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St. Louis: The Evolution of an American…

St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape

by Eric Sandweiss

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This book starts with St. Louis’s founding and really goes only to the formal institution of zoning in the early 1920s. Sandweiss argues that the city’s development was a result of constant tension between small, fenced-off corners (the house, the neighborhood block) and the wider world, and the city was an unstable middle ground. This is a history told from the point of view of white (sometimes Anglo and sometimes “ethnic”) officials and businessmen, who were often tied by at least running in the same social circles, if not the same families. Throughout the nineteenth century, a main conflict was over improving roads—something the city wanted the directly benefited landowners to pay for, and something those landowners wanted to be a shared burden given the presumably shared benefit in making the city function better. The balance changed from time to time, and the city enacted special assessments on the local landowners—but that meant that only wealthy neighborhoods got good roads, because only they could pay for them. Technology changes, but not politics. By the twentieth century, the leading lights of the city said outright that the city was “a great business establishment” and thus needed planning. Given this conception, it was no surprise that some people held more “shares” in the city than others, and deserved a greater voice. Although zoning and comprehensive planning arrived in the mid-1910s, just the time when the white majority of St. Louis voted for racial zoning excluding blacks from living in white areas and vice versa, race doesn’t play a big part of Sandweiss’s story, though it gets hard to ignore near the end.

I did love the bit in the intro where Sandweiss discusses nearby Wildwood’s attempts to create a community through New Urbanist principles, where the contractor-planners “flatter their client’s [Wildwood’s] revolutionary spirit with talk of the ‘Jeffersonian’ grid, as though a community of sturdy husbandmen were only awaiting the arrival of front porches and four-way stop signs to make its presence known.” Still, the built environment does shape behavior, which is why there’s always so much concern about it among homeowners and local officials. ( )
  rivkat | Sep 6, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 156639886X, Paperback)

St. Louis' story stands for the story of all those cities whose ambitions and civic self-image, forged from the growth of the mercantile and industrial eras, have been dramatically altered over time. More dramatically, perhaps, than most but in a manner shared by all St. Louis' changing economic base, shifting population, and altered landscape have forced scholars, policymakers, and residents alike to acknowledge the transiency of what once seemed inexorable metropolitan trends: concentration, growth, accumulated wealth, and generally improved well-being. In this book, Eric Sandweiss scrutinizes the everyday landscape streets, houses, neighborhoods, and public buildings as it evolved in a classic American city.Bringing to life the spaces that most of us pass without noticing, he reveals how the processes of dividing, trading, improving, and dwelling upon land are acts that reflect and shape social relations. From its origins as a French colonial settlement in the eighteenth century to the present day, "St Louis" offers a story not just about how our past is diagramed in brick and asphalt, but also about the American city's continuing viability as a place where the balance of individual rights and collective responsibilities can be debated, demonstrated, and adjusted for generations to come. Author note: Eric Sandweiss is the Director of Research at the Missouri Historical Society.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:42 -0400)

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