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Who, Then, is the American?

Melissa Currie / Jun 28 2013

For Release Friday, June 28, 2013

Melissa Currie“Who, then, is the American?” Frenchman J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in the 1780s in Letters from an American Farmer.

The question continues to intrigue, almost 240 years after this nation declared its independence in 1776. Two centuries later, in 1975, Harvard human geographer Brian J.L. Berry offered his own answer. Berry applied de Crèvecoeur’s 18th-century cultural characteristics to what he saw in 20th-century American society and its cities, even describing the aging metropolis as “an effluent, an inevitable discard with no enduring value.”

Why such a negative view? (Of course, even Thomas Jefferson referred to great cities as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”)

Berry based his analysis on what he saw as deeply embedded American cultural traits, which de Crèvecoeur described long before: the love of newness; the desire to be near nature; the freedom to move at will; the pursuit of individualism; America as a great melting pot; a tendency to violence; and the American’s sense of manifest destiny.

Have we changed at all in the 38 years since Berry’s indictment of cities? In the 1970s and ’80s America’s cities declined even further, but then in many cases began reviving. Yet the cultural traits he described appear as strong as ever. Where will they lead our cities in the coming decades?

Love of newness: Berry described how people moving up to new housing creates a constant outward movement of neighborhoods. That leaves the oldest, cheapest houses for the poorest families to occupy, or to be left vacant, thereby eroding neighborhoods and making them obsolete.

In theory, this filtering removes the least desirable housing and should balance supply and demand. Moving from one “zone” to another creates room for those in the poorest zones to move up. In reality, contrary to Berry’s analysis, it produces leapfrog development – creating a vacancy chain-reaction in the center as growth booms in the periphery. This pattern has played out in cities across America, from Detroit to Pittsburgh to Birmingham.

Nearness to nature: To Berry, the widespread American wish to be near nature hearkens back to the belief that cities are places of social ills, a prevailing pattern from early Greek and Roman times when the wealthy built country estates to escape the disease and crime of crowded cities. Preindustrial U.S. cities were no different – in peripheral areas the poor were pushed out to make room for large estates, industries and higher standards of living. Again, the wealthy moved outward to be close to nature.

Freedom to move: This is deeply ingrained in America’s “frontier spirit.” Berry describes Americans as “the world’s most mobile people.” In 2013, Americans’ desire to move has not diminished; the typical American moves eight to 10 times in a lifetime.

Pursuit of individualism: In Berry’s view, the U.S. love of individualism and the frontier spirit arise from a tradition of privatism. Americans are a people in search of opportunity, with an “I can make or break it on my own,” view. That individual drive for prosperity, rather than a collective pursuit, has defined the U.S. economy, drawing people from around the globe.

Melting pot effect: Although we are a country largely settled by immigrants, and Berry’s “melting pot” view is common, in reality assimilation is seldom easy. America is not really the “blended stew” he and others describe. The mixing of cultures has produced struggle, conflict and deeply held segregations.

Violence: America has spawned a culture of violence, as groups struggle to compete. And competition, especially for space, has fueled many aspects of urban development. Crime and violence are a way of life in too many poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

Sense of destiny: Despite those imperfections and societal flaws, an overriding sense of destiny remains. Americans, somehow, share an understanding that “we are all in this together.” This theme has played throughout our history, from the American Revolution to the 1960s’ War on Poverty (and most recently in our feeling of unity after the 9-11 terrorist attacks).

In today’s metro areas, the influence of those cultural attributes is obvious.

Americans’ desire for newness, nature and the freedom to move has led to sprawling growth. Leapfrog development still pre-empts the urban edge, as far-flung subdivisions and retail hubs push farther and farther into undeveloped areas.

Our individualistic spirit has also kept us from embracing regional policies and more sustainable forms of growth – to the harm of many cities. One telling example: desert cities, which ignore environmental constraints like heat and lack of water, morph into gluttons of land and resources. And we ignore overwhelming evidence of the interdependence of suburbs and cities.

A misguided belief in self-sufficiency has been selectively applied, to the detriment of cities and their suburbs. Multiple studies show that city and suburban jobs and incomes are linked in an intertwined fate, rising and falling together. Exclusionary zoning practices in suburbs make fiscal disparities across jurisdictions even worse. Declining cities must reduce amenities, causing even more out-migration and suburban growth.

The 20th-century brought a government-subsidized restructuring of America: building the interstate highway system and vast suburbs while destroying urban cores through ill-considered urban renewal projects.

One can only hope Americans’ sense of common destiny will re-emerge, that we’ll reconsider our reluctance to embrace regional cooperation and will turn, instead, to development patterns that will allow the American experiment to continue for centuries to come.

Melissa Currie is a landscape architect and a doctoral student in geography at UNC Charlotte. Reach her at Views expressed here are hers and not necessarily the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to