CITY PEOPLE: The Culture of the Modern City in Nineteenth-Century America by Gunther Barth

CITY PEOPLE: The Culture of the Modern City in Nineteenth-Century America

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The apartment house, the metropolitan press, department store, ball park, and vaudeville house: Professor Barth (History, Univ. of California, Berkeley) sees these institutions as distinctive culture forms that created a 19th-century urban culture, which in turn transformed immigrant and rural American arrivals into new city people. Though the idea promises, the treatment disappoints--for Barth has little that's illuminating or perceptive to say regarding each social form. In the apartment houses, we're reminded, classes were segregated, family life was intensified, and efficiency was increased by the elimination of labor-intensive maintenance. The metropolitan press helped create urban individuals through its conscious or unconscious reflection of varied lifestyles. Women were lured into the urban stream by department stores, where poor and rich alike became ""essential actresses in the drama of shopping and spending"" (and where supposedly ""a poor woman's self-esteem was elevated by her ability to share a display counter with a rich woman""). The men, meanwhile, were at the ball park. As spectators, they became aware that ""rules regulated the happenings of their world too, and that beyond the fences of the ball park, restraints tempered the competition to get ahead in the world."" The pop psychologizing is hard to take seriously, and it often bears no relationship to the purely descriptive passages. Moreover, the basic contrasts between European and American cities are poorly drawn: why exactly do different classes share the same apartment building in Europe? why are European papers more politically-oriented? why did Europe, which created the department store, not exploit its possibilities to the full? A fresh and prospectively fertile approach to urban culture that, unfortunately, veers between unconnected historical specifics and facile generalizations.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press