Claims about cities, with special reference to San Francisco, NY, and London

by on April 10, 2017 at 3:00 am in Books, History, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

From Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, vol.II, p.99, from “The Soul of the City”:

The stone Colossus “Cosmopolis” stands at the end of the life’s course of every great Culture.  The Culture-man whom the land has spiritually formed is seized and possessed by his own creation, the City, and is made into its creature, its executive organ, and finally its victim.  This stony mass is the absolute city.  Its image, as it appears with all its grandiose beauty in the light-world of the human eye, contains the whole noble death-symbolism of the definitive thing-become.  The spirit-pervaded stone of Gothic buildings, after a millennium of style-evolution, has become the soulless material of this daemonic stone-desert.

These final cities are wholly intellect.

And on p.107, these cities are described as:

Rootless, dead to the cosmic, irrevocably committed to stone and to intellectualism, it develops a form-language that reproduces every trait of its essence — not the language of becoming and growth, but that of a becomeness and completion, capable of alteration certainly, but not of evolution.

Good thing this is such a silly book!

1 prior_test2 April 10, 2017 at 4:45 am

So, how has that worked out for Londinium? Particularly regarding ‘capable of alteration certainly, but not of evolution.’

And let us be honest, SF in 1918 was not exactly a world class city, though one possessing favorable advantages – except for the tectonic activity aspect, of course. Obviously, cities can recover from massive earthquakes, but SF in 1904 was not a city of the class of Lisbon in 1754.

And one wonders how NYC’s Central Park, a masterful urban American achievement, fits into ‘this daemonic stone-desert.’

2 dan1111 April 10, 2017 at 6:17 am

From wikipedia:

With the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century, London ceased to be a capital, and the walled city of Londinium was effectively abandoned, although Roman civilisation continued in the St Martin-in-the-Fields area until around 450.[60] From around 500, an Anglo-Saxon settlement known as Lundenwic developed in the same area, slightly to the west of the old Roman city.[61] By about 680, it had revived sufficiently to become a major port, although there is little evidence of large-scale production of goods. From the 820s the town declined because of repeated Viking invasions.

London seems like an example in support of the point. Abandoned and taking a couple hundred years to be an important city again.

3 prior_test2 April 10, 2017 at 11:41 am

Or merely proof that geography matters.

4 Roy LC April 10, 2017 at 8:41 am

Size isn’t what makes a world class city. Chonqqing has 30-40 million people and it isn’t even Houston or Amsterdam’s equal yet.

In 1918 San Francisco, despite the earthquake, was one of the most important and powerful cities on Earth. It was ten years into its long decline but it still controlled the entire commerce of everything west of the rockies and controlled the trade of the entire eastern side of the Pacific, just the gold and silver business would have done it, but if you wanted anything in the mining districts of the West you still got it from SF and from SF controlled firms, and more importantly it owned most of those mines and was still the largest industrial center in the West and still possessed the chief shipyards.

Its rivals were still inferior. Early oil age Los Angeles was on the cusp but it was still basically the dead end of the Southern Pacific and a farm town and resort. In 1918 the brand new port of Long Beach was booming from WWI but was not finished for another 8 years. It would soon break SF’s power but it hadn’t yet.

As to everything else… Seattle had been a coaling depot for SF, but had emerged during the Yukon gold rush and dominated the dying Alaska trade, but its port and industry was capital starved. The Great Northern RR was now driving its development. So it just went from dependence on SF to dependence on Minneapolis-St Paul, itself a dependency of Chicago. Its interior trade followed the Great Northern, by 1900 even Spokane just looked East and now ordered from Chicago, and the mines were basically Anaconda, and thus the capital flowed to SF. Portland was and remains a backwater grain port, San Diego is a naval station. And beyond the US… Vancouver, BC was just the place that the Canadian Pacific moved its cargos from rail to ship and was not even equipped to service the CP’s liners properly, that was handled in Asia. Acapulco was devastated by the endless Mexican Revolution and still hasn’t recovered. The Panama canal had destroyed Valparaiso’s prosperity, and what’s left Lima or Guayaquil?

So in 1918 SF controlled the The regions capital, it was the central node of the Eastern Pacific and it even owned much of Hawaii and the Philippines’ sugar output. All that wealth made it cosmopolitan and with its overwhelmingly transient male population it was incredibly diverse.

5 Knowledge Nerd April 10, 2017 at 9:23 am


6 prior_test2 April 10, 2017 at 11:46 am

And yet, in global terms, LA has won, at least to this point in time. Hollywood is likely to be remembered far longer than SF’s domination in the sugar trade or its position in controlling mining industries.

