By Richard Harris
Raban, Jonathan. Soft City. New York: E.P.Dutton, 1974.
Let me fess up: I’m cheating. Apart from the fact that this was written half a century ago, Soft City isn’t a neglected item of urban historical writing. It was one of the two books that made me into a student of cities. The other was David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City, and, in my humble opinion, Soft City has aged better. It is still the most brilliant evocation of city life that I know.
It is a collection of essays about how, as a migrant to London, Jonathan Raban negotiated the city and observed it. The titular essay evokes the ways in which a solitary person – in particular, a solitary man – can make a new life in a community of strangers. The city is ‘soft’ because “it awaits the imprint of an identity” (9). Other essays speak about how ‘greenhorns’ learn city ways; about how people use clothes and possessions to create and project a public image; how each of us creates a private world in the city, with its own “grid of reference points” (167); how the city’s freedom allows people to maintain communities, connected by the tube, the pavement (sidewalk), and the telephone. Don’t forget, this is 1974.
Raban is prescient about real estate trends. He comments on how “well-heeled people are buying neighborliness as part of the property” (90). He devotes one essay to a capsule summary of the character, dynamics, and effects of gentrification in the vicinity of a particular square, a summary which somehow manages to anticipate and evoke the themes of several thousand later academic papers at a time when many people in North America weren’t sure that gentrification was a word. Landlords “rained eviction notices” (188); ‘pioneers’ started playgroups and gave “small intense dinner parties” (189); “wherever they went, they spread money and principled amity” (193); in the interest of conservation, an owner persuaded the council to preserve a high brick garden wall “so that the tenants of the new council low-rise flats would not be able to watch the sunbathing Brahmins leafing through the New York Review of Books on their breakfast patios” (194). Ouch! But of course he knows where he sits in this class divide: he’s a tenant in the house with the high wall.
Raban knows his Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Friedrich Engels, and Robert Park; he also knows Charles Dickens, Ralph Ellison, Scott Fitzgerald, and Plato (these are included in a ‘bibliography’). But he wears this knowledge lightly, throwing off insights casually with a turn of phrase. Engaging, educating, and entertaining, Soft City is an inspired performance.
Past president of the UHA (2017-18), Richard Harris teaches urban geography at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He has written several accounts of Toronto’s suburban development, notably Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900-1950 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
Featured Image (top): Dan Mitchell, Hanbury Street, London, 1970’s, Flickr.