Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century / Edition 1

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The near extinction of civic life in American cities has been proclaimed for many years. Today, multiculturalism and political correctness are deemed the villains. Yet in the nineteenth century, at the apex of public processions, ceremonies, and civic celebrations, American cities were arguably as full of cultural differences and as fractured by social and economic changes as any metropolis today. To investigate how their citizens formed an integral public culture despite their heterogeneity, Mary Ryan, an award-winning scholar of the nineteenth century, began her research for this book. Quite unexpectedly, she found not harmonious communities but nearly incessant civic conflict which, she argues, erupted into full-scale municipal warfare even before the onset of the War between the States. Locating her study in New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, Ryan analyzes these conflicts on spatial, ceremonial, and political planes. The story begins in 1825 with an account of how the residents of antebellum cities created a democratic political culture out of multifarious differences. It quickly turns to the trials, failures, and reversals of the democratic experiment that characterized the 1850s and 1860s. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Ryan demonstrates, the people of these cities recast their differences as bolder division, especially those of race and gender, and sometimes class as well. In the end, Ryan reclaims this tumultuous urban history as the durable crucible of democracy. Through her graceful and powerful narrative of the fate of public life in the last century, she discovers the foundations of America's resilient democratic culture.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A deft blend of historical and political scholarship, Civic Wars examines how use of urban space shaped democracy during the 19th century, particularly in the decades surrounding the Civil War. Ryan (Women in Public) finds a "tendency to create, even delight in" political and ethnic difference in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans in the pre-war years, when use of public grounds for social gatherings, parades and political meetings grew, and local governments became more participatory. But America's cities were soon bloody battlegrounds. Ethnic and racial battles that presaged and paralleled the war brought vigilantism, then huge police forces, with business interests and "taxpayers' committees," that seized local power in the name of order and clean government. It was this environment, Ryan suggests, that gave rise to a calculated and ultimately debilitating rhetoric of mistrust in politicians. Echoing points made in such books as Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White, Ryan argues that rising class awareness and reactionary populism followed the war, as Irish, Italians and Germans "became white," basing demands for social representation on antagonism toward Chinese and African Americans. Thoughtfully exploring the roots of important urban and racial issues, Ryan's book is an important addition to the education of anyone interested in American public life. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
Bancroft Prizewinning historian Ryan finds the roots of American democracy at its best in the public passions of New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco, circa 182580.

Ryan (Univ. of Calif., Berkeley) presents a historical response to modern complaints that our democratic institutions are being undermined by a surfeit of diversity and a dearth of civility. "Democracy is a politics not of unity but of opposition," she writes. Political positions derive from social differences and cultural variations, Ryan contends, and the public contests driven by our differences are "the kinesthetic force that keeps democracy alive and power in check." Further, our democracy reaches its fullest expression in our urban centers, with their critical mass of diversity, and the ideal democracy was achieved in the years 182550, when the public could be heard most clearly in cities not yet too big or too dominated by bureaucracies, both public and private. These ascendant bureaucracies value order and uniformity over heterogeneity and argument, and now, in our time, threaten to undermine completely the foundations of American democracy. All of these ideas are summarized with superb clarity in the epilogue. The rest of the book, alas, is not such easy going. Ryan supports her thesis with scrupulous documentation from such sources as letters, diaries, and newspapers. She also goes to great lengths to show the roles played by blacks and women in public life in these cities, no easy task given their absence from most of the standard historical records. The result is a work that seems at times to have the vividness, and also the fragmentary nature, of a jigsaw puzzle in the process of being assembled.

A difficult book geared primarily to academicians, but well worth the effort to others who share Ryan's appreciation of America's "democracy of difference" and who fear, like her, for its future.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520216600
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/18/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 394
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary P. Ryan is Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (1981; winner of the Bancroft Prize) and Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (1990).