7 Roy LC April 10, 2017 at 1:05 pm

I would normally say nobody wins forever and quote Kipling’s Recessional, but… since the ’90s, SF, in the sense of the Bay Area, seems to be outstripping greater LA in everything but population.

Of course how lasting this is is just more of the same.

8 prior_test2 April 10, 2017 at 1:59 pm

‘since the ’90s, SF, in the sense of the Bay Area, seems to be outstripping greater LA in everything but population.’

I’ll venture to posit that the motion picture industry in Hollywood has had, and will continue to have, a greater influence on human civilization than whatever SF produces, based on the example of just one script writer from Stratford-upon-Avon. Of course, time will tell.

9 chuck martel April 10, 2017 at 6:15 am

Spengler is hardly infallible but he’s on the right track about many other things. This, for instance:

10 Thiago Ribeiro April 10, 2017 at 6:49 am

“For Nature knows nothing of pro and con.”

I guess stray cats really know nothing of pro and con. I can not say I envy “Nature”.

11 The Anti-Gnostic April 10, 2017 at 6:25 am

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”


12 peri April 10, 2017 at 6:46 am

I think it’s not for nothing that the most hopeful and moving passage in “1984” is that where Winston and the girl share a semi-romantic moment in the little glade, far from the city. Orwell even names the flowers, if I recall, as Shakespeare would have, but few writers would now.

13 Rich Berger April 10, 2017 at 11:57 am

Not for nothing, eh?

14 peri April 10, 2017 at 12:04 pm

It’s for something, by golly!

15 The Anti-Gnostic April 10, 2017 at 7:26 am

Past a point, cities seem to become diseconomies of scale.

16 Lurker April 10, 2017 at 8:33 pm

They certainly return less value past a given point. Population could stand in as a crude measure of it. Personally speaking, on purely arbitrary metrics, I have found that once cities grow beyond a million or so inhabitants, the burdens start to out way the benefits.

17 rayward April 10, 2017 at 7:31 am

What became known as “landscape architecture” was more accurately called city design, the father of the profession being Frederick Law Olmsted (who designed Central Park among many others). One of Olmsted’s students, Warren Manning, establish a school for landscape architecture at Harvard, which produced the early pioneers in the profession, including my great uncle. Today we think of a “landscape architect” as someone a wealthy person would engage to design her garden, but in the early days a landscape architect was more likely to be engaged by a city or state to design the public spaces. My great uncle was instrumental in designing the many parks in Sacramento, a city known for its public spaces. That a city might engage a landscape architect to deign public spaces seems quaint today, the contemporary cities (especially in the south and southwest) more the product of helter-skelter development than design.

18 Slocum April 10, 2017 at 8:13 am

No, landscape architects are still very much engaged in the design of public spaces. For example:

19 peri April 10, 2017 at 9:10 am

The vocal and organized urbanists in my town reject that sort of civic improvement out of hand* – most importantly, it is automatically suspect because it had its heyday in a period when, in their view, land use policy existed only to serve racism; and two, because what they find dynamic about a city isn’t anything to do with aesthetics but with the People Milling Around. Like, just seeing their faces as though collecting Pokemon. But don’t get too smug, just because you’re a people, ‘cuz it’s not a blanket thing. Besides the urbanists of yesteryear, they also don’t like old people, single-family homeowners, yard gardeners, environmentalists, landlords, white people, brown people who they deem to be acting white (“NIMBY”), or anyone who belonged to an earlier generation of civic engagement if their cause was anything other than ensuring numbers of people. They do like, sight unseen, people who’ve yet to move here from other crowded places. They want to catch ’em all, I guess.

*Which is just as well, because in a “The Onion”-last-grownup sort of way, landscape gardening (or even basic maintenance) is orders of magnitude beyond the skills of our city government.

20 peri April 10, 2017 at 9:11 am

Sorry, meant as a reply to rayward, I haven’t looked at your link yet.

21 Frank Dobbs April 10, 2017 at 2:31 pm

As someone who has lived in Hudson Square for >25 yrs, I can tell you that all the parks in the area, including the link you gave, are terrible, not designed for human connection.

As a street photographer, I am very sensitive to the lack of life in our parks, and I go to other neighborhoods to see human beings connecting.

I was going to do a photographic study to document this failure, but at the time my health intervened.

