HomeThe State Capitol Building under construction, circa 1905 (PA)

 

 

The City Beautiful Movement and Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward

Origins of the City Beautiful Movement

The City Beautiful Movement began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century with the philosophy of Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), the well-known landscape architect and reformer. Olmstead and his partner, Charles Vaux, designed and implemented a plan for New York City's Central Park in 1858. The plan embodied the idea that beauty and open spaces, like parks and playgrounds, helped give peace and health to city dwellers. These city livers, crowded into dirty, unfriendly cities, could succumb to the evil within themselves without having their souls cleansed by the natural landscape, thought Olmstead. Without this human renewal, people would no longer feel strong ties to one another, allowing crime and misery to run rampant. (Wilson, 10-11)

Olmstead's design philosophy was called "the park and boulevard system," for it attempted to balance the larged paved areas of streets and sidewalks with many acres of grass and trees. His ideas appealed to other urban reformers, who realized the value of creating large areas of public parks and playgrounds within cities. Urban environments were becoming increasingly built up with unsafe tenements, which were surrounded by filth that bred disease both physical and moral. Locating parks and playgrounds so that every city resident had access to them would help counter the negative effects of city living.

Olmstead and others like him believed that the depletion of rural communities that was occurring during the second half of the 1800s was dangerous to society because the caring social consciousness inherent in these small villages could not be replicated in cities. Close-knit communities needed clean air and green spaces to thrive, thought urban reformers, and the cities could not sustain either because the needs of the city, such as dense housing and wanton industrialization, ate up vast tracts of the natural environment. Urban reformers also believed that by creating green spaces within the city, community building, worker productivity, property values, and private enterprise would increase because city residents would be freed from the oppressions of city life. (Wilson 12)

The culmination of this philosphy occurred at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Olmstead and his associates took a marshy, undeveloped tract of Chicago and built an ideal city. From its conception, the small city built for the exposition was a wonder. Once built, the exposition showcased all that a city could be--functional and beautiful. Magnificent, white exhibit buildings lined wide avenues that meandered around a large lake. Green open spaces were plentiful and included lush greenery and mature trees. Electric lights were plentiful, allowing visits to the exposition after dusk. And everything was clean and free from city grime, which impressed visitors perhaps more than anything else they saw. Sanitation was crucial to the exposition plan. The grounds were cleaned and swept nightly, and filtered water and numerous bathrooms were served by the exposition's own sewage treatment plant. The exposition's impact upon middle class urbanites could not have been greater; the exposition presented them with a city--well planned, beautiful, and clean--they had never imagined possible. (Wilson 53)

Birth of the City Beautiful Movement

Although not officially named until six years after its closing, the City Beautiful Movement's ancestry included the 1893 Chicago Exposition. Already tired of city sprawl and decay, the urban middle and upper classes began to organize towards civic activism as the 1890s went on. Although greatly motivated by their own desires to protect their property values and wield a level of control over the urban poor, these affluent men and their wives did want to elevate the living conditions of those unable to do so themselves. By promoting "urban beauty" and city improvements, such as treated water and clean streets, these reformers felt they could positively influence the minds and souls of city dwellers, making them contributors to the greater good.

The City Beautiful Movement officially began in 1899 and saw its heydey between 1900 and 1910. The movement called for the construction of grand, neoclassical-style public buildings, the creation of civic parks and playgrounds, and the promotion of Olmstead's park and boulevard system. Some efforts towards modernizing cities were also made, such as street paving and illumination. J. Horace McFarland became the movement's national spokesman. He became the president of the American Civic Association, and by 1911, McFarland had given his "Crusade Against Ugliness" lecture to 250 cities across the United States. (Wilson, 51, 75)

McFarland's ideas were mostly concerned with beautifying urban environments, and his motivations were mostly focused on improving property values for businessmen like himself. Although responsible for increasing the quality of life for many city residents across the country, the City Beautiful lost momentum in 1909 when the City Practical Movement challenged its philosophy. The City Practical viewed the City Beautiful as being overly superficial with its emphasis on "urban embellishment" over the more practical concerns of increased sanitation and garbage collection and improved public transportation. (Wilson, 2)

Harrisburg--The City Beautiful

The earliest efforts towards urban renewal in Harrisburg began with Mira Lloyd Dock, who was a member of an affluent city family. Beginning in 1896, Dock attempted to organize her fellow citizens to work towards cleaning up Harrisburg. At that time, Harrisburg had been the capital city of Pennsylvania for nearly a century, but it looked more like an "industrial village" than the seat of state government. Most of the city's streets were unpaved and littered with trash. The Susquehanna River, polluted with sewage from Harrisburg and other cities upstream, supplied the city with unfiltered and untreated water. Most of the city had been built up with little regard to preserving open space and fresh air, and its 50,000 residents deserved better, thought Dock. (Wilson, 126)