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Read an Excerpt

Civic Wars

Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century
By Mary P. Ryan

The University of California Press

ISBN: 0-520-21660-1

Chapter One

Civic Wars looks back at the configurations of public space, ceremony, and politics in three cities (New York, New Orleans and San Francisco) and locates the roots of America's resilient democratic culture in the vigorous, often belligerent conflicts of the last century. What began as an investigation of how a vibrant public culture was maintained by the heterogeneous population of nineteenth-century cities became, quite unexpectedly, a chronicle of incessant civic conflict that erupted into full-scale municipal warfare even before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. The story begins in 1825 with an account of how the residents of these three cities created a democratic political culture out of their multifarious differences. The chief venues of this vibrant ante-bellum culture were the central squares, the annual parades, and countless public meetings, all of which accommodated associations based on a bevy of social differences-occupational, ethnic, religious, partisan and particular. Throughout the Jacksonian period, the jostling of differences in urban public space was a civil but hardly decorous affair. After 1850, however, public peace and the democratic experiment were jeopardized in each city by a sequence of uncivil wars-by armed encampments ofvigilantes in both San Francisco and New Orleans, and a battle between rival police forces in New York. These municipal clashes presaged the national conflict that culminated in the Civil War-which, when it subsided, left a new political culture in its wake. After 1865 the differences between the people of these cities were recast their differences as bold divisions of race, gender, and sometimes class. The post-war political process became less dependent on open public meetings and more reliant upon modern public relations. But even in this more constrained political climate, people continued to seek out places where they could express their differences and challenge inequities. In the end, Civic Wars reclaims this tumultuous history as the durable crucible of democracy; moreover, it enjoins us to calibrate our public consciousness so that it can tolerate a full spectrum of difference and a sometimes unseemly quotient of civil conflict.


Excerpted from Civic Wars by Mary P. Ryan Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: From Public Realm to Civic Warfare 1
Pt. 1 Heterogeneous Compounds and Kaleidoscopic Varieties: Creating a Democratic Public, 1825-1849
Ch. 1 People's Places 21
Ch. 2 The Performance of People in Association 58
Ch. 3 Public Meetings and the "Principles of Pure Democracy" 94
Pt. 2 The Interregnum, 1850-1865
Ch. 4 Civil Wars in the Cities 135
Pt. 3 "The Huge Conglomerate Mass": Democracy Contained and Continued, 1866-1880
Ch. 5 The "Vague and Vast Harmony" of People in Space 183
Ch. 6 The People in Ceremony: Multiply, Divide, Explode, Transcend 223
Ch. 7 Publicity and Democratic Practice 259
Epilogue 305
Notes 317
Selected Bibliography 341
Index 363
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First Chapter

P> People's Places

Visiting New York City in 1849, Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley fumbled for words to capture a place "unlike every city ever beheld before." That a tourist was bewildered by "the cosmopolitanism" of Gotham and "the extraordinary stir and bustle and tumult of business going on perpetually" will surprise no one familiar with the place and its people. But Lady Stuart Wortley did provide one more original observation about civic life in the second quarter of the nineteenth century: In antebellum New York she saw "heterogeneous compounds and kaleidescopical varieties presented at every turn." With these two awkward pairs of words Lady Stuart Wortley compressed the life of the city into an image of variety and cohesion--a "heterogeneous compound"--and drew an unstable alliance between diversity and symmetry--those "kaleidescopical varieties."

Part one of this book will describe how, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, American cities indeed held the complexity and constant movement of urban populations together in an intricate but comprehensible and even pleasing whole. Before 1850 those who walked the busy streets of New York, as well as the lively promenades of New Orleans or the rugged pathways of San Francisco, were less likely to express anxious disorientation, so common in latter-day urban chronicles. Surely the antebellum city had its detractors, and historians properly point to growing apprehension of urban danger, especially as midcentury approached. But the antiurban bias that has pervaded American thought for the last century has cast a teleological shadow over a time of relative urban contentment. My reading of the historical record will, for the sake of balance, lean in the direction of a more sanguine interpretation. The people of these three cities managed to construct a mechanism that brought differences together into a colorful whole, something that resembled an urban kaleidoscope. This complex social creation was constructed from the ground up, on the concrete spaces of the city. These elemental building blocks of civic consciousness are the subject of this chapter, which will describe the particular arrangements of people and space that supported American democracy during a critical period between approximately 1825 and 1850.

