When Numbers Failed: Social Scientists, Modernity, and the New Cities of the 1920s and 1930s

Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

From Social Reform to Social Science

In the late 1920s and 1930s, American social scientists and others began to turn away from statistical analyses and data sets in their examination of cities. In lieu of mathematical rigor, they began to gather vignette, story, and analogy to explain and explore the urban milieu. Flight from the sort of numerical precision that had come to define social science is startling. It would be incorrect not to note, of course, that some scholars still found numerical analysis useful. But the kind of detailed statistical forays into the minutiae of social class and economic arrangement—the kind of statistical analysis that Adna Weber brought to his study of cities in the late nineteenth century—virtually disappeared from cutting-edge social science work.

Social scientists in the late 1920s and 1930s almost always recognized their radical departure from traditional social science practice. In fact, these scholars often used introductions to their studies or first chapters of long works to stake out the reasons for their sudden abandonment of numerical analyses. Invariably they argued that what numbers failed to provide or even measure were exactly what social scientists now wanted and needed to know. Vignette, tale, and discussion represented more important information and information in a more appropriate manner than social statistics. To these men and women as well as many of their fellow Americans, the reason for the shift from numbers to verbal exposition was clear: cities in the 1920s and 1930s seemed something quite different than they previously had been considered.

What was this new city? What did social scientists describe, and how did they account for their verbal portraits? Almost to a person, commentators pinned their transition from mathematical to verbal explanations on the creation of a new social reality; cities of the late 1920s and 1930s were new creatures, the product of new or recent social forces that had rendered conventional numerical analysis obsolete.

Robert E. Park, dean of what would become known as the Chicago School of Sociology to later generations of scholars, put the matter bluntly: “The city is not … a physical mechanism and an artificial construction.” While those types of arrangements could be counted, parsed, and examined through appropriate statistical means, Park understood them as inadequate measures for cities. To Park, cities lacked an absolute social reality outside the human imagination and intellect. The city was nothing more than “a state of mind, a body of customs and traditions.” The city’s only reality and only defining characteristics were those that its inhabitants and others posited upon it. An individual city was a particularistic entity, locked in time, place, and space. Each city is “involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it,” Park maintained. Like an individual human being, each city was “the product of nature, and particularly of human nature.” This intersection between nature—physical reality—and its constituent humans theoretically differed from place to place because the environment and human populations differed from place to place. To examine a city, social scientists needed to learn the uniqueness of its inhabitants’ attitudes. As Park put it, to learn about the lower North Side of Chicago, social scientists had to conduct an “investigation of the customs, beliefs, social practices, and general conceptions of life prevalent in Little Italy.” To understand Greenwich Village, he continued, required similar sorts of “recording the more sophisticated folkways of the inhabitants” of that area as well as “the neighborhood of Washington Square.” He continued, “Every separate part of the city is inevitably stained with the particular sentiments of its population.” What without people was “a mere geographic expression” is transformed into “a locality with sentiments, traditions, and a history of its own.” He needed to see life as lived (Park and Burgess 1967 [1925], 1-3).

Park knew where he might find a model of how to study the ways and means of urban groups. He suggested that the emergent discipline of anthropology could provide guidance. In particular, he urged urbanologists to adopt the “same patient methods of observation which anthropologists like [Franz] Boas and [Robert] Lowie have expended on the study of the life and manners of the North American Indian.” Social scientists need to conduct field work to learn the culture of early twentieth-century American urbanites. Analysis of that type required social scientists to interview and even live as participant observers with the subjects of their studies. Understanding the minutiae of custom, tradition, and habit as it was practiced by one group in a particular locale necessitated a virtual total immersion in that neighborhood. Cold numbers never could explain the rich detail that characterized social existence (Park and Burgess 1925, 3).

But that was not all. Park saw that cities each were made up of several populations, of several neighborhoods, each with its own unique character. This, he argued, complicated and enriched matters. Cities were webs of interactions between people and places—neighborhoods—none of which could be studied or dissected without harming the teeming living mass. As Park put it, the modern city “is a living entity.” And each modern “city has a life of its own.” The vast complexity of these living social organisms not only reflected the habits, culture, and customs of the groups that comprised them but caused them to become something different and more. The modern city lays “bare to the public view in a massive manner all the human characters and traits which are ordinarily obscured and suppressed in smaller communities.” The cultural interaction within the neighborhoods of modern cities “shows the good and evil in human nature in excess.” Because of this persistent, intense interaction, the modern city serves as “a laboratory or clinic in which human nature and social processes may be conveniently and profitably studied” (Park and Burgess 1925, 1, 4, 6, and 36).

