Urban imperialism: lessons from city boosterism of the 19th century for urban renewal today

Creede, Colo. in 1880

Metropolitan boosters — men employed in the late 19th century to encourage Americans to move west to burgeoning cities — have been of interest to me lately.

I’m interested in how that concept can be brought to modern concepts or urban renewal. I came across a portion of an essay in ‘A companion to the American West,’ collected by William Francis Deverell [p. 513]:

Integral to the hinterland and ‘instant city’ models of nineteenth-century western urban history has been the figure of the urban booster. Cities in the west have been promoted, hawked and downright lied about on a scale rarely matched elsewhere in the nation. Boosters in cities on the make — Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century, San Francisco in the 1860s, Denver in the 1880s, Seattle in the 1900s, Los Angeles and Oakland in the 1920s — spared little effort in luring the investment capital, industry and residents necessary to ensure sustained economic development. Western boosters and their allies engaged in what one historian calls ‘urban imperialism,’ an endless quest for control of the markets and economic bonanzas that guaranteed real estate profits. Booster scholarship has tended to focus on the art of promotion and to see cities as products less of social construction than of capitalist fantasies. But behind boosters is the most interesting feature of western cities: urban growth as an end in itself, an economic logic fundamental to capitalism, was elevated by western boosters to the level of civic religion. In some cities, for instance, space was rarely scare but capital was. In places like Los Angeles and later Dallas and Phoenix, this led boosters to cultivate real estate markets and encourage an urban morphology that spread development horizontally across vast distances. In other cities, an opposite geography was at work, and a great deal of scare capital went into creating very expensive space. In Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, immense amounts of capital were devoted to filling tidelands and wetlands that allowed the cities to grow…