Searchers for an American utopia: four communities

Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures, by Frances FitzGerald. New York: Simon &Schuster. 414 pp. $19.95. John Winthrop was a dissenter. He left his homeland to seek a ``hiding place'' on the coast of New England. Once ashore, he admonished his companions to remember that their new settlement ``shall by a City Upon a Hill, the eyes of all people upon us.''

What they created did become a very special place. It was where Puritan exiles from political turmoil and religious persecution in England could nurture their own utopian - and very parochial - ideas. There, together, they laid the foundations for a new nation. In time their city became known as ``The Cradle of Liberty.''

Frances FitzGerald claims that Americans are ``still self-consciously building cities on a hill.'' To prove her point, she provides carefully crafted portraits of four contemporary communities, all different from Winthrop's 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, but all having certain qualitatively similar features: a faith in radical renewal and a fervor of special commitment to those who have also been rejected, reborn, rejuvenated, or redeemed.

FitzGerald's four ``cities'' are places most Americans have heard about but few know. They are ``The Castro,'' a gay neighborhood in San Francisco; Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.; a Florida retirement town called Sun City; and the now-defunct Rancho Rajneesh, where many would-be Yuppies turned to yoga and other forms of exercise and expression, seeking nirvana in eastern Oregon. Each place is as real as the colonist's New Jerusalem and each is as emblematic of our times as it was of theirs.

FitzGerald says her cities form a sort of parallelogram: two are religious communities, two are secular; two are on the left in their politics; two on the right. Their common denominators may seem hard to locate, but the author, a sensitive ethnographer, shows it is possible to find many examples of concomitance. One brief example: ``The strangest connection was ... between the gay liberationists and the fundamentalists who, almost literally, haunted each others' dreams.'' Her message is clear: in a perverse way, they need each other.

All the people FitzGerald observed in her ``field trips'' were simultaneously living in Americn society and apart from it as modern-day dissenters. As she reminds us, the movements of the '60s - civil rights, free speech, anti-war - spawned flower children, black militants, radical feminists, gay activists, and ``gray panthers'' who said there was still life after 65. But they also created something long predicted but often underplayed in the national media: a backlash against the countercultural revolutions that, within two decades, was to succeed in reversing many of the tides of social change. Those most dismayed by the upheaval in values and threats to social mores couldn't wait for better days. They sought their own escape from the anomie of the day. Many turned to right-wing politics; many to fundamentalism; some to both, as in the case of those who joined the Lynchburg-based Moral Majority.

``Cities on a Hill,'' parts of which previously appeared in The New Yorker where FitzGerald is a staff writer, is at once instructive and analytical. It is also both pithy and poignant, especially in those many places where the author offers snapshots that capture conflicting values or terse commentaries that provide sharp insight into the nature of particular communities.

Whether summarizing an interview or explaining what she has observed, Frances FitzGerald's writing is concise, compelling, and lively. She draws the reader into the worlds described. Then, without resorting to the encumbering jargon of those whose studies she frequently cites, she offers cogent assessments of sociological phenomena that she knows, like Winthrop's experiment, may in time even change the character and quality of the lives of those who were never members or true believers in any of it themselves.

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