The area in which Ernest W. Burgess, Park’s associate at Chicago, focused his attention—urban growth—seemed rather straightforward, certainly ameliorable to numerical analysis. Certainly Burgess paid tribute to Max Weber and the other earlier statistical sociologists. But he prized their work because it identified populations distinct from those populating rural environs, not for its ability to analyze how those new populations behaved within the urban milieu. In fact, he complained that the “only aspect of growth [that Weber] adequately described was the rather obvious process of the aggregation of urban population.” To Burgess, the key facet of a large urban mass was how the groups constituting that mass acted and interacted. That placed the emphasis directly on urban expansion, the geographic extension of the city rather than its numerical increase. Analyzing geographic expansion was not some mere measure of population density or some such thing. Burgess described that type of “urban growth as a resultant of organization and disorganization analogous to the anabolic and katabolic process of metabolism in the body.” As the city expanded both numerically and geographically, every facet of its “soul” changed. Old neighborhoods declined, evolved, or were transformed. New areas were integrated into other neighborhoods as well as the city generally. Growth was a process of concentration and decentralization; it never stopped. Things were constantly in motion, decaying, reviving, and being incorporated in what to Burgess was truly a dynamic process. Growth was not a neighborhood phenomenon, even if it simply occurred within a neighborhood. It was a citywide phenomenon because every other place felt the effect of change on any number of levels. Growth bubbled through the modern city and stressed parts and areas of the city in new, different ways. From those new stresses emerged crime, juvenile delinquency, poverty, and wealth. The modern city then was a living cauldron of simultaneous organization and disorganization (Park and Burgess 1925, 48, 53).

Robert Lynd also eschewed statistical analysis when he undertook his classic study of Muncie, Indiana. His Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929) explicitly sought the science and objectivity of traditional predecessors. But it purposely dismissed numerical techniques as inadequate, even pernicious. Despite the fact that he chose to investigate “a small American city” rather than a metropolis, like Chicago, Lynd understood modern urban life in a manner familiar to Park and Burgess. There the “different aspects of civilization interlock and intertwine, presenting—in a word—a continuum.” A modern city, regardless of size, was simply “a unit complex of interwoven trends of behavior.” His goal was “to study synchronously the interwoven trends that are the life” of the municipality (Lynd and Lynd 1929, 1-3).

Investigating such a template required a creative mind. Lynd further insisted that what he learned remain beyond reproach (a claim of the old numbers crowd who called their data “empirical”), a stipulation that focused entirely on his methodology. His initial starting point was to reject any attempt to prove or disprove a hypothesis; he claimed that his study would not attempt “to prove any thesis.” He underscored “the old error of starting out, despite oneself, with emotionally weighted presuppositions and consequently failing ever to get outside the field one set out so bravely to objectify and study.” His method to secure “maximum objectivity and . some kind of orderly procedure” was simply to divide the community into broad, life-related tasks. This functional anthropology approach was “simply as a methodological expedient.” Lynd claimed that they had no intrinsic “merit” other than lifting things “to an impersonal plane” (Lynd and Lynd 1929, 1-3).

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Part of the functionalist anthropology project was the notion that “an outstanding characteristic of the ways of living of any people at any given time [was] that they are in the process of change.” Like the Chicagoists, Lynd would write about the urban process, Middletown in motion, building and decaying. To demonstrate the minutiae of process, Lynd chose to ground his study in 1890, a time before “the industrial revolution … descended upon villages and towns.” Simply, Lynd’s technique revolved around contrasting the present with what he believed had been. Lynd argued that by selecting a striking counterpoint, he could examine points of intersection and discuss change with “a degree of detachment indispensable for clearer vision.” The present state of affairs would be delineated by the factors “by which it is conditioned.” The present, to Lynd, was nothing more than “the most recent point in a moving trend” (Lynd and Lynd 1929, 1-3).

Only “a dynamic, functional study of the contemporary life of this specific American community in the light of the trend of changing behavior observable in it during the last thirty-five years” could adequately explain Middletown’s present. That goal forced Lynd to rely on data not suitable to mathematical manipulation. He soon championed vignette, interview, or tale, no matter how commonplace, unsophisticated, or imprecise that sort of data seemed. To Lynd, it was neither the pristineness, definitiveness, or rigorousness of each or any piece of data that truly mattered. Pieces of data only assumed critical importance because of “their inter-relatedness in a specific situation.” It was the interrelationship between data where precision was meaningful. The context—what it was juxtaposed against and what it was in conjunction with—informed each iota of data, at least in part. Data was only meaningful as it interacted, impacted, and was impacted upon in a given instance or situation; its integrity—its raw value or precision—was never the issue. Its ability to influence and affect virtually every other aspect of the city—its context—gave it critical meaning. And that was much too complex for the kind of statistical analysis regularly used by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social scientists. Only by carefully observing the interaction, interdependence, and diffusion of phenomena could a social scientist counter urban problems. Their “stubborn resistance” of these problems to amelioration, argued Lynd, stemmed in part from the “common habit of piecemeal attack on them” (Lynd and Lynd 1929, 1-3).

