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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 316-318

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Book Review

The Sanitary City:
Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present

The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. By Martin V. Melosi (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) 578pp. $59.95

In The Sanitary City, Melosi offers a fascinating historical tour of the odiferous underground architecture of American cities from the eighteenth century to the present. Readers will take something new from this work, whether in the form of information, a framework for analysis, or a renewed appreciation of cities. Theoretically, Melosi draws upon research at the borders of history, economics, and the study of technology. He introduces several theories--ecological theory, path dependence, and system theory--that make this book more than a story of networked pipes. Moreover, at a time of narrowly construed case studies, The Sanitary City presents a sweeping panorama of how both ideas of public health and professional expertise in sanitation intersected with urban politics to shape the development of the broad "technologies of sanitation" [End Page 316] in North America--especially water supply, wastewater removal, and solid-waste disposal.

Drawing on historical evidence from an exhaustive assortment of sources, Melosi provides a forceful chronological narrative that begins with the English "sanitary idea," exploring how it shaped early sanitation "protosystems" in North America. By the late nineteenth century, Melosi argues, the "bacteriological revolution" in public health transformed the sanitation infrastructure. Early in the twentieth century, buoyed by Progressive-era reforms and a rapidly maturing engineering profession, engineers and urban leaders designed seemingly permanent solutions to the problems of water and waste. However, following World War II, the durability of the sanitary city began to unravel. Migration to the suburbs and urban decay placed the sanitation infrastructure in crisis.

Melosi skillfully weaves theory, narrative, and historical detail, often reinterpreting familiar stories in new and convincing fashion. For instance, when discussing declining urban disease rates early in the twentieth century, he transforms our understanding of the relation between sanitation technologies and the work of public health professionals. After enumerating the usual reasons for such a decline, he argues that such reductions were most dramatic after cities began to use disinfectants--an innovation caused by the "bacteriological revolution" in public health. Sanitation technologies alone did not cause change; rather, it was interconnected with broader public-health initiatives. Melosi repeatedly demonstrates how changing paradigms of public health transformed sanitation across domains, as when the bacteriological revolution helpedtomake another technology of sanitation--refuse disposal and collection--into the "third pillar of modern sanitary services" (204).

Likewise, Melosi melds exhaustive historical detail with a theoretical appreciation of the connections between technology and society when exploring the problems facing the contemporary sanitation infrastructure. Melosi argues that the rise of "a new ecology" following World War II transformed the terrain of sanitation. The rise of suburban living and of new pollutants changed the volume, location, and type of waste, causing a crisis for the sanitary city. In exploring this crisis, Melosi both covers new ground chronologically and offers a palimpsest for future research. Yet, he misses an opportunity to elaborate the broader ecological implications of America's shift from a "producer to a consumer society" (176). Indeed, as Melosi suggests but does not pursue, the "new ecology" of the late twentieth century is more than a by-product of the move to the suburbs; it is connected to the changing habits of everyday life.

It is worth noting that Melosi only briefly considers questions of gender, race, and class. He acknowledges that such factors mattered in the provision of sanitation, but he does not examine them in a systematic fashion over the course of the study (365-369). Though it may be [End Page 317] unnecessary to ask more of Melosi in the context of such a comprehensive study, especially because other scholars already have begun to follow this important line of research, the question remains nonetheless, What are the connections between the development of the infrastructure and...


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