a universal type.

Sennett is guilty of further historical distortion. Unhappy with the quality of current urban life, he retreats into a vision of a romanticized past (“I believe in yesterday”), claiming that life in the typical late-19th-century working-class slum possessed a variety and a sense of community lacking in the contemporary version. In his scenario of the past, men could escape their domineering wives and find companionship and fulfillment in saloons, at union meetings, in mutual-aid societies, etc. Slum children might attend bleak schools, but at three in the afternoon they would be released to find excitement in the life-pulsating streets. (In Sennett’s rewriting of the past, children do not crouch over homework in filthy tenement flats, nor are they exploited by unscrupulous employers.) On these same streets and in the noisome tenements that sprouted from them, Sennett goes on, a variety of ethnic and religious groups rubbed shoulders and, despite occasional friction, never locked horns in unlimited violence. And over this exemplary domain there presided the old-fashioned, good-hearted city machine, offering what Sennett describes as “a good thing,” a little humane graft. Those were the days. . . .

Let us now summon some actual witnesses to testify to the veracity of this roseate picture. First, Abraham Bisno, an immigrant Jew, describing his experiences in the very same Chicago that sends Sennett into raptures: “There was practically no sense of hospitality toward the Jews, and the opinion was common among the Jews that there they too were in Golus. Our neighbors hated us, and our lives and property were not safe.”1 Or Abraham Rosenberg, a socialist and president of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, a man who had every reason to encourage ethnic cooperation. Here is what he has to say of neighborhood change in New York (1914): “The Jewish people who used to live there have run away on account of there are nothing there but Italians. No Jew wants to live there.”2 A third witness, a teen-age immigrant, working-class girl, laments: “Where was the time for the free schools, where was the time for the wonderful libraries, the luxurious museums? Where was the opportunity to rejoice in all the blessings of this free country?”3



As for groups living in harmony, one need only recall the ethnic and class frictions that in New York City erupted into a pitched street battle—on Boyne Day, 1871—between Irish Catholics and Protestants; fifty people were killed and more than one hundred wounded. One might also recall the riot that broke out on the Lower East Side in 1902, at the funeral of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, when Irish workers attacked Jewish mourners. Such was the halcyon past so many Americans—native- and foreign-born, middle-class and working class—sought to escape. And such, apparently, is the past to which Sennett bids us return.



Finally, Sennett would write off the labors of the planners and the technicians whom he regards as the real villains of the urban crisis. Indeed, his prescription for the urban Arcady is to abolish planning and zoning and to return power to “the people,” who, when left alone by the planners and the zoners, will then engage each other in situations of constructive confrontation and thus bring a halt to the threat of massive violence that now haunts us. Here Sennett performs yet another of his disservices to history. Anyone at all familiar with the conditions of the cities before the arrival of the planners and zoners knows that they were crucibles of disease, squalor, and despair. True, planning and zoning have not brought about the urban millennium but they have wrought significant improvements, and where they have failed it has been precisely because of the very inter-group confrontations that Sennett seeks to encourage. Indeed, wherever such confrontations have occurred, Sennett’s “people” have always been the losers, falling victim to those who really wield the power.

Sennett proposes to solve the urban crisis by the simple feat of converting from a military-industrial to an urban-industrial base and by the restoration of a condition of affairs that the American people, for good and abundant reason, has devoted much energy to escaping. Is Sennett merely repeating the fashionable cant, or does he really believe that the money saved on military expenditure would be transferred to the cities, that “the people” in whom he reposes such great faith would vote against zoning and for confrontation, and that non-planning would produce a livable city? As a serious student of society, Sennett should know that the powers-that-be are not likely to spend money on his social priorities. Nor are many Americans, much as they dislike their cities, about to favor his style of urban life. Sennett would have done well to consult Sam Bass Warner, Jr.’s persuasive urban history,4 where it is proved beyond cavil that private interest, not public planning, has been the curse of the American city. But Sennett, I fear, has embarked on a “Magical Mystery Tour” of history, in which a romanticized past points the way to a utopian future.




1 Quoted in Abraham Bisno, Union Pioneer, University of Wisconsin Press, 1967, p. 55.

2 See my When Workers Organize: New York City in the Progressive Era, University of Massachusetts Press, 1968, p. 19.

3 Quoted in One of Them, by E. Hasanovitz, Houghton Mifflin, 1918, p. 310.

4 The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967.

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