Capital, Culm, and Sacred Space

Scranton, 2nd Ward, 1899

By 1850, a carpet of shanties had spread around the new iron furnaces in what locals once knew as Slocums Hollow, Pennsylvania.  Situated astride a fast-moving creek called Roaring Brook, the furnaces illuminated the night sky as immigrant laborers cast molten iron into rails and nails in round-the-clock “campaigns”.  But poor conditions in the predominantly Irish squatter villages in the ravines surrounding the mill worried company officials.  Fearing the mushrooming shantytowns would prove morally corrosive, the Lackawanna Coal and Iron Company, organized and managed by a coterie of Protestant Connecticut financiers, commissoned a young mechanical engineer named Joel Amsden to design a clean, healthful city plan for the new industrial metropolis.


On the surface it appears that the lead proprietors of the company gave Amsden great latitude in plotting the new city.  While they demanded that he maximize the hilly topography of the ground surrounding the works, he was also to plan the city irrespective of the company’s vast property holdings.  According to John Beck’s modestly-titled Never Before in History: The Story of Scranton, Amsden was instructed by company officials to build “regardless of the side lines of the tract belonging to the firm (47)”.  Yet looking at the outward form of Scranton today, this early altruism appears foreign and apochryphal.  For most–if not all of its history–Scranton’s city form has been defined by the inviolable laws of capitalism.  Lacking high expectations for a healthful and aesthetic public space and politically marginalized, most northeastern Pennsylvanians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries acquiesed to the imposition of street level railroad crossings, the looming piles of waste coal, and the near constant mine subsidences.  The promise of continued economic growth, a notion appealing to both capitalists and their civicly-prideful workers, lent acceptability to the process of turning a city into a brutally efficient machine.

While they did not share our 21st century expectations for a clean environment, immigrants recoiled from an impoverished and visually degraded public space into their own sanctified backyards.  There stood the fusion of natural and spiritual purity.  In the backyards of west side Carbondale, a coal town several miles north of Scranton, the small shrine to the Virgin Mary stood–and still stands–very near to the tomato vines, suggesting a close connection between spiritual immaculateness and a preindustrial state of nature. 


In industrial cities built and dominated by capital, the rights of small property-owners are seemingly suspended.  Immigrants sought to reclaim a sense of private space by carving out these oases in the interstices between infrastructure and the byproducts of capitalism.  This process of interstitital building (perhaps better termed reclamation) is compared to large-scale programs or the monumentality associated with other civic improvement movements.  The collapse of an industrial economy in northeastern Pennsylvania (and elsewhere) has created innumerable opportunities for interstitial reclamation.  Yet just as immigrant backyard gardens were both restorative and functional, similarly these spaces must serve recreational needs and be pedagogically functional as to the former use of the space.  Reclamation efforts such as rail-to-trail projects fail when they merely recapture formerly private space for public use; these paths need to educate users of the economic interconnections of the industrial city.  Only then can we better cherish these newly-formed sacred spaces.          


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