Theses Doctoral

Spirit of Improvement: Construction, Conflict, and Community in Early National Port Cities

Lasdow, Kathryn

“Spirit of Improvement” explores the social, economic, and architectural consequences of waterfront improvement initiatives undertaken in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston from the waning years of the colonial period through the passage of the first federally-sponsored warehousing act in 1846. City-dwellers replaced a haphazardly-constructed warren of crooked streets, wooden storehouses and buildings, and dilapidated wharves of the colonial period, with orderly streetscapes, brick and stone buildings, and expanded infrastructure dedicated to local and international commerce. Though in each city, construction differed in scale and regional form, improvements everywhere were a daunting physical, financial, and political task.
This dissertation seeks to present the stories of men and women throughout American cities to uncover the social and economic complexities that lay at the heart of improvement initiatives in the colonial and early national periods. Merchants and speculators sought new forms of government authorization and the consent of property holders to reorder the landscape. Architects and engineers drafted cutting-edge designs for warehouses and harbors that looked to European examples and embraced the aesthetics of neoclassicism, industrial technology, and emerging theories of public health and disease prevention. White and black laborers dredged harbors, extended docks, and erected brick and stone warehouses. Female boardinghouse and shopkeepers established businesses adjacent to the wharves. Not only did residents confront the persistence of improvement projects in their midst, they also confronted their personal relationships to the abundance of interests jostling for prominence in the early-national marketplace. As a result, these initiatives proved highly contentious both for the elites who could afford to fund competing projects, as well as for the artisans, free and enslaved laborers, small business and property holders, and families living and working on the margins of society. As the cities’ poor and middling sorts witnessed the transformations occurring around them, many were left to grapple with the question, “Improvement, but for whom?”
Today, inhabitants of America’s port cities will find many of these themes all-too familiar: the presence of corporate development along shorelines; the role of celebrated architects and planners in the design and construction of expensive waterfront buildings; the ousting of long-term residents and businesses in the face of high rents or shifting clientele; and the emergence of a socially invisible, but economically essential, service-sector workforce who provide the necessary labor to keep these ventures afloat. “Spirit of Improvement” seeks to uncover the complex historical roots of America’s fascination with waterfront development—a phenomenon that stretches back to the improvement initiatives of the early republic, when merchant-entrepreneurs began to truly exploit infrastructure’s economic potential. In the early nineteenth century, capitalist development served the interests of merchants and businessmen involved international trade and commerce. Today, we look to the future of our urban waterfronts and confront the historical foundations on which these physical and social structures stand.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blackmar, Elizabeth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2018