No one could dispute that by the midpoint of the last century the cities of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco were well supplied with the raw materials from which to construct a kaleidoscope or blend a compound. The human fragments numbered over half a million in New York and 110,000 in New Orleans. In each city, including the upstart settlement of San Francisco, the pieces of the kaleidoscope were very much in motion. The 35,000 residents whom the census takers found just within the Golden Gate in 1850 were almost to a man (and a very rare woman) newcomers to a village only recently claimed from the Mexicans (and the Spanish and Native Americans just before them). The city had acquired its name and corporate status only three years before. Meanwhile, in the relatively ancient cities of New York and New Orleans the population had grown fivefold in the two preceding decades. These two ports were, respectively, the first and second major points of entry into the United States. New Orleans saw an estimated 188,000 immigrants (one and one-half times its official population) pass through its port in the preceding decade. The diverse origins of these mobile thousands meant that unusually disparate languages, cultures, and peoples came together in these port cities. Over 40 percent of the residents of both New York and New Orleans had been born abroad, with the Irish and Germans constituting the largest immigrant groups. A full majority of San Franciscans were foreign born as of 1852. The population flowing into San Francisco and New Orleans was replenished from Asia, the Caribbean, and South America as well as Europe. Already in 1850 hundreds of immigrants from China were arriving in San Francisco. In New Orleans the balance between those of European and African descent was slowly stabilizing after an erratic half-century. In 1820 African Americans, free people of color as well as slaves, were a majority in the Crescent City. Thereafter steady migration from the Northern states and immigration from Europe gave Caucasians the demographic edge, accounting for almost three fourths of the population by 1850. From the perspective of New Orleans natives, the migrants from the Northern United States were as disruptive a presence as any: Just a few years after the French-speaking majority of New Orleans voted against enrolling Louisiana among the United States of America, they found that English had become the predominant tongue spoken in the city. The "American" majority had shallow roots in all antebellum cities. As of 1850 over 55 percent of New Yorkers and New Orleanians had been born out of state if not out of the country.

These newcomers swept into the city at a time of frenetic economic expansion that splintered the policy along yet another axis. Social historians have demonstrated that the decades before 1850 saw the demolition of the bonds of interdependency that once linked master and servant, journeymen and apprentice, shopkeepers and clerks into joint households and under a web of deference and stewardship. It is equally clear that differences in wealth became more dramatic over the course of the antebellum period. Yet the shifts in occupational structure did not sort themselves into clear class divisions. The period between 1825 and 1850 saw both the expansion of independent wage labor and the continuing predominance of small-shop production. The militant producer consciousness of Anglo-Saxon Protestant artisans waxed its strongest just as unskilled foreign-born, often Catholic laborers came to dominate the manual work force. Finally, the whole motley marketplace was turned topsy-turvy by the prolonged depression that followed the financial panic of 1837. In sum the diverse and growing urban economies of these commercial cities tended to fracture the occupational structure, giving another bewildering turn to the urban kaleidoscope.

The populations of these three cities were diverse in national origins, place of birth, lines of descent, and economic status and were composed of people who had resided together for only a short time. Such a population is unlikely to manifest the coherence of a folk, or common, culture or a singular and seamless community. Still, this does not mean that the coresidents of American cities were merely stray atoms strewn across the urban landscape. At the most basic level they were drawn into relations with one another by the necessity of sharing densely settled urban turf. During the second quarter of the century the physical arrangement of this common ground fostered public sociability and democratic association. Although the antebellum urban plan was a haphazard creation, to say the least, it was, to use Kevin Lynch's phrase, a readable city: Its basic spatial organization was clear enough that residents could comprehend where they were in relation to the whole urban policy (figs. 1-3). The social life of antebellum cities flowed along three spatial coordinates, which I have labeled centers, sectors, and arteries, that made the city intelligible to its inhabitants. After mapping these elements of the antebellum urban plan (all of which are visible in contemporary maps), this chapter will populate city space with some of the ordinary people who lived and created a public there.

