The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change

The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change

by Dorceta E. Taylor

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In The Environment and the People in American Cities, Dorceta E. Taylor provides an in-depth examination of the development of urban environments, and urban environmentalism, in the United States. Taylor focuses on the evolution of the city, the emergence of elite reformers, the framing of environmental problems, and the perceptions of and responses to breakdowns in social order, from the seventeenth century through the twentieth. She demonstrates how social inequalities repeatedly informed the adjudication of questions related to health, safety, and land access and use. While many accounts of environmental history begin and end with wildlife and wilderness, Taylor shows that the city offers important clues to understanding the evolution of American environmental activism.

Taylor traces the progression of several major thrusts in urban environmental activism, including the alleviation of poverty; sanitary reform and public health; safe, affordable, and adequate housing; parks, playgrounds, and open space; occupational health and safety; consumer protection (food and product safety); and land use and urban planning. At the same time, she presents a historical analysis of the ways race, class, and gender shaped experiences and perceptions of the environment as well as environmental activism and the construction of environmental discourses. Throughout her analysis, Taylor illuminates connections between the social and environmental conflicts of the past and those of the present. She describes the displacement of people of color for the production of natural open space for the white and wealthy, the close proximity between garbage and communities of color in early America, the cozy relationship between middle-class environmentalists and the business community, and the continuous resistance against environmental inequalities on the part of ordinary residents from marginal communities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822392248
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/23/2009
Series: e-Duke books scholarly collection.
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Dorceta E. Taylor is Associate Professor of Environmental Sociology and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Race, Class, Gender, and American Environmentalism and Identity in Ethnic Leisure Pursuits.

Read an Excerpt

THE Environment AND THE People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s

Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change
By Dorceta E. Taylor

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4451-3

Chapter One


Early American Cities

During the seventeenth century and early eighteenth most of what we now know as major cities were trading posts or hamlets or had yet to be founded at all. Civic leaders, merchants, workers, and slaves lived in close proximity to their workplaces and to each other. The economic gap between the wealthiest and poorest citizens was not as great as it is now, and the economic and political elites were able to define and enforce social order. I focus on the development of five early American cities-New York, New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore-particularly the challenges residents faced and the way they responded to environmental constraints. The issues that emerged in these cities were similar to issues that surfaced in other cities.


Indian Farming and Dutch Settlement

The long history of farming on Manhattan begins with Native American women, who began growing maize on the island around 1100 and by 1600 were growing beans, squash, and other staples of the Indian diet. When the Dutch began settling the area in the early seventeenth century they copied the Indians' farming techniques, burning the brush, rotating crops, and cultivating hills. The Dutch West India Company promoted farming among settlers by providing tools, seed, and livestock if they agreed to farm the land. The settlers planted wheat and raised cattle, sheep, and pigs. Tensions between the Dutch and Indians rose as the livestock wandered about, trampling Indian crops.

When Fort Manhattan was erected and a stockade built around 1614, it was a trading post. Size notwithstanding, the desire to bestow order and morality on American cities and the emergence of elites willing to undertake the task dates back to the founding years of some of the earliest settlements. However, by the time Petrus Stuyvesant arrived in New Amsterdam (Manhattan) in August 1647 to take over as director-general, he found a town in which the inhabitants were wild and lacking in morality. He promptly pledged to reform the city and its inhabitants and told residents he would govern them the way a father governs his children. This same patrician attitude had gotten Stuyvesant expelled from Franeker University in the Netherlands at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three for seducing his landlord's daughter.

Environmental Reforms

Stuyvesant, a military man and former governor of Curaçao, was the son of a Reformed clergyman. He wanted Manhattan to become a clean, well-regulated municipality with civic-minded citizens. Consequently he enacted a series of ordinances aimed at transforming the physical environment as well as the social and moral condition of the people. To impose some order to the haphazard lanes and footpaths, Stuyvesant commissioned three surveyors to establish property boundaries, lay out streets in a more orderly manner, and assign names to those streets. He also instituted a program of street paving. In 1658 residents of Brouwer (Brewer) Street became the first in the city to pave their lane with cobblestones. Six years later, in May 1684, the Common Council decreed that all the major streets of the city should be paved. The cost of paving was covered by a benefits assessment tax levied against those living on the paved streets. In 1787 the state legislature granted the Common Council the power to pave streets.

