The Eighth Ward and the City Beautiful Movement

We have recently wrapped up our work digitizing the 1900 census for Harrisburg and are focusing on creating our Omeka exhibits. However, while we were still digitizing the census it was easy to notice a few connections to the City Beautiful Movement, and therefore to our Omeka exhibits. For example, some students have encountered the names of prominent leaders of the movement, like Mira Lloyd Dock, while keying census data. I noticed a connection while working with a small sample of the population from precinct 3 of Ward 8.

A map of Harrisburg’s Eighth Ward from Roe Atlas 1889

The City Beautiful Movement was ultimately responsible for demolishing the 8th Ward in 1912 for the expansion of a new capitol park. As mentioned in a previous post, the 8th Ward had a bad reputation, warranting the nickname “The Bloody Eighth.” Author Paul Beers notes in his book City Contented, City Discontented, that a 1866 Patriot article says, “There is not a night passes but arrests are made for disorderly conduct and many citizens deem it unsafe to go into that neighborhood after dark.” Stephanie Patterson Gilbert, a webmaster on Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward website, states that reformers in the City Beautiful Movement like J. Horace McFarland fought for the capitol’s extension based on the belief that the crime-filled ward distracted from the “beauty and grandeur” of the new capitol building. Based on this belief, 527 buildings were destroyed, the population displaced, and the Eighth Ward was extinguished.

A picture of the new capital complex in 1923, highlighting the demolition of the Eighth Ward.
A picture of the new capital complex in 1923, highlighting the demolition of the Eighth Ward.

However, as Gilbert has noted, the Old Eighth Ward also had one of the most diverse populations in the city with a large black population and white population of varied ethnic origins. From the small sample of census data I digitized for this ward (n=1,000), I found that 227 people were black, or about 22.7% of the population. Remembering that the chapter “Black Neighborhoods” from Beers’ book mentioned the diverse population of the 8th Ward,  I then decided to examine all of the census data that had been digitized for Ward 8, which represents 68% of the total population for Ward 8. I used a comprehensive list of 3001 names made from data of precincts 1, 3, and 4 of Ward 8. On this list, 1112 people were black, 1885 were white, and 4 were of other races (with 3 being Chinese). The comprehensive list showed an overall higher percentage of black citizens, 37.1%, than did my smaller sample from precinct 3. In fact, of the data we have keyed, this ward had the highest number of black citizens, with the second highest being Ward 4 with only 340 black citizens. As noted, this ward also had a relatively diverse white population as well, with 102 citizens being born in Russia, 39 in Ireland, 38 in Germany, 3 in China, 1 in Austria, and more. We have not keyed all of the data for this ward, so these percentages could change, but this information does add concrete detail to previous assessments of the diversity of Ward 8 in terms of race and ethnicity.

From this information, it is clear to see that while the City Beautiful Movement played a major role in generally improving the quality of urban life, through improvements in areas like water filtration and street paving, it did not immediately improve the lives of citizens in Harrisburg’s Eighth Ward. As seen in the census data, this ward had many racially and ethnically diverse citizens who were later displaced in order to complete other projects to improve the grandeur of Harrisburg. It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this without further research, but it is important to note the loss all the same.


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