Monday, August 20, 2012

Song of the City

Forty years ago next month, “American City Suite” broke into the Top 100.  Written and sung by Cashman & West, it was an unusual song for the Top 100, running over ten minutes in length and comprised of three songs with very different styles.  Also, much of it was a regression into bubblegum pop that felt more like the 1960s than the 1970s.

But something in the message touched enough listeners for the song to climb the charts.  I was one of those listeners.  Perhaps the song was even one small step on my path to writing this urbanism blog.

“American City Suite” is about the decline of cities in the 1970s, with the songwriters tracking the transition from the fond memories of youthful play toward the adult realities of drug-dealing and urban decay.  It culminates in a deathbed watch for city life.  It seems likely that the lyrics were specifically directed at New York City.

One can interpret the lyrics as the changes in how one views a city during the transition from youth into adulthood.  But story arc also tracks the changes that were occurring in the cities of the early 1970s.  The setting of the song coincides with the final stages of Robert Moses’ role in New York, much of which was an effort to convert streets from places where stickball was played into conduits for funneling commuters toward the suburbs.

But rather than reading my interpretation, take a listen.  And try not to smile at the lines, “Something ‘bout their sweaters make you play a little better.  Or at least you tried.”

Okay, it’s a bit saccharin, but there are legitimate and heartfelt emotions under the sometimes cheesy presentation.  Forty years later, it still resonates with me.

The Kinks come close to evoking urbanism as memorably as Cashman & West.  But the Kinks’ theme was often the rejection of the hustle and bustle of city life in favor of a pastoral village life.  The Kinks would likely concur with the goal of new urbanism to create more opportunities for human connection within the city, but that concurrence wasn’t reflected in their songwriting.

Do any of you have favorite songs that evoke urbanism?  Please share.

(Some may find the name Cashman familiar.  After he and Tommy West ended their partnership, Terry Cashman went on to write and record the well-known baseball anthem, “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke”.  So his career includes a tribute to much that was good about New York City in the 1950s and a lamentation for much that had gone wrong by the 1970s.  It’s a remarkable set of songwriting bookends.)

 As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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