Nightmare Cities

For at least the past century, the metropolis has been the locus and container for many of Western culture’s deepest fears, fears of crime, social chaos, deviance and racial difference.

Urban streets bristle with menace in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen Crane, in the social realist novels of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, in German Expressionist paintings, in the photojournalism of Weegee, in the hundreds of film noirs produced by Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s and in a seemingly endless series of dark, brooding thrillers such as Dark City (1998), The Departed (2006) and Inception (2010). Political thinkers as different as Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson and Ebenezer Howard have regarded cities with suspicion. Early sociologists like Ferdinand Tönnies viewed urban environments as destructive of genuine community. What, exactly, accounts for these anti-urban fantasies? Why do our dystopias and post-apocalyptic nightmares so often take the form of a vast (and often ruined) megalopolis?

It is worth remembering that the city has not always been a source of dread. Up until at least the 18th Century, it was nature – oceans, wilderness, deserts, mountains – that was viewed as the primary threat to human life, as deadly and always potentially out of control. As cities grew and nature was demystified and subdued by science and modern technology, anxieties that once attached to natural landscapes were displaced onto urban ones. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan puts it in his Landscapes of Fear, “natural forces tend no longer to be viewed as malicious – that is, possessed by the will to injure. Paradoxically, it is in the large city – the most visible symbol of human rationality and the triumph over nature – that some of the old fears remain.” Fear of the city develops in conjunction with the breakneck growth in population of places like Paris (with a population of more than half a million by the time of the French Revolution) and London (which had a population of one million by 1801) during the 18th century. And it becomes firmly entrenched across Europe and North America in the 19th century as newer cities like Berlin, St. Petersburg, New York, Chicago and Baltimore exploded in size.

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One reason large cities came to be seen as nightmarish in the 19th and early 20th centuries is that they were believed to foster social disorganization and crime. Residents of large cities typically have smaller families or live alone, have looser community ties and have more haphazard, fleeting relationships with others than people living in the countryside. Under these circumstances, writes urban sociologist Louis Wirth in his 1938 essay Urbanism as a Way of Life, “[p]ersonal disorganization, mental breakdown, suicide, delinquency, crime, corruption and disorder might be expected to be more prevalent...than in the rural community.”

While it is now largely accepted that poverty and economic inequality play a more decisive role in determining crime rates than place alone, the notion that the ecology of cities “generates” crime, violence and mayhem has entered into the popular imagination and is now a staple of right-wing political rhetoric. Former U.S. secretary of education William Bennett has spent his post-government career hawking the dubious notion that African-American inner-city neighborhoods are perfect “criminogenic environments” sending forth wave after wave of “super-predators” to terrorize the nation.

Representations of the city as a nightmare often fixate on what urbanophiles celebrate as the city’s most attractive feature: its heterogeneity. All of the world’s great cities (London, New York, Chicago, Paris, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, São Paulo) boast multicultural collections of neighborhoods encompassing different races, ethnicities and countries of origin. Consider New York City. Some 40% of its population are immigrants with the largest immigrant populations hailing from China, Russia, Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Columbia. New York’s inhabitants are 27% Latino, 27% Black, 10% Asian and 44% White. Physically, the city is a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, ghettos and semi-integrated neighborhoods. This juxtaposition of races, ethnicities and immigrant groups is of course what makes New York such a powerful incubator for cultural and stylistic innovation. Yet it precisely this diversity that right-wing populists and racists despise about New York and that conservative media outlets, many of them ironically based in Manhattan, love to demonize.

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At the same time, it must be acknowledged that there is a “rational kernel” at the heart of the grim images of cities circulating through our culture. The contemporary capitalist metropolis represents both an immense concentration of wealth and resources and, at the same time, an unparalleled concentration of human misery and deprivation. Cities like New York and Chicago feature some of the most luxurious, exclusive neighborhoods on the planet as well as some of the most impoverished. Photographer and muckraking journalist Jacob Riis prompted a social reform movement with his exposé How the Other Half Lives (1890), an investigation of the bleak living conditions in New York tenement buildings. Yet over a century later, New York is still marked by deep disparities of wealth and income and by horrific poverty. According to a 2014 Census Bureau Report, the richest 5% of New York City households earned 88 times as much as the poorest 20%, and some 1.7 million New Yorkers are living below the poverty line. And yet the slums of New York are paradise compared to the impoverished areas of Mexico City, Mumbai and Nairobi.

According to the United Nations, more than the half of world’s population today lives in cities and projections are that upwards of 66% will live in cities by the year 2050. As humanity becomes increasingly urbanised, it is not so much the reactionary anti-urban fantasies about cities as crime-ridden, deviant, alienating, chaotic places that should concern us as it is the unavoidable fact that our cities are riven by widening economic inequalities and beset with crushing poverty. Millions of people residing in squalor in the midst of the affluence of the modern metropolis - now that is the real urban nightmare.


Steve Macek is Professor and Chair of Communication and Media Studies at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

The Treatment 
by Martin Crimp. Directed by Lyndsey Turner
24 April - 10 June 


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