In the early 1980s, when I first saw the film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and then read the book, both by William H. Whyte, I was enthralled. I had met Holly, as he was affectionately known, while I was still a reporter at the New York Post in the 1970s, and we had great discussions about New York City, what planners got wrong, what developers didn’t care about. By the 1980s I was at work on my first book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, and having conversations with Jane Jacobs, who would become my good friend and mentor. Jacobs had validated the small, bottom-up community efforts around New York City that I was observing and that would be the too-often-unacknowledged sparks to jumpstart the slow, steady rebirth of the city. My observations were resoundingly dismissed—even laughed at—by professional planners and urban designers, but they were cheered and encouraged by both Whyte and Jacobs, and today they are mainstream.
Whyte’s film and book seemed to be bookends to Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. Where she dealt with overarching issues of “cataclysmic development,” the tyranny of the car, the “ballet” of the street, the importance of old buildings and a city’s economy, Whyte’s film and book filled in the missing pieces to show all viewers, not just the single observers, how what happens on the street is a good measure of the success of the larger neighborhood and city. Whyte’s work was as seminal for the 1980s as Jacobs’ writing had been in the 1960s—but, in some ways, his film and photographs were even more convincing, more accessible to the average person.
My favorite vignette from the film was “the long good-bye.” Holly filmed men—most business people on the street in those days were men—who had gathered in a group to talk, quite animatedly. And they just couldn’t stop talking. They would say good-bye, start walking away, and then turn back to make another point. It wasn’t clear if these groups had just finished a long lunch or were in a chance meeting on the street, but the magnetic pull to stay together to solve the problems of the day—or engage in office politics—was extraordinary. Clearly, this could never happen in a car-based suburb. This was what a “city” is about: the chance meeting, the serendipitous solving of problems, or the sparking of new ideas on the street. The suburbs were still in their heyday, but Holly was there to show what you were missing when you left the city. In his subsequent book, City: Rediscovering the Center, he would explicitly show what the corporations leaving the city—mostly to be within seven miles of the CEO’s home—would lose. Many learned their lessons and came back.
But Whyte was very much a Renaissance man with multiple talents and various levels of success. Richard K. Rein, a journalist and urban activist (the best kind), has done Holly great justice in his new book, American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life. And while I had read Whyte’s 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, I had no idea, or didn’t recall, the impact that book had until I read Rein’s book. In all his work, Rein points out, Whyte was the “unorthodox thinker,” the one who went out to test, measure, and observe the assumptions of the professionals, only to find their assumptions, based on planning theories, wrong. When Rein refers to Whyte as “among the leading American urbanists of the twentieth century,” he is not exaggerating. It took Whyte to make the connection for me that conformity in the workplace paralleled conformity in design. In The Organization Man, Whyte originated the term “groupthink” to identify the idealizing of the group over the importance of the individual, and also coined the phrase “splendidly unreasonable” to celebrate the breakthroughs and pushbacks against conformity in any field. Whyte showed, as Jacobs had in her first book, that it was those “splendidly unreasonable” ideas and actions that countered the inanity of planning dogma and were often the critical spark for positive change. Whyte made a big point of noting that it was the skeptic, the curious, the original thinker who changed the field in which they wrote or worked.
Rein covers the full measure of Whyte’s life—West Chester, Pennsylvania; Princeton; the Marines; Fortune Magazine; Exploding Metropolis; his conservation efforts; affiliation with Laurence Rockefeller; consultant to the New York City Planning Commission; and more. What’s clear is that Whyte was as much a writer and advocate as he was a consultant. He worked on various plans for the New York City Planning Commission, wrote countless reports commissioned by the Rockefellers and others (especially on land conservation), and was a popular public speaker. As Rein notes, “Whyte was working within the system, rewriting land use policies, open space laws, and zoning codes.” Occasionally, Whyte even worked for developers—but, as Rein notes, he “moved gracefully back and forth across enemy lines.”
For people interested in the built environment, especially the ups and downs of cities, Whyte’s work at Fortune Magazine and his creation of The Exploding Metropolis are timelessly significant. It is hard to imagine today how forward thinking Fortune Magazine was, letting Whyte publish voices of dissent from the accepted assumptions of the new field of “urban design.” Rein writes, “The subject was already in the headlines. Urban renewal projects were in high gear, spurred by the Housing Act of 1954. Study of the urban landscape had also been based on alarming premises: density was bad, crowded cities were unhealthy; people on streets were to be feared; motor traffic had to be expedited. But most of these premises had never really been examined before.” And they were all wrong, as Jacobs and Whyte would show through observation. Today, ironically,the density issue is still misunderstood with the contradictory and erroneous notion that density is great for the city center and middle-income neighborhoods but not for low-income areas or public housing. Erroneous!
Whyte brought in a number of writers to contradict urban renewal assumptions, most famously Jacobs. It’s often mistakenly assumed that Whyte discovered Jacobs, but as Rein shows, she was first discovered and encouraged by Architectural Forum editor Douglas Haskell. Haskell not only used Jacobs in print (without a byline, the magazine’s policy) but thought highly enough about her to recommend her as a speaker at a 1956 Harvard Urban Design forum. Her remarks, essentially questioning the current assumptions, turned heads but mostly brought down the house and began a sea change in urban development thinking. Whyte had been hearing about her, met with her, and then engaged her to contribute to the new book he was launching, The Exploding Metropolis: A Study of the Assault on Urbanism and How Our Cities Can Resist It. Whyte and Jacobs were the key contributors. It is probably still one of the most impactful books, laying out what is right and wrong about urban redevelopment. This is true despite the predictions of doubtful critics and reviewers. As Rein notes: “They both championed the involvement of the layman as much as, or more than, the expert.” Sadly, their celebrated and proven ideas have largely been sidelined today, while cities like New York City (with the help of the state) move forward to wipe out a 40-square-block of old urbanism—hundreds of small businesses, thousands of jobs, hundreds of residences—around Penn Station. The voices of both Whyte and Jacobs would be critically useful now.
Whyte did more than publish Jacobs in The Exploding Metropolis. He helped her get a Rockefeller grant to allow her to write Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that had an impact on urban thinking around the globe. What is also significant here is that a trio of men—Haskell, Whyte, and Jason Epstein, her Random House editor—enabled her writing and career to blossom. Urban criticism was then, and still is, a field in which women’s voices are rarely appreciated, let alone recognized.
Rein says Whyte “stands among the leading American urbanists of the twentieth century.” His City: Rediscovering the Center focuses on critical urban issues often misunderstood or ignored by planners, designers, and developers. But first and foremost, Rein shows that Whyte was a conservationist, land preservationist, and environmentalist, and, even more important, in all his work he showed how all of that was connected to good urbanism, managing development in the urban center for city, suburb, and countryside. American Urbanist is enlightening on several levels, and while Rein makes it clear that Whyte is probably most celebrated as a conservationist, his impact on all these interrelated fields is extraordinary. After years of steps forward, we’ve gone backward on several fronts, most of all in cities. Rein’s book comes at an opportune time, because Whyte’s writing needs to be reread and celebrated all over again.
Featured image: William Whyte played a pivotal role in revitalizing Bryant Park in New York City.