Local Attachments

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Alexander von Hoffman. Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. xxiv, 311. $13.75 (Paperback): ISBN 0801853931.

Summary

The role of the urban neighborhood has largely been overlooked by scholars as a distinct component of urban society. According to Alexander von Hoffman, the historiographical silence stemmed from the desperate portraits of nineteenth century cities besieged by population growth, economic instability, and immigration which helped deprive “the civic spirit that could have overcome social and institutional crisis” (xvi, xviii). Von Hoffman, as a result, uses Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts as a case study to examine the development of the urban neighborhood, which he defined as larger than a city block but smaller than an entire city. A heterogeneous neighborhood “located in a radius between three and half miles and five and a half miles from Boston’s City Hall,” Jamaica Plain showed that the neighborhood represented a vital element in urban society, as the community’s growing connection to Boston facilitated a vibrant, local civic spirit (xix, xx, xxii, 119).

Jamaica Plain during the mid-nineteenth century represented a diverse but changing town that not only lacked a fully developed identity, but also a collective memory. As von Hoffman noted, “[i]n 1850, Jamaica Plain was a fringe area with a mixed and inchoate personality” (19). The town exhibited the outward characteristics of an agricultural community, suburb, and urban ghetto. Yet, the town also underwent a change in its economic makeup. Agricultural activity in Jamaica Plain declined dramatically during the mid-nineteenth century, as the manufacturing of chemicals, glue, and soap began to emerge (3, 15, 17). Most of all, Jamaica Plain lacked a shared memory. Von Hoffman highlighted how long-term town residents could not offer any explanation on the creation of the town’s name, illustrating the undeveloped nature of the community’s civic identity (20).

Jamaica Plain’s transformation into an urban place provided the impetus for civic pride and identity. According to von Hoffman, “the process of urban growth in outer Boston conferred upon Jamaica Plain a sense of identity as an urban community” (xxii). Economic growth and transportation improvements brought an increasing number of people into Jamaica Plain. Also aided by annexation into Boston, Jamaica Plain’s population grew from 2,730 people in 1850 to 32,750 people in 1900 (28, 29, 32-4). The urbanization of Jamaica Plain created a local vibrancy that did not exist in the town during the mid-nineteenth century. For instance, Harriet Manning Whitcomb’s Annals and Reminiscences of Jamaica Plain offered a history of the town, while the Jamaica Plain News provided histories of schools, churches, and other neighborhood institutions (63).

Neighborhood strength became increasingly evident through what von Hoffman termed “local attachments,” a set of social, economic, and political institutions which tied Jamaica Plainers to each other and to the community. To illustrate, local stores like Seaver’s did more than sell groceries, liquor, and oil. Seaver’s represented a neighborhood gathering place where “the gang would collect there, sit around the old stove and discuss everything from politics to women, and believe me, they could gossip.” Similarly, German and Irish groceries served as community centers for the town’s immigrant population (102-3). Localism, moreover, took on a political element, especially after Jamaica Plain became part of Boston. As von Hoffman showed, Jamaica Plainers frequently requested services from the city government, namely the adequate watering of town streets (183, 185).

Yet, the local vitality of Jamaica Plain failed to survive the Progressive “War against Localism.” Von Hoffman noted that Progressive reformers shunned local conditions for “universal principles” that sought to streamline and centralize municipal government. As a result, Progressives attacked “the framework in which local attachments flourished,” which “ultimately helped to unravel the sense of common neighborhood interest” (202-3). Ethnic and class conflicts emerged which not only fostered distrust but illustrated the growing group isolation that existed in Jamaica Plain. In essence, Progressive reformers fragmented a once united heterogeneous community into a collection of homogeneous parts (214, 238-9). Von Hoffman thus concludes that Progressive reformers sacrificed neighborhood vitality in an effort to establish a new urban community.

Commentary

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

While the neighborhood’s social, economic, and political attachments nurtured bond’s between the area’s distinct socio-economic and ethnic groups, von Hoffman’s analysis lacks an in-depth examination on the internal conflicts that characterized most, if not all, urban societies. Von Hoffman offers only a meager examination on the labor strife that existed in Jamaica Plain. For example, he mentions the periodic strikes that took place against local factories, but within the context of worker solidarity as opposed to worker-management relations (100-1). Von Hoffman also overlooks the racial divisions that existed in the neighborhood, noting briefly the destructive social forces that divided communities across racial lines (242-3). By providing only a thin examination on internal community divisions, von Hoffman misses an opportunity to add nuance and complexity to his arguments.

Nonetheless, von Hoffman succeeds when recounting the development of Franklin Park. The park perfectly illustrated how neighborhood strength grew from the community’s increasing connection to the urban center. As von Hoffman noted, “Bostonians supported public parks for reasons that ranged from pure moral reform to civic boosterism, but all agreed that a park should exist for the city as a whole.” In fact, Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of the Boston park system, believed that Franklin Park would represent the highlight of the city’s “Emerald Necklace” (80). The park provided the means that connected the urban neighborhood to the city. However, the park also facilitated increased localism. Jamaica Plainers, for example, criticized efforts that separated the park from the city. Moreover, local businessmen formed the Jamaica Plain Carnival Association, which eventually convinced park commissioners to reverse their policy against public Fourth of July celebrations (88, 89).

Equally, if not more, important, Franklin Park showed the far-reaching significance of von Hoffman’s study. Von Hoffman used Jamaica Plain as a case study that questioned the prevailing historiography on urbanization’s impact on the local neighborhood. For example, Robert Wiebe in The Search for Order maintained that expansion undercut the autonomy of local communities (xvii). Von Hoffman, however, showed the opposite, persuasively arguing that urban growth and change fostered local strength and independence. Only when progressive reformers ignored the importance of local attachments did the neighborhood lose its vibrancy. Although von Hoffman used Jamaica Plain as a case study, the neighborhood’s unique history opened the door for future scholarship that can alter existing perspectives of the nineteenth century neighborhood.

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