Clark Wissler, Franz Boas’s successor at the American Museum of Natural History and a prominent anthropologist in his own right, agreed with Lynd’s assessments. In his introduction to Middletown, Wissler took pains to declare that “experience with social phenomena is bringing us nearer and nearer to a realization that we must deal directly with life itself, that the realities of social science are what people do.” Little could be gained by the “gathering of intimate statistics as to wages, living conditions, etc…. Masses of individuals … live and function in communities.” It is the interaction of the various peoples, activities, processes, institutions, conventions, traditions, and customs—lives and functions—that defines and makes the city. And because these variables are continually shifting and influencing each other, the city is constantly in flux even as it might appear stable or static to the outside eye. Understanding the dynamic nature of American cities “will not be complete until these communities [themselves] are made objects of study.” To Wissler, a city is “a social phenomenon,” a “community affair.” Analysis of community interactions, often through vignette, anecdote, or interview, must become “the objective methods” to study cities “that are collectively American” (Lynd and Lynd 1929, v-vii).

Caroline Ware’s classic study of Greenwich Village sounded the same themes. The historian moved into the village, establishing an office where she resided during her two-year study. Ware felt it imperative to immerse herself in village life and culture. Only through that endeavor could she study “the dynamic interrelations within this community.” To rely on social statistics would raise “the danger of oversimplifying what is, by definition, a complex situation.” She found it an “impossibility of isolating for laboratory study factors whose essential quality is their interplay with others.” Rather than neatly discrete variables, Ware found messiness, disorder, and disorganization. Life in Greenwich Village failed to fit “a coherent pattern” and “conduct [did] not fit traditional categories.” Categories proved meaningless when each facet of life and custom affected and was affected by every other custom or activity (Ware 1965 [1935], 3-8).

Ware certainly recognized that the constituents of that village life differed from those found in most modern cities. Bohemians, reprobates, Italian immigrants, and others all worked, lived, and played in proximity. The village was the refuge for those at war with traditional values and practices. Yet despite that acknowledgment, Ware thought village life was representative of the forces influencing modern cities nationwide. The birth communities of Greenwich Village residents had undergone the same annihilation of traditional early and mid-nineteenth-century American culture as she detected in their new home. What made them special was that they actively sought a new American urban ethos. And what made village existence so relentlessly depressing was their failure to find or create one. The village offered, she lamented, “no solution to the cultural problems which drove people to the area. Escape it offered but not solution.” Village life “contributed no new [cultural patterns] to take their place. In the fact of cultural disintegration, it either fostered escape or erected the individual as psychological entity into an end itself.” Ware found “no social cement [that] bound into a social whole the fragments of” the various cultures found in the village. “Nor were there any distinguishable signs that forces were at work to shape new cultural patterns out of the fragments of the old.” There existed “no evidence that the direction of social evolution in this community was toward a society for the twentieth-century American.” The only clear movement was “away from the social orders of the past” (Ware 1965 [1935], 422-424).

This remarkably damning assessment of village and American urban life Ware laid directly on industrialization. Emerging in the late nineteenth century, that pervasive monster killed bucolic America and left only cultural vapidness or devastation in its wake. In her identification of a new force entered into the cultural stew, she differed from the Chicago sociologists. Their causal agent was the automobile, which they recognized as altering expectations and patterns of activity. Automobiles inserted into urban life a dimension it lacked previously. Mobility and distance combined to rearrange urban living.

If any sort of analysis called out for number crunching, it would have been that of the Chicagoists or Ware. Certainly, automobiles could be counted and graphs created to demonstrate potential triggers or other points of action. Similarly, industrialization (or at least what might have made up its constituents) could have been counted, dissected, pinpointed, and quantified. Ware was not alone in selecting industrialization as a new urban variable. Lynd’s entire methodology of tracing Middletown over 35 years incorporated the notion that the effects of industrialization could be seen and identified as they caused Middletown’s culture to build and decay. That none of these urbanologists, nor most of their leading contemporaries, opted for statistical analyses was not a matter of ignorance but intent. What was important to each and every one of them was that they identify a force new to the urban social milieu. And that was important precisely because of how they understood urban culture.

