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The Poor on the Hilltops? The Vertical Fringe of a Late Nineteenth-Century American City

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Features of the physical urban site merit more attention than they have traditionally received in models of city form, but in bestowing it the interrelation of social and natural features must be recognized and a neoenvironmental determinism avoided that would see the roles played by site features as always and everywhere the same. In American cities today, the affluence of residents, as a rule, increases with elevation. Yet in the “walking city” of the nineteenth century and earlier, high land's difficulty of access might have outweighed its attractions and made it the home of the poor and not the rich. The possibility is investigated through a study of upland residential patterns in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1891, just before the city's first electric trolley line was installed. Though a simple inversion of today's pattern did not appear, working-class residents indeed predominated on the highest land. They shared it with pockets of upper-class estates and with other land uses—such as parks, large residential institutions, and extractive and nuisance industries—typically associated with the premodern horizontal urban fringe and apparently drawn to the vertical fringe as well by the cheapness of land.

Keywords: Worcester; site; situation; terrain; urban geography

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, Colgate University

Publication date: 2005-12-01

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