Lancaster City is one of the oldest inland cities in the United States of America. It was originally settled in 1709 by German immigrants, the Pennsylvania Dutch. Lancaster was originally known as Hickory Town and was designed by James Hamilton. Lancaster was chartered as a city on March 10, 1818. During the Revolutionary War, Lancaster was the capital of the American colonies for one day, September 27, 1777, when Congress was fleeing from the British. Lancaster was also capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 till 1812.
In his book A City Transformed, David Schuyler traces the history of redevelopment in Lancaster City from 1940 through 1980. Schuyler is Professor of American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College and he has spent a lot of his academic career exploring the challenges cities faced during the second half of the 20th century.
In the postwar years, cities across America faced drastic economic decline. Lancaster was one such city and in order to try and address this decline, the city adopted various urban renewal programs with the goal of revitalizing the city and particularly downtown. Sadly, as Schuyler documents, most of these government-driven programs were failures that often exacerbated the problems. One of the greatest issues facing Lancaster was the need for affordable housing. Schuyler writes that “the discovery of a crisis in housing was the initial step in the development of a comprehensive urban renewal program for Lancaster” (pg. 35) After the Lancaster newspaper drew attention to the substandard living of poor residents in Barney Google Row and Shanytown where the “houses” were shacks with no running water or electric, Lancasterian leaders decided that something needed to be done. Unfortunately over the course of the next several decades, providing adequate housing for poorer families would prove a harder task than what was imagined.
Pertaining to housing, Schuyler documents in heartbreaking detail the unintended effects of gentrification with the Church-Musser plan for townhouse development which led to large increases of rent driving out poorer families from their homes. Schuyler also explores the ugly reality of segregation and the ways in which racial tensions also hurt families and kept them from accessing affordable housing.
One recurring theme in A City Transformed is how government intervention consistently made things worse. For example, during the summer of 1965, Lancaster’s leaders decided to demolish the historic west block of Lancaster despite intense public opposition. Schuyler writes that “despite the concerns, citizens voiced at the September 1964 public hearing, and despite editorials that warned against turning downtown into a rubble-strewn wasteland … members of City Council and the Redevelopment Authority abandoned a policy that had prevented premature demolition and adopted a new one that ensured it.” After demolishing the west block, the block sat vacant for almost a full decade and became known as “our hole in the ground” (pg. 87).
A City Transformed is a sobering account of Lancaster’s history here in the 20th century and the struggles for economic sustainability and affordable housing. Despite the best interests of Lancaster’s leaders, often the very initiatives that were hoped to alleviate the problems of the poor and revitalize the economy had the opposite effects. Nevertheless, the book is also a celebration of the enduring spirit of Lancastrians, their compassionate conservatism, and their work to try and make the city a better place for everyone.