Contagious diseases have long posed a public health challenge for cities, going back to the ancient world. Diseases traveled over trade routes from one city to another. Cities were also crowded and often dirty, ideal conditions for the transmission of infectious disease. The Europeans who settled North America quickly established cities, especially seaports, and contagious diseases soon followed. By the late 17th century, ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia experienced occasional epidemics, especially smallpox and yellow fever, usually introduced from incoming ships. Public health officials tried to prevent contagious diseases from entering the ports, most often by establishing a quarantine. These quarantines were occasionally effective, but more often the disease escaped into the cities. By the 18th century, city officials recognized an association between dirty cities and epidemic diseases. The appearance of a contagious disease usually occasioned a concerted effort to clean streets and remove garbage. These efforts by the early 19th century gave rise to sanitary reform to prevent infectious diseases. Sanitary reform went beyond cleaning streets and removing garbage, to ensuring clean water supplies and effective sewage removal. By the end of the century, sanitary reform had done much to clean the cities and reduce the incidence of contagious disease. In the 20th century, public health programs introduced two new tools to public health: vaccination and antibiotics. First used against smallpox, scientists developed vaccinations against numerous other infectious viral diseases and reduced their incidence substantially. Finally, the development of antibiotics against bacterial infections in the mid-20th century enabled physicians to cure infected individuals. Contagious disease remains a problem—witness AIDS—and public health authorities still rely on quarantine, sanitary reform, vaccination, and antibiotics to keep urban populations healthy.
Kristin M. Szylvian
Federal housing policy has been primarily devoted to maintaining the economic stability and profitability of the private sector real estate, household finance, and home-building and supply industries since the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945). Until the 1970s, federal policy encouraged speculative residential development in suburban areas and extended segregation by race and class. The National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, and other allied organizations strenuously opposed federal programs seeking to assist low- and middle-income households and the homeless by forcing recalcitrant suburbs to permit the construction of open-access, affordable dwellings and encouraging the rehabilitation of urban housing. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, a Republican from California, argued it was the government, not the private sector, that was responsible for the gross inequities in social and economic indicators between residents of city, inner ring, and outlying suburban communities. The civic, religious, consumer, labor, and other community-based organizations that tried to mitigate the adverse effects of the “Reagan Revolution” on the affordable housing market lacked a single coherent view or voice. Since that time, housing has become increasingly unaffordable in many metropolitan areas, and segregation by race, income, and ethnicity is on the rise once again. If the home mortgage crisis that began in 2007 is any indication, housing will continue to be a divisive political, economic, and social issue in the foreseeable future.
The national housing goal of a “decent home in a suitable living environment for every American family” not only has yet to be realized, but many law makers now favor eliminating or further restricting federal commitment to its realization.
Between 1820 and 1924, nearly thirty-six million immigrants entered the United States. Prior to the Civil War, the vast majority of immigrants were northern and western Europeans, though the West Coast received Chinese immigration from the late 1840s onward. In mid-century, the United States received an unprecedented influx of Irish and German immigrants, who included a large number of Catholics and the poor. At the turn of the 20th century, the major senders of immigrants shifted to southern and eastern Europe, and Asians and Mexicans made up a growing portion of newcomers. Throughout the long 19th century, urban settlement remained a popular option for immigrants, and they contributed to the social, cultural, political, economic, and physical growth of the cities they resided in. Foreign-born workers also provided much-needed labor for America’s industrial development. At the same time, intense nativism emerged in cities in opposition to the presence of foreigners, who appeared to be unfit for American society, threats to Americans’ jobs, or sources of urban problems such as poverty. Anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the introduction of state and federal laws for preventing the immigration of undesirable foreigners, such as the poor, southern and eastern Europeans, and Asians. Cities constituted an integral part of the 19th-century American immigration experience.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
The transformation of post-industrial American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries includes several economically robust metropolitan centers that stand as new models of urban and economic life, featuring well-educated populations that engage in professional practices in education, medical care, design and legal services, and artistic and cultural production. By the early 21st century, these cities dominated the nation’s consciousness economically and culturally, standing in for the most dynamic and progressive sectors of the economy, driven by collections of technical and creative spark. The origins of these academic and knowledge centers are rooted in the political economy, including investments shaped by federal policy and philanthropic ambition. Education and health care communities were and remain frequently economically robust but also rife with racial, economic, and social inequality, and riddled with resulting political tensions over development. These information communities fundamentally incubated and directed the proceeds of the new economy, but also constrained who accessed this new mode of wealth in the knowledge economy.
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.