New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore

New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore

by Kara Murphy Schlichting

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The history of New York City’s urban development often centers on titanic municipal figures like Robert Moses and on prominent inner Manhattan sites like Central Park. New York Recentered boldly shifts the focus to the city’s geographic edges—the coastlines and waterways—and to the small-time unelected locals who quietly shaped the modern city. Kara Murphy Schlichting details how the vernacular planning done by small businessmen and real estate operators, performed independently of large scale governmental efforts, refigured marginal locales like Flushing Meadows and the shores of Long Island Sound and the East River in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The result is a synthesis of planning history, environmental history, and urban history that recasts the story of New York as we know it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226613024
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kara Murphy Schlichting is assistant professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York.

Read an Excerpt


Benefactor Planning Barnum's Bridgeport and Steinway's Queens

In the early 1860s residents of Bridgeport, Connecticut, rarely enjoyed the panoramic views and cooling breezes afforded by their city's shoreline. At high tide the waters of Long Island Sound submerged Bridgeport's beach. Low tide exposed slick, seaweed-covered boulders. This environment discouraged pedestrians and proved inaccessible to carriages. Seizing the moment one low tide, the famous showman P. T. Barnum explored this terrain on horseback. Barnum scouted the shore with the hope of identifying a potential public drive route. As Bridgeport's greatest benefactor and booster, the showman hoped to capitalize on the summer excursionist traffic of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which ran along the shore. A first-class waterfront park, a rarity in the developing corridor between New York and New Haven, might induce "strangers who came to spend the summer with us ... to make the city their permanent residence." The showman probably hoped that a park would raise real estate values, for he owned substantial investment properties across the city. On the shores of the Sound, Barnum might simultaneously build a park, increase the value of his property, and expand the size and economic scope of a city.

Less than ten years later and sixty miles to the east, a similarly shrewd businessman also capitalized on the undeveloped coastline of greater Long Island Sound. On a rainy November Saturday in 1870, William Steinway clad himself in a pair of "great India rubber boots" and tramped through the extensive salt meadows of Long Island City, Queens. The marsh fronted on the upper half of the East River, a tidal strait of the Sound. Steinway's piano manufacturing firm had outgrown the production capacity of its Fifty-Third Street factory in Manhattan. Queens's marshland offered Steinway an expansive area on which to build a new manufacturing settlement.

Steinway's and Barnum's work on the periphery — both on the edge of the city and on the edge of its hinterland — highlights the importance of local processes in regional patterns of growth. At a time when professional city planning did not exist as a distinct area of city governance, both men effectively created nonprofessional but nonetheless comprehensive city plans. Steinway and Barnum typified the class of civic-minded capitalists and propertied New Yorkers whom historian David Scobey identifies as having "amassed the capital, expertise, state power, and cultural authority necessary" to control the city's real estate and public works. The success that Steinway and Barnum achieved underscores the critical role landownership and private enterprise played in shaping the New York metropolitan area.

Both Steinway and Barnum enjoyed public influence as leading citizens of nineteenth-century America. Steinway was born in Germany in 1835. His father, Henrich Steinweg, moved the family to New York in the 1840s, Americanized his name, and established the celebrated piano manufacturing firm. By midcentury New York City was already a manufacturing behemoth; it outranked every other industrial center in the nation in terms of the value of its manufactures. In 1860 the city housed more than 4,300 specialty goods manufacturers. In a city crowded with specialty firms — more than thirty produced pianos alone — Steinway & Sons surpassed all competition. William directed the marketing that made the Steinway piano a symbol of refinement. Charismatic, driven, and meticulous, he gained international celebrity from his prestigious role in manufacturing and the city's music world.

Barnum's reputation eclipsed even Steinway's renown. Born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810, Barnum gained national attention in the 1830s as a showman and opened his famed American Museum in lower Manhattan in 1841. Barnum's museum and circus, like Steinway's instruments and music venues, captured the nation's imagination and bolstered his fame. The showman often bragged of his celebrity, repeating president Ulysses S. Grant's comment that he was "the best known man in the world." Their celebrity, wealth, and connections to powerful investors uniquely empowered Barnum and Steinway to shape the metropolitan landscape.

Barnum and Steinway experimented in urban form to cultivate local growth as well as a sense of regional connectivity. Localized urban development paradoxically served as a major force that shaped the entire metropolis. The binaries of city-suburb and urban-rural that by tradition bifurcate the city and its environs fail to capture this dynamic. While both entrepreneurs invested substantial time and effort in local projects, they did so with an eye to the different regional networks of which their locales were a part. In the search for a manufacturing site, Steinway looked to be "away from the city, and yet within easy access of it." Barnum saw similar value in Bridgeport's position in New York's hinterlands, just on a larger geographic scale. He moved to the City on the Sound, fifty-nine miles from the city, for its proximity and ease of access to New York, what he believed to be greater Bridgeport's two essential "elements of prosperity." The periphery was a unique place to experiment in urban form because it could be at once accessible to regional patterns of urbanization yet distinctive.

