Cities hold history in various forms. Some cities utilize murals to capture their past, others may use walking tours, but most city histories resides in archives and with local residents. Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, does not have the most accessible history. Due to my work with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, I have spent an extensive amount of time learning about Harrisburg’s past, especially within the early twentieth century. Through this research the City Beautiful Movement has become a key point in time for Harrisburg. Nationally, beautification efforts were being led in industrious cities. One of the “dark spots” of Harrisburg was the Eighth Ward. Described as an area high with “social delinquency” and “slum structures,” the racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood was targeted as an area of removal and ultimately replaced by the expansion of the Capitol Park. However, other research can indicate a different history of the Eighth Ward.
Ms. Mira Lloyd Dock, inspired by European parks and the beginnings of beautification projects in other U.S. states, formed the Civic Club of Harrisburg and gave a lecture to the Harrisburg Board of Trade urging for a rejuvenation of the city (Paul Beers, City Contented, City Discontented, 27). With support of a newly formed Municipal League, chaired by soon-to-be mayor, Vance McCormick, one thing was lacking: funding. J. Horace McFarland, another supporter of the City Beautiful Movement worked with Dock in advocating and implementing works to clean the city.
While making cities beautiful and improving living conditions are not bad things, concerns should be raised when a specific population is negatively impacted repeatedly. There are two recorded waves of the Eighth Ward being pushed out due to the Capitol Park, once in 1901 and the other in 1911. Dock suddenly moved away from Harrisburg in 1903, leaving McFarland as the leading influencer (Beers, City Contented, City Discontented, 34). In 1907, a few years before the Capitol Park expands for the second time which results in the demolishing of housing, McFarland invested and saw through the building of Bellvue Park, a new housing development for up to 280 plots. Did McFarland have other motivations in the removal of the Eighth Ward? Is there more behind the building of Bellvue Park? Any answers to these questions would not be an easy find, and have truthfully been sought after for years.
One day before COVID-19 preventative measures shutdown the Pennsylvania State Archives, our Digital History class experienced the process of archival research. I spent most of my time searching through McFarland’s papers- correspondence, reports, and articles- but unfortunately with not much luck. While I didn’t have enough time to go through the dozens of boxes in his collection, I was able to get a feel for what he prioritized: business. Even personal correspondence was written with regards to what project he was focused in or on how he feels about local news.
History isn’t written with the future in mind. McFarland has no duty to share his inner thoughts with me, and obviously he felt no pressure to. While it is tempting to see biases he may have had, maybe they were simply implicit due to the time and not pondered over. My research project has been altered first with no answers, and now no archives. As the world scrambles to adjust to life during a pandemic, many wonder how future generations will be taught about this time- or even if it will be mentioned. It all depends on if you bring it to the future. Stories are kept alive through retelling them. It is important to share your story with others, but writing has the advantage of being preserved. No, nothing can be preserved forever, but McFarland’s collection of papers that are over 100 years old are doing pretty well, so it is worth trying.