'Nuisance control': The discourse of zoning and the modern American city, 1865-1916

Tara C Foley, Fordham University


During the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States witnessed an unprecedented growth in industry. As manufacturing increased its production capabilities, immigration met the growing demand for labor. The rapid expansion of industry and the dramatic increase in population caused cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston to grow exponentially. The rapid expansion of these cities, however, came with a cost: overcrowding and the spread of communicable disease. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, unsanitary conditions, widespread poverty, and an increase in crime stimulated a discourse of crisis: what had our cities become, and what could be done? Within this discourse of crisis a specific pattern soon began to emerge: a constellation of urban spaces in New York, Chicago, and Boston, such as the park, the tenement, the factory, and the skyscraper, became focal points for a complex debate about congestion and contagion. This debate roamed across several genres and featured wildly disparate voices responding to both real and imagined conditions. The most compelling participants in this debate include Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose realist fiction elegized a lost golden era of civic tranquility even as it diagnosed and sought to heal the afflictions of the present; Edward Bellamy and William Dean Howells, whose utopian novels present imaginary geographical spaces as a way to meditate on urban realities; and lesser known immigrant writers such as Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, and John Boyle O’Reilly, whose diaries, memoirs, and works of fiction consider America’s cities within and against the great cities of Europe and Progressive reform movements. Alongside these literary works, a host of newspaper and magazine articles, medical reports, urban planning proposals, and landscape design treatises sounded the depths of decay in the nation’s urban centers. In “Nuisance Control,” I argue that these representations, in all their variety, were not merely responses to real or imagined conditions, but helped to generate a “crisis” of morality, the effect of which, for public health, immigration, laissez-faire capitalism, and modernity can still be felt today. Broadly speaking, my project has three goals: 1) to examine how novels and short stories in American literature framed both public health and urban planning initiatives such as the greening of cities, tenement house reform, and comprehensive zoning legislation in American cities at the turn of the twentieth century; 2) to reveal how these narratives of contested spaces expose the relations of power between the expanse of government—specifically the institutionalization of public health—and the interests of private property; 3) to analyze how this struggle amongst the relations of power shaped the space, scale, and aesthetics of the modern American city. In order to theorize the discourse surrounding the built environment at the turn of the twentieth century, I turn to the work of cultural geographer David Harvey. My project extends Harvey’s examination of the social production of space by arguing that representations of the built environment at the turn of the twentieth century reveal that a myriad of actors, such as journalists, architects, novelists, public health officials, and real estate developers, sought to regulate the future of urban space. In studying this wider array of archival sources, I join a growing number of literary and cultural historians such as William Gleason and Nick Yablon, who use theories of cultural geography to analyze the intersection of literature and the built environment.

Subject Area

American studies|American literature|Urban planning

Recommended Citation

Foley, Tara C, "'Nuisance control': The discourse of zoning and the modern American city, 1865-1916" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3728971.