Grounding the Public in Space: Centers, Sectors, Arteries

In 1825 the peoples of New York and New Orleans, like the stray settlers in the village of Yerba Buena that would become San Francisco, still experienced their urban environment as a meeting place of nature and humanity, of land, water, and flora as well as buildings, pavement, and fences. Most New Yorkers resided below Fourteenth Street, where the densely populated but still narrow island bound them to rivers and bays. Waterfront borders served as recreation in Battery Park on the west and as a place of work and business on the docks of the East River. Place names such as Spring Street and Collect Pond still referred to the natural topography of the island. It was not until almost mid-century that the island became so densely and extensively settled that New Yorkers began to notice the absence of green spaces within the city limits. Ground for the first multifamily dwelling unit on the island was not broken until 1843 (the first proper apartment building would not appear until late in the 1860s), and even then the skyline was unscathed by buildings taller than a few stories. But closeness to the natural landscape and the small scale of construction do not necessarily create a bucolic habitat. The city of New Orleans, for example, confronted nature in a particularly abrasive mood. Built below sea level along the curves and twists of the Mississippi River and just below Lake Pontchartrain and its tributary swamps, the Crescent City marked the seasons with floods, torrents, and pestilence. Still, a brisk social life was conducted on storm-ravished streets and on fortifications against the temperamental waterways of the Mississippi Delta, especially the Levee, which served as a major promenade. New Orleanians took it for granted that the streets would be uninhabitable for much of the year and that epidemics would rage through the city almost annually. Off San Francisco Bay the forty-niners defied natural limits as they occupied a piece of bayshore whose sediments could swallow up their ships, whose steep hills constrained their mobility, where winds, fog, and sandstorms obstructed their view. One early settler dubbed her new home a "city of dust, not altogether gold dust." The lines on the real estate maps of early San Francisco were a brash fiction superimposed on eroding sand dunes and a shifting shoreline.

The locomotive powers of the human body as much as topography set natural limits on the conquest of urban land. With but a few rail lines and an occasional omnibus service, both prohibitively expensive, the residents of even the big city of New York knew much of the city in their very limbs. They could walk through most of it in less than six hours. Before 1850 only a small vanguard of houses extended very far to the north along a little-known street unpretentiously named Fifth Avenue. Downtown, in the heart of the city, the proud municipal center of City Hall Park and the eyesore of the Five Points slum were within a few minutes' walk of one another. In New Orleans settlement had grown both up and down river from the original French and Spanish settlements but not so far that any settled point was more than a short walk away. The pattern of land use in San Francisco as late as 1850 was extremely simple to describe: It was a few tents and rough-hewn buildings clustered around one plaza and just a few feet away from the spot where the new settlers had disembarked on the Pacific shore. Their dry-docked ships actually served as an early market street.

If the accounts of travelers can be believed, these rather ramshackle walking cities fostered an easy, ambulatory familiarity with urban space. In her Letters from New York in the late 1840s Lydia Marie Child reports having sauntered the whole length of the island in a leisurely afternoon and having spent an evening strolling Broadway and the Bowery without an escort. English visitors such as Lady Stuart Wortley and Mrs. Trollop might picture crossing the bustling Broadway as a harrowing adventure, but they seemed never to hesitate about making the trip. Local residents such as Philip Hone, a member of the affluent carriage-owning set, found it remarkable when he had gone a year without walking on the Battery. And then he and his wife walked effortlessly for an hour and a half. A humbler sojourner from Ireland also paced his diary to a pedestrian rhythm: "we begin the walking," "take our morning excursion," "much walking." Visitors to New Orleans in the 1830s and 1840s were also forever on the move through expansive patches of city space: a typical entry in the diary of Thomas Richards, who visited the Crescent City in 1839, charted his movements from a sidewalk auction sale where he met a friend, and the two proceeded to "walk together for more than two hours." Richards seemed to conduct his business while in transit through the streets and let chance encounters in public spaces set his daily schedule.

Some of the pathways through New York and New Orleans had once been deliberately planned. Thomas Richards's itinerary through New Orleans, for example, followed streets that were plotted out many years before by the French. This plan, designed in 1721 by Adrien de Pauger, is a good example of the old-world assumptions that set the patterns for the quotidian peopling of America's walking cities. The French engineer, appointed by Governor Bienville, surveyed the land along the Mississippi and plotted a rectangular grid of streets hugging the shoreline. For all the symmetry and order of his plan it did not present a monotonous and unrelieved web of right angles. The rectangular blocks were arranged along a combination of broad and narrow streets sloping between the river and the lake and anchored by a central square. The whole city plan followed the gentle arc of the riverfront. The earliest plans marked that centering space with the spire of a church. Through periods of both French and Spanish administration of Louisiana, that central square and much of the surrounding territory was inscribed with military authority: It was called Place d'Armes or Plaza des Armas. A sense of medieval hierarchy and ecclesiastical authority mingled with the Enlightenment rationality of the eighteenth-century plan. The French set St. Louis Cathedral in the center of the Place and marked nearby streets with the imperial insignia of fleur de lys.

