History Net

The Location of Anomie: a culture case study of urbanization: Buffalo, NY, 1810-1910

From Dr.Elwin H. Powell's book, Design of Discord: Studies of Anomie,

(New York: Oxford University Press. 1970)

Our home is in the city's dust and strife From its too feverish air, we breathe our life Ours is no soft commune with field and sky, Not ours in depth of summer wood to lie, And take from Nature's ever lavish hand The stores of pleasure there at our command From all her life and bloom we dwell apart The year's sweet fall,: the coming of her springs,

All have the strange, sad feel of distant things.

--David Gray, Buffalo poet and newspaper editor, 1873

The city embodies the profound contradictions of our time, a paradox of organized chaos, of regimented individualism. A monolith devoid of inner coherence, the city's "parts" seem unrelated to the whole. Lewis Mumford summed it up: "external regularity; internal disruption." In the city, says R.E. Park. "man gains his freedom but loses his direction"; urbanization "secularizes society and individuates the person." More a population aggregate than a community. -the city is functionally integrated through the cash nexus, but there is "no communication and no consensus . . . human relations are symbiotic rather than social." Anomie is the essence of urbanism as a way of life.

When the American city was young if imbibed the dreamy utopianism of the surrounding culture. Established as a trading post by the Holland Land Company in 1802, the village of Buffalo (pop. 1500) was burned by the British in 1813, grew to a population of 2000 by 1820, then quadrupled during the next decade after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo as designed by Joseph Ellicott, who had assisted L'Enfant with the planning of Washington, D.C. Ellicott laid out the main streets as spokes radiating from a semicircular wheel. In the semicircle was his private estate, which he -donated to the town as a public park. Ellic6tt gave the city valuable waterfront property upon which piers were to be built and rented at a profit to support city government and thus obviate the necessity for taxes -

municipal socialism 75 years before the word came into currency. The city accepted Ellicott's gift, chopped up the estate and sold it to businessmen,- ran gridiron streets across the basic raidan design, producing a chaos of parallelograms and trapezoids, and allowed private interests to grab the waterfront. Far from having a source of revenue, the city found itself paying rent to the pier-

owners by the 1870's. In the 1860's a kinsman of Ellicott's lamented that "a little of our Yankee love of straight lines" could not have been allowed to give way to the, wishes of a man "whose soul was bound up in the prosperity of this town ... his name will not now be linked with the city. But history is nothing if not ironic. By the 1950's the Ellicott district was a dense, decaying slum. Ellicott's end is emblematic of the fate of the visionary in America. Disillusioned by the rejection of his bold and imaginative plan for the city, he hanged himself in 1826. If he could see Buffalo today he would have no reason to regret his final act.

But the 1830's were confident years, when De Tocqueville's happy republic still absorbed the morning sun. The happy republic, like the dancing bear, did after all perform and, to the astonishment of the rest of the world, ordinary men proved capable of managing their ordinary lives."