From Static to Dynamic Cities

The problem of cities in the late 1920s and 1930s was not a question of numbers but rather the introduction of a new variable that caused massive perturbations within what had been urban culture and life. Whether the automobile, industrialization or something else, the new force destroyed the static equilibrium that had characterized the city and replaced it with a dynamic equilibrium that redefined and reidentified all elements of the urban milieu. Industrialism or automobiles changed the character of everything they touched, causing old forms to decay and new forms of activity and association to rise.

Ware maintained that she did not know what new social equilibrium would emerge from the introduction of the social force of industrialization. Her historical colleague, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., claimed to have no such trepidations. His Rise of the City (1933) contended that a new, vibrant form of living accompanied industrialism, that of urban life. Unlike Ware, Schlesinger saw urban existence as a concomitant of industrialism; industrialism and immigration caused cities to rise and exert their influence within American culture. Industrialism caused “the momentous shift of the center of national equilibrium from the countryside to the city.” Schlesinger realized that “the process was painful and confusing,” but he also saw that it meant “the release of energies and ambitions.” In any case, he was certain that “the city had come and …it had come to stay” (Schlesinger 1933, 120, 435).

Yet even Schlesinger worried that the rise of the city, optimistic though he remained, might result in an America less open to initiative, innovation, and participation than its rurally dominated predecessor. Was this new city culture’s “mission to be that of a new Jerusalem or of ancient Babylon?” That the new urban-based America remained in flux constituted “the chief unfinished business of the departing generation” (Schlesinger 1933, 435-436).

Schlesinger and Ware in their ways saw industrialism as destabilizing elements within American society, especially its impact on urban living. Lewis Mumford, the noted writer and cofounder of the Regional Planning Association of America, went further. He saw the events of the previous hundred years—the era of industrialism—as an unmitigated disaster. What had occurred, Mumford maintained in his Culture of Cities, was “disurbanization.” He noted that “[m]isbuilding and malformation, dissociation and disorganization” characterized this period as city structures, cultures, and societies decayed. To Mumford, this was especially troublesome because it was atypical. Cities throughout history had been beacons of culture, “the form and symbol of an integrated social relationship.” There “human experience is transformed into viable signs, symbols, patterns of conduct, systems of order” (Mumford 1938, 3-13).

Cities then were an inextricably interrelated interaction of things human—forces, structures, ideas, habits, and customs. A new powerful force entered the mix in the later nineteenth century to upset the dynamic equilibrium. The “machine ideology”—industrialism or, as Mumford called it, “the will to profit”—caused “the fact of disintegration” of urban society. “Perversities and evils spread more quickly” as in the “stones of the city, these anti-social facts become embedded.” This “crystallization of chaos . hardened uncouthly in metropolitan slum and industrial factory districts” and forced people to flee the city proper, thereby “widen[ing] the area of social derangement.” A “civic nucleus” was a casualty of this ideology as “parasitic and predatory modes of life” overcame the city’s traditional “effective symbiosis, or co-operative living together” (Mumford 1938, 3-13).

Numerical analysis played no essential part in Mumford’s determinations. Contemporary cities suffered a crisis of elemental proportion; it was the elements of urban existence that had changed. That was the crux of Mumford’s concern. Mumford and the others who eschewed statistical analysis defined cities in a remarkably similar way. To this group of social scientists and historians, cities were composed of elements so interdependent that each within the city took at least some of its definition and meaning from the other elements; none of the elements within the city stood or had an integrity entirely its own. Numbers were unnecessary to make that case and meaningless to change the situation. Only by varying the elements—by adding, subtracting, or reshaping one or more—could amelioration take place. Even that activity, moreover, was not subject to mathematical assessment. Again, that these elements literally modified each other meant that numerical precision—or exact prediction—was impossible. Only through manipulation—trial and error, hardly the signposts of systematic inquiry—could an appropriate equilibrium point be reestablished.

Herbert Hoover’s “Research Committee on Social Trends” had more direct policy implications. The committee was nothing less than a grand attempt to engage the federal government in understanding the presumed consequences of modernity. Created in 1929 soon after his election, Hoover established the committee to examine “emerging problems.” Ever the good engineer, the new president appointed a wide variety of experts in social arrangements (social scientists) to gather the information, identify the new problems, and plot potential means to ameliorate them. The committee itself acknowledged its landmark social science significance. “For the first time,” the committee intoned, “the head of the Nation has called upon a group of social scientists to sponsor and direct a broad scientific study of factors of change in modern society.” The committee’s comprehensive approach was its virtue. It refused to overlook the “intricate relations” behind the whole panoply of emerging issues because it knew that what “appears to be a satisfactory solution of a single problem . [would] likely produce new problems by putting that solution into practice” (McKenzie 1967 [1933], v-vi).

