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The Urban Frontier

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
Cities of the American West. By John W. Reps. Princeton. $75.00.

City planners, urban historians, and other urbanologists will be impressed by John W. Reps’ recent Cities of the American West. Fifteen years ago, Reps surveyed town planning across the entire United States in The Making of Urban America. Now he concentrates on the Trans-Mississippi West region and explores frontier urban planning, which for him includes the foundation of cities, the laying out of cities, and the initial stages of their development. Cities of the American West is an impressive compilation of no less than 524 city-plans and bird’s-eye views, with an extended commentary for each. Reps’ most visible contribution is to have organized this wealth of material into a coherent geographic framework. Twenty chapters take the reader from the beginnings of Western urbanization in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in the early 19th century to the far west in the 1890’s at the end of the frontier era. During this time period and in this vast half continent, Reps takes us to the Spanish borderlands of Texas, Arizona, and California, to the mining camps of California and Nevada, to the cities of the saints in the Great Basin Kingdom, to the railroad towns of the central plains, and to Oklahoma’s overnight cities. The 20 chapters offer a well-thought-out framework for analyzing the founding of cities during the century of the formation of the West.

In fact, cities played the dominant role in the founding of the West. They were, to use Richard Wade’s phrase, “the spearheads of the frontier.” When Frederick Jackson Turner addressed the American Historical Association in Chicago in 1893, he announced the closing of the frontier, the “end of an era” in American history. Turner described settlement on the frontier as a logical succession from the pathfinder, the fur trader, extensive, then intensive farming, to the city as the last form of settlement. But historians have now revised this sequence and have presented the city as the most aggressive and dynamic force in the settlement of the frontier. In the 1940’s Arthur Meier Schlesinger described “the rise of the city”; several other historians studied specific areas closely, such as Richard Wade in his study of the Ohio valley, and disproved Turner’s sequence. Reps’ new volume takes on again this now familiar theme and adds a wealth of new evidence to reinforce the urban interpretation of frontier settlement. What makes Reps’ argument convincing is the sheer amount of data presented. Reps describes the creation of city after city in the West. Some chapters make fascinating reading, like that on Oklahoma’s overnight cities, with the narrative of the “boomers’ ” illegal claims, and the laying out of towns a few minutes after the arrival of the first train! Other chapters are more monotonous, like the chapter describing some 500 Mormon towns created in a half century. This chapter comprises a succession of short descriptions of plats, lot sizes, street width, public buildings, as well as biographical sketches of town founders.

Despite the interesting anecdotes and wealth of detail, however, there are many problems with Reps’ approach. For all of the evidence which the author has accumulated, he does not describe the processes of settlement. And all the examples of the founding and planning of cities do not add up to a coherent vision of what actually happened in the West. Reps seems to be saying: if so many cities were created, and since most of them became major urban centers in the 20th century, then cities must have played a major role in the creation of the West. Yet Reps’ volume describes not an urban system, but only a juxtaposition of loosely connected towns, with no definition of what a city is or should be. Every settlement except isolated farmsteads qualifies for the name “town,” and the reader is left without a sense of a developing hierarchy of cities within a region. The amateur of old town plans will find an informed description of thousands of them in this lavishly published volume. But if the same reader is interested in gaining an insight into the process of growth and organization of the Western urban system or in population movements and economic changes which explain the transformations of the urban network, he may be better advised simply to turn to an old Baedeker’s guide, with its biographical sketches of cities, its descriptions of transportation systems, and its regional maps. In the last 20 years, many historians, geographers, sociologists, and other urbanologists have studied the growth of the American urban system. Building on Central Place Theory and other location theories, geographers like A. Pred and M. Conzen have studied communication systems between cities at different times. Sociologists like B. Duncan and S. Lieberson have related the growth of cities to major changes in the U. S. economy. Social historians have documented the extraordinary mass transiency characteristic of the 19th-century population. All these fundamental contributions should have informed Reps’ treatment of “town planning,” but, unfortunately, none of them were taken into account.

“Town planning” is only one theme of the volume, however. Another contribution of Cities of the American West is the study of the internal structure of cities. Hence the book comprises more than 500 illustrations of city plans, all variations on one theme since all cities were laid out on simple grid plans, within the squares of the general land survey established by the Northwest Ordinance. The simplicity of the layout offered many advantages, among which were the possibility of planning prior to settlement and an easy division of land for sale. The drawback is—as Reps himself recognizes— the monotony of the grid plan. The monotony does not escape the book. From one page to the next, the picture is almost the same; only the background changes, the view of a mountain, of a river, or of some other natural element. Just venturing an estimate, the book illustrations show some 300,000 city blocks, all alike! To be sure, the issue of the physical internal structure of the city is fundamental. Le Corbusier expressed this idea forcefully when he visited New York in 1935. He was struck by the “Euclidean clearness” of the American metropolis and contrasted it to the old European spider’s web city. Expressing his feeling of liberation in his well-known essay, “When the Cathedrals Were White,” he wrote of the New York grid: “It is an immense and beneficent freedom for the mind. It will be said that I am stopping over an anatomical detail of the city and that I attach a great deal of importance to it. This is not an anatomical detail, but the outstanding and essential biological structure of the city. It is a question of fundamental principle.” This aesthetic reaction of the architect poses a problem to the historian. How did the grid plan of new towns affect the economic and social structure of the city? The building of hundreds of towns in the West with the same plan adopted by different social groups in different areas, at different time periods, and under different sets of economic circumstances is an important field of investigation. But one must go beyond the mere description of urban form—the length and width of streets—to understand processes. Cities of the American West leaves this field of inquiry untouched, although it provides a solid description of urban land uses in frontier urban planning.


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