A review from The Public Historian, Volume 25.2 (Spring 2003)

Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape
by David M. Scobey. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002; xii + 340 pp., illustrations, appendix, notes, index; clothbound, $40.00.

Reviewed by Marci Reaven

From my perspective as a New Yorker with an abiding fascination with the built environment of my city, David Scobey's account of the making and meaning of the New York City landscape is well worth reading. Will other readers with less immediate connection to the theme share my enthusiasm? I believe so. Scobey is associate professor of architecture and director of the Arts of Citizenship Program at the University of Michigan. In Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape, he describes the social, economic, political, and aesthetic dimensions of a period of intense city-building in Manhattan and its expanding "periphery" in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Erudite and wonderfully illustrated with contemporary maps and prints, the account illuminates the thought and action of a diverse yet intersecting group of elite New Yorkers, many of whom were drawn to the city during its mid-century boom. Deploying money, brains, and power, they imagined and fashioned an "empire city"—creating financial and real estate markets, and making New York Victorian America's leading metropolis. We see their efforts today in the shape of the landscape, and now because of Scobey's book, may recognize their ideas, innovations, and motivations with equal clarity.

The protagonists at the center of this story—genteel intellectuals and reformers, civic-minded business leaders, and real estate developers and boosters—developed a new kind of urbanism that "melded genteel environmental reform with a booster erotics of growth" (p. 10). They collaborated and furiously competed to transform the physical city into a landscape that reflected their imperial ambitions. Scobey distinguishes among their various aims but argues they achieved unity by creatively rising and manipulating the landscape. Unity took shape along class lines, with spatial change and bourgeois class fornication going hand in hand. What freed the land for manipulation was the establishment of a real estate economy—a key achievement of the "bourgeois urbanists." They demonstrated that buying and selling land was a proper and profitable function of the market and refined the commodification of space to an art (never a science). It was capital formation and land speculation in the mid-nineteenth century, Scobey says, not rapid transit and infrastructure developments of thirty or more years later that first provided fuel and engine for New York City's growth. This is one of Empire City's key corrections to earlier historiography.

Scobey also departs from the literature of urban growth and planning to explain the unsettling contrasts between order and disorder that emerged in Victorian city building. He rejects the lag model that posits congestion, underinvestment, slums, and assorted urban ills as temporary byproducts of modernization that proceeds in stages. He argues instead that capitalist city-building created marvels and mayhem by harnessing the land to types of market discipline and enticements that fostered persistently uneven development throughout the city. "Faced with spatial and social disorders from which the marketplace could not, unaided, rescue itself, bourgeois city builders turned to urban design and the politics of planning with the same utopian brashness that shaped their booster dreams" (p. 133).

Opening with William Cullen Bryant's 1868 query, "Can a city be planned?", Scobey stresses the contingency of this threshold moment in city-building. Bryant's loaded question signaled the debut of a new kind of city planning that aimed to accommodate growth and change. An influential strain within this movement sought to use the landscape to "reshape the 'people' (an unruly subject of power) into a 'public' (an orderly beneficiary of power)" (p. 213). Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux pioneered forms of design and planning that aimed to surround the masses with civilizing influences, while providing distinct spaces within the city (or within the same park) for the social classes to inhabit. Believing that landscape design and environmental reform were among the solutions to an elevated urban culture and society, the partners rejected the chaotic city center in favor of a planned urban periphery. Empire City's analysis of their efforts to transform rural landscapes in Brooklyn, in Westchester (ironically in the very spot that became the South Bronx), and on the Upper West Side into an "uptown utopia of parks, boulevards, planned suburbs, and tutelary institutions" is fascinating and important (p. 7). Scobey suggests that it was the failure of these new settings to ameliorate class conflict and other perceived disorders that convinced later reformers such as Jacob Riis that outward mobility would not solve the problems of the city.

Scobey makes but doesn't pursue an interesting observation that nineteenth-century Europeans seemed less driven than Americans to create physical means of separating the classes. It raised questions for me about the possible role of American concerns about race, or perhaps the existence of fewer ways in the U.S. to mark class differences. In any case, Empire City is not an account that explores interaction among upper and lower classes, or ways in which non-elite New Yorkers shared in the work of city-building. Ten-acre Tompkins Square is an interesting example, used in the book to describe the kind of spawning ground for social disorder that bourgeois urbanists decried. Yet its meaning is richer. In the late 1870s, East Side mothers petitioned, crowds demonstrated, and local leaders exercised political ingenuity to wrest control of the square from city officials and transform a barren, quasi-military space into a landscaped park. Attending to this level of city-building may have enriched Empire City's narrative, but its premise would still stand: For the first time, existing cities were being planned, and the bourgeois urbanists comprising the inner circle of planners were comfortably ensconced in the starring roles.