Brian C. Black, Michael J. Chiarappa, eds. Nature's Entrepôt: Philadelphia's Urban Sphere and Its Environmental Thresholds. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. vi + 367 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4417-1.
Reviewed by Edward S. Slavishak (Susquehanna University)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (July, 2014)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward
A Hard-Packed City
Two concepts guide readers through Brian Black and Michael Chiarappa’s book. First, the title concept, which appears in Chiarappa’s centerpiece essay, highlights the connections between the natural processes and human interventions in Philadelphia’s history. The claim that the city is nature’s entrepôt slyly brings growth, environment, and commerce under one roof. The fourteen contributors argue that even while generations of humans have layered systems, networks, and lives onto the physical setting of the city, that physical setting remains. The second, related, concept is addressed most directly by Anne Whiston Spirn in her essay on the Mill Creek neighborhood. “Landscape literacy,” she writes, “is to recognize both the problems in a place and its resources, to understand how they came about, what means sustain them, and how they are related” (p. 229). This is environmental, political, economic, and social history combined to figure out how residents have lived over four centuries. These varied approaches make Nature’s Entrepôt effective and often riveting.
The editors organized the book into four sections, which roughly correspond to four projects: attempts to impose a European order on the landscape; attempts to deal with waste and population density; attempts to use the city’s regional connections for private and public advantage; and attempts to correct injustices wrought by policy and pollution. If Chiarappa’s essay serves as the thematic heart of the book, its spine is provided by five entries that pivot away from the past to consider the political contexts and infrastructural results of governmental action. Written by geographers, urban planners, and a sociologist, these five essays make a convincing case for the lingering significance of old decisions. The book moves in a staggered chronological fashion and represents the strengths of recent scholarly focus on urban hybridity.
Following an introduction by Black that continues the assault on the city/nature binary waged by William Cronon and Joel Tarr, the book moves into the “ideal and reality” section. Craig Zabel examines William Penn’s endeavor to domesticate the wild and exploit natural resources to launch a community. The grid represented the height of rationalizing the landscape, but residents took liberties with the plan when they could, and the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania grew beyond official control. Elizabeth Milroy chronicles one effort to reassert control: the Fairmount Park Commission, established in 1867 to organize green space. The state legislature granted the Commission independence from city officialdom, yet lack of funding hobbled it at times. Before it was abolished in 2010, the Commission collected an impressive nine thousand irregular acres of parkland that tweaked Penn’s vision of a uniform grid. In the last chapter, Thomas Apel considers the yellow fever outbreaks around the turn of the nineteenth century. Public health officials were more successful than their planning and park counterparts in solving problems. Quarantines and public works projects curbed yellow fever, though not before thousands of Philadelphians had died.
Part 2 addresses a central conundrum of urban history: the very things that make cities vibrant can also make them incredibly difficult places in which to live. Public debates and lawsuits anchor this section, as Philadelphians tussled over what to do with the byproducts of growth. Donna Rilling studies the city’s rendering trade. When neighbors sued bone-boiler Charles Cumming in 1851 for bringing filth into their lives, Cumming defended himself in grand terms, as the invisible force that made it possible for hundreds of thousands of humans and animals to live and die together in close proximity. Michal McMahon charts the enduring clash over the fate of Dock Creek, a cove in east-central Philadelphia whose transition to an industrial dumping ground and closed sewer exhibited a faith in technology to mitigate human footprints. Dock Creek provided necessary drainage and waste removal, so it became one more “engineered structure” between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. The last chapter of this section turns to the emergence of industrial suburbs along waterways to show how growth in Philadelphia was not of the concentric circle variety. Carolyn Adams points out that these residential and manufacturing zones, like city centers, have faced their share of difficulties in the twentieth century. Their location along rivers and streams, however, makes them potentially more attractive to future developers.
The third part of the book highlights three ways in which the city can be seen as something greater than itself. Adam Levine provides a wonderful look at the mechanics of erecting and maintaining the grid. This effort to subdue natural topography through grading and plotting was in the name of maximizing profit. In summing up the process, Levine offers one of the best sentences in the book: “The City of Brotherly Love became a city of unlovely right angles: squares and other rectangles as far as the eye could see, with rarely a curve or hypotenuse in sight” (p. 141). Chiarappa broadens the lens to the Delaware Estuary, the physical feature that echoes the book’s threshold metaphors. It was Philadelphia capital that drove the shad, sturgeon, and oyster industries in the nineteenth century, and it was the rhythmic nature of extraction that organized markets in the city and careers on the water. Finally, Robert Mason provides a bureaucratic and technical history of the city's spatial expansion. Mason observes that Philadelphia has not suffered the sprawl of other cities, and he cites its hybrid growth (“with elements of concentric expansion and polycentric development”) as a factor in its relatively compact size (p. 188).
The last part of Nature's Entrepôt suggests that what has been made can be remade. It is too reductive to label this the “activism” section of the book, for the actions presented here range from teaching teenagers to filing lawsuits, and from running locally sourced restaurants to editorializing about deer contraception. Spirn shows that the original Mill Creek still exists as the sewage conduit under the low-income neighborhood that shares its name. Developers and city officials have consistently downplayed its presence and dismissed its drainage functions, much to the detriment of the housing and roads that they built on top of it. Another case study of willful ignorance is featured in Diane Sicotte’s sobering essay on the limits to environmental justice in the city. Her focus is on the “unequal allocation of the risks and rewards of industrialization,” especially the ways in which the risks tend to accumulate in areas inscribed by race, ethnicity, and class (p. 234). Activists since the 1970s have slowed down, but rarely stopped, the introduction of new polluters, yet Sicotte argues that the very existence of such efforts needs further attention. In the penultimate chapter, Domenic Vitiello considers the food systems that have maintained Philadelphia’s population over time. Ann Norton Greene ends the book with a look at the political debate over the deer population in Wissahickon Valley Park. Both of these authors recognize the scale and scope of the problems that face the actors who try to manage urbanites’ contact with the natural processes occurring around them.
Many readers turn to edited collections for specific essays within them and never ask for a cohesive whole. Every chapter in Nature’s Entrepôt provides a wealth of insight on specific subjects, but “thru-readers” would have benefited from introductory thematic essays for each section to reorient themselves. While there is a great deal of conceptual overlap between the chapters, the glut of detail makes it hard at times to find one’s way back to the entrepôt theme. The true contribution of the volume is to focus readers so closely on what Black calls the “hard-packed, organic core” of the city (p. 4). A hard-packed city is one that requires patient digging before it reveals its secrets, and Black, Chiarappa, and their fellow contributors have done the grunt work. Their book will be of great interest to historians of city life, urban planning, and that many-headed Hydra that we call environment.
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Edward S. Slavishak. Review of Black, Brian C.; Chiarappa, Michael J., eds., Nature's Entrepôt: Philadelphia's Urban Sphere and Its Environmental Thresholds.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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