Forget “cities” and “suburbs.” Purdue historian Jon Teaford plays Copernicus to the Ptolemaic epicycles that most urban observers still cling to. If you want to know what’s going on, you have to silence your inner grandpa, and shake off the notion that today’s city is the city of 1945 with minor adjustments.

In his new book, The Metropolitan Revolution: The Rise of Post-Urban America (Columbia University Press), he reminds us what urbanism was in 1945:

“The metropolis was a place with readily discernible edges, its lifestyle sharply distinguished from that of the rural ‘rubes’ and ‘hicks,’ many of whom had obtained the benefits of electricity only a decade before. Cities were in the nation’s vanguard, enjoying the latest technology and defining the cutting edge in fashion and culture.  . . . Manhattan and Chicago were magnets attracting the ambitious and adventurous, those who sought to get ahead and enjoy the best in life.  . . .

Metropolitan Americans not only perceived a single dominant focus [downtown] for urban life, but also shared common space.  . . . [R]esidents relied heavily on public transit. Middle-class men commuted to work on buses or streetcars that passed from middle-class neighborhoods through blue-collar districts, taking on working-class passengers, to the downtown area, a destination for residents from throughout the metropolis.” Workers and shoppers alike shared space and depended on the ability of the city government to protect them.

We use the same words they did in 1945, but many of the referents are gone. In 2006 the metropolis has no center; most transportation is private and privatized; those who do still work or shop or visit downtown need see only their destination, and have at most a symbolic interest in what city government does or fails to do.

The limited residential revival downtown just cements Teaford’s thesis that metro areas are “a sprawling mass offering a lifestyle smorgasbord.” The Loop is just one dish in that restaurant. (The average urban downtown [of the 45 studied by planning expert Eugenie Birch] picked up 35,000 housing units between 1970 and 2000, while associated suburbs were gaining 13 million.)

Reformers, ignore this book at your peril! Buy and read the whole thing, or read an excerpt from the publisher.

FYI: Teaford’s account lends some credibility to Wendell Cox’s comment at the Heartland Institute blog, where he argues that coordinating land use and transportation will only work if the project involves more roads as well as more transit.