It would take more than a century to furnish the Place d'Armes with the public buildings that made it a complete and enchanting focal point of urban space. The side of the square across from the river had been built up in the eighteenth century first with St. Louis Cathedral at its center, then with the French presbytere (or parish house) on one side, and finally with the Cabildo (or town hall) on the other side. The latter structure was erected by the Spanish in 1799 and gave an international balance to civic space. It was not until the 1840s that this triptych of colonial architecture was girded to the enterprising spirit of the commercial American city. In that decade the Baroness de Pontalba erected row houses with shops below on either side of the cathedral block. The iron galleries, wide verandas, and graceful balconies typical of the Pontalba buildings soon became the architectural trademark of the city. The city council picked up the spirit of improvement, put a new marble face on the Cabildo, fenced off and landscaped the square into a pedestrian garden, and added a third story to both the Cabildo and the presbytere, both of which were designed to echo the style of the Pontalba blocks. As a consequence New Orleans in 1850 was graced not only with a proper, enclosed city square but also with one of the most gracious public places in the nation.

By 1850 the Place d'Armes had been rechristened Jackson Square and the territory surrounding it had already been labeled the Vieux Carre--the old quarter and relic of the French past. But even as a confident American culture took hold over the Crescent City in the 1840s the pattern of land use laid down by the French and decorated by Spanish architects was maintained. When the Yankees moved upriver across Canal Street into what quickly became known as the American sector they conformed to the street plan that had been established by an eighteenth-century French planter. American businessmen and politicians proceeded to erect their own major private and public buildings around a central square that had been laid out in 1796 and named after Lafayette. Although Lafayette Square had a distinctly American character and was built up with banks, Masonic lodges, Protestant churches, and shaded private residences, all these Yankee institutions were still grouped around an unmistakable central space and anchored by the same symmetrical arrangement of intersecting streets to be found in the French quarter. When in the 1840s a humbler stock of immigrants, chiefly from Ireland and Germany, began to settle downriver in the third municipality they too were reined into a French faubourg. They shared a third central plaza, called Washington Square, with many French-speaking residents, including large numbers of African Americans, both slave and free. This bookend to Lafayette Square completed the trinity of centering urban spaces that still give a bold spatial definition to New Orleans.

San Francisco's early history was enacted on a stage set by Spanish rather than French colonists. The Spanish colonial administration issued elaborate plans for pueblos in the New World that featured spacious central plazas and prominent edifices for both secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Long before the Yankees had been attracted to San Francisco Bay by visions of gold in the nearby hills, Spanish clerics had planted a mission on San Francisco Peninsula and Mexican settlers built a pueblo called Yerba Buena amid the fragrant fields of mint to the north. In laying out that village in 1835 a representative of newly independent Mexico, Francisco de Haro, created a central space called simply the Plaza. When Yerba Buena was surveyed by Governor Alvarado four years later, he further prescribed that houses "be in as good order and arrangement as possible, in order that the streets and plazas which may be formed may have from the beginning proper uniformity and harmony." When the Yankees sailed into San Francisco Bay aboard the Portsmouth in 1846 they planted the Stars and Stripes in that very plaza and summarily renamed it after the ship that brought them through the Golden Gate. Three years later, Yerba Buena, Alta California, would become the U.S. city of San Francisco, but for decades afterward Portsmouth Square was known locally simply as the Plaza.

At the same time that San Francisco and New Orleans were taking on the qualities of an American city New York was moving uptown according to solidly American principles. The history of American urban planning is commonly said to commence with New York's Plan of 1811. This classic imprint of the gridiron street plan was both the act and the emblem of the early republican city. The plan was commissioned by the Common Council, whose elected members represented a political and social elite. The blueprint they accepted has been seen as the imposition of mechanistic, rational standards upon the earth of Manhattan Island. Its twelve avenues, 100 feet wide and intersected at right angles every 200 feet by 155 cross streets, defied the intricacies of the local landscape as well as the diverse needs of the inhabitants. But, as Hendrik Hartog has demonstrated, the rectangular blocks also served as a more flexible blueprint for urban living. Like the U.S. Constitution, its abstract uniformity left the details of civic life to be decided by the people meeting in their republican institutions. The plan did not, however, specify that any of those identical blocks be reserved for public buildings, be rearranged into a network of public squares, or be ordered around a central focal point. Although it was drafted by a state-appointed board of street commissioners, composed of the elite stewards of the commonweal and pledged to create space "conducive to the public good," it laid out only one park and very few public buildings.

