A City in Motion: The Rhetorical Construction of Urban Identity and Physical Design in Louisville during the 1920s

Throgmorton, James A. Work in progress. “A City in Motion: The Rhetorical Construction of Urban Identity and Physical Design in Louisville during the 1920s.” I’m still working on this paper, wanting to revise it in light of comments received at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Historical Association. What follows is a brief abstract of the paper in progress.

This paper begins with the observation that, in the years immediately following the First World War, Louisville was changing rapidly. Escaping the “ossified dotage” of its previous decade, it was transforming itself into something new, something more modern and up-to-date.

Harland Bartholomew, who prepared the city’s first comprehensive plan in 1929-31, sought to shape that transformation by expressing the modernist essence of the post-war age, both in language and on the ground: a “Bigger, Better Louisville” could be created on the ground if the physical layout of the city was made more practical and functional, while a more practical and function layout could best be devised by following a systematic, scientific approach.

I found Bartholomew’s work to have considerable relevance for present day planning, especially in light of contemporary concerns about sustainability. In effect, he had offered a physical design that was almost completely consistent with present day ideas about creating “New Urbanist” neighborhoods in a “Regional City.” I also noted that many elements of his broad vision were ultimately enacted, if not specifically as he envisioned.

However, interpreting Bartholomew’s planning in light of the “communicative turn” in planning theory, I concluded that Bartholomew’s scientific (or “anti-rhetorical”) form of planning expressly denied any need to persuade audiences while simultaneously being very conscious of the need to persuade one particular audience (key businesspeople) in order to succeed. Focused on persuading that audience, he ignored or marginalized other potential audiences (and other narratives that constructed different urban identities), which dramatically limited Bartholomew’s ability to foresee future transformations or to address pressing practical problems that diverse Louisvillians faced.

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