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Building America’s Cities

How safe water made possible a progressive vision for urban life

Oct. 2, 2013
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By the mid-19th century, the U.S. was quickly becoming a nation of cities. These urban centers, unlike their 21st-century counterparts, came to be seen as centers of economic, social and cultural life. And these cities, as they attracted more and more residents, needed a variety of goods and services to accommodate such massive growth. The development of such things—including roads, schools and sewer systems—often occurred in fits and starts, putting on display the differences (racial, ethnic and economic) that informed how American cities came to look and function.

Carl Smith’s wonderful City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago (University of Chicago Press) adds a new chapter to this often-told story of rampant urbanization. Focusing on the development of waterworks systems in three major cities, Smith argues that the arduous process of getting clean water to residents helped to create the concept of an interdependent, collective urban citizenry. Public interest came to trump private gain as vast amounts of resources were expended to perform incredible feats of engineering and construction. In Chicago, for example, observers marveled as city officials built a tunnel directly into Lake Michigan, all to bring water to the city’s burgeoning population.

Thankfully, Smith does not get caught up too much in the nuts and bolts of such efforts. Instead, he usefully suggests “that a city is as much an infrastructure of ideas” as it is a collection of physical structures. Such a strategy allows Smith to use these systems as a way to talk about broader topics like the relationship between nature and the urban built environment, the overall health of city dwellers (Smith’s musings on the role clean, accessible water played in the temperance movement is particularly illuminating) and efforts to promote economic development within a country of competing cities. “Good water,” writes Smith, “would draw new people”—and undoubtedly new investment.

More importantly, such waterworks systems—predicated on the realities of large up-front costs and delayed returns—provided an avenue through which cities could illustrate faith in their long-term viability. Here, Smith highlights how these systems acted as a type of “cultural anticipation….not recollections of what happened, but expectations of what will be.” Memory and tradition gave way to a progressive vision of urbanism concerned almost exclusively with the future of the city, a shift in mindset that had profound implications for these three locations. Waterworks systems became monuments of this new urban order, and water itself became central to urban identity.

As Smith’s book was going to press, Forbes magazine christened Milwaukee “The Capital of Water,” noting that “Implausible as it might sound, Milwaukee is transforming itself from a dying industrial center into a technology mecca—a water technology mecca.” The Reed Street Yards, located on the edge of the Menomonee Valley, are being re-imagined as a global water technology park in an effort to attract businesses interested in all things water related. At the same time, UW-Milwaukee has created the School of Freshwater Sciences, an institution meant to provide academic assistance to such water-related endeavors. Smith’s timely work teaches us that, in the 19th century, “City water was city life.” In 21st-century Milwaukee, it may be time to stress this vital connection yet again.


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