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New Book Reviews Urban Design Pioneer William Whyte ’39

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Author William H. “Holly” Whyte ’39 posed among passers-by on Fifth Avenue in 1989.

Bill Foley/Getty Images

Journalist Richard Rein’s book ’69 chronicles Whyte’s impact

William H. “Holly” Whyte ’39—journalist, author, urban anthropologist, and champion of pedestrian-friendly nooks in big cities—began his books with no-nonsense declarative sentences. His 1956 bestseller, The organization man, begins: “This book is about the organization man.” His preface to The Explosive Metropolis begins: “This is a book written by people who love cities.” At the Time Inc. business magazine where he first rose to prominence, he began an internal missive: “This memo is about Fortune; where he is and where he is going. He coined the word “groupthink” in the pages of this magazine and, with Sloan Wilson’s novel The man in the gray flannel suit, provided an enduring label for the conformists who nestled in the suburbs and cozy corporate niches of the 1950s. Yet he insisted he never meant “the man of the ‘organization’ as a pejorative but as a reminder that the vitality of any large entity – corporations, universities, churches, etc. – depends on individuals thinking for themselves.

American Urban Planner: How the Unconventional Wisdom of William H. Whyte Reshaped Public Life (Island Press), by Richard K. Rein ’69, traces the life and remarkable career of this secular urban critic once dismissed by sociologist C. Wright Mills as “a serious and optimistic scout.” Rein, an elder Daily Princetonian president who began his own career as a journalist in Time and founded United States 1a weekly covering business and community life in Princeton and along the Highway 1 corridor, first heard Whyte’s name invoked in President Robert Goheen’s welcome address ’40*48 at the chapel from the university in September 1965. Goheen quoted a church talk on Fortune the editor gave in 1953: “Every great progress has happened, and always will happen, because someone has been frustrated with the status quo, because someone has exercised skepticism, questioning and kind of curiosity which, to borrow an expression, blows the lid off everything.” Rein was drawn to the chronicle of Whyte’s life from an interest in urban blight and an encounter with an architect who converted an alley in Princeton into an art space. “Holly Whyte is my hero,” the architect tells Rein, a first-time book author who deftly weaves together the strands of Whyte’s personal and public life while immersing readers in post-America. -Second World War.

Whyte started out as an organization man himself, first in a ruthless sales training program peddling Vicks VapoRub, then as a leather lieutenant leading Marines into battle on Guadalcanal, and finally for more than a few years. a decade in Henry Luce’s Time Inc. empire – up to Whyte, so The wealth deputy editor, left after being pushed out of the top job.

His life’s work had only just begun. He worked with boss Laurance Rockefeller ’32 to keep spaces open and preserve the environment, then embarked on creating more livable cities, in particular his three favorites – “New York, New York and New York” . Throughout its downward spiral in the 1970s, it continued to try to make the city more hospitable to residents and office workers. He dedicated 10 years to his Street Life project, setting up movie cameras on rooftops and deploying interns to determine which squares attracted the most people, and produced a newsreel-style book and film on “The Social Life of small urban spaces”. Meticulously, he prescribed that stalls should be no more than 3 feet above or below the street sidewalk, and stairs should be at least 11 inches wide. He championed street musicians and a bagpiper hounded by ticket writers and had a soft spot for street people (“kooks and screwballs”), who he believed added spice to city life. He revived the once crime-ridden Bryant Park by insisting on moveable chairs instead of benches so people could huddle together or be left alone. (Rein writes that Whyte and Rockefeller tried to convince Princeton to put chairs in the plazas outside Firestone Library and around the fountain at the School of Public and International Affairs, but were told that too many chairs had been stolen. Today, there are chairs and tables in Firestone Plaza. .) He offered advice on a 1980s expansion of Palmer Square and the development of the Carnegie Center on Route 1.

He championed street musicians and a bagpiper hounded by ticket writers and had a soft spot for street people (“kooks and screwballs”), who he believed added spice to city life. It birthed the rebirth of the once crime-infested Bryant Park.

Raised prosperously in West Chester, Pennsylvania — another small college town that, like Princeton, would stave off suburban competition — Whyte was admitted to Princeton with three Ds, a D+ in English and a B in Sacred Studies. The principal of St. Andrew’s, a fledgling prep school in Delaware, wrote an extraordinary letter of recommendation for the “bright, versatile boy” too busy with extracurricular activities to do “a fine academic performance” but who had “made a contribution special at school on the funds of his particular genius.

Whyte rowed at Princeton, wrote short stories for The Nassau Literary Review, and wrote a play staged at the Théâtre Intime. The prep school kid showed courage in the jungles of Guadalcanal, but also honed his ability to make sense of the confusing information of battles and became an intelligence officer. Analytical sound Marine Corps Gazette press clippings helped him get the job at Fortune, the luxury monthly that has given writers months to decipher corporate management and discern societal trends. A 1952 article on groupthink spawned The organization manand a 1958 series on town planning led to The Explosive Metropolis. Whyte was editor and champion of then-little-known Jane Jacobs, who expanded her ‘Downtown is for People’ chapter into the classic The Death and Life of America’s Big Cities.

Poor health slowed Whyte during his final decade and he died in 1999 aged 81. He told his wife, fashion designer Jenny Bell, that he fears his work will be forgotten. His influence resonates today with “new urban planners” and architects, including Andres Duany ’71 and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk ’72. This “wonderful” biography, as New York Times critic called it, will surely win new Whyte followers.