Variations on a Theme Park

While Sloane, like Colvin, delineates the declining importance of the cemetery as a civic institution, he only indirectly suggests its implications for the state of civic culture. These issues are dealt with in a forceful series of polemic essays, Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, edited by architectural critic Michael Sorkin. The eight architects, journalists, and historians who contributed to Sorkin's collection share the view that the democratic public spaces characteristic of American cities—the bases of the social heterogeneity, physical proximity, free movement, and desire for collectivity that defined authentic urbanity—are being replaced by privatized enclaves. Driven by fear and greed, these urban village developments, malls, and historic commercial and residential districts both ensure the physical security of the propertied from crime and create new stages for conspicuous consumption.

The most persuasive essays in the collection, written by U.C.L.A. urban planner and political economist Mike Davis and Princeton architectural historian M. Christine Boyer, outline the dimensions of these changes. Davis's "Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space" describes (p. 155) how the middle class's "obsession with security has supplanted hopes for urban reform and social integration." The consequence of the crusade to secure the city from crime and violence, Davis (p. 156) writes, "is the destruction of any truly democratic urban space. The American city is being systematically turned inward. The 'public' spaces of the new megastructures and supermalls have supplanted traditional streets and disciplined their spontaneity. Inside malls, office centers, and cultural complexes, public activities are sorted into strictly functional compartments under the gaze of private police forces... This polarization marks the decline of urban liberalism and with it the end of what might be called the Olmstedian vision of public space in America. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of Central Park, conceived public landscapes and parks as social safety valves, mixing classes and ethnicities in common (bourgeois) recreations and pleasures; 'No one who has closely observed the conduct of the people who visit [Central] Park,' he wrote, 'can doubt that it exercises a distinctly harmonizing influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city—an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance.'"

According to Davis (p. 156), "contemporary urban America is more like Victorian England than the New York of Walt Whitman or Fiorello LaGuardia." In Los Angeles, "once a paradise of free beaches, luxurious parks, and 'cruising strips,' genuinely democratic space is virtually extinct" (p. 156). The insulated residential and commercial enclaves of the privileged classes "rely upon the social imprisonment of a third-world service proletariat in increasingly repressive ghettos and barrios" (p. 156). As public amenities shrink with the closing of libraries and playgrounds, the neglect of parks, and the desolation and increasing dangerousness of streets, public resources are being diverted for developments that further privatize public space and subsidize new exclusive enclaves. Although such efforts have been described as an "urban renaissance," they are, in Davis's (p, 156) view, "only a triumphal gloss laid over the brutalization of inner-city neighborhoods and the stark divisions of class and race represented in [the] built environment."

While Davis focuses on the public policies and investments that subvert public space and the institutions of civic culture, M. Christine Boyer examines the internal form and function of privatized enclaves in "Cities for Sale: Merchandizing History at South Street Seaport." Where the "high Modernist" aspiration, as of earlier development efforts in New York, proceeded from a "visionary masterplan" based on aspirations to provide "a broad range of housing, efficient public transportation, and leisure and work spaces for the masses," Boyer (p. 182) sees contemporary redevelopment as creating "isolated, self-enclosed patches of development," Although these enclaves are insulated from the city as it actually exists, they retain a connection "through historical allusions to the traditional vision of the city" (p. 184). This use of historical references, framed by a carefully manipulated visual and social environment, makes the real city and its "chaos, class distinctions, ... snares and vices" (p. 186) disappear from view.

According to Boyer, the way in which these enclaves use the past is highly conventionalized and manipulated: They are simulated traditions that serve to obscure the city's actual past and to engender illusions about its present. "On the surface of these tableaux," she writes (p. 191), "everything seems steeped in tradition. The way it was has supposedly become the way it is. Yet these nostalgic constructions only refer to history obliquely by appropriating styles of clothing, architectural environments and furnishings to create a mood through which the past is filtered and perceived. These stylized historical tableaux, on one level, are self-conscious attempts to regain a centered world, to re-establish a mythical base on which American moral, political, and social traditions might stand.... [They] link the past to the present through visual recreations that gloss over real social change by capitalizing on the yearnings for lost innocence, heroic feats, adventures, explorations, and conquests."

