Alan Trachtenberg


Synopsis of
Chapter 04: Mysteries of the Great City


When John Bunyan's Pilgrim in his Pilgrim's Progress sought the Celestial City, he had to travel first through the towns of Carnal-Policy and Vanity. Through this symbolic journey, Bunyan represented a very real Protestant attitude towards urbanization: cities could be on the one hand depraved and human or on the other, shining and Godly. The first historical Pilgrims to come to America brought with them this dichotomy of the city of hell and the city on the hill, along with their utopian optimism of creating the latter on the soil of the New World.

These early Protestant values and their rhetoric continued in American culture through the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanization of the nineteenth century. To some, the city was the site of moral depravity; to others it represented fear and anxiety in the realm of gothic mystery.

After the Civil War, cities began to grow with a new intensity giving rise to the metropolis--an uncontained urban region stretching without boundaries to the countryside bringing with it anxieties about where the city was to stop or if it was to stop at all. Apocalyptic images of urbanity added to increasing technological dangers possible by the new presence of gas mains and electrical wires to their repetoire of poverty, crime, insurrection, and political corruption.

The mystery of the city grew beyond its biblical and gothic imagery into that of the social, political, and technological forcing associations in the realm of spectacle rather than that of religion. To counter the threats of the mysterious metropolis, the reform movement gained momentum and sought to help the poor through charitable acts, clean up political corruption, and create safer city streets. Fictional portrayals of the city, such as Horatio Alger's, show the city in with all its mysteries and dangers but not one that could not be controlled and mastered once its peculiarities were learned.

Cities looked to urban planning and architectural design as a means of dispelling the mysteries of the city. New neighborhoods were formed or redesigned, public buildings were erected, and parks created like Frederick Law Olmstead's Central Park whose philosophy of landscape design was to give order and significance to the chaos of city life. Such parks would be escapes from both domestic and commercial life in which people of all classes would walk in seeming equality and forgetfulness of the competitive workplace from which they came. Olmstead's idealism forgets the social realities and erases immigrant and working class structures from its landscape. His pastoral landscape within the city could only be achieved by employing the police and rules of the elite necessarily excluding the street culture mannerisms of the lower class.


As the city sought to hide its mystery through spectacles such as parks, street lights, and policing, it increased the incorporation of factory, marketplace, and home. The landscape of the metropolis included not only the city itself but a network of rural hinterlands dependent on the city's economy and industry for survival. Links of transportation and communication were created within regional zones colonized by the city. Rural places unconnected to the city became unprofitable places to reside and the 1880's saw 40% of country residents abandon thier land to move closer to the city. Those who did not move, saw the presence of city corporations by the 1880's in the form of mail-order catalogs and chain-stores. Rural and impoverished areas became a key target for consumerism as well as cheap labor within the metropolitan network of production and consumption.

Cities were not planned democratically, but corporately. The presence of railroads, bridges, and viaducts on the landscape of urbanization represented the city's web of communication, transportation, production, and distribution of goods which were shuffled and produced for the corporate marketplace. Organized wealth created segregation by class and divided spaces within the city by their functional use: commercial, industrial, political, or residential. The urban landscape became the site of corporate hierarchy imposing its landmarks and tall buildings upon the mass of city dwellers.

Architecture sought to disguise the corporate enterprises through costuming the new institutions in the garb of the old: department stores and railroad stations looked shockingly similar to Old World palaces and cathedrals. The city began to reveal discontinuities between its exterior faces and the function of its interior places. Railroad stations were an ironic heart of the city holding down the center with their very transitoriness.


The visible technology in the city symbolized of the expanding marketplace. More people were purchasing manufactured goods than ever before. As the focus of production left the domestic realm, community and familial relationships disintegrated. Immigrant neighborhoods and communities that were focused on family were viewed as a threatening form of resistance to the corporate marketplace.

Experience became an abstract term and no longer implied physicality. A community feeling could be purchased by buying newspapers, journals, and magazines; it could be had at an arena watching the popular mass spectator sports and circuses. The world became a place of knowable information instead of the banality of real experience. Newspapers began to fill in for the lack of adventure in real life by publishing stories of exploration into the mysterious and depraved parts of the city, making spectacle of immigrant neighborhoods and tenement house life.

The geographic separation of the lower class in cities threatened to divide the social classes more dramatically than in European cities. Housing became a concern of reformers and owning one's own home began to represent a higher state of being than that of a mere laborer. The domestic work of women became associated with freedom because it was located inside the home, not in a structure representative of corporate enterprise.

Despite its location, the work of the domestic woman did change dramatically with the new manufactured goods that could be purchased rather than made. Woman's work was now shopping instead of making--a fact that destroys the validity of the home image as free from incorporation. The home depended the corporate economy, not only in the marketplace, but beneath the streets. Symbols of incorporation such as gas and water lines, plumbing and electricity lurked underneath the very houses that seemed to be refuge.


The greatest spectacle of all was the newly invented department store. This arena of consumption not only provided manufactured goods but, along with the new art of advertising, taught people how to act in their new role as consumers. Department stores and advertisements had control over the presentation of goods and attemted to associate them with values beyond the mere use of the product. Appeals were made to what kind of person used the product and what kind of symbolic benefits might be reaped from its use. Store layout and content told people what they needed (ie one of everything in the store) and where it belonged (as illustrated through the separation of certain kinds of goods within the store itself).

In the department store, goods appear without reference to their origin or manufacture. Although corporations sought to disguise the social situation from the final product in layout, employment, and management, the stores resembled factories and implemented the same principles of productivity. The difference lay only in the guise of an imagined separation of production and consumtion that the function of the factory to produce goods was somehow innatedly different than the function of the store to provide the "service" of selling these goods.

Advertising was more successful in its function to disassociate goods from their original meaning and attribute to them abstract ideas, emotions, and values. Ads sought to instill desires and make the use of products habitual. Individual companies tried to make consumers associate a product with their company name rather than with the name of the object itself. Thus Kodak would mean film, Chiclet would mean gum. In strategies like these, advertising sought to confuse objects in the world and their relationship to each other.

The city was the location of all these industries of disguise and mystery. It was the site of production and of consumption but endeavored to conceal this relationship through its new structures and industries of consumption.