Most modern urban historians are aware of Asa Briggs's concept of 'shock cities', 19th century Western towns that suddenly rocketed in size and stature. For contemporaries, they both represented the shift to a new (and distinctly modern) economic system yet also a potential for class conflict and societal breakdown. Responses to these new industrial giants were often articulated through physical reform, from civic beautification to the creation of sanitary infrastructure. To 'fix' the city, progressive reformers and local elites argued, was to create better citizens: healthier, happier and more civically aware.
For historians, processes of 'shock' and 'reform' were most apparent in the mid-to-late nineteenth century in Britain and the turn of the twentieth-century in the USA. We are less familiar, however, with the story 'after the shock'. My forthcoming book seeks to redress this balance through case studies of the archetypal 'shock cities' of Manchester and Chicago. Coalitions of voluntary associations, municipal government and local elites continued to re-imagine the city as a place that could foster citizenship until at least the mid-20th century - despite the growth, more broadly, of national models of community and belonging.
In this paper I focus particularly on civic architecture and urban space in the 1920s and 1930s, and on the celebrations that took the city as their subject. City governors, I argue, had a historically-aware mindset that understood the city in terms of its long development, celebrating urban progress from humble origins and shocking growth right up to contemporary power and prestige. Nowhere was this clearer than how they connected the historic urban environment with more recent - and even future - progress. As I will demonstrate, however, this message was not always fully understood by the local population - or, more worryingly for festival organisers, could be ignored or even rejected
Part of the Architectural History and Theory Seminar Series 2018/19.