Walt Whitman on teardowns and historic preservation (Updated)

Walt Whitman, c. 1854. Credit: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08542

Walt Whitman, c. 1854. Credit: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-08542

Thanks to a Facebook post on Ann Peters’ new book, House Hold: A Memoir of Place, Elizabeth Jacox (one of the proprietors of TAG Historical Research) turned me onto a remarkable essay by Walt Whitman. “Tear Down and Build Over Again” was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review.

The Whitman essay is an incredibly early exploration of place attachment and urban redevelopment in New York City. The work is new to me so I can’t definitively say if what the poet was describing qualifies as gentrification. I need to learn more about the neighborhood(s) and the rebuilding Whitman described. On first glance, it certainly does appear to meet many definitions of gentrification. Whitman’s essay has neighborhood upgrading (through reinvestment in a neighborhood that appears to have suffered from disinvestment), displacement, and all of the hallmarks of new build gentrification. Whitman wrote,

Then these five hundred hearts prompted their owners to put on their hats on their heads and walk forth, and view their tenements and lands, for they were men of substance. Then they communed with themselves, and said in their own hearts, “Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years; let us raise the devil and break things!” In pursuance of this resolve, they procured workmen, purchased hooks, ladders and battering rams, and went to work. Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles, and had witnessed their parents’ marriages — roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years.

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple’s grave, than Mr. Astor’s stupid-looking house in Broadway … To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic — mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

In addition to writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America’s historic preservation movement as he wrote about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington. “… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots,” Whitman wrote.

Of all the work on vernacular architecture and the culture(s) of rebuilding — W.G. Hoskins, Henry Glassie, Matthew Johnson, et al. — I cannot recall a single citation of this Whitman gem. The same is true of the literature on gentrification and urban redevelopment. And the history of historic preservation. Elizabeth Jacox’s great find by way of Ann Peters should become required reading that cuts across many disciplinary boundaries.

Update: After spending some time with Whitman’s essay and House Hold: A Memoir of Place I have a better understanding of Whitman’s pre-literary years as a speculative home builder in Brooklyn. Peter Riley wrote a comprehensive article on Whitman as a builder: “Leaves of Grass and Real Estate,” published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 28, no. 4 (2011), pp. 163-187. The discussion of Whitman’s 1845 essay begins on p. 167.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

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