Alexander von Hoffman is a historian and Senior Research Fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. He is now Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design in the Department of Urban Planning and Design. Prior to that, he was an associate professor of urban planning and design at the Graduate School of Design and fellow at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government.
Von Hoffman presents a revisionist view of the late 19th and early 20th century American urban neighborhood. He argues there has been an uncritical view of urban sociology (Tönnies, 1887) and that historians have largely ignored the nuanced development of the urban neighborhood’s economy, social networks, and transportation systems, as well as the impact of the decentralized, localist political structure.
Using Jamaica Plain in Boston as a case study, von Hoffman shows us an urban neighborhood whose establishment was unique and diverse. Land use analysis illustrates several specialized subdistricts for residential, commercial, and industrial manufacturing, not concentric circles or Euclidean zones. Social patterns were likewise diverse, as were the occupational statuses, religions, socioeconomic statuses, and the supportive, robust social organizations and religious institutions. Even women were active members in their own public, if separate, sphere.
Strong local economies along centralized commercial corridors encouraged local booster/community leaders, as well. Politics in the neighborhood were universalist, which was to the area’s, if not the directly adjacent community members’, benefit in terms of the Olmsted-designed public parks and expansive green spaces. However, this universal moralism had a more ambiguous impact on municipal government reform, which succeeded in changing a once “heterogeneous whole” into “homogenous parts” (239), initiating a “citywide battleground where moralism and group identity clashed” in the new “unstable [political urban] framework” (239).