It was that understanding it took into its analysis of cities. To head that investigation, the committee chose R. D. McKenzie, who had worked with the Chicago sociologists in the mid-1920s. True to his roots, McKenzie discussed in his 1933 final report the “limitations of the statistical data.” He insisted that “to show in an objective and verifiable manner some of the basic changes” brought on by modernity, he “not infrequently” would “resort to the case procedure to suggest developments” of even a general character (McKenzie 1967 [1933], 3-7). Interview, vignette, and case study would be the means to demonstrate modernity’s influence on cities.

McKenzie focused on motor transport as the telling new force that disrupted traditional urban arrangements. He argued that the automobile “has erased the boundaries and bridged the distances which formerly separated urban from rural territory and has introduced a type of local community entirely without precedent in history.” This was a “new type of supercommunity organized around a dominant focal point and including a multiple of differentiated centers of activity, characterized by “complexity . and the mobility of its population.” McKenzie claimed that this supercommunity, which he also called a “metropolitan community,” was “not confined to the great cities” but stood as “the communal unit of local relations throughout the entire nation.” Indeed, the “vast amount of rearrangement of populations and institutions” involved in these new supercommunities meant that interactions among their various parts were “still far from having attained an equilibrium.” Everywhere were “territorially differentiated, yet interdependent, units of settlement.” Each supercommunity had “a constellation of centers, the interrelations of which are characterized by dominance and subordination.” At the heart rested “a central city or focal point of dominance in which are located the institutions and services that cater to the region as a whole and integrate it with other regions.” A new supercommunity was nothing less than a “economic and social organism” (McKenzie 1967 [1933], 3-7).

Diagrams of the City

McKenzie then had outlined an urban model far larger in scope and jurisdiction than a city. But despite the size of the unit and his absolute devotion to the automobile as causal agent, McKenzie advocated a social arrangement consistent with that posited by the other urbanologists of his generation. Whatever their locus of concern—neighborhood, city, or nation—the models they envisioned were composed of discrete yet interdependent parts—structures, people, groups, and facilities. It was the interactions among these various entities that mattered.

To these scholars, the automobile, industrialism, or the will to profit was the element that radically disturbed the dynamic milieu that had seemed to function so successfully for so long. This new force upset the ecological-cultural balance. In the mid-1920s and after, Mumford’s Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) aimed to approximate the restoration of the previous ecological-cultural equilibrium. They did not want to fix contemporary environments; contemporary environments and the premises upon which they were based were to these scholars obsolete; they were the problem. Cities as they had grown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had to be replaced by units consonant with the events, practices, and ambitions of the 1920s and 1930s. Through numerous writings and plans, the group advocated a type of living arrangement that would foster traditional cultural values, yet suitable for the modern age. This regional planning was by definition multidisciplinary; the RPAA was composed of foresters, sociologists, architects, economists, housing reformers, and other specialists, each of whom recognized that their own expertise was insufficient to reorganize urban life effectively to accommodate modernity. Only by pooling their talents and skills could these scholars, philanthropists, and planners design a satisfactory form for urban life in the second quarter of the twentieth century.

Indeed, the membership of the RPAA mimicked its understanding of the nature of contemporary urban life. Because society was a dynamic system in which each facet—structures, cultures, traditions, inventions—materially influenced and modified every other facet, any attempt to render assistance required a similarly diverse and complicated amalgam of persons adept at any number of specific enterprises. Their hubris (and an explanation for the appeal to activism) was that they thought that they could artificially construct an environment that would facilitate cultural blending and mingling and foment human happiness, that somehow an environment properly constructed would be the most important variable in modern social arrangements. It could shape whatever forces and situations its varied human inhabitants brought to it; humanity and its institutions would adapt to the environmental particulars.

That environmental determinism led the RPAA to agree that contemporary geopolitical jurisdictions did not match actual living patterns; neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, and rural areas all seemed interdependent and should not be arbitrarily separated. Each affected the others, making place-based action ineffective, perhaps even pernicious. Only by breaking down existing jurisdictional units and erecting a central authority based on a principle quite different than “the will-to-profit” could living be reconstituted on a humane basis. To the RPAA, the means to structure contemporary society existed: Automobiles, electricity, and airplanes promised to overcome the grime, congestion, and dirt of contemporary cities; to annihilate distance as they brought suburbs into more intimate connection; and to restore a bucolic aspect missing from urban life. The first step in incorporating the best features of traditional American village life and the excitement of the modern era was establishing a single geopolitical entity consistent with that transformation. In this case, a properly constructed government entity would be able to fine-tune—to legislate and proscribe as seemed necessary—social arrangements to encourage a healthy, yet dynamic equilibrium among the various portions of the new regional community.

