Urban history in the US
Urban history in the US not only covers the growth of the cities and towns but also encompasses the cultural diversity that accompanied this growth. The transformation of society in the US occurred significantly between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the twentieth century, this was marked by dispersed settlements in the suburbs that were increasingly offering a solution to overcrowding in the central cities. Cities exhibited variation in their population sizes. Rural-urban migration from the farms and small towns to the developing urban centers was gaining momentum. Overseas immigration, on the other hand, was on the rise due to wars, political and religious intolerance, as well as worsening economic situation in the countries of origin.
The onset of industrialization in the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the growth of American cities were facilitated by activities that were dominated by the merchants who controlled the trade with Europe (Chudacoff, et al 8). Agriculture and extractive industries also dominated the economic structures of the cities during this period. By the end of the nineteenth century, six cities, including New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, had attracted about a million of immigrants. The construction of railroads connecting different cities reflected the rapid growth of the cities that were majorly situated in the industrial areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Atlanta benefitted immensely and owed its rapid growth to the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads.
Before the Civil War, overseas immigrants mainly originated from Northern and Western European states and smaller numbers from China and Mexico occupying California. Jews from the Southern and Eastern Europe (the 1880s) added to this influx, as they fled their homelands, Australia-Hungary and Russian Empire, due to war and ethnic cleansing. Others included the Balkans and Russians, who arrived early in the century, and the Irish and the Germans who followed later in 1880. The Greeks, Italians, Poles, Russians, Serbs, and Turks were also attracted by the reputation that America was a land of new exciting opportunities.
New immigrants occupied the poorer central sections of the developing cities, replacing wealthier immigrant groups that were moving to the nearby suburbs. This owed to the development of infrastructure and improved standards of living. People from the same native country lived and worked in the same neighborhood and assisted each other to adjust to the urban life. This led to overcrowding. Poverty, disease, and crime thrived in these settlements.
It is wrong to conclude that these immigrants would leave their native customs and embrace American ones. For example, parents used their mother tongue to communicate. Their children attended and learned English in the local schools. This phenomenon led to the nicknames of places reflecting the inhabitants’ country of origin, for example, Chinatown. Common communication media like newspapers and signs adopted these languages. Ethnic restaurants became common. Hispanic Americans would mark their traditions with street fairs and other festivities.
The increasing numbers of newcomers came with its own price. Native-born Americans often viewed the new immigrants as a threat to job opportunities, since they did not demand high pay, and believed that the immigrants would also undermine the American political system. The culmination of the situation was the call to block immigrants from entering the country. In 1882, Congress prohibited convicts, paupers, the mentally ill, and contract laborers the right to enter the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) illegalized immigration from China, and this decision made permanent a decade later before it was reversed much later in 1943.
Developments in the transport sector promoted further expansion of the cities. The steam-driven trains (1873), cable car in San Francisco (1873), bridges, use of electricity, the introduction of underground trains, and the subway system were among the initial signs of development. As a result of the improved transport systems, the suburbs began to grow in the outskirts of the big cities, segregating residential areas by income. The immigrants and the poor remained in the central city while the middle class could afford to live further from their workplaces and commute to them.
The growth of the urban centers and crowding of people was accompanied by the increase in the value of land. This necessitated maximization of the limited available space to build up. Taller and taller buildings were built. The first skyscraper to have been erected was the ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which was built in 1884. Further architectural and design advances ensued. The dumb shell tenement, in New York in 1879, attempted to improve housing for the poor by constructing four apartments and two toilets on each floor and was indented in the middle, producing a “dumb shell” shape. This arrangement was not successful due to inadequate light and ventilation that characterized two tenements that were built next to each other. However, the developers were encouraged to adopt this plan, since it significantly made the full use of the small 25-by-100-foot city buildings. This added to overcrowding, and the plan was abolished in New York in 1901.
Urban politics also played a role in the American urbanization. The elected officials controlled many cities across the country in the late nineteenth century. These officials engaged in abject corruption and were annoyingly inefficient in provision of the essential services to the citizens and immigrants alike. The immigrants exchanged favors, such as money and food, with their votes to these officials.
In the late nineteenth century, the church began a campaign to help the poor and new immigrants. Different Protestant groups and churches encouraged charity. They believed that personal redemption was related to a developed society so they started to facilitate this by alleviating poverty and reckless behavior like drunkenness that was common among poor people. Gymnasiums, libraries, lectures, and social programs were undertaken by churches to attract the working poor.
This rich American urban history and integration of people from diverse cultures continue up to date. According to Chudacoff, et al (15) America welcomes more immigrants (over 40 million in all and still absorbs close to 700 000 people a year) than any other country in the world. Over the years since the increased agitation of equality among all Americans, diversity has been greatly valued and ethnic groups are encouraged to celebrate their heritage. These immigrants often serve to remind the Native Americans how important their material comfort and political freedoms are, since most of these immigrants cannot access these privileges back in their countries.