- The Births, Deaths, and Rebirths of Great American Cities
In 1800, the largest American municipality housed just over 60,000 people on a network of dirt roads and wooden structures. One hundred years later, New York City housed almost 3.5 million people amid mazes of pipes, wires, pavement, and ever-growing buildings surrounding lushly forested Central Park (itself designed and created at mid-century). By this time, dozens of American cities surpassed New York's population at the dawn of the new republic. Along the way, humans continually reconfigured waterways, land, and the built environment, transforming forests and fields into a powerful, industrialized nation.
How and why this growth happened involved great economic, organizational, and environmental changes, affecting both individual cities and the nation at large. These two books have very different methodologies, scopes, and concerns, yet both enhance our understandings of the nineteenth-century American city. They are also outstanding products of the environments in which they developed, originating as doctoral dissertations, each firmly in the school of the author's respective advisors. Both, however, make contributions beyond the existing literature.
Michael Rawson's book is an environmental history, joining a growing literature on American urban environmental studies. Many of these take the form of edited volumes, allowing the reader multiple perspectives on water purification, waste and pollution management, environmental inequalities, and the establishment of parklands. Rawson takes a different approach, opting to write a unified monograph that explicitly shows how human culture, economics, and politics reshaped the land and water of Boston in the wake of the War of Independence. [End Page 264]
The reader quickly realizes that Rawson's organization and elegant writing reflect those of his mentor William Cronon, who galvanized profiles of urban environments with his epic 1991 study of Chicago's effects on the environments and economies of its hinterlands, Nature's Metropolis. While a significantly more compact volume, Eden on the Charles echoes Nature's Metropolis in its approach to place, with chapters arranged thematically around such topics as Boston Commons; the quest for healthy, abundant water; and the harbor. Rawson has taken more care than Cronon did to emphasize human agency in this transformation. The Bostonians of Eden on the Charles are people with religions, ethnicities, classes, and cultures struggling over how the city's land, water, and people would be managed as the area developed.
The result is an engaging window into the changing social fabric of Boston as mass migration made the city more Irish and more Catholic over the course of the nineteenth century—and how the Brahmins responded to their unease at these changes by reshaping Boston into a more sanitized, tamed version of nature. Yet nature, in the form of topography, the harbor, and the Charles River, imposed limits on growth, helping spur suburban expansion outward from the harbor. Communities such as Roxbury, Cambridge, and Brookline grew during the nineteenth century, and each faced questions on the comprehensiveness and cost of services. The paths each community took to annexation or independence are considered at length, revealing the complexity of urban growth at the end of the nineteenth century. Such an approach will benefit scholars seeking to write similar treatments of other metropolitan areas at the turn of the twentieth century.
I could say the same about the book's treatment of harbor development or of battles over public space in the early nineteenth century. The book works so well because Rawson carefully grounds his study in the extensive historiographies of urban history and environmental history, both in the classes of half a century ago and the recent studies of the urban environment that grew in the wake of Nature's Metropolis and Adam Rome's The Bulldozer in the Countryside over the past two decades. The attention to the historiography (from Sam Bass Warner Jr.'s...