Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The City Beautiful Movement and Discourse on Urban Space


The City Beautiful Movement and Discourse on Urban Space

Kate Blatchford

Spurred on by Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the City Beautiful movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to improve American cities through ‘beautification’.  This took the form in some places of monumental building or city planning, and in others of campaigns for new regulations on ‘unsightly’ things such as billboards.  The extent to which the movement succeeded varied by location.  This paper uses discourse analysis to examine how language was used to frame urban space in contemporary newspaper articles related to the movement.  In particular, it considers the use of the past, present, and future as well as positive and negative references to urban space.  Articles regarding the movement in Washington D.C., New York City, and Detroit were examined.  The paper finds that negative framing was used in discussion of the present, while the potential future offered by the movement was framed positively, and references to the past were mixed.  It also finds differences between the cities in the proportion of positive and negative references, which may be related to differences in the forms the movement took in those locations.

April 16, 2020 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This sounds like a valuable effort to bring a powerful tool of anthropological analysis to bear on a phenomenon with ongoing consequences. The role of language in the conceptualization, promotion, implementation, contemporary critique, and historical analysis of the City Beautiful movement should prove both fascinating and useful. Conveying some sense of the positionality of the speakers, and the impacts of specific acts of discourse. At the material level, for example, the razing of low-income housing in Corktown and the creation of public recreational facilities on Belle Isle would differentially impact the urban work force. Are there voices that express this range in contemporary newspapers? Hopefully, such sources as ProQuest’s Nineteenth-Century Newspapers database are making this possible (if not easy). Happy hunting!

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 17, 2020 | Reply

  2. I don’t know a lot about the city beautiful movement but am interested in urban anthropology, so I should find out more! I’d love to read your paper! This glamorizing of the future and negatively depicting anything associated with the past seems to be a significant theme, especially around urbanization and industrialization, it’s had such harmful consequences though and doesn’t allow for actual discernment about changes.

    Comment by Erin Stanley | April 28, 2020 | Reply

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