Steinway's manufacturing town and Bridgeport framed the Sound's coastal metropolitan corridor in the late nineteenth century. The relationship between core and edge existed at multiple scales simultaneously: Steinway and Barnum were at work on two different edges in the same urban context. The city's jurisdictional limits formed one edge. But this edge was impermanent and shifted multiple times in the late nineteenth century. Until New York City annexed mainland territory, the future South Bronx, in 1873, its limits were coterminous with Manhattan Island. Long Island, the site of the future boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, was not incorporated into the city's limits until 1898. The farthest reach of the city's nineteenth-century hinterland formed a second edge, although it was more a transitional zone than a specific boundary line. In the second half of the century, the city's influence encompassed New York Harbor, including both sides of the East River, and north shore of the Sound as far east as Bridgeport. In the 1840s and 1850s, Barnum declared Bridgeport to be "about the proper distance from the great metropolis" for real estate and manufacturing investment. The showman grasped that because of the advantages of its harbor and railroads, Bridgeport was positioned to become the northeastern anchor of greater New York's orbit. In the 1870s, the Steinway settlement developed on the eastern shore of New York Harbor, just beyond municipal boundaries but still within the city's economic sphere on the upper East River. In the words of a guidebook, the coastal corridor of the Sound "well-nigh" represented "a continuous extension of New York City." Bridgeport and the Steinway settlement mark the multiple scales of urbanism, that of the city outgrowing municipal limits and the rise of an urban hinterland.

Steinway and Barnum's work in underdeveloped edge spaces offered new and different opportunities to create model urban settlements. Bridgeport and the Steinway settlement represent the tradition of model or company towns, the successors to planned antebellum mill villages, plantations, and communitarian experiments. A different version of the history of the growth of the hinterland of New York City could focus on how agricultural and nonagricultural land uses came into contact as the city expanded. The Sound's marine economy was robust. There was shipbuilding, whaling, and fishing (lobster, scallop, blue crab, flounder, striped bass, and bluefish) all along the coast along with some of the nation's most productive oyster farms. The edges of the city and its hinterland were not a blank slate awaiting urbanization.

Barnum's Bridgeport and Steinway's settlement were progenitors of a new urban landscape — a recentered city. Model company towns became satellite manufacturing nodes around major cities in the second half of the nineteenth century. Manufacturing needs motivated Steinway's move, but once he was in Queens, he built more than factory space. During the late 1800s Queens became home to several planned communities and industrial villages; the Steinway settlement was the largest and best known and left the most enduring mark on the borough's urban fabric. While not a manufacturer, Barnum nevertheless took it upon himself to shape Bridgeport as a model industrial town replete with waterfront villa district, park, and planned industrial core. His desire to create a new space came out of his personal vision for the best path of urban growth. Reflecting on his investments in 1871 he declared, "I wanted to build a city. I 'had ... Bridgeport on the brain.'"

Steinway's and Barnum's city building aligned with the judgment from civic leaders and citizens in the city center and its surrounding territory that cities could no longer grow organically. Roiling change characterized New York in the second half of the nineteenth century. The multifaceted modern city required self-conscious "building." Barnum was an early voice for intervention in laissez-faire urban growth, arguing for large-scale public works as a way to stabilize and encourage economic growth. "Conservatism may be a good thing in the state, or in the church," he argued, "but it is fatal to the growth of cities." While Steinway did not make such explicit declarations, in effect his investments in Queens aligned with this progrowth philosophy. Both men explained their public works investments as largess, but in serving the public good they also enjoyed personal returns. Steinway and Barnum linked their personal reputations to their city building and courted regional growth. For example, the piano manufacturer hoped to isolate his workers in Queens and forestall strikes, but he also assumed the city would eventually outgrow Manhattan and absorb his settlement.

These benefactors-cum-developers embodied the ways in which leading citizens originated city-hinterland relationships for greater New York in the era before professional city planning. Steinway and Barnum invested in private-sector projects such as workers' housing, factories, and commercial amusements. They made little distinction between private-sector development and privately funded public works projects such as municipal infrastructure, since both types of investments were necessary for urban growth. Both men also enjoyed influential public-sector positions with which they shaped growth. Steinway was appointed to lead New York City's Rapid Transit Commission, which put forward the city's first subway and elevated railroad plan, and Barnum served in state and city government. While private and public interests often collided in urbanization, the work of Steinway and Barnum makes clear that private enterprise and municipal goals intersected and overlapped as well. Moving between the roles of public works officials, benefactors, and private speculators — and at times consolidating these positions — Steinway and Barnum were city builders.

Favorable Features for Settlement

The coastal environs of the upper East River and Long Island Sound offered favorable conditions for experimental urban settlements. Coastwise networks built from trade and travel along the coast had linked the upper East River and Sound since colonial settlement in the seventeenth century. Yet settlement was localized in nature. Long Island blocked the Sound from direct Atlantic trade, and it never developed a port large enough to compete with New York or Boston. Maritime networks encouraged connectivity, but the coast's environment presented challenges to urbanization. The bays of the upper East River and Sound were more likely to be shallow and shoaling rather than deep, which discouraged commercial port development. The boggy ground of the vast tidal marshes of the river and Sound could isolate settlements and encouraged localized development. The final feature that made New York's hinterland conducive to localized experiments in urban form was the lack of large or strong municipal governments.

