THE CITY IN THE AMERICAN LAND

During the first two hundred and fifty years of settlement on this continent, community building was a basic physical activity of the American people.* Every area wished to grow in population and importance. Of this activity the city was the ultimate expression.

However impressive, and wherever situated, all American cities were in recent history tinier than can be factually illustrated. The early inhabitants cherished their growing community not because of how it then appeared but in anticipation of what they hoped it would soon be. But, in any case, the basic requirement for the creation of an engraved image--the existence of a market for a considerable number of impressions--was hostile to beginnings. Thus our earliest pictures of nascent cities show them at least a generation after the first ground was broken and the first house built.

American history as it is written and taught tends to obscure the unity of the process according to which our communities grew. We get the impression that the frontier emerged as a new phenomenon when settlement crossed the Alleghenies after the Revolutionary War. Actually, the "Wild West" opened on the Atlantic coast when the very first settlers lighted their first fires on American soil. Thence, the frontier began its march to the Pacific, moving most rapidly along the banks of rivers, temporarily halted where mountains rose. Different areas and climates demanded different solutions to immediate problems--some settlers had to battle to conduct sunlight to the ground through primeval forests, others to find shade and wood in a parched land--yet in every region the progression from small community to large was in essence the same.

Although much celebrated in song and story, the front wave of settlement was likely to be ephemeral: the true pioneer was more an adventurer than a builder of institutions. But we should not visualize him as an adventurer in the romantic sense. Men who came to the frontier to

____________________
*
An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Introduction to American Views: Prospects and Vistas, ed. Gloria-Gilda Deak ( New York: The Viking Press, 1976), pp. 11-15.

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