A kind of social homeostasis was the RPAA’s goal. Its artificially constructed environment would be suitable for the modern age yet appear to be built around and to reinforce traditional cultural values. The patina of modernity would shelter an otherwise wholesome, small-town existence. Traditional values and practices might be visually transcendent but at the same time the environment would enable its residents to pursue the American dream of a middle-class existence and all the modern amenities that went with that station. A modern life, replete with all the material and emotional advantages as well as the best of traditional small-town America, seemed to these scholars an achievable goal.

The RPAA worked at the fringes of governments in the 1920s and 1930s to encourage state and local governments to adopt its recommendations. A number of its members curried political influence and lobbied for positions from which to launch initiatives consistent with the organization’s vision. They certainly agitated to convince their fellow social scientists of the validity of their diagnosis. As early as 1925, RPAA members wrote essay after essay touting the idea of regional planning for a special issue of Survey Graphic as they urged lawmakers and others to accept a Regionalist model. A few years later, they brought their criticisms to bear on a new plan for metropolitan New York and carried out a heated and extensive exchange in the pages of the New Republic.

Perhaps the most significant attempt to create a new environment for the modern era occurred during the Roosevelt administration. His Brain Trusters, many of them social scientists, explicitly expected to use social scientific insight to resolve America’s problems and drew on then-contemporary social science models to design federal programs to refashion society. Cities quite quickly received their scrutiny.

Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, its name reflective of its goals, tackled the city question straight on. Created by executive order in 1935, it was administered by Columbia University Economics Professor, Rexford Tugwell. Through “the establishment, maintenance, and operation” of “communities in rural and suburban areas,” the agency aimed to create new living arrangements to overcome the emergent problems of urban and rural poverty (Executive Order No. 7027, 1935). By virtue of what the Resettlement Administration proposed, it diagnosed both situations as a matter of environment; the modern age had rendered traditional urban and rural environments dysfunctional. The Resettlement Administration championed single-family home ownership, mixed-income residential areas, and comprehensive planned living spaces. Ample roadways would join residential unit clusters with other places, leaving broad green-belts in between. Numerous electric power lines would provide clean energy to these residential enclaves as social scientists planned what amenities would give the residential area a communal character. Schools were an obvious necessity, but the social scientists insisted on a community center, library, and a shopping district as critical institutions in melding together urban and rural poor. Separate traffic routes for motorists and pedestrians were constructed and issues as seemingly inconsequential as whether residents should be allowed to smoke cigarettes were discussed.

Although only three of these new residential communities were actually built—$31 million in federal funding was spent—the agency initially planned to erect 3,000 such communities. Each would house between 10,000 and 30,000 residents, the land for which would be leased to cooperatives of local residents. Equally telling was Tugwell’s explanation of the process of community building. The Resettlement Administration would go, he claimed, “outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it.” Then the agency would “go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them” (Gelfand 1975, 133).

Tugwell’s explanation and his prescription that slums be turned into parks, coupled with the agency’s devotion to smoking bans, libraries, and shopping districts as appropriate facets of these greenbelt communities, reflected just how imperative creating the right environment seemed to agency social scientists. To these men and women, an appropriate environment became the sine qua non of social renovation. Only by erecting and mandating institutions, practices, and customs that favored a healthful, happy, prosperous society could one manufacture the possibility of achieving that end. In this framework, individuals not only brought certain habits, traits, and abilities that defined them and their cohort, but they also had the capacity to be shaped and modified by the environment—a certain plasticity characterized modern American men and women. As important, the social engineers understood that a properly sculpted environment would eliminate or diminish certain kinds of behavior that were unsuccessful in the social milieu and therefore unproductive. Over time, new successful behavior and customs—behaviors and customs increasingly successful within this particularly shaped environment—would flourish and become ingrained within the body politic. The result would be a society and social order consistent with modernist principles.

That social science formulation extended this emergent evolutionary synthesis into the social sphere. Environments within this new synthesis were deterministic in the sense that behaviors and other factors catered for favor within that particularistic milieu. To many of these social scientists, the environment was virtually predictive, a means to inculcate communalism. Within a perfected environment, the struggle for social existence would be one sided. Behaviors that were functional would be rewarded in the environment, whereas those that failed to further community cohesion—dysfunctional behaviors—would be excised. Put simply, the environmentalism of the period amounted to a social determinism in which persons, places, customs, and things that could adapt to the environment would be favored and therefore strengthened. An appropriate environment would enable good things to flourish.

