Reflection on Richard C Wade’s “Urban Life in Western America, 1790-1830”

Wade’s view of early urban life quite eerily reminds one of the 1990’s dot com boom. Pointing out the eagerness to fore go sense for the potentiality of profit, Wade says,

Despite many failures, these abortive attempts to plant towns were significant, for they reveal much about the motives of the people who came West in the early period. Many settlers moved across the mountains in search of promising towns rather than good land, their inducements being urban opportunities rather than fertile soil” (Boehm 79).

Western urban development became a footrace to set up shop, grow profit, and wield power in the early days of expansion. The problems that came with this mindset were many. Police and firemen were all volunteer if they existed at all and laws did more to protect capital than citizens. But what was most interesting in Wade’s piece was his breakdown of the Philadelphia connection to these new urban centers. Noting that newspapers and local developers often referred to Philadelphia as the “mother city”, Wade moves on to explain that the model for urban development in the new South and West was taken, quite literally, from Philadelphia, “from street plans to cultural activity, from the shape of market houses to the habits of people” ( Boehm 82). This press for urban development saw the start of a conflict that still rings true today. While urban centers continued to push growth and the urban lifestyle of the young country, agrarian centers nearby did all they could to rail against them. Religious influence and flat out obstructionism became prevalent in these areas as the rural communities, who still had a large degree of sway financially and politically at the time, worked to stop the development of city life. They moved to keep power, capital, and government buildings from the urban centers and to this day, still show a large difference in voting. Not only is Wade correct in his assessment, he also has provided evidence of an American cultural trend. We have continued to be, and will remain so in my opinion, a nation divided between entrepreneurial spirit and traditional capital structures, between progressive economic development and old fashion money making, country and city folk, religious right and the progressively non religious, profits and people. Cities are not bad things. Money is not the root of evil. But when the two dominant influences of a nation are profit and staunch resistance to progressive cultural evolution, we will always have our New York and Boston rivalry.

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