Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 2017
Elizabeth Milroy The Grid and the River: Philadelphia’s Green Places, 1682–1876 University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 464 pp.; 188 b/w ills. Cloth $64.95 (9780271066769)

In his iconic 1964 The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Leo Marx surveyed early American literature and painting to uncover a uniquely American understanding of the collective landscape. Elizabeth Milroy—framing her lens on early Philadelphia—has produced an equally authoritative and compelling portrait of how a city’s actual landscape fabric has been fashioned through a process of negotiating and representing a dominant idea about landscape’s place in American culture. It is as if these two works, separated by a half century, were meant to be read together: one laying out a broad philosophical understanding of how Americans think about the relationship with landscape but avoiding the material implications; the other a sort of real-world case study of how these ideas—and they are complex, nuanced, and sometimes internally contradictory—have influenced planners, builders, and common citizens to shape an idealistic, messy, and living urban fabric.

Linking broad ideas and the material evidence, Milroy recounts the first two hundred years of what she calls in her subtitle, “Philadelphia’s Green Places.” Even this nomenclature belies something important—that readers will understand that “green” is shorthand for the designed landscape and that these moments of landscape stand in contrast to the rest of the urban fabric. This is exactly the opposing ends of the spectrum Marx sets up, locating the pastoral ideal in the space between technology and simplicity, city and wilderness, culture and nature. Milroy’s paired conceit is the “grid and river,” identifying public green places as what Marx calls a “middle landscape,” a space that falls between what is natural and what is “man-made,” between the rational democratic framework of the grid and the organic meander of the river. For Marx the pastoral is a recurring theme in art and literature. For Philadelphia, and indeed for many U.S. cities, the pastoral is an idea that shaped the plan of the city, one exemplified in the late nineteenth-century public parks of Frederick Law Olmsted. Milroy’s history, more fully than any other to date, illustrates how the public park was not Olmsted’s ad hoc invention but a realization of a disposition that had been gestating since the nation’s founding.

In three primary chapters—entitled “City,” “Suburb,” and “Consolidation”—Milroy reveals a richly woven history of Philadelphia’s struggle to reconcile the desire to create a vibrant urban center that supports the best of culture and commerce with the belief that in nature (the country) we find respite, physical and mental health, and moral enrichment, a struggle which continues to animate our troubled relationship with our environment today.

In “City,” one of the prime narratives is the complicated legacy of William Penn’s original five squares. Conceived as moments of publicly accessible landscape within an otherwise uniform urban grid, the squares were key components to Penn’s realization of what he familiarly called a “Greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt & always wholesome” (quoted in Milroy, 2). (Note the framing of country and town here as shorthand for two extremes of development which Philadelphia would balance and the overlay of physical and moral health that lies in the balance.) Milroy sufficiently describes the primarily European urban planning concepts that influenced Penn’s image of Philadelphia. But more interesting is the fitful history of its execution.

Although illustrated as tree-edged unbuilt blocks in Penn and Surveyor General of Pennsylvania Thomas Holme’s 1682 plan of Philadelphia, which they interestingly called a “portraiture,” the squares were not actually designed and remained largely unimproved as the city grew. They were remnants, not contributing landscapes. It must have seemed enough to set aside a portion of nature in the city to offset the potential dangers of urban civilization. But as the city grew, these undesigned and unprogrammed landscapes became sites of too much nature, i.e., human nature. There was not enough order. No one had economic or social control of these sites. Without “design” these landscapes were without value to the city—politically, economically, or culturally. They were not middle landscapes at all. Instead they were untamed and unimproved voids, sites of intemperance fed by neighboring taverns, and places for uncontrolled public gatherings that led to riots between classes and races. It took until the turn of the nineteenth century to actually undertake a design for these green spaces—their reshaping precipitated by the temperance movement and by a need to site public water-supply infrastructure to improve the health of the community. At Center Square, in response to persistent yellow fever outbreaks, Benjamin Latrobe built a water works and refashioned the square into a public park of meandering paths and enclosing shade trees. Reasserting governmental control of the landscape as a sort of public utility, the square regained value in the eyes of the city and a level of culture and respectability was overlaid on this otherwise uncontrolled space. Only then did it begin to fulfill Penn’s ideal.