Stuyvesant also began a sanitation program that cleared rubble from the streets and set a speed limit for wagons and carts. Prior to Stuyvesant's arrival residents had allowed their pigs, cows, goats, and horses to roam and forage at will in town. While animals feeding on the litter reduced the volume of garbage, they trampled gardens and orchards, and rooting pigs undermined the structural integrity of the fort. Commencing in 1648 stray animals were seized and placed in a pound and pigs headed for the fort or rooting around it were shot by soldiers. Residents had to clean the streets in front of their houses and were forbidden to throw rubbish, sewage, ashes, oyster shells, offal, or carcasses into the streets. Butchers were also prohibited from discarding offal into the streets. Toilets releasing excrement onto the ground were banned.

The slaughterhouses were dirty, dimly lit wooden buildings scattered throughout residential neighborhoods, from which could be heard the sounds of dying animals throughout the night. Blood and other animal wastes drained into the streets, ponds, streams, and rivers until 1656, when measures regulating slaughterhouses were passed.

Fire Prevention

Fire was a constant threat. To reduce the risk of fire, Stuyvesant banned the construction of wooden chimneys, thatched roofs, and haystacks, and residents were prohibited from using fireplaces on very windy days. Beginning in 1648 paid wardens inspected chimneys to see that they were swept regularly. A fire curfew was established; each evening all fires had to be extinguished and covered up. Around 1657 the city ordered 150 leather buckets and the following year acquired ladders and fire hooks. The "rattle watch" was also established; men patrolling the city sounded loud rattles whenever a fire was spotted. Each house and business establishment was ordered to have a fire bucket. At around this time brick began to replace wood as a building material, although most New Yorkers, too poor to afford brick, continued to build with wood.

Stuyvesant also undertook a series of public works projects that hastened the transformation of the environment. He focused on projects that increased commerce, moral order, and security. In addition to the threat of invasion from other European nations, residents of New Amsterdam still frequently battled Native Americans; hence the fort was repaired. A pier was built on the East River and a canal, Heere Gracht (also known as "the Ditch"), was cut through marshy terrain.

Feeding and Caring for City Residents

Cities wrestled with issues of health care, poverty, and destitution. New Amsterdam got its first hospital in 1658, but only after Stuyvesant convinced the Dutch West India Company that lack of proper health care impeded the recovery of sick slaves and soldiers. City governments also wanted to maintain an adequate and predictable supply of food for their residents. Stuyvesant issued an edict that a municipal market could be held every Monday along the East River; meat, bacon, butter, cheese, turnips, roots, and other produce were sold there.

Poverty and Rising Income Inequality

Destitute children were another challenge for the city. As the number of orphans and vagrant children grew, pressure mounted to build an orphanage, but at first city leaders dealt with the matter by asking church deacons to look after destitute children. The first orphanage was not established until 1658. Poor relief too was deemed a responsibility of the church, not the city government. The Reformed Church opened the first almshouse in 1653 with funds obtained from collections made in church and at weddings. Eventually the municipality provided some funding to the poorhouses. Manhattan enacted its first poor laws in 1661 after deacons complained that poor people from outlying villages were drifting into the municipality for aid, outstripping the deacons' ability to meet the demand. The poor law required each community to collect donations to aid the poor and maintain a poor fund. Stuyvesant and his council also passed a law aimed at sorting out the "deserving" from the "undeserving" poor and forcing outlying villages to care for their own poor. The law sought to rebuke "the Lazy and Vagabond" so that "the really Poor" could be "assisted and cared for." In 1683 another poor law was passed that shifted the responsibility for the poor from the church to the county. During the early 1730s the municipal government provided the poor with food, firewood, shoes, clothing, medical care, funeral expenses, and small cash payments.

