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  • City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago by Carl Smith
  • Natalie Schuster
Carl Smith. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Pp. 327. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Hardback, $35.00.

In City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago (2013) Carl Smith sets out to write an intellectual and cultural study of how people conceptualized the development of urban waterworks in nineteenth-century Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. His analysis rests on the proposition that “cities are built out of ideas as much as they are of timber, bricks, and stone, and that the discussion of city water is a kind of a universal solvent that reveals this in striking ways” (2). [End Page 391] Thus, Smith sophisticatedly explores the development of waterworks as an “infrastructure of ideas” that serves to reveal larger lessons about the cultural and intellectual changes brought forth from rapid urbanization in three of America’s prominent nineteenth-century cities.

To better understand the shift from rural to urban cityscape through water development, Smith explores a healthy body of source material, including various print sources such as reports and surveys made by engineers and health officials, newspapers, periodicals, poetry, paintings, sculptures, and the built environment itself. Smith admits that the majority of his sources express the ideas of a small elite group of white men. He defends his choice by noting that these were precisely the individuals who dominated conversations of city water. Once one accepts his admittedly limited albeit unique use of primary materials, the intellectual and cultural histories of Philadelphia (1790s to 1820s), Boston (mid-1820s to 1850), and Chicago (1840s to 1870) are revealed through dialectics of what water meant for the common good in terms of politics, progress, urban growth, sanitation, temperance, health, and the commodification of water. The issues in turn reflect similarities in the histories of the three cities.

“As cities grew larger and more polyglot, and their social and economic divisions became more distinct, the sense that all residents were united by a common cause and the feeling that every individual should think of the welfare of others in the community became harder to sustain,” writes Smith, noting that the idea of the common good varied along class and ethnic lines (53). The need for water, however, challenged those assumptions. “However much the growth and diversification of a city’s population might have weakened ties among individuals,” notes Smith, “its size empowered its members to do great new things,” such as spend large sums on public waterworks projects (54). The overwhelming need for water transformed urbanites and urban America, connecting individuals and individual property into a central water supply by a simple service pipe. Hooked up to water, one indisputably became an urban dweller and part of a larger diverse city population composed of individuals connected to a shared resource. Although the desire to tap into public water transcended sectarian, sectional, party, race, class, and ethnic lines, that was not to say that diverse citizens automatically fit neatly into a common urban core. Smith explains these issues through an examination of how water challenged values at many levels.

The issue of water brought to light political disagreements over whom constituted “the people” and who should provide the resource in a growing capitalist [End Page 392] democracy that fiercely valued freedom of individual action. Individualism and water seemed incompatible, as more and more city dwellers were put “on the grid” in an ever more complex centralized landscape. Although all three major cities decided on publicly owned systems rather than private, Smith’s discussion of the debates over public and private water demonstrates how a city’s need for centralized public works clashed with traditional American values of limited government. “Building a central system enormously expanded the size, responsibility, and expense of urban government,” explains the author (58). Despite a historical suspicion of political rulers, faith in free capitalism, fear of incompetent and corrupt public officials, and an overall aversion to government involvement in city life, leaders and...


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pp. 391-394
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