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Book Reviews

Book Reviews


Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning.

By John W. Reps. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

xii+827p.; maps, illustrations, notes, selected bibliography, index.




For John Reps the West begins in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys

(including the Great Lakes) and reaches to the Pacific. It, or parts of

it, existed as a frontier as early as the sixteenth century and as late as

the 1880s (in Oklahoma). This definition of the region, of course,

rests not on physiographic but on what one might call cultural grounds.

For Reps, the story of urban planning in the West is also a story of

urban growth conceived as a process by which planned urban com-

munities spearheaded the settlement of the western periphery and

finally in the middle and latter nineteenth century penetrated its in-

terior. By 1890, moreover, the era of the urban frontier had ended,

and the urban West essentially looked and behaved like the urban East,

creating an urban-rural division as a major fault-line in American

social, political, and cultural life. On the whole, Reps thinks the plan-

ning was shoddy and that we have not improved much on it since 1890,

leaving for Americans in the latter twentieth century "a new frontier

in urban development whose challenge is not to found new towns in a

wilderness but to replan those that exist in forms and patterns worthy

of man as he approaches the twenty-first century" (p. 694).

That, I think, accurately summarizes the organization, argument,

and moral of this book, and places it in an interpretive tradition

familiar to readers of the work of Carl Bridenbaugh. Blake McKelvey,

and Richard C. Wade. This volume differs from their work, however,

in its concentration on plans, in the variety of planners with which it

deals, and in the amount of illustrative materials it reproduces. The

plans, according to Reps, were astonishingly uniform, although the

planners, sites, and types of places planned for were not, for his dis-

cussion covers pueblos, presidios, villas, speculative towns, communal

utopias, mining camps and towns, railroad towns, river towns, cow-

towns, desert towns, mountain towns, plains towns, instant cities,

cities of Zion, cities of the Saints, and the overnight cities of Oklahoma.

And the book is packed with illustrations (more than one on each page

of text), including maps, sketches, and photographic views in black

and white and in color. It is, in addition, liberally footnoted, embellished

with a bibliography on both the literature and the illustrations, and

comes boxed in a handsome slip-case bearing on its front a view (draw-

ing) of Leadville, Colorado, and on its back a birds-eye view (also a

drawing) of San Francisco, both of which are dated 1878.

Cities of the American West, in short, is an impressive piece of book-

making. Conceived, Reps tells us, by Mitchell A. Wilder, Director of the

Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, Texas, it took

eight years to research and write. The prose is clear, heavily descrip-