But the attitudes of elites were changing: they began to perceive the poor not only as a nuisance, but as a threat to moral order and security, so much so that by the late 1730s the poor were criminalized and institutionalized. The first city-run almshouse was completed in 1736. The structure was located on the Common (also known as the Fields and later City Hall Park), right across from City Hall. At the time this location was on the outskirts of town. The almshouse functioned as a poorhouse, workhouse, and correctional facility all in one. The inmates ranged from "poor needy persons" and "idle wandering vagabonds" to "sturdy beggars," petty thieves, and "parents of bastard children." In addition "unruly and ungovernable servants and slaves" were sentenced to the facility to do hard labor. Inmates had to wear clothing bearing their initials. They were not fed if they did not attend prayer services, and they were put to work carding wool, shredding old rope that was being reused, or raising garden crops. Disobedient inmates were whipped. Once the almshouse began operating the city drastically cut its outdoor relief program. By 1747 outdoor relief was all but eliminated.

Civic leaders articulated a framing and ideology about poverty that has guided poor relief and charitable aid for centuries. These sentiments are still recognizable in contemporary aid and welfare policies. By linking the causes of poverty to laziness and vagrancy civic leaders successfully implied that poverty was the fault of the poor. By this logic, aid should be given only to those who were deserving of assistance. Contemporary policy makers also seek ways of sorting out the deserving from the undeserving poor in an effort to help the former and withhold aid from the latter. Moreover some present-day social observers still try to link poverty to laziness and other behavioral characteristics, and they worry about the poor moving from one jurisdiction to another to take advantage of the most generous aid.

Life in many cities was becoming a life of extremes. As poverty increased for some, wealth increased for others. In 1664 10 percent of the merchants in New Amsterdam controlled 26 percent of the wealth; by 1676 the richest 10 percent of the city's 313 taxpayers (about thirty-one merchants) owned 51 percent of the wealth, the top 15 percent of the taxpayers owned 65 percent of the city's wealth, the five richest residents of the city owned 40 percent of the wealth, and the richest man owned 14 percent of the wealth. (It should be noted that at this time the city had a very limited tax base. In 1678 Manhattan contained only 384 houses.) This kind of wealth inequality continued into the eighteenth century: in 1703 the richest 10 percent of the population owned 47 percent of the wealth, while the bottom half of the population owned less than 20 percent of the wealth.

Zoning and Public Works Projects

In 1664 the Dutch ceded control of New Amsterdam to the English after troops led by Richard Nicolls seized control of the territory. The name of the territory was changed to New York that year. Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor, was succeeded by Nicolls, who served as governor till 1668. Francis Lovelace succeeded him and served from 1668 to 1674. During the 1670s the city leaders in New Amsterdam continued to manipulate the environment by undertaking more waterfront development projects. In 1675 the canal, Heere Gracht, now a foul inlet, was filled in and paved over to make Broad Street. This resulted in water shortages that hampered firefighting efforts, so the city dug six new wells. At that time residents slaughtered about four hundred cattle annually, and Governor Edmund Andros continued Nicolls's and Lovelace's policies of separating land uses such that noxious facilities were separated from residential and commercial establishments. Hence the slaughterhouses, tanneries, and breweries, known as the "stink factories," were relocated to the fringes of the city.

Open Space

Lawn bowling was a popular pastime among the Dutch in New Amsterdam. Beginning in 1626 they held lawn bowling matches in the area that later became known as Bowling Green. When Fort James was being restored (after being ransacked by departing Dutch troops in 1664) "the Plaine afore the Forte" was designated as open space. There Bowling Green, the city's first park, began to take shape during the 1670s. This multiple-use open space was the site of parades and the annual fair where cattle, grain, and produce were sold. Bowling Green was officially laid out in 1733 and rented out to three residents for a nominal amount. The following year Abigail Franks described Bowling Green this way: "The Governor has made a Very Pretty bowling greens with a handsome Walk of trees Raild and Painted Just before the fort in t[ha]t Large Durty Place it Reaches three doers beyond." A statue erected in the park in 1770 was toppled by angry citizens in 1776. This was a harbinger of things to come, as later residents of New York and other cities vented their frustrations by rioting in parks and destroying structures in them.