This social scientific theory required no statistical measures. It needed little more than common sense and the will and power to create “modern” environments, the kind of environments spelled out in the various social science literature of the period. Indeed, this environmental determinism accounted for the passionate embrace of any of a number of residential models that placed people, places, institutions, and the like in most intimate connection. It also indicated the depth of disappointment with established forms of urban governance and life. It was not simply that the old way hampered progress. Rather, persistence of the old way ended virtually any opportunity for revision and success. The failed status quo guaranteed the persistence of the emergent problems of modernity.

Not content to merely refashion urban environs, New Deal social scientists and their supporters also tried to “modernize” opinion. The Resettlement Administration sponsored photography of common folk and the Regionalist art of Grant Wood as it campaigned to convince others of the wisdom of its proposals by using methods then prevalent in modern advertising. The Resettlement Administration also pressed for documentary movies as an effective means to make its case. Tugwell initially proposed the making of eighteen such films. Two in fact were made. Both The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936)—about the Dust Bowl—and The River (1939)—about the TVA—provided visual images tailored to make the case for the creation of new federally financed and actuated environs.

Roosevelt was so pleased by the efforts that he created the U.S. Film Service in 1938 and tapped Pare Lorentz, who had conceived and supervised the Resettlement Administration’s films, to be its head. Before he left, however, Lorentz sketched out what would have been the Resettlement Administration’s third film, which called for creation of a modern urban environment. That movie would be known as The City (1939) and Lorenz would serve as producer.

A diverse collection of humanists, social scientists, and other do-gooders from inside and outside the federal government joined Lorentz in making this film. The American Institute of Planners, spearheaded by several RPAA members, sponsored the effort and the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York funded it. Mumford wrote most of the narrative. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) photographers and cameramen on The Plow and The River, directed and photographed the visually stunning effort. Aaron Copland, composer of such Regionalist pieces as Appalachian Spring (1944) and Rodeo (1942), as well as Quiet City (1939), wrote the score.

The film opened at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow.” It proved an instant hit, a quite sophisticated integration of words, visuals, and music. The film contrasted the rustic New England past, a time of joy and “communitarianism” in which humans were in touch with nature and with the industrial city (Pittsburgh was used). There blight, smoke, hopelessness, and poverty reigned. The metropolis—New York City—was portrayed as an impersonal place where breakneck speed was the norm—jostling on sidewalks and automated pancake and toast machines gone out of control were the pertinent images—and danger lurked around every corner. Attempts at relaxation, such as going to the beach at the Jersey shore, were thwarted by massive traffic jams, flat tires, overheated vehicles, screaming children, and congestion-related automobile accidents.

In The City, greenbelt communities restored an environment gone terribly wrong. Here the visuals were from Greenbelt, Maryland, a Resettlement Administration greenbelt community. Hydroelectric power, glass, steel, and automobiles produced a bright, new environment, sensitive to integrating humanity, the soil, and the machine. This was an environment fit for modern life and living.

The visuals and Copland’s adept score dominated the film. But while words were sparse, those written by Mumford focused on children, on the next generation of Americans, and how the modern age could lay waste to the depressing present. In the New England past, there existed “lasting harmony between soil and people, the town was us, and we were part of it.” But then the industrial city emerged.

Smoke makes prosperity, they tell you here, no matter if you choke on it. There are prisons where a guy for doing wrong can get a better place to live than we can give our children…. Can we afford all this disorder, the hospitals, the jails, the reformatories, the wasted years of childhood? These are future citizens, voters, lawmakers, mothers, fathers (The City 1939).

In the metropolis, “people count the seconds and lose the days.”

Greenbelt cities were different. They were explicitly designed for modern humankind. So said the seductive words in the film’s narration: “Science takes flight at last for human goals”—as compared to the will for profit—as the new cities were as appropriate for “human wants as a plane is shaped for speed.” “All we know about machines, soils, and raw materials and human ways of living is waiting.” This “new city is organized to make cooperation possible between machines and men and nature.” It “works for modern living as once it did for the old New England town.” “Here boys and girls achieve a balanced personality, ready to build and meet a many sided world” (The City, Parts 1 & 2, 1939).

