City Water, City Life:
Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in
Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago
A century or two since public waterworks became a way of life, few of us give any thought to our water—unless there’s a problem. So natural does it seem to fill a glass with clean drinking water at the kitchen sink or to take a long shower in a steaming hot indoor bathroom, that few of us consider what it took to get water to our cities, towns, and villages, or what it still takes.
Water, though, has indeed been on Carl Smith’s mind. In his thoroughly researched book City Water, City Life, Smith explores the waterworks of three major U.S. cities—Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia—diving deep into the infrastructure and ideas that provide us with safe, clean water.
Smith, author of The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, has tackled a topic that few may think about but that many will find interesting. A book about water could have been dry as dirt, but Smith enlivens his coverage of this crucial resource with fascinating stories behind the development of public waterworks and urban infrastructure.
Smith focuses his discussion on the waterworks of Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, chosen, he writes, “because of both their differences and similarities.” Smith explains in a paragraph the so-called bond that links together these three cities and their water histories. That link, however, feels tenuous at best and contrived at worst. Why not, for example, the country’s three largest cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—or, say, three of the country’s oldest cities, such as Jamestown, Santa Fe, and Albany, each of which was founded in the 1600s.
The Boston–Chicago–Philadelphia connection, though, is written in stone, as it were, and once one can get beyond that forced marriage, City Water, City Life shines, particularly in its discussion of the politics and planning that went into the development of waterworks in these three cities. The first two or three chapters are the most interesting; the last three feel a bit long-winded and redundant. A good 25 percent of the book is backmatter (notes and index).
Peppered throughout with illustrations, City Water, City Life examines the origins of public waterworks, the politics surrounding them, and the public health service provided by them. Smith argues that how a city manages its water says a lot about it: how a city views itself, its citizens, and even its future. He examines the battle between public and private waterworks as well as the debates over not only whether to provide public waterworks at all but also over where they should be located, how they should be funded, and whom they should serve.
But Smith goes beyond issues of water and infrastructure to discuss various ideas connected to water: art, nature, hydrotherapy, philosophy, politics, public funding, public health, temperance, urban planning, and society. As a result, the book at times feels like a meandering river, veering off in one direction and then circling back.
In the end, though, City Water, City Life is much more about water and pipes and plumbing. Smith has here penned a history of urban development by following the route of various waterworks. It’s an unusual lens through which to view a city (or, rather, three cities), and it is as interesting as it is unexpected.
The University of Chicago Press
$35, hardcover, 93 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen