The City’s been here before.

In light of the recent Harrisburg calamity of sinkholes to start off the new year, the whole region and state is looking upon Pennsylvania’s capital city in astonishment, cynicism, pity, skepticism, and even disgust.

This isn’t the first time the City of Harrisburg has confronted such impressions. In 1897, the PA Capitol building burnt down. Philadelphia took the opportunity to call for the return of the capital to the City of Brotherly Love. Proponents of the move cited Harrisburg as antiquated, dirty, and decaying. They said a city in squalor was not worthy of such an important distinction. Despite the validity of the appeal, the State Legislature ignored the petition and the new Capitol building was built where it stands now, green domed and gilded. Dedicated in 1906, the Pennsylvania State Capitol cemented the City of Harrisburg as the capital of State.

That dedication happened in the midst of the City Beautiful Movement. A national crusade, City Beautiful was based on the concept that beautifying the country’s cities would result in social and economic prosperity. The idea was that if urban spaces presented a clean, ordered, modern infrastructure that included green and open spaces, then not only would all city inhabitants benefit—no matter their class or color, but also people from the outside would come and spend money on what that city had to offer. The key was getting citizens to be involved. City Beautiful considered civic pride the foundation of civic duty. It was believed people in and around the city would respect and maintain a beautiful and efficient place.

City Beautiful came to Harrisburg because of a lecture resident Mira Lloyd Dock gave to the Harrisburg Board of Trade, a group of prominent businessmen, in 1900. Dock argued that the City of Harrisburg’s ugliness was the consequence of a lack of concern and action on the part of Harrisburg’s residents. Using a stereopticon to show pictures of thriving European cities, she spoke of ways to confront urban neglect and wretchedness. She called for extreme and immediate measures to tackle the sanitation problems that caused Harrisburg to be so unattractive and disrespected. As a capital city along the river, Dock declared that the city’s residents did not take advantage of “the cash value of cleanliness and beauty.” Her speech called for more people in the region to take an active interest in the city’s development.

The key was getting citizens to be involved.

Dock’s lecture was coordinated with a speech J. Horace McFarland gave to the Harrisburg Woman’s Civic Club. McFarland urged the women to take note of the inadequacies of services, to rally for public engagement, and to pressure their husbands as businessmen to help make the City better.

As a result of these separate but synchronized presentations, a campaign took force in Harrisburg. The public responded enthusiastically and committed to the movement, most obviously showing support by way of approving various bond issues for the projects that ensued.

An Improvement Committee was formed and a deliberate and methodical approach was developed. People, skill sets, and possibilities were brought together to formulate a comprehensive plan that incorporated these principles:

      • the necessity of acknowledging increased community concerns
      • the development of partnerships among residents, businesses, and local government
      • the need for well-organized, efficient planning for social, economic, and physical adjustments
      • the development of cleaner, safer, and more beautiful streets to ensure happier citizens
      • the implementation and maintenance of public improvements and services
      • an awareness of the responsibility one has for one’s own home and neighborhood
      • a resistance to urban sectionalism
      • the participation of every city resident

In a span of fifteen years, the City Beautiful Movement in Harrisburg not only initiated the City’s first water filtration and sewage treatment systems, paved 74 miles of street, and improved trash collection and street cleaning, but also expanded Riverfront Park, developed Wildwood Park, created the promenade today known as the Greenbelt, and dammed the Susquehanna River for sanitation reasons as well as for swimming and boating. Bridges were built. Buildings were repaired. Businesses were opened.

Because of City Beautiful, Harrisburg realized its potential and met its expectations of providing its residents with cleaner, safer, and revitalized neighborhoods. At the same time, people of the region flocked to the City for work, dining, culture, and recreation. Most of the changes enacted during these early years of the 1900s endured for generations.

Today, Harrisburg is in a similar position as it was over one hundred years ago—systems have been neglected, the infrastructure is aged, services are inadequate, and residents have withdrawn in frustration and apathy. To many observers standing on the outside looking in, the capital city of Pennsylvania is a pathetic place. Too many residents of the City and region think that, too.

However, a look back on the City Beautiful Movement in Harrisburg and its incredible success at turning around a failing place proves that once again, the situation for PA’s capital isn’t hopeless.The framework is there; the principles laid out; the models already in place. Citizens changed the course of the City of Harrisburg once before. It can be done again.

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Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

Tara Leo Auchey

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Tara Leo Auchey