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A YouTuber Illuminates the History of American Urban Development

In the series called Franklin we watch a city get built over time, beginning centuries back and then evolving in a way which mirrors the growth of many real American cities.

A fort in colonial Franklin (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the hottest multimedia genres at the moment is simply watching someone else play a video game. Creators will post walkthroughs to help players get out of a bind or even just shoot the breeze while playing before an audience on the video platform Twitch. In one popular variation on the theme, users show off what they’ve made in building and simulation games like SimCity, Minecraft, or Roller Coaster Tycoon. A simple YouTube search for the city management sim Cities: Skylines will yield copious results. But one YouTuber is putting a spin on this idea unlike anything else. The channel donoteat01 is using Cities: Skylines as a vector for a longform treatise about urban development and American history.

Donoteat, aka Justin Roczniak, noticed something about all those Cities: Skylines videos. Each one builds a modern metropolis from the ground up, which has little basis in reality. Coming from a background in civil engineering, Roczniak knew that most big cities have complicated histories going back hundreds of years, if not longer. As a corrective, he started the series Franklin, in which he builds a city not all at once but over time, beginning centuries back and then evolving it in a way which mirrors the growth of many real American cities.

Roczniak constructs a meticulous timeline for his fictitious Mid-Atlantic city of Franklin, beginning not simply with its founding by European colonists but with its geological background and then its pre-Columbian history as Lenape land. Each event in Franklin has some real-world grounding, such as the namesake town’s founding by specifically Norwegian settlers, and then its incorporation into the new United States. Along the way, Roczniak explains myriad details about urban infrastructure and how it’s changed over the years, such as how plumbing evolved from Roman aqueducts to pipe-based systems.

Franklin grows and develops over the course of the series (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

But Roczniak is not simply dedicated to historical and engineering education. An avowed leftist, he incorporates rigorous political analysis into the story of Franklin. Communities evolve not just according to their logistical needs and technological developments, but based on economic factors that are driven by concerns of class, race, war, and more. When applying this lens, one sees the ugly side of American history. Genocide, slavery, exploitation, worker repression, and other injustices are inextricable from this history.

Roczniak has also released side videos to explore different variations on his subject. For example, each episode of the “Power, Politics, & Planning” series focuses on a particular problem in contemporary city planning, such as gentrification or mass displacement by urban freeways. Bonus episodes for Patreon backers examine specific historical events, such as the 1921 Tulsa race riot or the wild “Killdozer” incident.

The channel is not just informative and thought-provoking but also aesthetically riveting. Part of the inherent appeal of the video game building genre is the simple pleasure of seeing things get made, with deep satisfaction derived from the time-lapse-like speed with which everything emerges. Over the course of a video, you see sprawling structures where once there was nothing, rivers reshaped by bridges and dams, landscapes carved up by roads and rails. It’s not merely a wallpaper plastered up for you to look at while Roczniak talks, but something actively inviting your consideration as he reframes the way we traditionally think about our cities. Simultaneously an educational series and a critique of video games, American politics, and history, it will be fascinating to see how Franklin continues to build both the city and its argument.

Franklin enters the Industrial Age (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
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