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Liberal dreams and nature's limits: great cities of North America since 1600.

Toronto and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. x, 341. Illustrations, maps, tables, notes, bibliography and index.

This is an informed, provocative, and challenging book. It is obviously the product of years of careful thinking about the history of great North American cities, of the forces that distinguish these metropolises from lesser places, and of the ideological context that has guided their past development but now threatens their very future. We would not expect anything less from Jim Lemon. More than most historically minded scholars, he has always been willing to put forth an argument and challenge us to consider its worth. For Lemon, cities in a liberal democracy are places where individuals should have the unquestionable right to the ownership of private property, and where society is obligated to protect this situation. Cities are also places subject to the constraints of changing technologies -- nature's limits -- particularly those that restrict the movement of people or goods in space, or retard economic development. Over the course of several centuries, from the seventeenth to the eve of the twenty-first and from one historical epoch to another, cities have responded positively, creating new and positive opportunities for most people. Now, according to Lemon, the obverse is beginning to take hold.

But is Lemon successful in demonstrating how liberal democracy and nature's limits have shaped North America's great cities? Is he successful in teaching our students how these two processes have interacted to create the present, more negative situation? My initial response straddled the fence: in some ways, yes; in other ways, no. This conclusion really depends upon two things: first, whether one accepts the "individual-city-as-representative-of-an-historical-epoch-a pproach;" and second, whether the reader is a student who is just coming to the field of urban historical enquiry, or is somebody who has already given ample consideration to the issues that James Lemon raises.

The book is written as a text, and is thus intended mainly, I suppose, for senior undergraduate students. For the uninformed novice, the task would be daunting, but not completely unrewarding. Even for students with considerable reading about the history of cities to their credit, the challenge is strong. Rather than focus on the great city as a general type, Lemon focuses on particular places at particular points in time. Thus, during the mercantile and commercial era, we first visit Franklin's Philadelphia in 1760 and then move forward a century to view the ascendency of New York in 1860. Early in the twentieth century, well into the modern era, Chicago is examined as the shock city of industrial capitalism. Later, in 1950 and 1975, we gain insights about Los Angeles and Toronto, respectively. I cannot think of any other source that offers a better synopsis of the character of Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Toronto at these chosen points in time. These syntheses of a diverse and expansive literature are well worth the price of the book. The literature consulted is thoroughly multi-disciplinary in perspective. Sources and interpretations are drawn from history, geography, economics, political science, architecture, et al. fields of enquiry. They are then melded in a satisfying, interdisciplinary manner. Each chapter is therefore a wonderful distillation of the relevant literature on places that have come to be widely accepted as truly representative of both an historical era and a particular type of city.

But this attractive approach is both a strength and weakness of the book. Lemon might argue that the initial two chapters provide ample context on cities in general, covering as they do the social, economic, and political background that is essential for examining the individual cities at particular points in time. He might also claim that the structural outline followed in each chapter (e.g., social relations, politics and government, land development and planning, and internal spatial structure) also allows for making comparisons among cities and for considering patterns of change over time.

True enough, but as the argument moves from place to place and from one development phase to another, or put another way, as the discussion shifts from one particular great city to another at a different point in capitalist development, students are left very much to their own wits when attempting to tie together the threads of Lemon's general argument. Quite simply, students might understand well enough how liberal democracy works in mid-nineteenth-century New York, but New York in 1910, in 1950, or in 1975 is not Chicago in 1910, Los Angeles in 1950, or Toronto in 1975. Does this deny that the case of either liberal democracy or nature's limits is irrelevant to each place across all phases of time? Of course, not. But because the book is intended as a text, more guidance, i.e., more teaching, is required to show students how the central thesis -- the fall of liberal democracy and the failure to overcome nature's limits -- does indeed apply to all great North American cities at all points in capitalist time.

For students who encounter this text, keeping track of how this central thesis is integrated across all chapters, i.e., just how it is applied to different cities over time, will prove a real challenge. This was the experience that my students encountered when I used the book as a text in a third-year course in urban historical geography. When considering the thesis on liberal democracy, it was genuinely difficult for these students to take the particular experience of one great city and reformulate it into general terms and then apply it, effectively and accurately, to the experience of another city, either earlier or later in that other city's development. Most students wished for additional discussion of this transcending experience, suggesting that they had lost sight of the book's main thesis during the course of interpreting its unifying argument,

Despite this situation, these same students nevertheless quite easily followed, and readily accepted, most of Lemon's arguments of the ways in which different structural elements of the representative cities formed a recognizable pattern through time. For example, when asked, after reading the book, to devise a model of the changing internal structure of cities over time, they took material from the discussion of different cities at different points in time and quite effectively produced a stage model of changing spatial structure. They were less effective in doing this for social and economic change. Did this occur because the line of reasoning about changing spaces offered a more familiar, i.e., geographic, approach to interpreting the city? As a teacher, had I failed to demonstrate the value and intricacy of Lemon's overarching, inter-disciplinary arguments? Had I failed to fully demonstrate the structure of his approach? On reflection, I think that I did let my students down, even though Lemon's inter-disciplinary approach is what attracted me to the book in the first place. I had certainly wanted to excite students about the possibilities of the inter-disciplinary approach to urban historical research.

Yes, Jim Lemon's Liberal Dreams and Nature's Limits is informed, provocative, and challenging. Its synthetic qualities are informed by an outstanding and wide canvass of the literature; its thesis offers the opportunity for provocative classroom discussion; and its inter-disciplinary approach challenges teachers to teach better. Quite obviously, on further consideration, I should no longer straddle the fence, offering, instead, my own version of "two thumbs up."

Larry McCann

Department of Geography

University of Victoria
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Publication:Urban History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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