An overly co-dependent couple, as any dinner party guest knows all too well, can cast an alienating pall over nearly a whole table. In the world of postwar urban planning this noxiously self-absorbed pairing was played, more often than not, by the conjoined duo of the highway engineer and the forward-thinking corporation. Whether their plans involved mass destruction or not, they would invariably leave the urban fabric poorer than when they found it. The only available dream remaining for residents, as for bored diners, was to get in the car and flee. Examples of the harm done to cities are legion: garages next to off-ramps, flyovers, skywalks, elevated plazas, and 30-story heights. Yet sometimes this approach produced somewhat brighter results. This is the story told in Elihu Rubin’s intriguing Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape, published this spring.
The location is Boston. The time is the mid-1950s. The protagonist is Prudential, one of the largest private corporations in the world. Older American cities had been filling for some time with ornate insurance headquarters, symbols of power and stability. Think Metropolitan Life on Madison Square in New York, Aetna in Hartford, the New England and Liberty Mutual Buildings in Boston, and the original Prudential buildings in Newark. A second wave was yet to come.
Prudential, pursuing a course of corporate decentralization in the 1950s, settled on Boston as the location for its New England Regional headquarters, with plans for a signature tower. This was a bolder move than you’d expect, as Rubin’s engrossing account of the political and business climate in mid-20th-century Boston illustrates. At the time the tallest building in New England was in Hartford. And the tallest in New England was the Customs House, perfectly symbolizing the consanguinary impact of a tentative business elite and a property-tax mad 40-year populist kleptocrat-mayoralty of James Curley. Given this account, the rise of suburban business parks is not a great surprise.
On my second week in New Orleans, on a sweltering August day, I went on a bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, sponsored by the local AIA chapter. It was a dispiriting experience. While much of the city had seen its fortunes rise, the Lower Ninth, the ne…