October 29, 2004
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v2.1 Reference

City Building on the Eastern Frontier

Sorting the New Nineteenth-Century City

America's westward expansion involved more than pushing the frontier across the Mississippi toward the Pacific; it also consisted of urbanizing undeveloped regions of the colonial states. In 1810, New York's future governor DeWitt Clinton marveled that the "rage for erecting villages is a perfect mania." The development of Rochester and Syracuse illuminates the national experience of internal economic and cultural colonization during the first half of the nineteenth century. Architectural historian Diane Shaw examines the ways in which these new cities were shaped by a variety of constituents—founders, merchants, politicians, and settlers—as opportunities to extend the commercial and social benefits of the market economy and a merchant culture to America's interior. At the same time, she analyzes how these priorities resulted in a new approach to urban planning.

According to Shaw, city founders and residents deliberately arranged urban space into three segmented districts—commercial, industrial, and civic—to promote a self-fulfilling vision of a profitable and urbane city. Shaw uncovers a distinctly new model of urbanization that challenges previous paradigms of the physical and social construction of nineteenth-century cities. Within two generations, the new cities of Rochester and Syracuse were sorted at multiple scales, including not only the functional definition of districts, but also the refinement of building types and styles, the stratification of building interiors by floor, and even the coding of public space by class, gender, and race. Shaw's groundbreaking model of early nineteenth-century urban design and spatial culture is a major contribution to the interdisciplinary study of the American city.

About the Author

Diane Shaw is an associate professor of architectural history at Carnegie Mellon University.


"An important corrective to studies of urban design based upon the metropolis."

- John D. Fairfield - Journal of American History

"Very effectively suggests ways to extend the work of architectural historians, geographers, historians, and planners alike."

- Joseph S. Wood - Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

"Carefully researched, fine-grained analysis."

- Roger D. Simon - Technology and Culture

"Delivers valuable detail about two minor cities in a critical period of economic change. Excellent maps and a fine selection of illustrations enhance the package significantly."

- John Lauritz Larson - American Historical Review

"Among the most significant recent developments in the humanities and social sciences is the 'spatial turn' that scholars have taken... Shaw's new book represents an important step in this paradigm shift."

- Domenic Vitiello - Journal of the Early Republic


"With skill and imagination, Shaw provides a synthesis of architectural, social, and urban history that yields important insights on the intricacies of city building at a formative stage in the United States. Her work is a model of its kind, affording lessons that far transcend the period and places that are her focus. This book should be essential reading for scholars concerned with the urban environment today no less than in the past."

- Richard Longstreth, George Washington University

"Diane Shaw shows us what is significant and distinctive about the small cities that are often overlooked by historians. She draws urban geography, architectural history, and social life into an intimate and fresh portrait of the dreams, successes, and failures of the men and women who created them."

- Dell Upton, University of Virginia

"With this lively and original analysis of Syracuse and Rochester, New York, Diane Shaw takes us—literally and figuratively—into the heart of the nearly 2,000 new middle-sized cities that Americans built in the nineteenth-century. Correcting conventional assumptions based only on the expansion of colonial seacoast centers, Shaw convincingly shows us how business leaders in the interior of the country rethought the role and design of cities and wove a new vernacular urbanism of carefully-sorted commercial, industrial, and civic areas and buildings. Everyone interested in nineteenth-century American architecture and urbanism needs to read this book!"

- Paul Groth, University of California, Berkeley
Johns Hopkins University Press
Creating the North American Landscape
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272 Pages
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