22 rayward April 10, 2017 at 9:12 am

You are correct. I didn’t mean to suggest that landscape architects don’t design public spaces today, but rather that in the early days most of their work was in designing public spaces; indeed, they considered themselves more city planners than landscape designers. Thus, my great uncle wrote two books on city design and public parks. By the way, Harvard continues to have the premier program in landscape architecture.

23 Hopaulius April 10, 2017 at 10:55 am

Doesn’t city landscape architecture fit perfectly in with the quotes in Tyler’s post? Nature itself is not needed. It must submit to intellectual human design, which will provide all the “nature” the city-dweller needs. Oddly, though, the city-dwellers, whose living spaces are devoid of nature, dictate that Nature must be preserved outside their domain, where dwell the clueless barbarians.

24 Jeff R April 10, 2017 at 8:06 am

Perhaps it’s a critique of brutalist architecture.

25 Slocum April 10, 2017 at 9:18 am

I dunno, “the whole noble death-symbolism of the definitive thing-become” seems rather silly to me (a phrase I wouldn’t be surprise has been written by a bot). The supposedly irrevocable commitment to cities as gothic stone deserts? Already being undone by modernism at the time Spengler published Decline of the West. And no city evolution? In the early 20th century, Manhattan was full of tenements and sweatshops and the city as a whole was a manufacturing powerhouse:

” In 1919, this list shows, New York produced more than 50 percent of total national output in 12 lines of manufacture, and was competitive in many more.”

What does the city manufacture now (other than artisanal pickles in Brooklyn)?

26 Roy LC April 10, 2017 at 1:07 pm

But isn’t manufacturing all old economy stuff? How much manufacturing was going on in Imperial Rome?

Says someone dedicated to digging raw materials out of the ground…

27 Slocum April 10, 2017 at 2:25 pm

“But isn’t manufacturing all old economy stuff?”

Sure, but the point is that 100 years ago (and even 50-60 years ago) New York and other ‘legacy’ cities did a LOT of it. The ideal place for a factory then was at the heart of an urban neighborhood surrounded by worker housing. And that’s all gone now with cities having had to reinvent themselves since then. Or re-read ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’. Jane Jacobs may have stopped the Lower Manhattan Expressway from being built, but her ideal urban world of close knit communities and shopkeepers keeping an eye on neighborhood kids playing in the streets disappeared just the same (in much of the U.S. now, parents can be arrested for letting their kids out to play in cities). Which isn’t too much of a problem in San Francisco because there aren’t many kids left anyway. All in all, American cities have changed pretty dramatically in the last half century,

28 Axa April 10, 2017 at 9:21 am

I just made a quick search on the life of this guy: never had good health, lifetime migraines, he went for a doctorate but didn’t liked academia and quit, he became poor during WW1, he tried politics and failed, had a cerebral hemorrhage…….in short the life of a German guy than went from herr doktor status to outcast, even if his book was popular. It’s imperative to shield oneself from pessimism and then asses his ideas.

Getting into his ideas, he talks about a cyclical view of history instead of linear and puts the “Western” label on this idea. The funny thing is that Islamic culture also has this linear vision of history, are they Western? Anyway, I understand his conceptual model. The issue is that he predicted the Decline of the West occurring in his lifetime, and it has not happened (yet).

It’s an interesting, not quite original, conceptual model of cyclical vision of history. The cause of decay he proposes is money, corruption, imperialistic wars and finally a return to religion to look for meaning. A Roman Empire style of decay. However, there are other causes why civilizations disappear: America was absorbed by Europe and there’s evidence that some ancient civilizations disappeared because of environmental catastrophes, either natural or man-made.

In general this guy seems focused only on civilizations that decay for the corruption of culture. However, his timing on the decline of the West puts it in the group of History Channel intellectuals. Everyone is predicting it, is the date not important?

29 The Anti-Gnostic April 10, 2017 at 9:40 am

Islamic culture also has this linear vision of history

Islamic culture seems to have a static vision of history.

The issue is that he predicted the Decline of the West occurring in his lifetime, and it has not happened (yet).

In his lifetime, he saw the Great War and his classical liberal world vanished, never to return.

30 Axa April 10, 2017 at 9:47 am

Using the adjective linear is not my personal opinion

31 The Anti-Gnostic April 10, 2017 at 10:10 am

Yes, I get the apocalyptic vision it shares with Judaism and Christianity. I was thinking more on the social plane, where Islam seems fatalistic and hence static.

32 A Definite Beta Guy April 10, 2017 at 9:54 am

Perhaps he missed the Greatest Generation which provided a major social and political capital infusion that carried the West through a few more decades…which combinations of Baby Boomers and Xers and soon Millennials will soon squander.

