- Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic
Dell Upton opens “Cities of Perpetual Ruin and Repair,” chapter 1 of his masterful examination of the sights, sounds, and smells of antebellum urbanism, with an 1856 quote from railroad secretary and Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson. “To my eye, the whole aspect is changing.—It is indeed, already, another City—A city building on the top of the former!” (19). Watson denounced the “general clatter from crowds” and the “rattle of omnibuses” in a Philadelphia he hardly recognized, where “all is now self-exalted and going upon stilts.” His anxiety about the transformations occurring around him is palpable in the quotation that provides the book’s title. Other influential urban citizens in the fledgling American republic, however, were excited and stimulated by the changes.
Upton’s lively prose—grounded solidly in historical scholarship based on contemporary diaries, correspondence, maps, political cartoons, and prints—evokes vivid place memories and stirs the reader’s imagination about the possibilities for reinvigorating urban life in a democratic metropolitan region. (We can, of course, no longer speak only of cities when a majority of Americans lives in suburbs and the fates of both city and suburb are so intertwined.) He focuses the discussion thematically, as he did in his survey Architecture in the United States, using examples drawn primarily from two cities—Philadelphia and New Orleans—that provide the basis for various fruitful comparisons.1 Along the way there is frequent consideration of the city that has remained the nation’s largest and most emblematic—New York City—as well as the nation’s young capital, Washington, D.C.
The book evokes many place memories for me. The 1850 cartoon New-York as It Is depicts the city’s gridded streets knee-deep in piles of offal, known as “corporation pie” in an insult to city leaders who did not or could not clean it up (42–43). The cartoon recalled the putrid stench of trash piled high on sidewalks during a 1990 garbage collector’s strike in New York City. It also made me think about the largely unseen but highly complex infrastructure of trash collection and recycling, which are so important to the maintenance of civic and civil urban life today. The story Upton tells in “Smell of Danger” (chapter 3) of Edward Barton’s 1857 Sanitary Map of New Orleans locating outbreaks of yellow fever, and the coincidence of deadly disease with sites of civic “improvement” that disturbed the soil and exposed “eons of putrefying matter to contact with human effluvia” (63), recalled memories of New Orleans (where i was born in the 1960s during a sojourn for my Bostonbred parents), so often described as a city set apart and “different” from other American cities. The societal fractures that Upton traces, the sense of parallel cultures—Anglos, French Creoles, and blacks both free and enslaved—coexisting and just barely negotiating shared use of the swampy terrain, is a narrative that springs to life in its ugliest form from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Other narratives in the book conjure suggestions about future urban possibilities, especially for waterfronts—once sites of intense contestation as merchants vied for access and control, and now being reclaimed as scenic public parks, Philadelphia awaits the transformation of the Race Street Pier according to a design by landscape architect James Corner’s firm Field Operations.
The thematic structure of the book invites these associations across space and time by avoiding the fixing of ideas and artifacts within a more conventional, chronological framework. Architectural history in particular invites a thematic reading because so many buildings and landscapes remain in use for decades, if not centuries, after their initial date of production, although, as Upton admits, “This book might strike some readers as an odd sort of architectural history, if they see it as architectural history at all” (10). The author’s approach...