A powerful new urban history with implications for today.
British journalist and historian Hunt takes readers to 19th-century England, when “the city was at the heart of public debate.” Thinkers, laborers, moralists, politicians and ordinary middle-class folk lived in, and argued about, urban space. What were the mores of the new industrial city? The Brits were optimistic and, at least through the reign of Victoria, took great civic pride in their cities (the pronoun their is intentional—crucial to Hunt’s argument is the idea that city-dwellers felt a sense of ownership about the cities they lived and worked in). The first third of the text here offers a rich history of ideas as Hunt explores how the likes of Engels and Carlyle understood the city. The middle section focuses on the cultural life of the Victorian city. City-dwellers saw Florence as the model city and did their best to see that Manchester and Birmingham would be seats of hard work and liberty, not to mention art. Determined to show that cities were about more than just crass money-grubbing, the English developed a “proudly urban. . . culture with its endogenous heroes and traditions.” Urbanites created an innovative city infrastructure, with architecture to match. But, eventually, many of them left, and Hunt’s final chapters trace the middle class’s move to the suburbs (an added bonus here are the amusing quotations from The Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmiths’ 1892 satire of suburban anomie). This is a story of decline, and for Hunt, it is “tragic” that the “suburbs were increasingly imagined as the natural home of the English people.” One need not scratch too deep to see a critique of our own 21st-century, though Hunt’s specific suggestions for urban reform are limited to the obvious, such as improving city schools.
An elegant resource for all who dwell in, or care about, cities. The glossy and—no doubt expensive—illustrations are a real plus.