A New Paradigm

The huge success of this motion picture suggests just how central a nerve its message hit. But even as it was being released, the social science thrust that gave it its momentum was under attack. Louis Wirth, a student of Park’s at Chicago, used the lead article in the American Journal of Sociology, the journal of record in his field, to urge his colleagues to go back to numbers. In a nutshell, his argument was that without numbers and the definitions made real by them, sociologists would not be able to come to bear on the problems of modernity. Without a common definition of qualities and conditions of modernity, quantities and deviations from those definitions could not be measured. Wirth’s basic premise was simple. Modernity made what he called urbanism the way of life; cities and especially aggregations of peoples in the modern world influenced not simply their environs but entire countries and even the world’s population. If that were the case, then it became incumbent upon sociologists to recognize that fact and then to elicit the degree and type of influence felt or recorded, and that required measurement, precision, and exactitude. What was necessary, according to Wirth, was “a comprehensive body of compendent hypotheses which may be derived from a set of postulates implicitly contained in a sociological definition of the city, and from our general sociological knowledge which may be substantiated through empirical research”—research that generated measurable, countable numbers. Even these hypotheses would require “ample and exact verification” (Wirth 1938, 6-8, 18-19, 20-23).

Wirth knew that the entire matter hinged on theory. “By means of a body of theory,” he claimed that “the complicated and many-sided phenomena of urbanism” could be reduced to “a limited number of basic categories”—things that could be quantified or measured. A cogent statistics-dependent theory would give “the sociological approach to the city” an “essential unity and coherence enabling the empirical investigator” to treat urban life “in a more integrated and systematic fashion.” Since what “passes as an ‘urban sociology’ . at present” lacked such a tool, Wirth decided to produce one. With attendant subdivisions and caveats, Wirth maintained that “urbanism as a characteristic model of life may be approached empirically from three interrelated perspectives”—as a “physical structure,” as a “system of social organization,” and as “a set of attitudes and ideas.” Wirth understood that his definition/theory contained severe flaws and gross limitations. He felt compelled to offer it because “it is only so far as the sociologist has a clear conception of the city as a social entity and a workable theory of urbanism that he can hope to develop a unified body of reliable knowledge.” His theory of urbanism would be “elaborated, tested, and revised in the light of further analysis and empirical research”—each number-dependent. Theory would enable “the miscellaneous assortment of disconnected information which has hitherto found its way into sociological treatises on the city”—the studies of the previous fifteen years when numbers had failed—to be “sifted and incorporated into a coherent body of knowledge” (Wirth 1938, 6-8, 18-19, 20-23).

Wirth’s prescription was direct. It overturned discrete sets of living arrangements—cities, neighborhoods, towns, rural—for a single theory of modernity, which he termed a theory of urbanism; urbanism was modern. This theory facilitated measurements from place to place and from time to time. It restored numbers to a central place in what had been urban social science. Wirth had restored order to the chaos that his mentor, Park, had created in the late 1920s, but at the expense of doing away with cities as a category or living arrangement. What mattered to Wirth and his descendants was not the uniqueness of social arrangements but rather how they compared to a de facto artificially established normal. Wirth’s approach established that normal as the base and made problem resolution simply an attempt to get matters to conform to the hypothetical normal. It established the model as normal, which meant that every time the model was “refined,” normal in fact changed. The situation became one of relative truth in which problem solving reflected only the application of the newest social science model. It established a situation both in theory and in practice in which the theoretical world displaced reality.

Wirth himself keenly recognized the desire to achieve the appearance of stability and meaning in an otherwise indeterminate world. He wrote, “Only by means of some such theory will the sociologist escape the futile practice of voicing in the name of sociological science a variety of often unsupportable judgments concerning [social] problems.” He realized that social scientists “cannot solve any of these practical problems,” but if each “discovers his proper function,” they will have “an important contribution to make to [problem] comprehension and solution.” Opportunities for social scientists to improve the social weal, Wirth concluded, “are brightest through a general, theoretical, rather than through an ad hoc approach.” Numbers would provide certainty to urbanologists in the modern world, even if only relatively so (Wirth 1938, 24).

In the years after Wirth’s essay, urban social scientists resurrected their precious numbers. That act denigrated other forms of evidence—the case study, vignette, anecdote—that had proliferated in the late 1920s and 1930s. Downplaying nonnumerical material signaled a rejection of interest in the uniqueness of experience, life as lived. Urbanologists in the very late 1930s and after opted almost exclusively for a sterile, mathematically precise approximation of reality and proceeded as if it were real. That decision held very real consequences. By substituting measuring deviance from a hypothetical and idealized point for an exact description of a particular situation at hand, they traded an end—coming to bear on “social” issues—for an understanding of the unique interplay among the various forces, people, and customs in a particular place. Model building and data fitting came to dominate modern urban social science.