122: Mona Domosh’s Invented Cities

In Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century New York and Boston, Mona Domosh examines the historical, economic, and cultural origins of city development in Boston and New York.  Shows that in the 19th century, Boston and New York developed different spatial and architectural forms due to their different social/cultural structures, and that in both cases the physical and cultural structures mutually constituted the cities as different entities.  However, in both cities, the cultural landscape of the city represented its middle and upper classes, who produced “visible representations of their individual and group beliefs, values, tensions, and fears” on the urban landscape.  By applying a new cultural geography framework to urban landscape analysis, she brings 19th century urban development to life and shows how spatial patterns and culture shape one another.

Domosh centers her argument around four case studies: in New York, the 6th Ave/ Broadway retail district and the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and in Boston, residential Back Bay and Boston Common/ the city park system.  While commercial and residential districts are not functionally comparable, Domosh is not so interested in the use of these spaces; she’s looking instead for the relationship between elite cultural values and urban form, and for the ways in which urban development reflected elite reactions to industrialization and immigration.  In Boston, where elites were a relatively homogeneous class of “gentry” based in the textile industry, the powerful Boston Associates created a landscape of exclusion and leisure.  Elites were able to transform a massive public works project – infilling the Back Bay – into an exclusive residential enclave, and that exclusivity was consciously maintained and enforced by manipulating land values and zoning restrictions. Likewise, Boston Common and the rest of the parks system was preserved as a playground for elites, with French Boulevard flanking the Commons as Back Bay’s main artery.  New York, by contrast, was run by an enterprising commercial elite of Dutch, Jewish, and Anglo businessmen working primarily in trade, dry goods, banking, and insurance.  Instead of putting their residences at the heart of the city, this heterogeneous business class focused downtown development on commercial interests.  Domosh’s extensive history of New York skyscrapers shows how high-profile skyscrapers were sited on low-profile real-estate as visual advertisements, and her study of the Broadway shopping district, with its ornate department stores geared toward women, shows how retail followed the northern movement of elite residences.  Because New York valued business over elite leisure, it allowed business interests to build on its commons; the resulting landscape was a relatively uncoordinated but collective endeavor to build the city around capital accumulation.

The stark binary Domosh draws between Boston’s homogeneous cultural elite and New York’s heterogeneous commercial one doesn’t make much sense, since both cities clearly had both cultural and commercial development.  Further, looking only at development spearheaded by elites leaves out a large segment of the population, thus rendering most people silent on the development of the city in which they live.  However, within the circumscribed sphere of elite development, Domosh does show that culture and built form mutually reinforce and construct one another, and that power can and does inscribe itself in the landscape.  Actually, now that I think about it, focusing on elites does include non-elites in the same way that whiteness studies includes people of color: by creating landscapes consciously meant to exclude or construct the experience and movements of the people the elites fear, they write industrialization and immigration into the landscape whether they like it or not.

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