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William H. Whyte: The Under-Appreciated Urban Patriarch

His legacy has mostly slipped through the cracks, but his ideas provided a blueprint for re-creating the city as a center of modern social life, laying the groundwork for today’s New Urbanist movement.

William H. Whyte
William H. Whyte: In his essays, he paid tribute to how city residents could carve out innovations that could counteract the loneliness and anomie of routine urban existence.
(Island Press)
When urban scholars and city planners make lists of the most influential 20th-century urbanists, the top of the list always looks the same: Jane Jacobs is No. 1. It’s hard to quarrel with that choice — certainly I wouldn’t — but it’s curious to see another name buried quite a bit further down in the pack. William H. Whyte has trouble making it into the top 10.

It’s curious not so much because Whyte was Jane Jacobs’ mentor, as she freely admitted, but because so many of the urban concepts we talk about now came out of Whyte’s pen over a period of nearly 30 years. Neighborhood density, concern for pedestrians, the need for central city parks and a host of other innovative ideas all trace back in one way or another to William Hollingsworth Whyte III, an irreverent and prolific journalist called Holly by everyone who knew him well. But somehow his legacy has mostly slipped through the cracks.

Now, two decades after his death, Whyte has finally been given his due in a comprehensive biography by Richard Rein, a longtime newspaper editor who lives near Whyte’s home in Princeton, N.J.

Rein’s book, which is called American Urbanist, details all of Whyte’s seminal contributions to the present-day city experience. But it also, if less explicitly, reveals one of the most intriguing realities of Whyte’s long life and career: Starting out as a militant individualist, Whyte gradually dedicated himself to finding ways for city-dwellers to create enclaves of community in the places where they live.

Whyte is remembered, by most of those who remember him today, as the author of The Organization Man, the 1956 book positing that corporations and suburbs were turning the American middle class into a nest of timid conformists more interested in pleasing their colleagues and neighbors than in thinking or acting for themselves.

“A new respect for the individual must be kindled,” Whyte wrote in the early 1950s, warning that large institutions of all kinds were promoting pseudo-scientific notions of group dynamics that threatened to stamp out individuality altogether. It was Whyte who popularized the word “groupthink,” to describe the damage that organizations, especially business corporations, were doing to the human beings working inside them.

It was just three years after The Organization Man that Whyte edited The Exploding Metropolis, a volume of essays that not only praised city life but paid tribute to the means by which city residents could carve out innovations that could counteract the loneliness and anomie of routine urban existence.

Perhaps calling him a communitarian at that point in his career is a bit of an exaggeration. He didn’t repudiate The Organization Man, and indeed did not do so for the rest of his life. But in just a few years he had moved far beyond the individualist strictures and warnings that lay at the center of that earlier book. In The Exploding Metropolis, Rein writes, “Whyte planted the seeds of urban thinking that would blossom throughout the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st.”

THE LIST OF URBAN INNOVATIONS that Whyte dreamed up or promoted in the 1960s and later is so long that it is hard to know where to start. Perhaps it is in the pages of The Exploding Metropolis, where he complained that city centers were being designed for drivers rather than pedestrians, but where he also declared that cities were still better places to raise children than the newly sprawling American suburbs.

In his prime in the 1960s, Whyte introduced a startling number of ideas and concepts that have continued to resonate into the present time. Perhaps the most important one was his defense of density. Fear of density was one of the elements that had been driving people to the suburbs over the previous decade. Whyte told readers that density was nothing to be afraid of. “There is space,” he proclaimed, “a surprising amount and where there is none we can create it. To some observers this concentration of activity is what is most wrong.” But “concentration is the genius of the city.”

Whyte believed that density was most important near transit stations, and that drivers should be charged a fee for entering the crowded downtown streets, initiating two of the ideas that are central to the planning debates of the 2020s. He is credited with the first serious promotion of vest-pocket parks — small enclaves of greenery amid the city traffic that help to civilize the most crowded urban existence. He encouraged street musicians to provide the entertainment for those using the tiny parks.

Whyte went on to argue that density could be, in its own way, the genius of the suburb as well. He recommended that new suburban residential developments be built with the homes clustered together, making room for parks and gardens and other centers of communal activity. He was a pioneer in the creation of easements, agreements by which property owners and their successors could extend their control over development rights into the distant future, protecting their holdings from cookie-cutter sprawl. By 2000, Rein tells us, there were more than 2.6 million acres of land under easement across the United States.

PERHAPS WHYTE’S QUIRKIEST BUT ULTIMATELY MOST SUCCESSFUL CRUSADE stemmed from his fascination with the outdoor plazas that surrounded midtown Manhattan public buildings. A 1961 city zoning ordinance allowed developers 10 extra square feet of building space for every square foot of open plaza they created. They built the plazas, but as Whyte discovered simply by walking around the city, the plazas were largely unused and barren most of the time.

A plaza, Whyte insisted, should be a place where people gathered to eat, drink and socialize. To this end, he declared that plazas needed places to sit. They needed comfortable steps and ledges, and most important, they needed chairs. Not chairs bolted to a particular spot, but chairs that people could move and rearrange depending on the needs of socializing. Plazas (and cities for that matter), he wrote later, “are the place for news and gossip, the creation of ideas.” That was in the 1980s. By then, it seems appropriate to describe Whyte as a full-fledged urban communitarian.
Bryant Park
White’s ideas for the re-creation of Manhattan’s Bryant Park turned what had been a drug-riddled mess into one of New York’s best-enjoyed gathering spots.
(Bryant Park Corporation)
Whyte’s greatest Manhattan triumph was in the re-creation of Bryant Park, the once-bustling enclave of activity that by the 1980s had degenerated into a drug-riddled, dangerous mess. Put in hundreds of green French bistro chairs, Whyte recommended. Make them moveable and place the seating 17 inches above the ground. Don’t worry about vandalism — it will decline as the park continues to improve. All these things were done. By the early 2000s, Bryant Park had become one of the best-enjoyed social gathering spots in New York, as well as a haven for tourists. Sometimes the insights of an omni-curious city wanderer are worth more than the theories of the most eminent urban planners. Whyte taught Jane Jacobs that.

Whyte was a believer in gentrification; he left little doubt about it, “The poor are not being hurt by middle-class investment,” he wrote in 1969 in his Plan for New York City. “They are being hurt by disinvestment — by landlords and owners who let buildings go to rot.”

But whatever one thinks about gentrification, it is undeniable that taken as a whole, the compendium of Whyte’s work over 30 years constitutes a blueprint for re-creating the city as a center of modern social life. Concentrated development, pedestrian advocacy, a healthy mixture of street activities — all of these and more laid the groundwork for the New Urbanist movement that reached the forefront of city planning in the 1990s. As a journalist rather than a university scholar, Whyte never acquired a large group of disciples. His ideas are his bequest.

And that bequest, perhaps remarkably, has deepened in the last few years amid the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. Cities that have made more room for walkers, promoted sidewalk cafes, reconsidered transit as a response to climate change — all of them, whether they knew it or not, were practicing Whyte 2.0.

It’s entirely possible that many of these things would have happened had Whyte not been around to propose them. But it’s just as well that we didn’t have to find out. “Whyte’s legacy,” Rein declares at the end of his biography, “is a two-sided coin.” Indeed, Whyte never stopped deriding conformity while searching for new forms of community. As Rein puts it, he was looking for “the common spaces where we all come together.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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