Cities in the American nation

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

The process that generated urban growth continued long after the thir­teen colonies merged into the American Union. Migration, economic change, and technological advance broadened the scale and quickened the pace. Whereas only five major and about fifteen secondary cities consti­tuted urban America in the colonial period, scores of towns sprouted and blossomed between the Revolution and the Civil War. When the first federal census was taken in 1790, there were only 5 cities with 10,000 or more inhabitants. In 1830 the number had risen to 23, and it had reached 101 by 1860. Established eastern ports still dominated the urban scene as the young republic grappled with the problems of independence.

Economic and political conditions improved in the 1790s, and the urbanization of America began to gather momentum as the nineteenth century dawned. The promise of urban civilization was already appearing in towns along the Ohio Valley and surrounding Lake Erie, in the new national capital of Washington, D.C., and as far south and west as New Orleans. The creation and growth of cities were important, but it must be remembered that urbanization is an economic and social process that occurs in a society as a whole, not just in its cities. The existence of abun­dant open land in America enabled agricultural settlement to keep pace with the growth of the urban population.

The new cities of the West not only resembled those of the colonial era in origin and function but copied their approach to municipal organization as well. The cities of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes adopted the same collective approach to problems of streets, fire, health, markets, order, and buildings common in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The effort was conscious and even institutionalized.

The urge for urban growth was connected with a goal of predominance and these two forces made early nineteenth-century urbanization an aggressive, dynamic phenomenon. Increased immigration, markets, and transportation connections fed upon one another to produce a “multiplier effect”, an endless spiral that spun off greater and greater profits.

Population increase and economic change heightened many of the old internal problems of American cities. Efforts to alleviate these pressures not only transformed cities but swept city dwellers into a whirlwind of complex social and political issues. Citizens’ apprehensions about social disorder derived from more than crime and violence. Poverty, delin­quency, mental illness, disease, and moral decay combined with criminal­ity to raise fears among civic leaders that American society was falling apart.

As cities grew and problems mounted, the public education movement gained momentum. Boston established free elementary schools in 1818; New York followed in 1832, and Philadelphia in 1836. On the eve of the Civil War, the majority of cities and states in the North and West had some kind of public education. By mid-century, however, reformers aim­ing to school all classes were feeling the thorns of several problems. In many cities population increased faster than new schools could be built. As immigration accelerated in the 1840s, illiteracy rose instead of declining. At the same time, social reformers attempting to bring all children into the school contended with officials and taxpayers determined to hold down public expenditures. Thus many of the dilemmas that haunt urban schools today stretch back well over a century.

By the time of the Revolution, American urban society had become graded, with wide gaps between ranks. As new land in the West opened, as new cities sprouted, and as older cities expanded in the decades that fol­lowed independence, it would seem that increased opportunity could have loosened this social rigidity and enabled larger numbers of people to im­prove their conditions. Analysis of urban social structure in the middle third of the nineteenth century has revealed that small numbers of people were accumulating large proportions of wealth, and that the chances of a person improving his or her economic station remained small. In Boston, where 5 percent of the population had owned 44 percent of all taxable property in 1771, the richest 4 percent owned 59 percent of the wealth in 1833 and 64 percent by 1848. In New York the upper 4 percent controlled 49 percent of the wealth in 1828 and 66 percent in 1845. Similar concent­rations of wealth could be found in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans. Every city contained families with lofty for- I unes. The vast majority of elites had not followed a rags-to-riches path, I hey had maintained or increased the wealth accumulated by their fore­bears. Near the lower end of the social spectrum, pressures of life in the city weighed heavily. The rich were becoming richer, and the rest were lag­ging behind.

The extent of geographical mobility in the nineteenth century was even more striking than in the colonial era. Americans have always been, and remain, a migratory people. Most moved because circumstances beyond their control-economic, personal, or natural misfortune-forced them. Meanwhile many cities were practically bursting at their seams. It has been common for Americans to consider urban crowding a consequence of in­dustrialization and mass immigration, occurring during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet at no time in the country’s history were total urban densities as high as they were in the mid-nineteenth century.

