Imagining the Future of Philadelphia in the 19th Century

15967Today, we have a guest post from Andrew Heath, a lecturer in American history at the University of Sheffield and the author of In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation. Heath’s book examines the social and spatial reconstruction of Philadelphia in the decades on either side of the American Civil War, following Philadelphia’s fortunes over the course of forty years as industrialization, immigration, and natural population growth turned a Jacksonian-era port with a population of two hundred thousand into a Gilded Age metropolis containing nearly a million people. In today’s post, Heath provides a thorough and insightful overview of his research and analysis.

In 1845, a few months after two huge riots ravaged Philadelphia, the novelist George Lippard imagined what his native metropolis might look like in 1950. Lippard’s narrator, in a dream-like chapter of the bestselling novel The Quaker City, is carried forward to a time in which Independence Hall is being torn down to make way for a royal palace and a liveried nobility ride in chariots along glittering boulevards. The judgment on a city that has diverged so far from its republican roots is swift: the dream concludes with the ghosts of oppressed workers rising from the graves as the new Sodom is consumed by earthquake and lightning.

A few years later, Philadelphia’s North American and United States Gazette cast its eye forward to 1950 too, albeit to foretell a very different future. The paper was owned by Morton McMichael, a man shaken by his failure as sheriff to arrest the 1844 riots yet confident that with the right direction his city could rise to urban greatness. Under his stewardship, the North American offered a riposte to Lippard’s urban apocalypse, as it portrayed a mid twentieth-century metropolis standing at the center of a continental empire. To McMichael, at least, Philadelphia could grow without being consumed by the fires of social conflict.

My book, In Union There Is Strength, explores in part how such speculations on the future of a city shaped an urban present. I start in the antebellum era with Americans struggling to make sense of the signs of the times. Social crisis in cities and sectional conflict in the country at large raised the prospect of disintegration. Citizens tied the turbulence of their own city to the threat of disunion and searched frantically for ways to hold metropolis and nation together. Yet the search for order took place at a moment of expanding opportunities. Continental conquest, steam power, and revolutionary upheaval in Europe each suggested that the future would be very different from the past. To Philadelphians, the course of metropolitan and national destiny remained to be set. With contrasting visions, radicals like Lippard and boosters like McMichael tried to mold minds and shape institutions in ways that would help to realize their ambitions. Each saw in Philadelphia the possibility of a model for the rest of the world.

I try to show how different visions of the future were used to mobilize citizens in the present. Radicals enlisted in efforts to turn Philadelphia into a social republic of small property owners. Boosters championed massive municipal investment in western railroads and urban space. Above all, though, futurology shaped one of the most important municipal reforms in nineteenth-century America: the Consolidation of Philadelphia in 1854. The product of ten years of agitation that began after the 1844 riots, the Consolidation Act extended the two square mile boundary of the city to envelop the entire county. In an age of manifest destiny, it swallowed industrial suburbs and remote farmland into Philadelphia’s metropolitan empire, and fixed the city’s contiguous boundaries at their modern, 127 square mile limits. For the best part of half a century, Philadelphia would be the nation’s largest city in territorial terms. Consolidation’s meaning extended well beyond the limits of a change to local government: the term came to embrace a vast range of projects to unite the city across social and spatial boundaries. And advocates of urban annexation linked it too to the battle to consolidate a nation: “In union,” the cry rang out at meetings, “there is strength.”

Philadelphia’s Consolidation has sometimes been seen as a rather belated response to the growing pains of rapid urbanization. The first calls for annexation followed the 1844 riots, and the creation of a professional police force was one of the most important outcomes of consolidators’ efforts. Yet by annexing thousands of acres of land that would remain unbuilt until well into the twentieth century, reformers like McMichael fought on the terrain of the future rather than the past. Either side of the Civil War, consolidators equated the Schuylkill with the Seine and Broad Street with Parisian boulevards. Convinced that the city, like the nation, was drifting westwards, they imagined Fairmount Park as the green center of an ever-expanding metropolis. Such ambitions are easy to dismiss as hyperbole, yet they chimed with both contemporary developments—not least Napoleon III’s reconstruction of Paris as the “capital of the nineteenth century”—and the real estate investments of leading boosters. Continually challenged by radicals who envisaged a more egalitarian city, bourgeois consolidators tried to defend their project of building a Philadelphia that reflected urban power, tied the metropolis to national and international markets, and uplifted the working-class citizens who might otherwise have rallied to the standard of Lippard’s radicalism.

Neither Lippard’s apocalypse nor McMichael’s imperial metropolis proved particularly prescient as predictions of Philadelphia’s future. But the city that did emerge from an age of urban consolidation was the product of jarring debates over where the metropolis was tending. Moreover, the battles over how best to hold a metropolis together across social and spatial division shaped the way citizens confronted the crisis of national unity in the Civil War and Reconstruction. My book is an attempt to recover the sense of possibility—the optimism and anxiety—of this period in a city’s history.

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