Harrisburg, The City Beautiful, and the Old 8th Ward

In December 1900, local Harrisburger Mira Lloyd Dock delivered a speech to the Harrisburg Executive Committee that ignited a spirit of reform. Reformers across the city aimed to improve the functional and aesthetic aspects of Harrisburg in order to defend its title as the Pennsylvania State Capitol against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With help from the Mayor Vance McCormick, New York Architect Warren Manning, and hundreds of citizens the city of Harrisburg was transformed from a blighted industrial town to a modern center of commerce. 

“The average citizen, who had made his home in a city, has the right to expect and is entitled to enjoy, the best conditions with respect to health and the general welfare, as the environment in which he lives will permit.”

J. Horace McFarland, Influential Reformer and Preservationist in Harrisburg Executive Committee Minutes (1901)

This movement was known as “The City Beautiful” or the first Harrisburg Renaissance. Reformers and environmental activists like Dock and J. Horace McFarland led the charge toward a healthier and more aesthetically pleasing Harrisburg. Before this movement, Harrisburg had been an industrial town. The city was subject to constant flooding; dirt roads and crowded row houses were the norm. To combat this decaying image, the Harrisburg Executive Committee layed out several areas in need of improvement in 1901. McFarland acted as secretary, speaking on behalf of many preservationist and upper class businessmen who wished for a more cosmopolitan city. 

In just thirty years, these reformers installed a new water filtration system, paved many major roads along while installing brand new ones, and worked tirelessly to install hundreds of acres of parkland. By 1930 there were 1087 acres of new green spaces including parks, landscaped walkways, and even the entire Susquehanna River front which became the City Greenbelt. This was about one acre per every 80 citizens. Additions like Paxtang and Reservoir Park along with the newly beautified front street attracted visitors from all over the country. The improvements of City Beautiful drew important attention to Harrisburg and established it as a place of beauty and commerce. Even President Theodore Roosevelt came to dedicate the new Capitol building in 1906.

Image of a carriage and residents of the Old 8th Ward (Pennsylvania State Archive RG17, Box 23)

The Common Good? Race and Harrisburg’s First Renaissance

In 1911, the state decided to extend the grounds of the new capitol building to include a full park complex. However, this expansion pressed into several blocks of the 8th ward. These streets were home to a large portion of Harrisburg’s minority communities, especially African Americans. In 1910, the Old 8th ward was composed of 37% Blacks (the largest portion in the city) and 20% immigrants.

Image of the Capitol Complex in 1901 (on the left) and modern day (on the right)

Due to the presence of gambling dens, rough tourists, and the disapproval of local journalist, J. Howard Wert, this area gained a reputation as the “Bloody 8th”. While this new extension added to the physical spectacle of the city, it had devastating effects on the 8th Ward’s inhabitants.

  • 541 properties were razed, displacing hundreds of African American, Jewish, and immigrant families
  • Only 18 of these property owners went to court to fight the expansion. Most of the landlords lived outside the ward and were compensated by the state while their residents were forced to relocate.
  • 8 businesses, 5 churches, and 2 schools were demolished

Even though reformers like Dock and McFarland aimed to foster the “common good”, they displaced several communities that had no connections to other areas. Most African American families moved to where there were existing black neighborhoods. Because of the discrimination they faced, these families migrated to where they were welcome.

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