The Life and Death of Early Western Cities: A Book Review of “Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning”
This is the first post in a three-part series reviewing and summarizing the CNU21 suggested reading list. CNU21 is this year’s annual Congress for the New Urbanism conference and will be held at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah May 29th through June 1st, 2013.
“Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning” by John W. Reps is an award-winning American history book which earns its place on all history enthusiasts’ shelves and coffee tables.
Published in 1979, this book is intended for history, planning, and historic preservation professionals and academics. Due to this assumption of background knowledge in the field, it is useful to have a working knowledge of the Public Land Survey System and the Land Ordinance of 1785 before reading “American West.” By my reading, I believe anyone who reads over a ninth grade level would be comfortable tackling this 848-page tome.
What makes this book groundbreaking is its huge scope and seemingly endless number of sources. Hundreds of museums, libraries, historical societies, public offices, universities, and individuals contributed photos, maps, personal accounts, and art pieces to “American West.” Reps, and surely a team of student researchers, left no stone unturned.
The book follows a simple format throughout. Every town and city described in the book is allotted one half to five pages each, accompanied with at least one map or illustration. There are a few exceptions that are given more focus: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Austin.
Each section discusses the municipalities’ planning process, design influences, organization of public space, rumors following the decisions, and some detailed modern regrets of past decisions. Some sections discuss problems with then-standard planning techniques and city designs found over time. Various settlers, planners, critics, and city officials are all quoted from journal entries in each section.
This format becomes extremely repetitious and requires either discipline or considerable time between reading sessions. I see this as a weakness in Reps’ writing for those who decide to read the book all the way through. However, the writing style may be helpful for those who want to use this as a casual coffee table book or reference book as it breaks the long chapters up nicely.
The author abuses the word “doubtless” and uses it in the same way at least a few times in each chapter. I caught some spelling and grammatical errors, but that seems to be common with many books published prior to electronic spellcheck. Reps occasionally refers to land as under “American rule.” The term “American control,” is more appropriate, as “control” does not imply royal command.
Even the content within finds itself in a loop at times. The typical Western frontier city is in a perfect-square grid pattern, usually facing the body of water that lends the townsfolk life. It looks much like the pattern in a waffle iron. The first plan to stray from the grid pattern in all of Western America, according to this book, was that of Olympia, Washington in 1873. Found on page 567, Frederick Law Olmsted designed a whimsical plan for the new city. His design was dismissed and replaced with a grid pattern seven years later.
The rise and fall of uniform laws governing town designs, location, planning, and development is observed throughout “American West.” It was then laid in the hands of individual “townsite promoters.”
“Mobility, both social and physical, characterized the Anglo-American urban frontier. Unsuccessful towns could be and often were discarded like a threadbare suit of clothes. Centralized planning was resisted.”
Many of the frontier’s cities never got past encompassing a large group of tents, and have since blown away with the dust. These groups were simply called “canvas towns” and most were temporary homes for resource chasers. For example, the gold rush led to a number of canvas towns in California. These towns were primitively planned, and relied upon nearby brick-and-mortar cities heavily for supplies. Once the resource was depleted in an area, the tent cities dismantled and the citizens left.
One chapter is dedicated to the towns of the Southwestern United States and their Spanish design influences. If you’re interested in the topic in particular, I suggest “A Field Guide to American Houses.” While most commonly used as a historical architecture reference, McAlester, et al., do delve into Spanish town planning practices in a more succinct and straightforward manner than Reps.
“American West” is a treasure trove of fun facts. For example, have you ever wondered why San Francisco’s Market Street is at an irregular angle to the rest of the grid pattern? Fun fact: it’s been too expensive to live in California since the 1870s. Lot buyers for new cities in the West sound a lot like modern iPhone line campers. Kansas is essentially a blanket of uninterrupted grid patterns. Salt Lake City, Utah itself is placed at a grid pattern that is aligned perfectly with the compass rose. The streets point exactly North/South and East/West.
In essence, “American West” describes a multitude of cities and towns from Kansas to Puget Sound. Some cities have stood the test of time, but many did not. The breadth and depth of Reps’ book is unprecedented. This 2.5-inch-thick behemoth cannot be matched – no matter how large or thorough your collection may already be.
John W. Reps has written fourteen other works, in addition to “Cities of the American West.” As a result, the “father of American planning history” has earned a plethora of awards and titles throughout his long academic career. He won the 1980 Beveridge Prize of the American Historical Association for “American West,” an award given only to the best books about American history.
The Congress for the New Urbanism suggests “American West,” along with two other books, for all future attendees of CNU21. However, I think it’s a little unrealistic to suggest a book to over a thousand planning professionals when only twenty copies are available at the country’s largest book retailer, Amazon. There is neither an audio or eBook version available as of spring 2013. To find a copy for yourself, the ISBN-13 is: 978-0691046488.
If you’re interested in the “Western Grid, Applications for the Future,” or the “Great American Grid Debate,” breakout sessions at CNU21, I suggest reading “American West” to better prime your perspectives and thoughts for the session.
Are you going to CNU21? What about “American West” peaks your interest in anticipation of the conference?
Credit: References linked to sources. Images scanned from book.