- City Building on the Eastern Frontier: Sorting the New Nineteenth-Century City
Among the most significant recent developments in the humanities and social sciences is the "spatial turn" that scholars have taken. For historians, new interpretive frameworks for understanding geography and material culture add a more sophisticated spatial dimension to our understanding of change over time. For architectural historians in particular, these developments promise to move their work from the realm of style and aesthetics towards a more meaningful place in debates about social, economic, and urban history. Architectural historian Diane Shaw's new book represents an important step in this paradigm shift.
City Building on the Eastern Frontier chronicles the early- and mid-nineteenth-century development of the Erie Canal cities of Rochester and Syracuse, New York. The story is told through their merchants, not their architects. Shaw describes both her subject and her mode of analysis as "vernacular urbanism." She focuses on ordinary cities as opposed to extraordinary metropolises, on the social implications—or "spatial culture"—of urban development rather than the academic design of [End Page 689] buildings. Her cities are not so much designed as "sorted"—a functional, rather than aesthetic classification. Yet she still relies on a rich array of visual sources, including maps, plans, and drawings that fill the first forty pages of the book. Shaw combines critical interpretation of these images with evidence of people's visions, uses, and understandings of urban space from such documents as guide books, gazetteers, city ordinances, and diaries.
In her view, commercialization was the driving force behind early American urbanization, and market-oriented urbanization in underdeveloped regions of the East was as important for forging American society as settlement was on the western frontier. In a nutshell, she argues "a pervasive mercantile ethos resulted in new cities whose public spaces of commercial, industrial, and civic activity were geographically, functionally, architecturally, and socially sorted to enhance a self-fulfilling image of economic vitality and bourgeois gentility" (1). While the capitalists of Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Chicago established the broader patterns of economic geography across the continent, Shaw claims the big story of nineteenth-century urbanization is found in the small cities that formed the "links in a wider mercantile chain of improvement" (12). In 1800, there were 33 cities with populations between 2,500 and 25,000; by 1900 there were 2,128.
Even in Thomas Jefferson's early republic, Shaw declares, "The antiurban rhetoric of the corrupting influence of the city was being challenged by two new moral imperatives of particular appeal to city builders: the twin virtues of creating economic productivity and carrying civilization" throughout the continent (10). "Improvement" is surely an older idea, but it took a particular form in early nineteenth-century upstate New York, where commercial improvements spurred by the Erie Canal intersected with the social and spiritual movements of the Second Great Awakening. Shaw leaves the task of sorting out regional variation in North American urbanization to others. The central task of her book lies in illustrating how the values of the mercantile and professional classes in Syracuse and Rochester were "inscribed into, indeed abetted by, the urban, architectural, and social fabric of the new cities" (18).
Following the pattern of urbanization itself, the book's chapters build upon one another in a sort of accretive process. Early chapters treat the founding, planning, platting, and initial settlement of Rochester and Syracuse. Shaw documents the "consistent subordination of civic activities to commercial ones" (35). The cities' merchant-planners first oriented [End Page 690] their settlements around regional transportation routes that would fuel industrial and commercial growth. They platted grids of streets that could seemingly be extended infinitely, heralding and enabling urban growth. Finally, they "manipulated street and lot dimensions, prices, and availability to encourage compactness, the critical mass needed for a visibly and functionally credible urban endeavor" (22).
Subsequent chapters explore the challenges of maintaining spatial and social order as Rochester and Syracuse grew in the second quarter of...