Yet as that plan filled in over the next four decades it came to resemble the centered social spaces of New Orleans and San Francisco. Previous land uses and the practices of the local republican institutions, especially the City Council, did create and preserve a central space, called simply City Hall Park. In the more haphazard and parsimonious style that would become common practice for nineteenth-century city governments, the land for this civic project had been set aside for public uses long before, when it had little market value. This piece of land at the far northeastern corner of the town was first declared a commons around 1700. By 1785 it harbored a cluster of municipal buildings--the jail, a public school, the customhouse. The new city hall, commissioned by the City Council in 1803, was finished in 1812. That stately yet intimate building gave new stature to the surrounding spaces, which the City Council ornamented, cared for, and modestly improved over the next decades. The city legislators routinely set aside funds for planting trees and tending the grass in the park and in 1830 appointed a full-time caretaker. The following resolution, from 1825, illustrates the homely, ad hoc ways New Yorkers provided for their central and integrating public space: "Resolved that the Committee of Public Lands and Places be instructed to cause the Manure on the Battery and the Park be spread and the ground prepared and sowed with grass seed if they shall deem it necessary." In another prosaic gesture of civic pride the New York Common Council voted in 1821 to erect an iron fence around the park. Without much overt, long-term planning, in other words, New Yorkers had filled one portion of the urban plan with the public functions and civic pride that would exercise a centrifugal force on the people's orbit through urban space.

Quite early in their history each city created some central and privileged space, some public focal point. Ironically, the centrifugal pattern of urban space that would cradle urban democracy was founded on contrary architectural principles: The Cabildo housed the viceroy of a Spanish king in New Orleans, and New York's City Hall was a monument to the elite stewardship of New York's "natural aristocracy." The public buildings of the Louisiana capital were designed as pedestals for absolute authority, both the agents of the Spanish monarch who looked down on the people from the Cabildo's balcony and the representatives of the papacy who presided at St. Louis Cathedral. New York's stately City Hall was constructed between 1803 and 1812 by a corporate city council chosen under a limited franchise and expecting deference from the humble citizens who might assemble in their palatial quarters.

Still, when the leadership of these cities became more democratic in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, these central places served as the public arenas in which popular sovereignty could be exercised. The popularly elected governments of the antebellum era rarely constructed architectural monuments of the same grandeur. The early maps of San Francisco most always gave prominent space to the Plaza, and along one of its sides lithographers sketched an official-looking Greek revival edifice that was alternately labeled City Hall and the Jenny Lind Theater. This civic schizophrenia endured for some time, and it would be many years before the city could claim a proper city hall. Until then the city government met not in a civic temple built expressly for the people but in secondhand quarters originally designed as a commercial house of entertainment.

The citizens of New Orleans made more progress on civic architecture in the 1840s. The "American" rivals to the authority of the French quarter drew public attention to their neighborhood by constructing a new city hall in Lafayette Square. Designed in monumental proportions and classic style by James Gallier, Municipal Hall featured a lofty portico and huge rooms for public receptions. Its high steps, massive columns, grand portals, vast interior spaces, and vaulted ceilings inspire even a twentieth-century observer with the lofty significance of the public sphere. The openness and spaciousness of Gallier Hall, completed in 1850, re-created the ambiance at New York's City Hall on a grander scale. The vast majority of floor space in both civic buildings was given over not to offices but to capacious, high-vaulted rooms, assembly halls and grand stairways, porticos and rotundas. New York's City Hall was dominated by its inviting circular stair, which led to the Governor's Reception Room and a public chamber of the City Council. Gallier Hall's broad corridors led to a massive public assembly room. These were palaces for the people, or at least their elected representatives, and spaces where citizens could congregate in groups the size of a routine public meeting.

