Tuesday, December 3, 2013
December 3, 2013: Harrisburg Histories: Preserving Front Street
[In October, I had the chance to visit Harrisburg (PA) for the first time, and to start to learn about the city’s rich and complex histories. This week, I’ll highlight five responses to some of what I encountered in Pennsylvania’s capitol city.]
On the beauties, but also the limitations, of maintaining an architectual legacy.
My favorite part of Harrisburg, at least on that first visit, was the strikingly beautiful and evocative area along the Susquehanna River. And my favorite part of that area, seven impressive bridges and island with a minor league baseball stadium notwithstanding, was Front Street, and more exactly the historical, often 19th century buildings and architecture that have been preserved along most of that river-facing thoroughfare. Seemingly every other edifice on the street had a placard describing its historical, social, and cultural significances; and even those that didn’t comprise a wide and impressive range of architectural, aesthetic, and social styles and stories. It’s an amazingly evocative AmericanStudies street, and one I can’t wait to return to in April.
The preservation of Front Street wasn’t haphazard or accidental—quite the opposite, it developed as a centerpiece of the city’s embrace of the late 19th and early 20th century City Beautiful movement. One of those historic homes and placards on Front Street commemorates Mira Lloyd Dock, the talented and inspiring naturalist, conservationist, and progressive civic leader who spearheaded Harrisburg’s connection to City Beautiful and specifically the preservation of Front Street. As this nuanced historical analysis illustrates, the City Beautiful efforts in Harrisburg—as in any city—destroyed as much as they preserved of the city’s neighborhoods, spaces, and histories, just as any urban planning and project does and must. Yet while we can’t overlook those different effects and issues, Harrisburg’s City Beautiful projects also help us remember another inspiring side to the movement—not only its emphasis on green public spaces like Central and Fairmount Parks, but also its contributions to urban historical continuities and memories that might otherwise have been lost.
And yet (how many paragraphs in this space have I begun that way?). As I’ll address more fully in a couple subsequent posts this week, Harrisburg has had its share—more than its share—of tough economic and social circumstances over the last half-century, and I can’t help but think that Front Street’s 19th century dynamic reflects at least in part a city that has not quite found its way yet into the 21st century. I’m not, to be clear, suggesting either that Front Street should be redeveloped or that redevelopment in general is necessarily the way forward for America’s historical urban spaces. But I suppose what I’m thinking about is this: Front Street’s amazing buildings were, in their own era, signs of the city’s impressive and evolving history and story, its significant American identity and community localized in these edifices and places. We AmericanStudiers can’t help but admire them today, but we have to be willing to think about why contemporary cities don’t seem to include such places nearly as regularly, and what can be done about that.
Next Harrisburg history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?