33 Axa April 10, 2017 at 1:44 pm

These guys say decay is worse in ancient civilizations where elites tell (literally) people what to do. When elites fall due to war, environmental catastrophe or corruption, society implodes and economic development returns to square one. In freer societies, where individuals have a greater autonomy, elites can go to hell while the economy keeps running.

All the high cultures Mr. Spengler used in his argumentation, happened to be quite dependent on the elites to organize production, avoid famines, etc.

34 A Definite Beta Guy April 10, 2017 at 2:16 pm

I’m not a Spengler-expert, but that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? High Cultures become Civilizations and lose their vitality and flexibility. That’s also the point of this post: we built permanent buildings showing that we have reached our destiny, there is nothing left to discover or improve, and we have reached the apogee of our Culture, and are a bureaucratic Civilization, now entering decline.

I mean, I can’t say definitively this is wrong with currently available knowledge, even knowing the post-war achievements of the Industrial West. Perhaps we really did just add in some social and political capital from the Greatest Generation that is culturally not like other generations, and when they died out we are returning to our original, declining, course.

35 Agra Brum April 11, 2017 at 2:45 pm

The architecture of the late 40s and 50s is not to be emulated; most of those things are being knocked down (if they haven’t been already) and The New is taking their place. There was nothing magical about the Greatest Generation – they fought a war they had to fight. And then they did plenty of terrible things after it was over.

36 Thor April 10, 2017 at 3:08 pm

Who says the Xers etc. will not rise to the occasion? I’m not holding my breath but I’ve been surprised by some Boomers who have impressed me as they have matured.

37 prior_test2 April 10, 2017 at 11:57 am

‘even if his book was popular’

Which inspired this movie (at least its title), to boot –

38 mkt42 April 11, 2017 at 1:11 am

Another possible movie reference: last night I was doing a crossword puzzle where the clue was “Spengler in Ghostbusters”. Answer: Egon.

I haven’t read any of his (Oswald’s) works; the commentary about them makes them sound not worth the time. But maybe Tyler is saying that he foresaw complacency in urbanization? Actually I’m not sure what Tyler is saying.

39 Roy LC April 10, 2017 at 1:24 pm

I assumed Tyler was reading this as partnof his “let’s learn about paleo conservatism and the alt-Right” initiative. All true reactionaries care only about morbidly examining decay and rot.

40 well-golly April 10, 2017 at 9:21 am

then, by all means, critique

41 Juan April 10, 2017 at 9:23 am

I hope this is not a Straussian “silly” (not really silly).

I happened to be reading the origins and various forms of the line “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice.”

I say it is hard to call those voices, speaking over 200 years of American history, really wrong.

42 The Anti-Gnostic April 10, 2017 at 9:47 am

I’d deconstruct it as, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” (Herbert Stein). Like chattel slavery, or printing money and buying your own debt with it.

43 Ricardo April 10, 2017 at 10:34 am

Are you going to try to pay your taxes in bitcoin or gold? If so, let us know how it goes.

44 The Anti-Gnostic April 10, 2017 at 1:04 pm

Why bother with taxes? Just have the Fed honor every check ever drawn on the Treasury’s account.

45 Roy LC April 10, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Why can’t chattel slavery go on forever? Barring the heat death of the universe of course, but that’s not really its fault.

46 Frank Dobbs April 10, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Dealing with change is difficult because our minds are the prisoners of our perception of time.
I live in lower Manhattan, about a mile from where I was born in 1946. But it is not the same city, and most of the change has been for the better.
People have been complaining about our lack of connection to organic nature since Rousseau and Wordsworth.

My wife loves flowers, and spend many hours studying them and planting them and controlling everything about them with her mind. She loves art, and when she was an art historian spent many hours writing about landscape painting and becoming a masterful scholar. Is this living in harmony with art and nature.

I love the city and the people in it. I spend countless hours wandering the streets capturing the evanescent beauty of moments on city streets with complete and open spontaneity. Am I not in touch with the hidden depths of my soul?

Wake me up when someone says something intelligent about this old cliche.

47 Thor April 10, 2017 at 3:20 pm


48 msgkings April 10, 2017 at 6:12 pm

+1 more

49 Diana Briggs April 11, 2017 at 5:30 am


50 peri April 11, 2017 at 12:04 pm

I can’t imagine going into nature to plumb the “hidden depths” of my own soul. Kind of the opposite, actually.

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