American cities expanded during the late 19th century, as industrial growth was fueled by the arrival of millions of immigrants and migrants. Poverty rates escalated, overwhelming existing networks of private charities. Progressive reformers created relief organizations and raised public awareness of urban poverty. The devastating effects of the Great Depression inspired greater focus on poverty from state and federal agencies. The Social Security Act, the greatest legacy of the New Deal, would provide a safety net for millions of Americans. During the postwar era of general prosperity, federal housing policies often reinforced and deepened racial and socioeconomic inequality and segregation. The 1960s War on Poverty created vital aid programs that expanded access to food, housing, and health care. These programs also prompted a rising tide of conservative backlash against perceived excesses. Fueled by such critical sentiments, the Reagan administration implemented dramatic cuts to assistance programs. Later, the Clinton administration further reformed welfare by tying aid to labor requirements. Throughout the 20th century, the urban homeless struggled to survive in hostile environments. Skid row areas housed the homeless for decades, providing shelter, food, and social interaction within districts that were rarely visited by the middle and upper classes. The loss of such spaces to urban renewal and gentrification in many cities left many of the homeless unsheltered and dislocated.
Maureen A. Flanagan
The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members.
Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.
Jessica Ellen Sewell
From 1800 to 2000, cities grew enormously, and saw an expansion of public spaces to serve the varied needs of a diverse population living in ever more cramped and urban circumstances. While a wide range of commercial semipublic spaces became common in the late 19th century, parks and streets were the best examples of truly public spaces with full freedom of access. Changes in the design and management of streets, sidewalks, squares, parks, and plazas during this period reflect changing ideas about the purpose of public space and how it should be used.
Streets shifted from being used for a wide range of activities, including vending, playing games, and storing goods, to becoming increasingly specialized spaces of movement, designed and managed by the early twentieth century for automobile traffic. Sidewalks, which in the early nineteenth century were paid for and liberally used by adjacent businesses, were similarly specialized as spaces of pedestrian movement. However, the tradition of using streets and sidewalks as a space of public celebration and public speech remained strong throughout the period. During parades and protests, streets and sidewalks were temporarily remade as spaces of the performance of the public, and the daily activities of circulation and commerce were set aside.
In 1800, the main open public spaces in cities were public squares or commons, often used for militia training and public celebration. In the second half of the 19th century, these were augmented by large picturesque parks. Designed as an antidote to urbanity, these parks served the public as a place for leisure, redefining public space as a polite leisure amenity, rather than a place for people to congregate as a public. The addition of playgrounds, recreational spaces, and public plazas in the 20th century served both the physical and mental health of the public. In the late 20th century, responding to neoliberal ideas and urban fiscal crises, the ownership and management of public parks and plazas was increasingly privatized, further challenging public accessibility.
Ansley T. Erickson
“Urban infrastructure” calls to mind railways, highways, and sewer systems. Yet the school buildings—red brick, limestone, or concrete, low-slung, turreted, or glass-fronted—that hold and seek to shape the city’s children are ubiquitous forms of infrastructure as well. Schools occupy one of the largest line items in a municipal budget, and as many as a fifth of a city’s residents spend the majority of their waking hours in school classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums. In the 19th and 20th centuries urban educational infrastructure grew, supported by developing consensus for publicly funded and publicly governed schools (if rarely fully accessible to all members of the public). Even before state commitment to other forms of social welfare, from pensions to public health, and infrastructure, from transit to fire, schooling was a government function.
This commitment to public education ultimately was national, but schools in cities had their own story. Schooling in the United States is chiefly a local affair: Constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states; power is then further decentralized as states entrust decisions about school function and funding to school districts. School districts can be as small as a single town or a part of a city. Such localism is one reason that it is possible to speak about schools in U.S. cities as having a particular history, determined as much by the specificities of urban life as by national questions of citizenship, economy, religion, and culture.
While city schools have been distinct, they have also been nationally influential. Urban scale both allowed for and demanded the most extensive educational system-building. Urban growth and diversity galvanized innovation, via exploration in teaching methods, curriculum, and understanding of children and communities. And it generated intense conflict. Throughout U.S. history, urban residents from myriad social, political, religious, and economic positions have struggled to define how schools would operate, for whom, and who would decide.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. residents struggled over the purposes, funding, and governance of schools in cities shaped by capitalism, nativism, and white supremacy. They built a commitment to schooling as a public function of their cities, with many compromises and exclusions. In the 21st century, old struggles re-emerged in new form, perhaps raising the question of whether schools will continue as public, urban infrastructure.
