Urbanization of America

The early United States was predominately rural. According to the 1790 census, 95 percent of the population lived in the countryside. The 5 percent of Americans living in urban areas (places with more than 2,500 persons) lived mostly in small villages. Only Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had more than 15,000 inhabitants. The South was almost completely rural. After 1830 the urban areas of the country grew more rapidly than the rural areas. By 1890 industrialization had produced substantial growth in cities, and 35 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, mostly in the northern half of the United States. The South remained rural, except for New Orleans and a few smaller cities. The number of Americans living in cities did not surpass the number in rural areas until 1920. By the 1990s three out of four Americans lived in an urban setting, and since World War II the southern half of the country has become increasingly urbanized, particularly in Texas, Arizona, and the states along the eastern seaboard.

Growth of Cities

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.

Move to Suburbia

Suburbs began to appear in the 18th century when wealthy people built second homes in the country to escape the crowded, sweltering city during the summer. As roads improved in the early part of the 19th century, more people built summer houses. A few began living outside the city full time and commuting by carriage to town. Commuting into the city to work became easier and cheaper in the late 19th century, when commuter railroad lines were built, radiating out from the central city. New suburbs developed that were almost entirely residential and depended on the economic resources of the central city. Because railroad fares were relatively high, most of these suburbs remained the preserve of the wealthiest Americans until after World War II, although a few working-class suburbs sprang up around large manufacturing complexes or ports.

The United States experienced a housing shortage in the late 1940s, as recently married war veterans sought places to live. The GI Bill—which provided unemployment and education allowances and home, farm, and business loans for millions of World War II veterans—enabled a flood of home purchases. Several developers applied the principles of mass production to housing, creating nearly identical houses on moderate-sized lots. These suburban developments were targeted to narrow segments of the broad middle class. Some were home to professionals and executives, some to middle management, some to the lower middle class, some to working-class Americans. Each development was substantially uniform in social status and sometimes in religion and ethnicity.

Suburbanites were similar in other ways. Married couples were generally just starting their families. The baby boom meant that there were large numbers of children in the suburbs. Women were housewives and husbands commuted to jobs in the city. Families valued privacy and were separated from other relatives, who either remained in the city or lived elsewhere. It was both comfortable and isolating. The family was often on its own, knowing few neighbors, watching television in the evening, driving everywhere in private cars to anonymous shopping centers. Some people living in these new suburbs depended on rail lines to get to work, although more took advantage of the automobile as a form of transport. The federal government contributed to suburbanization by subsidizing mortgages for veterans and building highways that made travel between cities and suburbs easier.

As the suburbs grew, more and more of the middle classes abandoned the cities. The suburbs were attractive for many reasons: They were cleaner, newer, had better-funded schools, were socially homogeneous, and provided a sense of security. They provided what city dwellers had long been seeking—bigger yards and more privacy. The perceived problems of the city—crowding, high taxes, crime, and poverty—could be left behind. And because the suburbs were politically independent of the core city, the layers of bureaucracy and corruption could be replaced by smaller, friendlier, and presumably more honest government.

As millions moved to the suburbs, stores followed so that residents did not have to go into the city to shop. By the mid-1950s the shopping mall had appeared. Some large, enclosed malls in the 1980s and 1990s became centers for both consumption and entertainment. Other, smaller strip malls contained shops that sold basic items, such as food and hardware, or provided services, such dry cleaning and film processing.

Suburban housing also underwent changes in the 1980s and 1990s. Townhouses and apartment complexes began to characterize the suburbs as much as houses on lots. Retired couples needed smaller places, high divorce rates created single-adult households, and poorer individuals wanted to share some of the benefits of a suburban lifestyle.

Once the population shifted to the suburbs, employers eventually followed, though more slowly than residents. Because employees might live in any suburb surrounding a city, a central business location in the city had always been convenient. Increased traffic congestion in the city centers, and the promise of lower corporate taxes and less crime in the suburbs, eventually pushed corporations out to the suburbs as well. Office complexes and corporate campuses brought white-collar jobs closer to the suburban areas where many workers lived. Warehouses, light industry, and other businesses were increasingly located in the suburbs. These new locations were poorly served by public transportation. Workers had to commute by car. This trend appeared as early as the 1950s and 1960s in the rapidly growing metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Dallas and later in the older large cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Traffic congestion is an increasing problem in cities and suburbs, and Americans spend more and more of their time commuting to work, school, shopping, and social events, as well as dealing with traffic jams and accidents. By the late 1990s rush-hour traffic patterns no longer flowed simply into the city in the morning and out of the city in the evening. Traffic became heavy in all directions, both to and from cities as well as between suburban locations. Suburban business locations required huge parking lots because employees had to drive; there were few buses, trains, or trolleys to carry scattered workers to their jobs. The hope of reduced congestion in the suburbs had not been realized; long commutes and traffic jams could be found everywhere.

Suburbanization has not affected all aspects of American life. Some functions have largely remained in the central cities, including government bureaus, courts, universities, research hospitals, professional sports teams, theaters, and arts groups. Trendy shopping, fine restaurants, and nightlife, which expanded in the booming economy at the end of the 20th century, have become popular in many cities, revitalizing a few urban neighborhoods.

In the 20 largest cities and urbanized areas of the United States, 41 percent of the local population, on average, lives in the city, and 59 percent lives in the surrounding suburbs, towns, and associated rural areas. Hoping for more privacy, more space, and better housing, people continued to look to the fringes of urban areas. In the 1990s it became apparent that older suburbs were losing population to newer suburbs and to the so-called exurbs, rural areas bordering cities.

With these new suburbs springing up on the fringes of major urban centers, older suburbs face many of the hardships of cities. As the young and the more affluent seek the newest housing developments, tax bases in the cities and in older suburbs erode. The housing stock deteriorates because of age and perhaps neglect, and housing prices stagnate or fall, causing tax revenues to decline. The elderly—many on limited incomes and in poor health—are more likely to stay in the older suburbs, a trend that not only diminishes tax revenues but increases demand for social services. Schools, no longer supported by the same strong property tax base, suffer in quality, causing even more people to move out. Poorer people then move into the cheaper housing of the older suburbs. As poverty increases in the older areas, so does crime. Older suburbs are often in more desperate financial straits than the central city, because their economic base is less diverse.

The peace and security that suburbanites originally sought became more elusive near the end of the 20th century, and the trend toward gated and walled housing developments was the most visible sign of anxiety about external threats. The next major trend may be a movement out of large cities and suburbs and into small towns and the countryside as Americans avoid commuting and seek more leisure time and a stronger sense of community. New information technologies such as e-mail and computer networking will probably contribute to the dispersal of the population out of the cities, although a sharp and sustained rise in gasoline prices could reverse current trends by making the private automobile and extensive commuting too expensive.