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Chapter 1 Progressive Reform Through Environmental Intervention In its attempt to grapple with the harsh conditions brought about by urban industrialism, the Progressive Era set the stage for many of the twentieth-century reforms that followed. Seen in historical perspective, this movement appears sharply limited by a middle-class bias that sought less to eliminate injustice than it did to restore an idealized vision of established republican principles. If it failed to challenge racial or gender bias and left unchallenged the basic tenets of modern capitalism, it nonetheless sought through active government intervention to assure that the democratic system offered its citizens the chance of a decent life. In seeking to mediate the ill effects of unbridled development, Progressives became the first generation to embrace environmental intervention as a means of improving both the social and the physical attributes of cities. Whether the object of their attention was in the home, in public spaces, or in the means though which urban development might be directed through planning, they sought to assure acceptable conditions for living, work, and recreation .1 That reform groups counted on an active and engaged citizenry to achieve their goals made them the first generation to actively pursue civitas through design. Because activists committed to social and physical aspects of urban reform diverged in the second decade of the twentieth century, it is often been assumed that their goals were incompatible. The chief publicist of the City Beautiful movement, Charles Mulford Robinson, suggested as much in 1904: ‘‘We may reasonably assert . . . that civic art need concern itself only with the outward aspects of the houses, and therefore that for such details— sociologically pressing though they are—as sunless bedrooms, dark halls and stairs, foul cellars, dangerous employments, and an absence of bathrooms , civic art has no responsibility, however earnestly it deplores them.’’2 PAGE 5 ................. 17669$ $CH1 02-23-10 13:51:45 PS 6 Chapter 1 Robinson may have intuited the ultimate divisions that specialization ultimately advanced, but at the outset reformers of all persuasions looked to environmental improvements as a primary means for social uplift. Whether it was a City Beautiful plan to reshape downtowns as monumental civic cores capable of inspiring resident loyalty and respect or the actions of housing activists and settlement workers to improve the lives of immigrants , reformers agreed: a strong democracy required a decent environment . Progressivism had many antecedents, but without doubt the crusading journalist Jacob Riis played a major role in sparking public interest in environmental reform. For more than a quarter century, as far back as the aftermath of the 1863 draft riots, critics had sought to curb building practices in New York City that crowded residents into densely overcrowded and highly unsanitary tenements. Efforts to eliminate the most atrocious conditions secured modest results without, however, attracting the lasting concern or interest of the general public.3 Riis’s provocative exposé How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, reflected earlier criticisms but had the advantage in its graphic imagery of bringing home to a middle-class audience conditions that were not just alien but threatening. Here, he demonstrated, were conditions infecting not just individuals but civic health as a whole, for such poor home conditions, it seemed beyond argument, produced bad citizens. Alienated from nature, removed from any trace of healthy village life, and thus lacking natural ties of friendship and moral support, poor urban dwellers appeared susceptible to every variety of social, physical, and spatial disorder: crime, saloons, and a steady deterioration of mind and body. Crammed by necessity into living quarters in which they remained defenseless , these victims threatened to spread the ill effects of their own disorderly lives, thus contaminating whole cities. Riis made just this point in a 1903 visit to Washington, D.C., where a quick survey of that city’s notorious living conditions in back alleys had stirred reform efforts at the turn of the century. Describing the inside of these dwellings to the Senate District Committee as worse than those in New York and ‘‘too dreadful to conceive ,’’ he subsequently warned a meeting of the city’s Associated Charities, ‘‘You cannot suffer these places to continue in existence and do your duty to your city or to yourselves. The influences they exert threaten you, for the handsome block in whose center lies the festering mass of corruption is rotten to the core. The corruption spreads, my friends, and you will pay the bill.’’4 Riis’s friend Theodore Roosevelt shared...


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