Topography and Poverty — A Review of “Urban Lowlands”

Moga, Steven T. Urban Lowlands: A History of Neighborhoods, Poverty, and Planning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Henry C. Binford

This fine book weaves together several strands of United States urban history over the period from Reconstruction to the New Deal. Urban Lowlands: A History of Neighborhoods, Poverty, and Planning is an examination of parts of cities on the coasts, in the Midwest, and in the South that were low topographically and also deemed “low” by privileged residents in terms of class, race, or other characteristics. Running through the book, as well, is a story of what Moga calls the “lowland neighborhood paradox.” On the one hand, affluent citizens disparaged, shunned, and complained about the concentrations of poor and minority residents who found shelter in the lowlands, making “a rhetorical connection between low ground, poverty, and urban social problems.” On the other hand, affluent citizens helped to create, define, and sustain those despised areas, adopting language and policies that “facilitated containment of the poor” and shying away from projects that might displace poor people into other areas.

Moga thus highlights topography as part of the mix of forces shaping US cities, especially in the period before urban renewal and highway construction so drastically altered the urban physical landscape. Like race, class, and migration, lowness was “socially constructed through both vernacular speech and professional discourses on poverty and environment.” Moga investigates these themes through four chronologically overlapping case studies, of “Harlem Flats” in northern Manhattan, New York; “Black Bottom” in Nashville, Tennessee; “Swede Hollow” in St. Paul, Minnesota; and “The Flats” in Los Angeles, California. Over seven decades the lowland paradox shaped public and private discussions in these cities about what to do with low areas that presented genuine challenges of flooding, poor drainage, water pollution, and disease, but were also sites of economically valuable businesses and rail lines, and were home to thousands of marginalized citizens.

Mills such as this one, placed in the Swede Hollow neighborhood of St. Paul around 1885, often polluted the air of urban lowlands. “Mill in Swede Hollow,” ca. 1885, Wkikmedia Commons.

The final chapter of Urban Lowlands systematically compares experiences of lowland urban development. Moga makes excellent use of maps and illustrations to show correlations between altitude and social or political discourses. Among other things, he casts new light on geographic processes in relation to changing understanding of disease, attitudes about immigrants, the introduction of zoning, redlining, and the ongoing redefinition of “slum.” The book accounts for variations in regional cultures, social characteristics, and policy outcomes, but identifies strong common themes–in all four cities, lowness both shaped and was shaped by processes of social construction and public discussions of race, class, and other characteristics of otherness. And in all four, “…whites relentlessly identified African Americans and ‘low whites’ with the spaces where they lived and then denigrated those spaces as dangerous, immoral, and threatening to the city as a whole.” “Like the spatial organization of first-, second-, or third-class spaces on a train…the nineteenth-century urban landscape was hierarchical. Not only was the American city class segregated, but builders, architects, and engineers molded city form in relation to existing sociospatial patterns.”

Some readers might quibble with Moga’s rather rigid chronological framing. He uses the phrase “starting in the 1870s” a lot without adequately explaining why his study should begin in that decade. Some of the phenomena he treats have roots in earlier decades, and some of his stories stretch beyond the New Deal. But these are quibbles. Urban Lowlands offers ideas that should attract widespread attention among urban historians.

Henry C. Binford (Ph.D., Harvard, 1973), Professor of History at Northwestern University, is a social historian of the nineteenth-century United States.  He is particularly interested in urbanization and city growth. Much of his work deals with urban sub-communities such as suburbs, industrial areas, and “slums.”  He seeks to understand both how such areas functioned as elements of urban growth and how they were perceived, both by the people who lived and worked in them, and by affluent citizens who lived elsewhere. His major publications include From Improvement to City Planning: Spatial Management in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1786-1870 (Temple, 2021) and The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860 (Chicago, 1985).

Featured image (at top): Urban lowlands like Swede Hollow were subject to flooding, poor drainage, water pollution, and disease, but were also sites of economically valuable businesses and rail lines, and were home to thousands of marginalized citizens. Albert Charles Munson, “Swede Hollow, Phalen Creek can be seen,” ca. 1910, Wikimedia Commons.

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