Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Review: Empire City

The imagination has a powerful effect on the shape of the built environment. The nineteenth-century planners described in David Scobey’s book Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape imagined Victorian New York as a symbol of progress towards the nation’s imperial destiny and shaped the built environment to fulfill this particular vision.

New York had emerged as the financial capital of the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century. From 1845 to 1875, the population of New York grew from 370,000 to more than one million people. Scobey writes that “New York seemed swept up in changes of almost seismic proportions.” Victorian New Yorkers viewed these urban transformations as symbols of the city’s and the nation’s progress.

Major building projects from this time, such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, reflect the focus on commerce and civilization. John Roebling, who engineered the great bridge, described his design as a symbol of New York’s commercial dominance. Elite planners also believed that the built environment could educate and socialize the population of the young American democracy. Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park as a site of education and leisure where the lower classes could learn the “values of civilized life” from upper classes, although in reality the park and the city were often segregated by class.

Although the Victorian planners did not always realize their ambitious goals, they did transform the built environment of New York, creating lasting monuments to American idealism.

(Bottom photo: New York: Ditson, C. H., 1883. Courtesy Library of Congress)

- Posted by Penny King

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