A Growing Population

By 1694 there were nine hundred and eighty-three houses in the city that had a population of five thousand, including eight hundred blacks, most of whom were slaves. One hundred and twenty-five vessels plied their trade in the harbor, and four thousand cattle were slaughtered annually, most for export.

In 1776 there were twenty-five thousand residents, four thousand of whom were black. Native Americans were also held as slaves in New York City. The population reached thirty thousand in 1791 and had doubled by 1801. The East Side developed more rapidly than elsewhere, and "fashionable residences" for the wealthiest citizens began to appear along Nassau and upper Pearl Streets, lower Broadway, and the Battery.


Whereas New York and Boston were settled before any town planning took place, New Haven and Philadelphia were planned cities. New Haven was one of the first planned cities in the country. Even more unusual, the town was planned with open space in mind. From the outset the eleven-square-mile town was built around a central open space called the Green. Some historians believe the town was laid out by Lion Gardiner, a close friend of John Davenport, who was one of the city's founding fathers. Gardiner was a military engineer, town planner, and architect. There is a striking resemblance between the town plans of New Haven and Saybrook, which he also laid out. Other historians have concluded that Robert Seeley was the original town planner; he also knew Davenport well, from their days at St. Stephens church in London, and he had the technical know-how to develop the plan. John Brockett was yet a third candidate given credit for planning the town. Though Brockett, a surveyor, platted (mapped) the town in 1638, experts believe he wasn't the planner. The 1641 Brockett map, the oldest surviving one of the city, shows New Haven laid out in an orthogonal grid with nine squares and two suburban tracts.

The Green was used for common agricultural purposes, military training to prepare for attacks from the Dutch and Native Americans, and as a meeting place. The city's most important buildings, three prominent churches and the colony house, were built on the Green. Small burial grounds were attached to the churches.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other small towns along the Connecticut River were also laid out with squares, although it is unclear whether any of the squares were used for open space. Boston designated the Common in 1634, but it was situated on the Shawmut Peninsula, away from the busiest parts of the city. Though commons and greens dot New England towns today, most of these were not established until the nineteenth century. The much older New Haven Green still survives as a park today.

At first New Haven's founders apportioned relatively small parcels of land to residents; the size of the lot corresponded to the size of the family and their wealth. Two years after its founding the city parceled out land for huge estates; for example, the Edgewoods had a 360-acre farm. Soon opulent estates sprang up on the choicest lots; Davenport's home, which had thirteen fireplaces, was one of these.


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Table of Contents

Figures, Tables, and Boxes ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Part I. The Condition of the City 41

1. The Evolution of the City 43

2. Epidemics, Cities, and Environmental Reform 69

Part II. Reforming the City 113

3. Wealthy Urbanites: Fleeing Downtown and Privatizing Green Space 115

4. Social Inequality and the Quest for Order in the City 131

5. Data Gathering as a Mechanism for Understanding the City and Imposing Order 181

6. Sanitation and Housing Reform 199

Part III. Urban Park, Order, and Social Reform 221

7. Conceptualizing and Framing Urban Parks 223

8. Elite Ideology, Activism, and Park Development 251

9. Social Class, Activism, and Park Use 296

10. Contemporary Efforts to Finance Urban Parks 338

Part IV. The Rise of Comprehensive Zoning 365

11. Class, Race, Space, and Zoning in America 367

12. Land Use and Zoning in American Cities 380

Part V. Reforming the Workplace and Reducing Community Hazards 405

13. Workplace and Community Hazards 407

14. The Industrial Workplace 446

Conclusion 501

Notes 507

Index 603

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