NAC Exclusive Interview With Domenic Vitiello

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NAC Exclusive Interview With Domenic Vitiello

Everyone knows that deindustrialization in American cities started with the end of WWII and the decentralization of American manufacturing that followed it, right? A recent article in the Journal of Urban History by University of Pennsylvania professor Domenic Vitiello takes this chronology to task.

Using a case study of Philadelphia, urban historian Domenic Vitiello argues “that some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century redevelopment programs played a greater causal role in deindustrialization and the shift in Americans’ conceptions of cities from places of production to places of consumption.”

Next American City’s Scott Gabriel-Knowles recently caught up with Vitiello and asked if he could expand a bit on Philadelphia’s “first de-industrial moment.”

You state that the City Beautiful ethos of urban redesign influenced the construction of the Philadelphia Parkway, to the detriment of manufacturers in the area. What assumptions did city planners make about the city’s industrial-economic base that gave them confidence to go forward?

Planners and other Philadelphians recognized that heavy manufacturers were moving to the suburbs. The contractor bosses and utility monopolists who employed the Parkway’s designers effectively represented the region’s early 20th century “growth machine,” and this project was part of a larger set of efforts to guide metropolitan development. Philadelphia did not lose industrial jobs in aggregate until the post-WWII era, so overall job loss was not an issue, even if an increasing proportion of local jobs were in branch plants of companies headquartered in New York, Detroit, and other cities.

How did the business elite and political elite utilize principles of urban planning in the period described in your article? Was there any such thing as a true comprehensive plan?

Like the Pennsylvania Avenue Subway and Fairmount Park before it, the Parkway aimed to eliminate land uses perceived as outdated or undesirable, alleviate urban congestion, and provide transportation and open space connections that more clearly separated different sorts of land uses in the city. In the 1910s a “comprehensive” plan was basically a big urban design vision. The Greber plan of 1917 was the most “comprehensive” of the Parkway plans, as it outlined a broad network of diagonal boulevards that would have required massive demolition of rowhouse neighborhoods, factory districts, and waterfronts.

You discuss the continuity from locomotive to auto construction on Broad Street—why did auto making ultimately fail, and why didn’t other industrial uses fill these spaces?

Some did, as recounted briefly in the article. However, auto producers based in the Midwest began to centralize their production in the 1920s. The Depression took out many branch plants in the 30s. And the high costs of land and labor in central Philadelphia, coupled with broader trends of capital flight to the suburbs and South, and non-industrial visions and zoning for North Broad Street all worked against re-industrialization.

How did the workers in the “re-tooled” and then “de-tooled” sections of the city like Bush Hill adapt (or not) to the dislocations and deindustrialization waves you describe?

They moved to the suburbs, where an increasing number of jobs were located. Some fought Puerto Ricans moving into the Spring Garden neighborhood after WWII. Their children and grandchildren have moved into office jobs in the service sector.

How does your article help us (re)understand the more traditionally described period of urban industrial decline post WWII?

First, it shows that planners and redevelopers did not simply respond to urban industrial decline post-WWII, but that they also directly influenced urban economic and spatial restructuring that set in motion the de-industrialization of the central city well before the mid-20th c. Second, it highlights key planning, legal, and development precedents for post-war planning, tracing major strands in the pre-history of Urban Renewal.

What advice would you have for the city planning commissioners around the country who are facing Philadelphia-style rust? How can this history be a guide to competent land-use planning?

I don’t see this particular history as much of a guide to competent land-use planning today, as it represents planning for and era of increasingly abundant energy supplies – the height of coal extraction, rise of oil and automobiles, and expansion of electricity. Today, our land use planning must grapple with the challenges and opportunities of climate change and peak oil and gas. While the electric streetcar systems of the early 20th century remain one useful model for transportation, city planners today face issues of food security, waste management, and energy that require us to revise old systems of zoning, building codes, and community and economic development.


Domenic Vitiello teaches courses in community development and urban and planning history at the University of Pennsylvania. To read more: Domenic Vitiello, “Machine Building and City Building: Urban Planning and Industrial Restructuring in Philadelphia, 1894-1928,” Journal Of Urban History, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 399-434, March 2008.

Tags: philadelphiaurban designsuburbs

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