The problem is that, when these "well-composed fragments" represent themselves as reality, they upstage "the neglected in-between spaces" (p. 184), the actual domain of inclusive public space: "The awareness of highways in disrepair, charred and abandoned tenements, the scourge of drugs, the wandering homeless, subway breakdowns and deteriorating buses, visual litter and auditory bombardment—all are erased and ignored in the idealized city tableaux" (p. 191). While these enclaves insulate the privileged from disturbing realities—and from any sense of their civic responsibilities—they also serve as backdrops for forms of consumption that further distance the middle classes from awareness of their connection to a broader public: "In contemporary times, commodities are no longer marketed for their utility and efficiency alone but as part of a system of values that gives them added meaning. The further away the commodity seems from the functional, the useful, and the necessary, the more appealing it appears. When the commodity is placed within a system of signs symbolizing entire life-styles and supporting environments, the system itself seeks to increase consumption by suggesting that a particular life-style requires the acquisition of not one but an entire series of goods, Consequently, simulated landscapes of exotic and imaginary terrains, cleverly combining the fantastic with the real, become the ideal backdrops for our contemporary acts of consumption, setups that intensify the commodity's power of seduction" (p. 200).

The prototype for all this, Boyer believes, was John D. Rockefeller's Colonial Williamsburg. A "controlled re-creation of an eighteenth-century townscape, which simultaneously sought to educate and entertain those with the money and inclination to travel, Williamsburg was "largely the product of the restorer's imagination" (p. 200). "Presided over by genteel patricians and earthy craftsmen . . . the workers and slaves—the 90 percent of the population who actually created the wealth of the original town—never appeared on its stage'' (p. 200). The connection between Williamsburg, South Street Seaport, and the other privatized commercial/residential enclaves of the past two decades was no accident, Boyer believes. Rockefeller Center and the United Nations and Lincoln Center develop merits, although modernist rather than historical in visual reference, are similar privatizations of public space.(6) David Rockefeller, not surprisingly, was the moving force behind the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, which oversaw the development of the seaport.

Whither Civic Culture?

One might well ask in what ways the enclaves that contemporary urban developers have created differ from the privatized public spaces, such as cemeteries, that urban elites established in the nineteenth century. Certainly they share many features: Both enterprises sought to insulate those who used them from the hurly-burly of the streets; both actively created simulations of the past, both served as stages for forms of value-laden conspicuous consumption.

The essential difference appears to lie in the values that they represent. The civic vision that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century was elaborated in the nineteenth, and reached its fullest expression in the great designed public spaces of the first half of the twentieth century was predicated on notions of mutuality and inclusion: Inequaliies of ability and wealth, rather than diminishing mutual obligations, were viewed as the basis for extending them. Because taxpayers were reluctant to underwrite even such obviously public responsibilities as education and caring for the poor and dependent, enacting and extending these obligations fell primarily to privately funded voluntary associations, which established schools, churches, libraries, cemetaries, hospitals, and other public institutions. Even in states where private initiative was discouraged, private groups lobbied legislatures and municipal authorities to create public agencies and, once these agencies were established, often supported them generously out of their own pockets.(7) Unlike today's enclaves, the cemetaries and other private civic institutions of the nineteenth century did not exclude the public. Rather, they understood that their effectiveness as educational instruments depended on their ability to serve as many people as possible.

Even in the most rapacious phases of the industrial revolution in America, such convinced social Darwinists as Andrew Carnegie viewed private philanthropy as an instrument for empowering the public and for extending the civic domain. The public library, the public park, the public meeting hall, the school, the public swimming pool and the church—all pre-eminently inclusive civic institutions—ranked high among the objects that he considered especially worthy of philanthropic support (Carnegie, [1889] 1900). Carnegie's commitment to civic values and civic institutions set the tone for his vastly wealthy contemporaries. Early Rockefeller philanthropy, especially the contributions of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. to his native Cleveland, supported broadly inclusive civic projects, such as parks and city planning, rather than efforts, such as museums and elite universities, that further empowered the already privileged.

The essence of twentieth-century liberalism and the civic values that it upheld was an institutional infrastructure that on the one hand linked public and private monies, professional expertise, and political and legal influence, and on the other hand made them accountable to the electoral and economic marketplace. Although the collapse of liberalism did not fundamentally alter the constituencies that shaped public life, it seems to have dramatically changed the values that animated them. Had the privatization of government responsibilities taken place in another time, it might have produced a more flexible, responsive, and efficient health and human services system. But evidence is building that entrepreneurial non-profits run by professional managers and financial specialists, tied to aggressive public advocacy and lobbying groups, and linked by personal, professional, and political ties to the public agencies that provided their funding may prove to be the human services analogues to the privatized enclaves criticized by Sorkin and his colleagues (Stone, in press; Stone and Bigelow, in press).