Conceptions of what constitutes a street gang or a youth gang have varied since the seminal sociological studies on these entities in the 1920s. Organizations of teenage youths and young adults in their twenties, congregating in public spaces and acting collectively, were fixtures of everyday life in American cities throughout the 20th century. While few studies historicize gangs in their own right, historians in a range of subfields cast gangs as key actors in critical dimensions of the American urban experience: the formation and defense of ethno-racial identities and communities; the creation and maintenance of segregated metropolitan spaces; the shaping of gender norms and forms of sociability in working-class districts; the structuring of contentious political mobilization challenging police practices and municipal policies; the evolution of underground and informal economies and organized crime activities; and the epidemic of gun violence that spread through minority communities in many major cities at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.
Although groups of white youths patrolling the streets of working-class neighborhoods and engaging in acts of defensive localism were commonplace in the urban Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest states by the mid-19th century, street gangs exploded onto the urban landscape in the early 20th century as a consequence of massive demographic changes related to the wave of immigration from Europe, Asia, and Latin America and the migration of African Americans from the South. As immigrants and migrants moved into urban working-class neighborhoods and industrial workplaces, street gangs proliferated at the boundaries of ethno-racially defined communities, shaping the context within which immigrant and second-generation youths negotiated Americanization and learned the meanings of race and ethnicity. Although social workers in some cities noted the appearance of some female gangs by the 1930s, the milieu of youth gangs during this era was male dominated, and codes of honor and masculinity were often at stake in increasingly violent clashes over territory and resources like parks and beaches.
The interplay of race, ethnicity, and masculinity continued to shape the world of gangs in the 1940s and 1950s, when white male gangs claiming to defend the whiteness of their communities used terror tactics to reinforce the boundaries of ghettos and barrios in many cities. Such aggressions spurred the formation of fighting gangs in black and Latino neighborhoods, where youths entered into at times deadly combat against their aggressors but also fought for honor, respect, and status with rivals within their communities. In the 1960s and 1970s, with civil rights struggles and ideologies of racial empowerment circulating through minority neighborhoods, some of these same gangs, often with the support of community organizers affiliated with political organizations like the Black Panther Party, turned toward defending the rights of their communities and participating in contentious politics. However, such projects were cut short by the fierce repression of gangs in minority communities by local police forces, working at times in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the mid-1970s, following the withdrawal of the Black Panthers and other mediating organizations from cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, so-called “super-gangs” claiming the allegiance of thousands of youths began federating into opposing camps—“People” against “Folks” in Chicago, “Crips” against “Bloods” in LA—to wage war for control of emerging drug markets. In the 1980s and 1990s, with minority communities dealing with high unemployment, cutbacks in social services, failing schools, hyperincarceration, drug trafficking, gun violence, and toxic relations with increasingly militarized police forces waging local “wars” against drugs and gangs, gangs proliferated in cities throughout the urban Sun Belt. Their prominence within popular and political discourse nationwide made them symbols of the urban crisis and of the cultural deficiencies that some believed had caused it.
Ann Durkin Keating
Since the beginning of the 19th century, outlying areas of American cities have been home to a variety of settlements and enterprises with close links to urban centers. Beginning in the early 19th century, the increasing scale of business and industrial enterprises separated workplaces from residences. This allowed some urban dwellers to live at a distance from their place of employment and commute to work. Others lived in the shadow of factories located at some distance from the city center. Still others provided food or raw materials for urban residents and businesses. The availability of employment led to further suburban growth. Changing intracity transportation, including railroads, interurbans, streetcars, and cable cars, enabled people and businesses to locate beyond the limits of a walking city.
By the late 19th century, metropolitan areas across the United States included outlying farm centers, industrial towns, residential rail (or streetcar) suburbs, and recreational/institutional centers. With suburbs generally located along rail or ferry lines into the early 20th century, the physical development of metropolitan areas often resembled a hub and spokes. However, across metropolitan regions, suburbs had a great range of function and diversity of populations. With the advent of automobile commutation and the growing use of trucks to haul freight, suburban development took place between railroad lines, filling in the earlier hub-and-spokes patterns into a more deliberate built-up area.
