Looking Back at William H. Whyte: A Thinker Bent on Reshaping City Life

From a New York Times review by Alexandra Jacobs of the book by Richard K. Rein titled “American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life”:

Before crowdsourcing, there was groupthink. The first sounds almost jolly: a mosh pit of ideas. The second, a term introduced with sinister Orwellian overtones by William H. Whyte in a 1952 article for Fortune magazine, describes how creativity and even morality can be stifled by consensus.

Not long after that article ran, Whyte wrote “The Organization Man,” a book that was seminal — the masculine etymology of that overused word here entirely apt. It identified a new collective and anesthetizing ethos in America, the onetime supposed bastion of rugged individualism. It was a huge best seller and a sort of companion text to Sloan Wilson’s shoulder-squaring novel “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” This was the era of admen, family men, laymen, oil men, men men men men men….

Though “The Organization Man” is dated in major ways, parts of it remain blazingly relevant. It condemns the administration of personality tests, an odd form of office astrology whose use in management training persists to this day. Whyte went on to a distinguished career as a sui generis urban anthropologist: writing a half-dozen more books; making mesmerizing films in which he peered from above at ant-like pedestrians; weighing in widely on public affairs; and marrying a charismatic fashion designer, Jenny Bell. That he isn’t better remembered and frequently cited, especially now that both workplaces and cities are getting a hard look during the pandemic, is something “American Urbanist,” a marvelous new biography by Richard K. Rein, explains and should help rectify.

Whyte might have been a victim of his own thesis about conformity, tending to blend in with other alliteratively named, fedora- and necktie-clad cultural critics of the mid-20th century, like Marshall McLuhan….

William H. suffered, too, perhaps, from doing many different things well — defying easy categorization, leapfrogging across disciplines. “What are you now?” asked one foundation president, hoping to hire Whyte. “Private eye? Pundit? Consultant?”

Raised middle class in West Chester, Pa., Whyte, whose parents divorced, had been a distracted pupil at St. Andrew’s, a private school in Delaware, but was nonetheless admitted to Princeton, where he seemed at first to be following the path of F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing a prizewinning play and short stories as W. Hollingsworth Whyte. After graduation, “Holly,” as he was nicknamed, briefly sold Vicks VapoRub before eagerly enlisting in the Marines. To assuage the misery of the Guadalcanal campaign, he smuggled in muslin sheets and made cocktails of Pepsodent and medicinal alcohol, the kind of precise, take-you-there detail that makes one want to dawdle rather than race through Rein’s book. Whyte contributed to the Marine Corps Gazette before proceeding to magazine journalism.

This was the profession’s golden age — so much so that the cover of the 10th anniversary issue of Fortune, then a top-shelf sibling publication to Time whose contributors included James Agee and Alfred Kazin, was printed with actual gold. Whyte considered himself a literary contender, gleefully tweaking The New Yorker, which had a longstanding feud with Time Inc., in the pages of Harper’s and at college before that. He also knew his way around maps, graphs and charts. But more academically credentialed intellectuals sometimes sneered at him for his simplicity and direct style. “An earnest, optimistic Boy Scout,” one Ph.D. dismissed him in The New York Times Book Review. “The trouble is he isn’t really prepared.”

Rein trails his subject with a sure step. He first encountered Whyte’s ideas about challenging the status quo as a freshman at Princeton himself, and reported for Time and People. The two men never met, though Whyte once quoted U.S. 1, a community newspaper Rein founded about the Princeton-Route 1 corridor, praising it as “sprightly.” The threads of commonality between them hoist the story, rather than choke it. That social distancing makes Whyte’s work newly germane is a lucky break.

Denied a promotion at Fortune, Whyte quickly “pivoted,” to use today’s jargon, befriending Rockefellers and beginning to consider the issues of conservation and built environments that would preoccupy him for the rest of his days; even when admitted to hospitals, he would tsk at the inefficient design of their elevators. One of his noticeable legacies is the presence of movable chairs instead of bolted benches in places like Bryant Park, encouraging people to gather in companionable, conversational knots of their choosing. He welcomed the presence of eccentric “characters” in the cityscape, and noted that a low proportion of women in a public space is a leading indicator that “things are wrong.”

Against many chauvinists, Whyte was an early and fierce champion of the activist and author Jane Jacobs, who considered him one of her few friends in Manhattan. “TERRIFIC!” he wrote upon reading a pre-publication draft of Jacobs’s classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” having secured her more time and money to finish. “You did it and I can’t wait to hear the … yells and churlish comments of the fraternity.”

Whyte and Jacobs were fellow travelers, favoring field research and basic observation of human behavior — just plain walking around — over top-down planning with “models and bird’s-eye renderings.” (They also shared insufficient acknowledgment of institutional racism, Rein notes.) Jacobs, however, had her great antagonist, the politician Robert Moses; her defeat of his plans for an expressway that would have ruined Greenwich Village is one of the great David-and-Goliath battles in metropolitan history. Whyte tended to avoid such face-offs. “At a time when proponents of public space and environmentalists viewed developers as sworn enemies, and vice versa,” Rein writes, “Whyte moved gracefully back and forth across enemy lines.”…

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic for The Times and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.”


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