- Dirt in the City: Urban Environmental History in the Mid-Atlantic
The American Mid-Atlantic has no Yosemite National Park, no Walden Pond, no vast prairie or Great Salt Lake. Its mountains are comparatively small; its waterways are tamed; its forests cut over; its farmland mixed among suburban tracts. Environmental historians of the United States have often looked to more dramatic, more romantic, more seemingly pristine regions for their work—even as that work demonstrates the ways in which such places are not as “natural” as they seem. But those historians who look for nature in the city have long been drawn to the Mid-Atlantic for the very reasons others look away. Urban environmental historians have rich material in the landscapes of Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC—both within the cities’ formal boundaries and in their relationships with environments beyond. The region’s intense intertwining of the urban, suburban, industrial, rural, and seemingly wild has meant that connections obscured elsewhere are inescapable there.
Popular and scholarly narratives of Mid-Atlantic cities have long been infused with nature. Histories of the region’s parks, [End Page 428] forests, and waterways have been consistently tied to urban space, while social reformers have been pointing to connections between its urban and rural environments for over a hundred years. Even before urban environmental history came into its own as a field in the early 1990s—led by Joel Tarr and Martin Melosi—historians of Mid-Atlantic spaces and places wrote of rivers, parkland, woods, farms, and city centers as locales where natural and built environments shaped one another. While western landscapes nurtured early waves of much American environmental history, the landscapes of the East—and of the Mid-Atlantic in particular—first brought the nature of cities sharply into focus.1
Carl Bridenbaugh’s 1938 work Cities in the Wilderness: Urban Life in America, 1625–1742 gets to the connections right in his title. He writes of cities along the entire East Coast, but both Philadelphia and New York framed key issues in significant ways: waterways as trade routes and water sources; trees for shade, beautification, and timber; horses as tools for transportation and sources of trouble; and sewage as a nuisance and a challenge. These were all themes that environmental historians would later explore in greater detail.2 Nelson Blake’s 1956 Water for the Cities, for example, is a history of technology and politics that demonstrates the complexities of urban dependence on hard-to-harness natural resources. His story begins, as it must, in Philadelphia, where the nation’s first municipal waterworks was constructed in 1801, and he connects histories of urban fire, disease, property and power all to the history of water. Later histories of urban water politics, such as Sara Elkind’s 1998 Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland, brought the insights of environmental history to bear on these earlier works, highlighting the agency of nature within political and technological narratives.3
In Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills (2010), David Stradling returns the focus to the Mid-Atlantic as he takes the next step, arguing that the Catskills and New York City are part of a single landscape, dependent on and created by one another, with water a primary connector between city and countryside. His work argues explicitly that New York City was deeply embedded in natural systems, just as the city’s technologies and demands shaped landscapes far away. The upstate mountains were reshaped by New York City residents’ demands for both recreation and water, and the city survived on water coming down from the hills.4 [End Page 429]
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