Words Into Space

Gretchen Grzybicki
January 01, 2001

"My mother was an authority on pigsties,", Bill Cosby explains in one of his routines. "This is the worst-looking pigsty I have ever seen in my life. And I want it cleaned up right now. How anyone can live in this filth is beyond me."

Anyone whose mother ever uttered similar words knows that how we describe the space around us influences what we think about it, about the people in it, and about what it should be. Or, as Margaret Farrar, a doctoral candidate in political science at Penn State, puts it, "Spaces are created by language."

old photo of urban houses with Capitol building in background

For Farrar, space is not a neutral environment in which events take place. Instead, it is influenced by the thoughts and ideals of the people controlling it. School codes, for instance, use terms like "orderly conduct" to describe how children should act. Putting desks in orderly rows can be a way to promote such conduct with physical space.

To examine the effects of language on space, Farrar focused on two major beautification efforts in the history of Washington, D.C.: one in 1900 and the other in 1950.

The 1900 effort came out of a turn-of-the-century reform movement that tried to make Americans aware of the poverty and squalor in urban tenement districts. Photographers and journalists like Charles Weller and Jacob Riis produced accounts of life in the alleys showing "unhealthy" and "disease-ridden" (Weller's words) people and spaces. These articles typically included pictures that were devoid of people and showed only the backs of buildings in order to emphasize the "ugliness" of the alleys, Farrar suggests. She notes, "The reformers complained about the emasculation of alley men—frequently stating that the women were finding all the work." Since masculinity tends to be associated with order, Farrar says, these emasculated areas, in the reformers' eyes, were seen as disorderly, and therefore all the more in need of cleansing.

In 1893, a new urban ideal had been born: the White City. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the model of Beaux-Arts architecture stunned its millions of visitors with the balance of its uniformly tall, white buildings, its clean water, and its lush garden spaces. The Senate Park Commission Plan of 1901-02 attempted to rebuild Washington in the image of the White City. Daniel Burnham, the architect who designed the White City, was co-director of the Park Commission Plan, which, Farrar says, strove consciously to "build" democracy (in the form of monuments) and cleanliness (in the form of organized public spaces). The Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol Building were both erected during this period.

While the Park Commission plan strove to make Washington beautiful, the Alley Dwelling Act of 1914, headed by Senator James McMillan, was designed to remove the ugly elements of the city, to sanitize the "unhealthy, diseased" alleys. Farrar says that the effort was largely ineffective, succeeding only in removing a few particularly unsanitary buildings.

Both the Park Commission Plan and the Alley Dwelling Act defined beauty mostly in terms of cleanliness (health) and masculinity (rationality), Farrar says. The spaces of the city were designed with these ideals in mind. The National Mall, which was to become a symbol of both democracy and beauty, is the best example: its lines are straight, orderly, and clean, and its buildings are neo-classical monuments to democracy and its founders.

During the 1950s, Washington D.C. saw the arrival of the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act, headed by the architect Louis Justement. The act, in many ways, continued some of the ideas behind both the Park Commission Plan and the Alley Dwelling Act. By the 1950s, however, the two different impulses—to make the city beautiful and to clean up its alleys—had become one. By mid-century, too, the language of beauty had changed: instead of being healthy or unhealthy, areas of the city were now considered "living" or "dead." The term "blight" appears frequently in the writings of Justement, and in the goal section of the Redevelopment Act. "Blight, of course, is actually a plant disease," Farrar explains. "The term became popularly used in reference to cash crops during the 1940s. The only way to get rid of it was to cut the plant out or burn it down." Labeling economically unproductive areas as "dead," and ignoring completely the people living there, helped to justify leveling entire neighborhoods of low-income housing and replacing them with government buildings or high-income housing.

To Farrar, understanding how theories and their language translate into actual space has more than historical importance. Recognizing the implications and effects of the labels we use can change the way we perceive, and participate in, our own communities. "Current political debates about urban sprawl, ecology, urban and rural economic empowerment zones, community policing—all of these are ultimately debates about how we think about and use space," she says. And the language we use determines, in large part, how these arguments take shape.

Margaret E. Farrar is a doctoral candidate in the College of the Liberal Arts. Her adviser is Nancy S. Love, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and speech communications, 107 Burrowes Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-6901; nsl1@psu.edu. The college and the department of political science funded her research with Dissertation Travel Support Grants.

Last Updated January 01, 2001