Mass transportation was almost always considered a private business, not a public utility, so profitability was the chief criterion for the construc­tion of any system. Omnibus and street-railway companies made huge profits from a population eager for urban expansion and anxious to cut down traveling time. Land values along streetcar lines soared, and real- estate developers scrambled to buy up property along projected routes. As early as the 1880s shrewd businessmen were consolidating independent companies under their aegis.

Mass transportation revised the social and economic fabric of the American city in three fundamental ways. It catalyzed physical expansion, it sorted out people and land uses, and it accelerated the inherent instabil­ity of urban life. By opening vast areas of unoccupied land for residential expansion, the omnibuses, horse railways, commuter trains, and electric trolleys pulled settled regions outward two, three, and four times more dis­tant from city centers than they were in the premodern era. In 1850, for example, the borders of Boston lay scarcely two miles from the old busi­ness district; by the turn of the century the radius extended ten miles. But while the middle classes accompanied the trolley lines into the periphery and suburbs, working-class immigrants squeezed into the older districts and transformed the walking city into the urban core.

Foreign migrants, to a greater degree than native migrants, shaped the American urban environment and were shaped by it. Foreign immigration to the United States is traditionally split into two major waves: one begin­ning in the 1840s, peaking in the 1880s, and ebbing thereafter; and the other beginning in the 1880s, peaking between 1900 and 1910, and declin­ing in the 1920s when federal legislation closed the doors to the unres­tricted influx of foreigners. Many immigrants were too poor to go farther than their port of arrival, or they found ready use for whatever skills they had. These immigrants remained in the eastern ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, or they ventured only a short distance away to growing secondary towns. Increases in population and rising land values drove up rents and landlords squeezed every penny from their tenants.

New York City was unique in its acute crowding and degenerate housing.

As to Blacks poverty and bigotry pushed them together into ghettos- areas of forced residence from which escape is extremely difficult-more than any other migrant group. These teeming, decaying residential districts became the womb of black urban culture. Black Americans were physi­cally isolated from the rest of urban society. Unlike all other immigrant groups in industrial America, the black residential experience was one of contracting, rather than expanding, dispersion. Supporters of discrimina­tory housing and other types of segregation denied blacks the opportuni- lies afforded white groups. Although ethnic neighborhoods in most cities were dissolving in the early twentieth century, black ghettos were growing m size and homogeneity. Jim Crow (segregation) laws and white racist vio­lence constantly reminded blacks of their inferior status. The ghettos, physically isolated and racially uniform, reinforced black segregation and inequality.

The American metropolis today is caught between conflicting pres­sures. On one side stand the forces of the past, a century of decentraliza- lion that has fractured social and economic bonds within cities and between cities and suburbs. The centrifugal dynamics of urbanization have prevailed over the centripetal. But the results have been dangerous. The exodus of affluent whites has left central cities with huge burdens. Spiral- ing costs for services and for municipal salaries have forced city tax rates skyward and have encouraged more businesses and home owners to leave. Moreover by using zoning laws to exclude “undesirables”, suburbanites have prevented blacks, Chicanos, Indians, and poor people in general from partaking of the residential mobility that has been so integral to the urban experience of white groups.

Today nostalgia for a mythical, idyllic Arcadia is rampant. Popular journals feature articles about city-bred families who foresake the urban rat race and move to a rural retreat. Makers of foods with “natural” ingre­dients advertise their products with bucolic scenes and nostalgic slogans (“One taste and all the flavor of the past comes flooding back”).

No one can predict if cities will survive their present predicaments, par­ticularly as shortages in materials and energy become more serious and as feverish inflation scorches the national economy.

Based on: The Evolution of American Urban Society by H. R. ChudacofF