That both Barnum and Steinway invested in coastal sites reflected the long-standing preeminence of the maritime economy and coastal trade in the region. Steam and rail transportation transformed the Port of New York into a global port while also bolstering regional shipping and manufacturing. Steinway developed on the urban periphery of New York Harbor, while Bridgeport grew as the eastern anchor of the Sound's coastal environs. The two settlements bookended a segment of the city's coastal hinterland in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the middle of the century, transportation networks connected the Sound's southern ports to each other and New York City in a distinctive coastal region. Farmers, industrial producers, and fishing interests first shaped this network; the development of coastal railroads ushered in an era of urbanization linked to the emergence of the New York metropolis. The Long Island shore of the Sound lacked a main transit corridor, but the New York–New Haven Railroad ran along the Sound's northern shore. The rail line paralleled the Post Road, which since the colonial era had linked Boston and New York and the intermediary coastal towns. At the end of the nineteenth century, the conglomerate New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H), with its steamboat lines to Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, constituted the principal tendon of greater New York's connectivity.

Like so many nineteenth-century American cities, Bridgeport's fortunes changed when the railroad arrived at midcentury. Bridgeport became the terminus of three railroads, the Housatonic (opened 1840), the New York–New Haven (opened 1848), and the Naugatuck (opened 1849). Before the railroads arrived, Bridgeport had epitomized the agricultural settlements that characterized the Sound's shoreline. A harbor port at the mouth of the Pequonnock River, Bridgeport occupied a coastal plain backed by a series of terraces that rose fifty feet to present a commanding panorama of the Sound. In the first decades of the 1800s, the city of Bridgeport did not exist; it was but a rural port of two hundred and fifty farmers and fishermen. By 1827 the settlement stretched seven blocks along the wharves of the Pequonnock and only four blocks inland before giving way to open lots. In 1836, residents declared Connecticut's borough government system too limited for their needs and incorporated as the city of Bridgeport with a population of around 3,300. City had referred to the type of government created, not to the size of the settlement. The settlement became city-like in form and function following the opening of the railroads, when Bridgeport became the market for central Connecticut farm products as well as the manufactured goods produced in the Housatonic and Naugatuck river valleys, the hubs of Connecticut enterprise. In the 1840s, the decade railroads arrived, Bridgeport's population grew by 130 percent; in the following decade it grew by another 76 percent to number more than thirteen thousand people by 1860.

Across the Sound and to the southwest, the shores of Queens on Long Island were similarly rural. Established in 1683, Queens County contained no cities until 1870. Truck farming for city markets, nurseries, and wholesale flower farms characterized the majority of eastern Queens into the twentieth century. Development was minimal. The limited suburbanization that occurred followed the Flushing Railroad from Hunter's Point to Flushing beginning in the 1850s. The limited urbanization that occurred concentrated in the west along the East River. In 1870 Long Island City incorporated on this waterfront, the result of a home-rule drive from industrialists in the Hunter's Point district on Newtown Creek, the city's southern limit. Five years after incorporation, the city's population was 15,500. Long Island City's five wards covered only seven square miles, but even after incorporation, the city's existing settlements, while close to each other, remained independent places. An observer reported that Long Island City was made up of "three communities — Astoria, Ravenswood and Hunter's Point — so distinct and separate that in common parlance their connection with each other was generally ignored." The Steinway settlement covered but four hundred acres, half a square mile, in Astoria. In Long Island City, like the rest of Queens, urban development was piecemeal and small scale. Steinway used this neighborhood autonomy to his advantage.

Long Island City's fiscal problems and hands-off approach to government further encouraged local autonomy. A chronic shortage of revenue, due to graft and the unwillingness of residents to pay taxes, stymied public works. The city accumulated a crushing debt of more than a million dollars by 1876; in contrast, the entire state of New York had an indebtedness of only ten million at the time. In early August 1882, Long Island City defaulted on the interest due on its bonds. Overwhelmed by debt, the city was incapable of and uninterested in municipal oversight for its northernmost ward. Although he never incorporated his settlement as an independent municipality, the fragmentation of Queens development and the corruption of Long Island City government left Steinway free to assemble a company town there.


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Table of Contents


1 Benefactor Planning: Barnum’s Bridgeport and Steinway’s Queens
2 Laying Out the Trans-Harlem City
3 Working-Class Leisure on the Upper East River and Sound
4 Designing a Coastal Playland around Long Island Sound
5 “They Shall Not Pass”: Opposition to Public Leisure and State Park Planning
6 “From Dumps to Glory”: Flushing Meadows and the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940
Epilogue: The Limits of the World of Tomorrow

Selected Bibliography

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