In the quarter century after 1825 each city venerated public space with the simple gestures of civic caring. Fencing public ground, for example, was a kind of municipal fetish. In 1827 the New Orleans mayor announced that the fence in the Place d'Armes needed painting, while a few years later New York's Philip Hone took note in his diary that a wooden barricade had been erected around City Hall Park. Finely wrought iron fences cropped up around the squares of each city and were heralded in the public records with the same fanfare. By the 1840s public squares had become places for citizens' recreation, not military parade grounds, and accordingly were landscaped with grass, trees, and fountains as well as fences. City officials North and South also agreed that a public square was a place of alimentary refreshment and licensed the sale of food and beverages at these civic sites. Such municipal solicitude made the public square the heart as well as the stomach of the city. If they wished to listen to the pulse of urban life, visitors and citizens alike gravitated to City Hall Park in New York, to Jackson Square in New Orleans, and the Plaza in San Francisco (fig. 4).

Viewed from a closer vantage point, these cities displayed a second order of spatial centering as well. Public squares, which were the major focal points of the cities, were not unique and solitary but often just the central hub in a whole network of more remote and smaller public spaces. As we have seen, New Orleans was planned around three squares. Everyday customs created yet others. The space just across Ramparts Street behind the French quarter and almost in a direct line from the Place d'Armes was officially known as Place du Cirque but had long been claimed by African Americans who used it as a market and a pleasure ground. Both free and enslaved, both women and men, congregated there on Sundays for music and dancing. Accordingly, this centering space was colloquially renamed Congo Square (and now bears the name of Louis Armstrong). In the 1830s the residents of the American sector developed another square called the Coliseum and talked of creating a classic forum, complete with a university on the site. Although such lofty plans were never realized, Coliseum Square was one of half a dozen secondary squares that dotted New Orleans and brought her residents together in smaller circles of sociability.

Such small spaces, preserved from private development and left open by haphazard planning processes, were to be found in other antebellum cities as well. The eclectic style of land use had similar consequences in New York. The early records of the Common Council harbor many petitions like this one dated January 3, 1825: "Freeholders and inhabitants from the East sector of the city" wish to take a "spacious piece of ground at the front of Corlears Hook to the East River to be laid out for a Park or open Square." The accidents of urban geography created other open spaces. Bowling Green and later Times Square, for example, took shape at the irregular angles where east-west streets intersected with Broadway along its diagonal path up Manhattan. By such ad hoc procedures lower Manhattan had a fair increment of secondary public squares by 1850: Moving northward up both sides of the island, a pedestrian would encounter Washington Square, settled in the 1830s, Tompkins Square, opened in 1834, Madison Square, dating from 1847, and Union Square, opened in the 1830s and developed in the next decade. At the same time the city was converting land to squares, real estate developers were constructing another order of open but private space. St. Johns and Gramercy Park were the prime examples of park lands reserved for affluent property owners at the site of their domiciles. This exclusive practice was a variant on the more general custom of creating centering social space on a neighborhood scale. It was a practice found in New York and New Orleans in the years before midcentury and would later be adopted in San Francisco.

The concentric pattern of antebellum urban space often had an even finer grain. More recessed but often busier than the public squares were the public markets maintained by the city and lined with stalls that were rented to hundreds of venders and retailers. Some of these public spaces, like the French Market in New Orleans, were magnets to the whole city population. The French Market was only one of a series of commercial centers that grew in number as the city expanded. While New Orleans was opening new public markets as late as the 1870s, New York had suspended such construction by then. The active phase of creating such nuclei of commerce and sociability in Gotham had been the 1830s and 1840s, but by one account there were still some forty official public markets in the city as late as 1862. This species of public space was created by the same ad hoc, grassroots process as were small squares. The erection of Clinton Market in 1826, for example, was instigated by a petition to the Common Council signed by some 650 neighbors. By the 1830s the city had created a special commission to hear such petitions and regulate the growing system of markets whose operation brought thousands of dollars of license fees circulating though the city coffers. When in 1811 the City Council moved to create a centralized public market, it met effective resistance from the city's butchers. These barons of the neighborhood markets held steadfast to this localized way of doing business. Until midcentury the proliferation of squares and markets seemed to keep pace with the growth of population and the expansion of the borders of settlement. New York and New Orleans were honeycombed with places where city residents could meet one another elbow to elbow if not face to face.

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