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Urbanization of America, Growth of Cities

settlement house movement, sensational stories, corrupt officials, illegal alcohol, unintended effect

Until the middle of the 19th century, the center of the city was the most fashionable place to live. Merchants, lawyers, and manufacturers built substantial townhouses on the main thoroughfares within walking distance of the docks, warehouses, offices, courts, and shops where they worked. Poorer people lived in back alleys and courtyards of the central city. Markets, shops, taverns, and concert halls provided services and entertainment. The middle classes lived a little farther from the center, and other poor people lived in the suburbs, farther from the economic and governmental centers and away from urban amenities such as town watches, water pumps, and garbage collection. Cities were densely populated, as people had to live within walking distance of work and shops. Streets were narrow, just wide enough to accommodate pedestrians and wagons.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries transformed urban life and gave people higher expectations for improving their standard of living. The increased number of jobs, along with technological innovations in transportation and housing construction, encouraged migration to cities. Development of railroads, streetcars, and trolleys in the 19th century enabled city boundaries to expand. People no longer had to live within walking distance of their jobs. With more choices about where to live, people tended to seek out neighbors of similar social status, if they could afford to do so. The wealthy no longer had to live in the center of the city, so they formed exclusive enclaves far from warehouses, factories, and docks. Office buildings, retail shops, and light manufacturing characterized the central business districts. Heavier industry clustered along the rivers and rail lines that brought in raw materials and shipped out finished products. Railroads also allowed goods to be brought into downtown commercial districts. By the second half of the 19th century, specialized spaces—retail districts, office blocks, manufacturing districts, and residential areas—characterized urban life.

The wealthy created separate neighborhoods for themselves by building mansions on large plots of land at the edges of the cities or in the countryside. Housing developments of similar-looking single-family or multiple-family dwellings, built by speculators, sprouted on the edges of cities. These often catered to a new middle class of white-collar employees in business and industry. The houses faced broader streets and increasingly had plots of grass in front and sometimes in the rear. New apartments were spacious and often had balconies, porches, or other amenities. By 1900 more than a third of urban dwellers owned their own homes, one of the highest rates in the world at the time.

As the middle classes left the bustle and smoke of cities, poorer people—newcomers from the countryside and immigrants—moved into the old housing stock. Landlords took advantage of the demand for housing by subdividing city houses into apartments and by building tenements, low-rent apartment buildings that were often poorly maintained and unsanitary. Immigrants gravitated to the cheap housing and to the promise of work in or near the center of cities or around factories. Now the rich lived in the suburbs and the poor near the center of cities.

In the 50 years from 1870 to 1920, the number of Americans in cities grew from 10 million to 54 million. Into the 20th century, cities grew in population and expanded geographically by absorbing nearby communities. In 1898 New York City acquired Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx as boroughs, political divisions that are like counties. Chicago grew from about 300,000 inhabitants in 1870 to more than a million in 1890. Three-quarters of the city's residents were born outside the United States, and while some found work and a comfortable existence, many suffered severe poverty. That poverty, however, was largely invisible to the rich living on the outskirts of the city, since the poor were concentrated in distant neighborhoods.

The growth of cities outpaced the ability of local governments to extend clean water, garbage collection, and sewage systems into poorer areas, so conditions in cities deteriorated. Cities in the late 19th century were large, crowded, and impersonal places devoted to making money. Not surprisingly, corruption was rampant in city government and city services, in the construction industry, and among landlords and employers. High rents, low wages, and poor services produced misery in the midst of unprecedented economic growth.

The Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries succeeded in reducing some of the corruption and in establishing housing codes, public health measures, and civil service examinations in city governments. Progressive, regulatory approaches to the problems of cities expanded during the New Deal in the 1930s and during the War on Poverty in the 1960s, but cost-cutting political movements in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s reduced funding or eliminated many regulatory programs. As a result of local reform movements throughout the 20th century, corrupt officials were periodically voted out of office and replaced with reformers.

Upward mobility, home ownership, educational opportunities, and cheap goods softened many of the disadvantages of 19th-century urban life. Beautification programs, electrification, and construction of libraries, parks, playgrounds, and swimming pools, gradually improved the quality of urban life in the 20th century, although poor areas received fewer benefits. Poverty, particularly among new arrivals, and low wages remained problems in the cities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. American reform movements, such as the settlement house movement, have typically been more interested in treating the effects of poverty—housing, health, and corruption—than the causes of poverty—unemployment, underemployment, poor skills, and low wages. Labor unions helped raise wages and benefits for many workers, particularly the most skilled, from 1900 to 1950, but since then replacement of skilled factory work by service employment has reduced both wage levels and the influence of labor unions. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the average annual wages of American working men fell from $31,317 in 1979 to $33,244 in 1999 (adjusted for inflation). Wages fell further for those without high school diplomas.

Although murder was rare in the nation in the late 19th century, rates rose in cities. Robbery and theft were commonplace, and prostitution flourished more openly than before. Cheap newspapers exaggerated increases in crime with sensational stories. Professional police forces were created in the late 19th century to keep order and to protect property. The Prohibition period, 1920 to 1933, had the unintended effect of increasing organized crime in America, as manufacturing, importing, and selling illegal alcohol provided a financial windfall for gangs of criminals in the cities. The money was used to expand the influence of organized crime into gambling, prostitution, narcotics, and some legitimate businesses. Police and judges were sometimes bribed. Federal prosecutions of criminals in the 1950s and 1960s helped weaken organized crime. The rise in drug use since the 1970s increased the incidence of violent crime, most visibly in cities, although the majority of drug customers are from the suburbs. This has led to increased professionalization of city police forces, including more weapons, increased training, and higher educational requirements for officers. Higher employment rates at the end of the 1990s have helped to reduce crime rates.

Urban areas have continued to expand, but city boundaries have with few exceptions been set since the early 20th century. City populations increased until the 1950s. Then factories began to move to areas where labor was cheaper: to the South, Latin America, and Asia. As jobs in cities disappeared, cities began to shrink. In the second half of the 20th century, the most rapidly growing urban areas were those outside city limits.



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