In “Suburb,” supporting narratives are applied to the larger extents of Philadelphia’s evolving landscape, including what Penn termed the Liberty Lands. Set just beyond the city grid, this landscape of gracious country seats, picturesque private pleasure grounds, and agricultural estates served as an exemplar of proper taste and a symbol of ideal national virtues of physical and moral vigor, reasoned perspective, and progressive self-sufficiency. Within a century, however, the realities of a growing population and thriving economy brought subdivision and industrial development, especially along the Schuylkill River’s banks, to the Liberties. The burgeoning city put pressure on these landscapes, bringing too much culture—too much machine not enough garden. The result became degraded landscapes and rough-and-tumble pleasure grounds—the Liberty Lands’s role as exemplar of the middle landscape between nature and culture was out of balance.

In the final chapter, “Consolidation,” Milroy weaves the history of Philadelphia’s evolution into a larger single political and legal entity with the city’s first formal forays into park-building. Linking public health, escape from the city, temperance, and a check on the social and political unrest of a growing and diversifying city, the parks were an attempt to reset the balance between nature and culture, wilderness and the economic engine of the city. The parks, originating with Fairmount Park which specifically protected the drinking-water supply along the Schuylkill River, were the first organized governmental attempt to reconcile city and country and delineate green spaces for the public since Penn’s original city plan.

Milroy concludes her history at the genesis of a truly American ideal, the belief that the public park—usually a pastoral landscape—is a necessary salve to offset the otherwise dehumanizing effects of the city. It is this opposition and the tortured ways in which it has been responded to that Milroy so powerfully illustrates in The Grid and the River.

Even to those who think they know the well-told history of Penn’s founding of Philadelphia, there is new information and deeper nuance to be gleaned in this richly illustrated and extensively researched text. And while ostensibly about Philadelphia, the history told here is much more broadly applicable. It is a history of Philadelphia and of the formation of a uniquely American concept of landscape. Milroy’s approach is telescopic. Her research is sometimes almost obsessively detailed, finding quotes from private letters and references to the city’s green places in seemingly obscure legislative acts. The depth of her research is extraordinary, quickly building a powerfully authoritative voice.

Milroy brings an art-historical approach to reading visual evidence. The book is generously illustrated with plans, etchings and drawings, each of which she reads deeply, finding specific documentary evidence of the physical configuration of the city and its public spaces and interpreting social and political content contained in the specific view. The text is also richly contextual. When describing Penn’s approach to his own suburban home, Springettsbury, in the city’s Liberty Lands, Milroy provides a comprehensive primer on the history of the villa, from Pliny’s Roman villa to eighteenth-century English estates. At times these diversions can go on too long, distracting from a more fluid narrative. But they make the work accessible to a wider audience who may lack knowledge of these references, and they expand the scope of what the history teaches us.

Milroy does not have an axe to grind in this history, a political position to take. At times this frustrates the development of a master narrative. It is hard to grasp exactly what she is trying to tell us. What is the lesson we should take away? In the end, however, the classic style of reportage is enlightening and appealing. Readers will feel like they have been given a gift of sorts—access to years of painstaking research. Now, armed with the all the facts, we know everything that Milroy does, and we are equipped to parse the many nuances of Philadelphia’s history in our own way, on our own terms. This makes the book a much more useful and widely valuable resource for historians, urban planners, landscape architects, and a lay audience to find their own narratives and develop their own theses.

In the end this history is actually a very contemporary tale. Our struggle to manage our impact on our environment while building thriving cities is still in the headlines. Cultural arguments negotiating the value of public landscapes against a growing urban population continue. And the belief that green spaces are a salve to the damaging grid of the city retains its resonance today. In Philadelphia’s history we learn a great deal about how and why our culture frames the public landscape in these terms. And, if we read carefully and critically enough, maybe we can build a more nuanced and positive image of how cities and landscapes coexist. Milroy’s richly woven history shapes a great foundation for this effort.

Eric Kramer
Critic, Department of Landscape Architecture, Rhode Island School of Design; Principal, Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture, Cambridge, MA