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George Point books April

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George Point: Book Talk! “American Urbanist” William H. Whyte Some people talk the talk, some people walk the walk, but William Hollingsworth “Holly” Whyte Jr. possessed the rare gift of talking the walk, the ability to articulate his experience public spaces in a way that influenced the reshaping of them into more hospitable, people-centric places. That’s a recurring theme in “American Urbanist – How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life” (Island Press), Richard K. Rein’s informative, meticulously researched biography of the prolific writer for Fortune magazine (1946 to 1958), author of “The Organization Man,” the 1956 bestseller that brought Whyte to national attention, and other groundbreaking books on the subject of the interaction between people and public spaces. Rein traces Whyte’s journey from his birth in West Chester, Pa., in 1917, to his graduation from Princeton University in 1939, to his stint as a Vicks VapoRub salesman, to his service in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1941. While in the Marine Corps Whyte learned two lessons that would stay with him long after his discharge. The first was a crash course – thanks to Whyte’s sink-or-swim situation as a freshly minted lieutenant leading a cadre of new recruits and world-weary veterans – in how to effectively lead organizations made up of people of diverse backgrounds, biases and ages. The second was Whyte’s application of his keen powers of observation, bringing his talent to bear as an intelligence analyst and assembling bits and pieces of information gleaned from the battlefield to form the big picture so useful to military strategists in time of war. The synthesis of the two, coupled with Whyte’s straightforward prose style, made him a mainstay at Fortune magazine, where he regularly applied his talents to articles that often critiqued the culture within major American corporations. Perhaps the most lasting that Rein cites is Whyte’s use of his newly coined term “groupthink” in a 1952 piece, inspired, Rein posits, by Orwell’s use of “doublethink” in his novel, “1984.” In Whyte’s own words “...What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.” Whyte’s essays on American corporations eventually led him to write the best seller “The Organization Man” in 1956, following interviews with the CEOs of corporate giants like General Electric and Ford Motor Company. With middle class America on the verge of a mass migration from city centers to the suburbs, spurred on by the construction of the interstate highway system, Whyte’s examination of “...the common problems of collective work...” struck a chord with some, a nerve with others, and became a runaway best seller that, despite the changed nature of work in the 21st century, remains influential today. In 1956 Whyte also attended an event that directed much of what he’d devote his time and energy to for the rest of his life, a two-day conference on the “new science” of city planning. Whyte is galvanized by a talk given by keynote speaker Jane Jacobs on urban redevelopment, a criticism of many projects that threatened the “creative core” of cities. Inspired, Whyte applied his keen powers of observation, common sense and clear writing style to bear on an exhaustive roster of development projects to improve the livability of public spaces. He celebrated the energy, diversity and (what seemed counter-intuitive to many) the density of cities and disdained the social monoculture of the suburbs. Rein makes a convincing case that Whyte was a key figure in the field of urban planning, decades before the term entered the lexicon. He documents Whyte’s influence on the design and improvement of urban spaces large and small; like Bryant Park and vest-pocket Paley Park in New York City, his work with the NYC Planning Commission, the New Jersey Open Space Commission, his long association with the Rockefeller family and his role in the preservation of some of Manhattan’s most cherished historic buildings. In all Whyte’s endeavors, Rein reminds us that firsthand observation was the key to Whyte’s accomplishments. As Whyte said in 1958, “Looking at models and bird’s-eye renderings gives no clues … you have to get out and walk.”


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