As the volumes reviewed in this essay suggest, visual and material representations express the rise and decline of civic commitment it, dramatic ways. Their discussion of the changing nature of public space raises troubling questions not only about the State, of civic values but more specifically about the nonprofits that have sustained those values,

These volumes also serve to remind its that, in periods of major historical change, scholars need to be especially alert to subtle signs that may serve as clues to the direction and profundity of institutional transformation. Examining the visual record, as these authors do, suggests that non-profit scholars would do well to go beyond their preoccupation with the well-composed fragments of the sector—organizations as units of analysis—and pay more attention to "the neglected in-between spaces" (Boyer in Sorkin, 1992, p. 184)—the broader domain of civic life that sustains non-profits' capacity for survival and self-renewal.



1. This tendency to disaggregate larger communities was by no means universal. In Indianapolis, for example, city leaders decided to counteract centrifugal social, economic, and political forces by bringing together all the city's dead in an enormous, landscaped common burial place (Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, 1991). Older cemeteries were dug up and moved, and sufficient space was purchased by the proprietors to accommodate future needs for centuries to come. Crown Hill Cemetery, still the largest in the country, is an impressive expression of the city's elite's vision of urban unity (and, not incidentally, one can stand on the heights in this city of the dead—which is located on the highest point in Marion County—and contemplate the panorama of the city of the living).

2. Despite New Haven's modest size, its efforts appear to have been noticed abroad. The new cemetery was regarded as a major cultural landmark, and it was the subject of visits by virtually all distinguished foreign visitors who passed through the city. They were often escorted by Yale's president, Timothy Dwight. "In 1821, Englishman William Tudor praised the New Haven Burial Ground and suggested that it could be a model for reform in English cemeteries" (Sloane, p. 34). At the same time, European funerary practices seem to have had a profound influence on Americans. Among the earliest pattern books owned by New Haven stone carver Thomas Phillips (now housed at the New Haven Colony Historical Society) was Monuments funeraires choisis dans les cimetieres de Paris et des principales villes de France (1847). Phillips's large collection of English, German, and American trade journals dating from the 1850s—as well as his early willingness to hire English, Scottish and Italian craftsmen—underlines the extent to which his rather humble decorative craft was internationalized from a very early date.

3. The conventional notion that voluntary associations date back to colonial times and that such associations were either ubiquitous or universally accepted in the United States appears to be erroneous: The colonial colleges were state enterprises, and they were supported primarily by government funds until the early nineteenth century. Outside the handful of colonies that tolerated religious diversity, churches were supported by taxation. not voluntary contributions. Only a few voluntary organizations, like the Masons and Franklin's Junto, library, and fire company, date back to the mid-eighteenth century. Legislatures in the colonial and early national periods were intensely hostile to voluntary associations of any kind, and the emergence of the early political associations (the ancestors of modern political parties) and such organizations as the Society of the Cincinnati were greeted by intense controversy (Hall, 1992; Hall, in press). The major wave of establishment of voluntary associations did not occur until after the Constitution was ratified, and even then it was concentrated very selectively—primarily in areas like New England and the upper Midwest where evangelical Protestants were influential (Ryan, 1982). The West and South remained generally hostile to private associational activity, and major urban centers like New York and Pennsylvania sharply limited both the powers of non-profit corporations and the rights of individuals to donate to or endow them (Allies, 1913; Scott, 1951).

4. Not surprisingly, New Englanders, who had come to inhabit New York in large numbers in the antebellum decades, took a leading role in this process. Green Wood's founders, Henry E. Pierrepont and David B. Douglas, were both Connecticut natives. On Green Wood's history, Donald Simon's (1978) fine essay, "Green-Wood Cemetery and the American Park Movement."

5. For an important but far from definitive study of the emergence of New York's civic culture, see Thomas Bender's (1987) New York Intellect. For a paradigmatic comparison of the institutional cultures that underlie civic culture and their connection to the values of elites, see E. Digby Baltzell's (1979) superb Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia.

6. Boyer might also have mentioned the "Rockresort" developments created by Laurence Rockefeller, which, though situated in wilderness settings, possess similar enclave characteristics.

7. Typical of this pattern were the early colleges in the upper Midwest, which, although they had been constituted as public corporations and were governed by trustees appointed by state legislatures, received most of their funding from private donors. The University of Virginia and other early state institutions of higher education followed a similar pattern. Even today, the largest endowment of an American university is held by a public institiution, the University of Texas. Scholars have yet to study this tradition of public philanthropy in any detail.



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Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action