Over the past 500 years thousands of towns have sprung up, prospered and had a measurable impact on the course of American history and commerce, but ten of those thousands gave the country and its people something unique at each stage of the nation’s growth. At least that is the premise of 10 Towns That Changed America, part of the 10 That Changed America series which debuted on public television in April. While the first two episodes, which focus on the 10 homes and 10 parks which the show’s creators felt changed how Americans live, it is the third and final part that perhaps best tells the story of the people who built and are continuing to build this country.
10 Towns that Changed America debuts on most PBS stations at 8 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, April 19. The first installment of the series, 10 Homes that Changed America, premiered on April 5, and the second, 10 Parks that Changed America, airs April 12. Check local listings for repeat showings.
Host Geoffrey Baer is an Emmy-award winning writer, producer and director with a strong interest in how and why buildings and public works are built and the people who design them. The current series grew out of his 2013 production 10 Buildings that Changed America, which in turn was sparked by a trio of documentaries Baer did on famous American architects. Baer is no mere narrator; he is a guide who knows what he is talking about, and his fascination for and love of what he does comes across out of the television screen and into American living rooms.
While the Homes and Parks series focused on such well-known places as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park, the 10 Towns episode presents a true timeline of American urban history. Baer opens with Florida’s St. Augustine, the first and oldest city in North America. St. Augustine recently celebrated the 450th anniversary of its founding by the Spanish conquistadors in 1565, but it is not only for being the first city that Baer honors it in his show. St. Augustine was more than just a fort or a colonial outpost; it was laid out according to plans developed in Spain to be a model for how Europeans should settle in the New World. As much of the old city is not only still standing but in continued use, Baer is able to take his viewers on a walking tour across five centuries of urban planning and development.
Philadelphia and Salt Lake City were also planned communities, unlike so many places where European colonists and immigrants and their American descendents settled and settled rather haphazardly. As the country matured, so did the science of urban planning. Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead created what was meant to be a model suburb in Riverside, Illinois. Railroad car tycoon George Pullman gave his name to a company town he had built for his employees just outside of Chicago. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put the same kind of thought into backing the design of Greenbelt, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. As Baer points out with much enthusiasm and admiration, their ideas and creations have had and continue to have a profound impact on the suburbanization of America. Levittown in New York, Seaside in Florida, the Pearl District of Portland, Oregon and the Southwest quarter of the nation’s capital round out the list chosen by Baer to highlight how the way American’s design and use their urban and suburban spaces in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
Baer’s tour of these towns is much more than some travel channel puff piece; it is an exploration of how and why each were built, what the designers got right, what they got wrong, and how those who have come after have improved on or completely revitalized the original design.
10 Towns that Changed America debuts on most PBS stations at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, Tuesday, April 19.