Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930

Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930 – Book Review

James Borchert

Domesticating the Street: The Reform of Public Space in Hartford, 1850-1930. By Peter C. Baldwin (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999. x plus 360pp.).

Students of the urban past have increasingly focused on the uses of urban public space. Social historians interested in the lives and perspectives of racial, ethnic working-class men and women have contributed significantly to these efforts. These studies have demonstrated how the working classes contested with others on and for the urban terrain; often their neighborhoods’ active uses of the street and public areas established their control over those spaces.

Urban critics as Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, James Kunstler and Mike Davis as well as technology historians, however, find a sharp decline of this intense and diverse street life in the post World War II period. They link these changes to redevelopment and highway projects designed to accommodate the automobile.

Looking closely at the transformation of Hartford, Connecticut’s public space and its uses over the period from 1850 to 1930, Peter Baldwin finds that this change took place earlier and resulted somewhat inadvertently from reform movements rather than just the introduction of a new technological form. Moreover, he reports a more complex and multifaceted process where some parts of the city experienced more significant change than others and where Hartford’s middle class reformers and working classes contested over how space was to be defined and used. Nor were middle class reformers entirely unified in these efforts. Women reformers especially, seeking to expand their roles in urban life, “drew on a cultural understanding of ‘women’s sphere'” in their efforts to “purify public space” (7).

Other reformers of both genders but especially men, sought to segregate space. Ultimately working-class opposition to reformers’ efforts aided those who sought segregation of activities rather than purity. By the 1920s, as automobiles became more numerous and the reform spirit waned, the “needs” of the former and the “desires” of the latter merged to produce a segregation of public space that increasingly divided the city. Ironically, where late 19th century reformers sought to bring the city together through public spaces, especially parks, that “could be a nurturing home,” their efforts ultimately and inadvertently led toward a more segmented city (9).

Baldwin begins with Congregationalist pastor, Rev Horace Bushnell, whose 1853 treatise on city planning proposed an urban park, distinct from surrounding space but that would bring city residents together. Bushnell hoped that his park, completed in 1867, “would be a feminized form of public space … extending female values outside the home” (26). He left a divided legacy, however, with one group of optimistic reformers seeking to purify the city’s environment physically and morally. Confronting the changes industrialism and immigration brought to the city from the 1890s on, these reformers, led in part by Bushnell’s daughter, Dotha Hillyer, promoted purity through a myriad of middle-class oriented reforms. These included: cleanliness, tenement house reform, eliminating vices such as prostitution and ending child labor, especially newsies. Other reformers, including Hartford Park Superintendent George Parker, used segregation to bring order and control to the confused urban environment and its multiplicity of interest groups. Where Bushnell “sought to create civic unity on bourgeois terms,” Parker developed parks for diverse socio-economic groups (145). Reformers also promoted playgrounds and other activities to remove children from city streets as they sought to remove expressmen and peddlers from downtown streets. Not all of these efforts were entirely successful as working class children, peddlers and others continued to use their neighborhood streets actively for recreation and income.

To solve problems of congestion governmental leaders developed main thoroughfares designed for high-speed traffic. This transformed and restricted pedestrian and other uses of downtown streets and public spaces, although residential streets remained unpaved, permitting active uses. Finally, in the 1920s city leaders promoted zoning to “balance conflicting impulses … to protect both the residential neighborhoods and the investment interests of prosperous citizens” (260).

As a result, Baldwin concludes that “the wholesale segregation of urban space resulted from numerous piecemeal reform efforts and was strengthened by the unexpected explosion in automobile travel. It was not the result of any master plan to encourage private transportation” (265). Ultimately, public space segregation resulted from “a compromise that allowed Hartford’s diverse population to come to terms with the pluralism that Bushnell had feared” (266).

The book rests on extensive research. Baldwin draws effectively on the records of such key reform groups as Hartford’s Municipal Art Society, city records, local newspapers and oral history collections. The breadth and depth of this research are impressive while the study is well placed in the context of the larger literature.

Domesticating the Street is an excellent study. It effectively focuses on middle and upper-class reformers, women and men, their ideologies, programs and organizations, set in the context of the city’s changing physical environment and social geography. It links together a diverse set of reforms and movements into an explanatory framework that places people at the center of social change, not just technology. This is a complex and thoughtful study in other ways. Baldwin gives due to a range of players beyond the usual cast of characters; expressmen, peddlers, newsies, working-class and immigrant children, adults and neighborhoods play important roles in the evolution of public space. Nor does the author deny these groups their minor victories.

Some areas remain underdeveloped. Working-class urbanites appear largely in reaction to or as subjects of reform; their uses of public space or ideologies are not fully developed. Nor are those special events fully considered here, from riots to celebrations, that temporarily transform public space. While there are some clear connections to reform movements and planning elsewhere, Hartford’s position vis-a-vis other cities remains suggestive rather than definitive. To what extent can the Hartford study explain the transformations in other cities? Although beyond the scope of this case study, an additional comparison to changing public spaces in European cities and elsewhere might provide valuable insights on their separate evolutions.

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