Book Review: Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850-1920

Local Attachments: The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850-1920 (1994) by Alexander Von Hoffman is an historical work on the urban neighborhood in the late 19th century.  I read this book because the subject of this case study is my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain – once a part in Roxbury, then the central district of the town of West Roxbury, and finally annexed as a neighborhood into Boston (but never a separate municipality unto itself).  Frankly, if this book were not about Jamaica Plain, I would have lost interest rather quickly due to the dry academic tone of the work.

Von Hoffman seems to be arguing against a traditional understanding of urban development that I’ve never been acquainted with before so it makes it hard to see his point at times.  I also wish he would heed the writer’s advice to “show me” (with specific examples and anecdotes) rather than “tell me” (with statistical summary).  There are some interesting tales of JP here and there such as how Protestant churches helped St. Thomas Aquinas raise building funds, a great contrast to the usual story of Protestant antithapy toward Irish Catholics in Boston.  There is also a chapter of how the city-organized, universally designed parks of Jamaica Plain were built at odds with the neighborhood and Jamaica Plain residents had no proprietary feelings toward them.  That’s certainly changed today as the parks are a big reason why I live in JP.

Anyhow, this book is probably great for an urban studies course but it is not so interesting for someone like me who just wants to read up on the neighborhood.