The Metropole Bookshelf: Kara Schlichting on her new book, New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.


Kara M. Schlichting. New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

By Kara M. Schlichting

New York Recentered offers a new model for understanding the invention of metropolitan New York during the city’s unprecedented expansion between 1840 and 1940. By broadening the definition of planning and paying close attention to the levels of governance on which it occurred, this book tells a regional history, not just a history of the city’s influence on the periphery.

 I lived in Manhattan as I wrote this book, but took frequent trips through greater New York to visit family in Connecticut. Riding Metro North, the commuter rail that runs through the coastal communities fronting Long Island Sound, I passed many of the places I was researching — from Rye, New York, and its municipal amusement park, Playland, to Westport, Connecticut, home to Sherwood Island State Park. The train took me over the marshes and inlets of the coast, offering peeks of the Sound and its rocky beaches. Traveling along the shore reminded me why I had first decided to write this history. I experienced New York as a metropolitan region, a continuum of urban and suburban spaces that spanned boroughs, counties, and states. Riding a rail line that hugged the shore, I was reminded that the waterfront was one organizing principle of the region. How had this sprawling metropolitan periphery come into being?

While historians have thoroughly examined New York City, I believe that taking a regional lens to the fields of urban and suburban history offers the opportunity to ask new questions and tell new stories about greater New York. Rather than focusing on Manhattan, New York Recentered explores the island’s surrounding territory, the coastal setting in which greater New York grew. This geographic span includes greater New York’s outer boroughs and adjacent suburban counties. Reinterpreting spaces long considered peripheral as central to regional growth, I argue that land-use issues of park, street, and bridge planning and suburbanization drew the coastal metropolis together. Four main themes emerged as I reconsidered New York from this regional perspective: the ways in which regional development shaped environmental change, the role nonhuman nature played in shaping urban expansion, the nonprofessional city planning and city-building patterns that emerged in addition to professional channels of planning, and the power of private property regimes to shape development.          

Schlichting_New York Recentered_Cover HIGH RESPart of what I found most satisfying in writing New York Recentered was the number and diversity of people who shaped metropolitan growth. Using broad definitions of city planning and city building, I was able to include the work of a diverse set of local actors—amusement park entrepreneurs, politicians, and urbanites who sought contact with the natural world—in conjunction with the work of well-known power brokers such as Robert Moses. (Even though I chose to leave Manhattan behind, Moses was inescapable). By situating the work of professional planners and urban power brokers alongside the lasting contributions of locals, I looked to provide a counterweight to design-focused histories of the early twentieth-century city. I spent time asking new questions about the famous showman P.T. Barnum, who led a one-man charge to make Bridgeport, Connecticut, a satellite city of New York, and influential German-Americans William Steinway and George Ehret, a piano manufacturer and beer maker who built an amusement park on Bowery Bay, Queens, that catered to German beer garden culture.

City officials and regional development boosters enthusiastically fit urban systems of parks, streets, sewerage, and shipping channels to New York’s hinterlands, and in the process drew city and periphery closer together. Such was the case for the area now known as the South Bronx. In the late nineteenth century, the Harlem River’s borderlands fostered an expansionist perspective based on environmental and topographic boundaries, setting the parameters for subsequent large-scale environmental reclamation projects that would come to characterize the coastal corridor.

Beyond the urban core, planners rethought the city-suburb relationship, conceptualized a recreating public, facilitated the germination of planning theory through regional park plans, and envisioned modern public works. Such work brought new infrastructure and public spaces to a wide range of suburban communities, from Queens to the Bronx to Nassau County. Overlapping appointments empowered regional park planners and government officials, most famously Robert Moses, with a border-crossing perspective situated not in the city center but on the edge.

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Robert Moses, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, 1934, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of my goals in writing this book was to highlight how, in aggregate, the choices of local residents, people who were neither planners nor politicians, influenced the shape and timing of urban growth. A wide variety of small-scale operators shaped greater New York, including the Kells family that ran a dance hall, black real estate investor Solomon Riley, and families that winterized summer camps and established blue-collar bungalow districts. Yet this created conflicts among different groups about “appropriate” waterfront use; people fought over racial diversity and the exclusivity of elites’ and political machines’ enclaves. While often dismissed as parochial by planners and planning historians alike, private landowners mounted important challenges to Progressive-era park planning, frequently through the mechanisms of local government. Local government was an essential player in the rapidly-evolving and uneasy relationship between the urban center and its growing suburban periphery.

In the end, New York Recentered is a reminder that the friction between private and public interests and the countervailing impulses to centralize or decentralize government have long defined metropolitan New York. The rise of greater New York demonstrates how environment, residential and industrial decentralization, recreation, and public works tied the urban core and periphery together and gave shape to the region. It also reveals the geographic, socioeconomic, and political boundaries that continue to separate communities today.

Kara Schlichting is an Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. She earned her PhD from Rutgers University. Schlichting is a co-editor of the H-Environment Roundtable Reviews. Her book New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore was published in 2019 with the University of Chicago Press’s History of Urban America series. 

Featured image: High Bridge & Washington Bridge, Harlem River, N.Y.C., looking south, photograph by William Henry Jackson, c. 1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

 

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