In 1898, Dock was one of the founding members of the Civic Club of Harrisburg, a woman's organization which worked towards improving the city. After traveling to London in 1899, Dock began lecturing to various groups in Harrisburg with the intent to spur the citizenry to action. Her lectures included a lantern show, which presented images of picturesque European cities and natural environments juxtaposed to the squalor of Harrisburg. Dock's photographs were unflinching in their depiction of the city's filth. She ascribed to Olmstead's philosophy and believed that the city's poor needed playgrounds, parks, public baths, and other amenities to combat the ills of city life. By providing these, Dock felt that the quality of living throughout Harrisburg would improve because the social classes were interdependent. Happy workers meant improved production and increased buying power, resulting in a strong economy for the city's business owners. (Wilson, 129-130)

Dock's beliefs began to spread. In April 1901, the Harrisburg Telegraph, a local newspaper, ran an article enumerating ways to improve the city. City mayor Vance McCormick called for extensive street paving, a park and boulevard system, and a safe water supply. To that end, he established a permanent committee in 1901 to look into city improvements, whose membership included J. Horace McFarland. In 1902, the committee evolved into the Harrisburg League for Municipal Improvements, which sought to have a $1,090,000 bond for civic improvements passed by citywide vote. High school boys were hired to distribute propoganda in support of the bond, and city newspapers ran articles supporting its passage. The Civic Club used lectures to promote increased street cleaning and the placement of public trash recepticles to help rid Harrisburg of filth. (Wilson, 133-134)

The bond passed by a two-to-one margin. Helping to promote civic improvement was Jacob Riis, the renowned New York tenement reformer, who lectured to city residents in 1903. Three more improvement bonds passed between 1906 and 1914. The money was used to pave 70 miles of Harrisburg streets, which were cleaned regularly. In terms of parks and playgrounds, the goal was to have one acre of park land for every 100 city dwellers, which was eventually achieved. The total acreage of city parks was increased by 900 acres and included public lakes and walkways, athletic fields, and playgrounds. Sanitation was improved by the implementation of intercepting sewers and flood controls. And, a $2,500,000 water treatment facility was built on Hargest's Island in 1905 to supply the city with pure, filtered water. The entire city environment changed, and by 1912, Harrisburg could claim that it was "one of the best paved in the United States," and its "unique park system" was "the admiration of landscape experts." (Wilson, 136-139; Inglewood, 133-135; Story of Harrisburg)

The City Beautiful's Effects on the Old 8th Ward

The City Beautiful Movement, though not directly responsible for the demise of the Old 8th Ward, did impact its destruction nonetheless. In 1902, the usually Republican-voting 8th Ward approved the civic improvement bond by 83.4%. The Old 8th Ward's strong support of the bond issue lies in the fact that they lived in one of the neighborhoods that could benefit the most from the city improvements. The 8th Ward was the second poorest neighborhood in Harrisburg, having a mean house value of approximately $1,363--only $30 more than the mean house value of Harrisburg's poorest neighborhood, the 7th Ward. (Wilson, 139)

In the Old 8th Ward, unsafe tenement houses crammed full of humanity lined every street and alley, making the proposed parks attractive to a neighborhood devoid of grass and trees. Street paving, regular garbage collection, and more efficient sewers were important to the 8th's residents, who walked dirt streets strewn with litter and waste from backed-up sewers. Epidemic disease, dangerous in any overcrowded neighborhood, was made more likely to occur in the 8th because of its regular flooding by nearby Paxton Creek. Of the conditions in the 8th Ward, journalist J. Howard Wert wrote in 1912 that it was developed when "notions as to the sacred preciousness of every inch of ground and the impiety of using any of it for any purpose but building on, ran riot . . . in every part of Harrisburg; but in no locality was it carried out so completly as in the old portion of the Eighth Ward." (Barton et al, 24)

The 8th Ward was overbuilt, crowded, dirty, and crime-ridden, thought Harrisburg's well-to-do. In fact, it was most of these things, but it was also an evolving community where racial diversity and immigrant cultures flourished. The ward, unfortunately, bordered the state capitol grounds on its immediate eastern side, and many considered it an unacceptable eyesore. It failed to meet the aesthetic standard of the new vision of Harrisburg as idealized by McFarland and other reformers. Using photographs to document the neighborhood and its proximity to the $4,000,000 capitol, McFarland built a case against allowing it to remain. Even after the 8th's streets were paved and cleaned, the contrast between the handsome new Capitol and the ward were damning. Harrisburg's reformers called for the creation of a Capitol Park Extension to increase the grounds around the capitol building, which included nearly all of the 8th Ward.

First proposed in the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1906, the bill authorizing the purchase and destruction of the Old 8th Ward eventually passed in the 1911 session. In the name of beautification, over 500 properties, which were home to countless families, were acquired by the state and destroyed. In just ten years, the Old 8th Ward ceased to exist. A community was dismantled and a rich history was displaced, but the city of Harrisburg moved onward. (Chappell, 1-3)

--Stephanie Patterson Gilbert


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