Although suburban settlements were integrally connected to their neighbors and within a metropolitan economy and society, independent suburban governments emerged to serve these outlying settlements and keep them separate. Developers often took the lead in providing differential services (and regulations). Suburban governments emerged as hybrid forms, serving relatively homogeneous populations by providing only some urban functions. Well before 1945, suburbs were home to a wide range of work and residents.
H. Paul Thompson Jr.
The temperance and prohibition movement—a social reform movement that pursued many approaches to limit or prohibit the use and/or sale of alcoholic beverages—is arguably the longest-running reform movement in US history, extending from the 1780s through the repeal of national prohibition in 1933. During this 150-year period the movement experienced many ideological, organizational, and methodological changes. Probably the most widely embraced antebellum reform, many of its earliest assumptions and much of its earliest literature was explicitly evangelical, but over time the movement assumed an increasingly secular image while retaining strong ties to organized religion. During the movement’s first fifty years, its definition of temperance evolved successively from avoiding drunkenness, to abstaining from all distilled beverages, to abstaining from all intoxicating beverages (i.e., “teetotalism”). During these years, reformers sought merely to persuade others of their views—what was called “moral suasion.” But by the 1840s many reformers began seeking the coercive power of local and state governments to prohibit the “liquor traffic.” These efforts were called “legal suasion,” and in the early 20th century, when local and state laws were deemed insufficient, movement leaders turned to the federal government. Throughout its history, movement leaders produced an extensive and well-preserved serial and monographic literature to chronicle their efforts, which makes the movement relatively easy to study.
No less than five national temperance organizations rose and fell across the movement’s history, aided by many other organizations also promoted the message with great effect. Grass roots reformers organized innumerable state and local temperance societies and fraternal lodges committed to abstinence. Temperance reformers, hailing from nearly every conceivable demographic, networked through a series of national and international temperance conventions, and at any given time were pursuing a diverse and often conflicting array of priorities and methodologies.
Finally, during the Progressive Era, reformers focused their hatred for alcohol almost exclusively on saloons and the liquor traffic. Through groundbreaking lobbying efforts and a fortuitous convergence of social and political forces, reformers witnessed the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919 that established national prohibition. Despite such a long history of reform, the success seemed sudden and caught many in the movement off guard. The rise of liquor-related violence, a transformation in federal-state relations, increasingly organized and outspoken opposition, the Great Depression, and a re-alignment of political party coalitions all culminated in the sweeping repudiation of prohibition and its Republican supporters in the 1932 presidential election. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, returning liquor regulation to the states, which have since maintained a wide variety of ever changing laws controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages. But national prohibition permanently altered the federal government’s role in law enforcement, and its legacy remains.
Between 1880 and 1929, industrialization and urbanization expanded in the United States faster than ever before. Industrialization, meaning manufacturing in factory settings using machines plus a labor force with unique, divided tasks to increase production, stimulated urbanization, meaning the growth of cities in both population and physical size. During this period, urbanization spread out into the countryside and up into the sky, thanks to new methods of building taller buildings. Having people concentrated into small areas accelerated economic activity, thereby producing more industrial growth. Industrialization and urbanization thus reinforced one another, augmenting the speed with which such growth would have otherwise occurred.
Industrialization and urbanization affected Americans everywhere, but especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Technological developments in construction, transportation, and illumination, all connected to industrialization, changed cities forever, most immediately those north of Washington, DC and east of Kansas City. Cities themselves fostered new kinds of industrial activity on large and small scales. Cities were also the places where businessmen raised the capital needed to industrialize the rest of the United States. Later changes in production and transportation made urbanization less acute by making it possible for people to buy cars and live further away from downtown areas in new suburban areas after World War II ended.
James J. Connolly
The convergence of mass politics and the growth of cities in 19th-century America produced sharp debates over the character of politics in urban settings. The development of what came to be called machine politics, primarily in the industrial cities of the East and Midwest, generated sharp criticism of its reliance on the distribution of patronage and favor trading, its emphatic partisanship, and the plebian character of the “bosses” who practiced it. Initially, upper- and middle-class businessmen spearheaded opposition to this kind of politics, but during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, labor activists, women reformers, and even some ethnic spokespersons confronted “boss rule” as well. These challenges did not succeed in bringing an end to machine politics where it was well established, but the reforms they generated during the Progressive Era reshaped local government in most cities. In the West and Southwest, where cities were younger and partisan organizations less entrenched, business leaders implemented Progressive municipal reforms to consolidate their power. Whether dominated by reform regime or a party machine, urban politics and governance became more centralized by 1940 and less responsive to the concerns and demands of workers and immigrants.
Rioting in the United States since 1800 has adhered to three basic traditions: regulating communal morality, defending community from outside threats, and protesting government abuse of power. Typically, crowds have had the shared interests of class, group affiliation, geography, or a common enemy. Since American popular disorder has frequently served as communal policing, the state—especially municipal police—has had an important role in facilitating, constraining, or motivating unrest.
Rioting in the United States retained strong legitimacy and popular resonance from 1800 to the 1960s. In the decades after the founding, Americans adapted English traditions of restrained mobbing to more diverse, urban conditions. During the 19th century, however, rioting became more violent and ambitious as Americans—especially white men—asserted their right to use violence to police heterogeneous public space. In the 1840s and 1850s, whites combined the lynch mob with the disorderly crowd to create a lethal and effective instrument of white settler sovereignty both in the western territories and in the states. From the 1860s to the 1930s, white communities across the country, particularly in the South, used racial killings and pogroms to seize political power and establish and enforce Jim Crow segregation. Between the 1910s and the 1970s, African Americans and Latinos, increasingly living in cities, rioted to defend their communities against civilian and police violence. The frequency of rioting declined after the urban rebellions of the 1960s, partly due to the militarization of local police. Yet the continued use of aggressive police tactics against racial minorities has contributed to a surge in rioting in US cities in the early 21st century.
Zoning is a legal tool employed by local governments to regulate land development. It determines the use, intensity, and form of development in localities through enforcement of the zoning ordinance, which consists of a text and an accompanying map that divides the locality into zones. Zoning is an exercise of the police powers by local governments, typically authorized through state statutes. Components of what became part of the zoning process emerged piecemeal in U.S. cities during the 19th century in response to development activities deemed injurious to the health, safety, and welfare of the community. American zoning was influenced by and drew upon models already in place in German cities early in the 20th century. Following the First National Conference on Planning and Congestion, held in Washington, DC in 1909, the zoning movement spread throughout the United States. The first attempt to apply a version of the German zoning model to a U.S. city was in New York City in 1916. In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Ambler Realty v. Village of Euclid (1926), zoning was ruled as a constitutional exercise of the police power, a precedent-setting case that defined the perimeters of land use regulation the remainder of the 20th century.
Zoning was explicitly intended to sanction regulation of real property use to serve the public interest, but frequently, it was used to facilitate social and economic segregation. This was most often accomplished by controlling the size and type of housing, where high density housing (for lower income residents) could be placed in relation to commercial and industrial uses, and in some cases through explicit use of racial zoning categories for zones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), that a racial zoning plan of the city of Louisville, Kentucky violated the due process clause of the14th Amendment. The decision, however, did not directly address the discriminatory aspects of the law. As a result, efforts to fashion legally acceptable racial zoning schemes persisted late into the 1920s. These were succeeded by the use of restrictive covenants to prohibit black (and other minority) occupancy in certain white neighborhoods (until declared unconstitutional in the late 1940s). More widespread was the use of highly differentiated residential zoning schemes and real estate steering that imbedded racial and ethnic segregation into the residential fabric of American communities.
The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SSZEA) of 1924 facilitated zoning. Disseminated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the SSZEA created a relatively uniform zoning process in U.S. cities, although depending upon their size and functions, there were definite differences in the complexity and scope of zoning schemes. The reason why localities followed the basic form prescribed by the SSZEA was to minimize the chance of the zoning ordinance being struck down by the courts. Nonetheless, from the 1920s through the 1970s, thousands of court cases tested aspects of zoning, but only a few reached the federal courts, and typically, zoning advocates prevailed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, critics of zoning charged that the fragmented city was an unintended consequence. This critique was a response to concerns that zoning created artificial separations among the various types of development in cities, and that this undermined their vitality. Zoning nevertheless remained a cornerstone of U.S. urban and suburban land regulation, and new techniques such as planned unit developments, overlay zones, and form-based codes introduced needed flexibility to reintegrate urban functions previously separated by conventional zoning approaches.