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Article

The Department Store  

Traci Parker

Department stores were the epicenter of American consumption and modernity in the late 19th and through the 20th century. Between 1846 and 1860 store merchants and commercial impresarios remade dry goods stores and small apparel shops into department stores—downtown emporiums that departmentalized its vast inventory and offered copious services and amenities. Their ascendance corresponded with increased urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and the mass production of machine-made wares. Urbanization and industrialization also helped to birth a new White middle class who were eager to spend their money on material comforts and leisure activities. And department stores provided them with a place where they could do so. Stores sold shoppers an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise including clothing, furniture, radios, sporting equipment, musical instruments, luggage, silverware, china, and books. They also provided an array of services and amenities, including public telephones, postal services, shopping assistance, free delivery, telephone-order and mail-order departments, barber shops, hair salons, hospitals and dental offices, radio departments, shoe-shining stands, wedding gift registries and wedding secretary services, tearooms, and restaurants. Stores enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship, inviting everybody—regardless of race, gender, age, and class—to enter, browse, and purchase material goods. They were major employers of white-collar workers and functioned as a new public space for women as workers and consumers. The 20th century brought rapid and significant changes and challenges. Department stores weathered economic crises; two world wars; new and intense competition from neighborhood, chain, and discount stores; and labor and civil rights protests that threatened to damage their image and displace them as the nation’s top retailers. They experienced cutbacks, consolidated services, and declining sales during the Great Depression, played an essential role in the war effort, and contended with the Office of Price Administration’s Emergency Price Control Act during the Second World War. In the postwar era, they opened branch locations in suburban neighborhoods where their preferred clientele—the White middle class—now resided and shaped the development and proliferation of shopping centers. They hastened the decline of downtown shopping as a result. The last three decades of the 20th century witnessed a wave of department store closures, mergers, and acquisitions because of changing consumer behaviors, shifts in the retail landscape, and evolving market dynamics. Department stores would continue to suffer into the 21st century as online retailing exploded.

Article

Detroit  

Ryan S. Pettengill

From its earliest origins through the 21st century, Detroit was a capitalist venture that was tied to the global economy. Throughout the pre-Columbian period, Detroit served as a meeting point where a diverse confederation of Native Americans came together to conduct business and diplomacy. Later, the city became a contested territorial holding that the Western imperial powers of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States fought over, as it represented a critical gateway that opened up trade to the central and western regions of North America. Between 1835 and 1929, capitalists built wharfs, railroad lines, factories, warehouses, and other forms of industrial infrastructure, attracting throngs of working-class job seekers and causing Detroit’s population to boom from approximately 1,100 in 1819 to more than one million in 1930. The population peaked at nearly two million in 1950 and, by 2020, it had declined to approximately 700,000. Detroit’s history might be thought of in three distinct periods: a pre-Columbian period where the region consisted of a preindustrial space that was occupied by Anishinaabeg peoples, later to be claimed by European colonists; a long industrial era in which businessmen, such as Henry Ford, centralized production within the city; and a slow period of economic decline as the city struggled to adapt to different trends in a global economy. As Detroit entered the 21st century, the city faced a declining population, rising budget deficits, and a crumbling infrastructure. Still, as several multinational corporations based their operations out of Detroit, the city remained a capitalist venture fundamentally tied to the global economy.

Article

New York City  

Matthew Vaz

The contemporary city of New York, comprising the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, covers three hundred square miles and contains almost nine million people. Often described as the center of the world, the city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations and is a hub of global media and finance. Yet New York is also a city of neighborhoods, animated by remarkably local concerns. The dense population, the complex government, the vast wealth, the archetypal urban poverty, and the intricate and impressive built environment have all taken form through a layered series of encounters among groups over the course of four centuries. The Lenape Indians, the original settlers of the area, encountered Dutch colonizers in 1624. The English seized control from the Dutch in 1664. Both the Dutch and the English imported enslaved Africans in large numbers. The natural advantages of the harbor propelled the area’s growth, attracting settlers from elsewhere in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Human-created infrastructures like the Erie Canal spurred economic growth after 1825 that attracted European immigrants from western and northern Europe in the mid-19th century and Europeans from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898, five counties were consolidated and created the five boroughs of New York City with a population surpassing three million. African Americans from the US South and Latinos from the Caribbean migrated to New York throughout the 20th century; by 1950, the city’s population was 7.8 million. After 1980, the population began to climb again with new waves of immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more than four hundred years, the processes of conflict and cooperation have been animated by schisms and tensions of religion, ethnicity, race, and class. As groups and individuals competed for resources and power in the city, politics and governance confronted conceptual issues such as calibrating the extent of public services, the role of religion in public life, the rights of workers, and the value of living in a multiethnic and multiracial society.

Article

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania  

Chloe E. Taft

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a city of seventy-five thousand people in the Lehigh Valley, was settled on the traditional homelands of the Lenape in 1741 as a Moravian religious settlement. The Moravian community on the North Side of the Lehigh River was closed to outsiders and was characterized by orderly stone buildings and a communitarian economy. The settlement opened and expanded on the South Side of the river as an industrial epicenter beginning in the mid-19th century and was ultimately home to the headquarters of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. By the late 1930s, the city’s 1,800-acre steel plant was ramping up to peak production with employment of more than thirty thousand. When Bethlehem Steel began a long, slow decline after 1950 until the plant’s closure in 1998, Bethlehem evolved into an archetype of a postindustrial city drawing on its long history of heritage tourism and an increasingly diversified economy in healthcare, education, and distribution, among other sectors. The city’s population has roots in multiple waves of migration—the Germanic Moravians in the 18th century, throngs of European immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a Latino/a population that grew after World War II to represent an increasingly large share of residents. The city’s landscape, culture, and economy are imbued with a multifaceted history that is both deeply local and reflective of the city’s position since its founding as an important node in regional and global networks.

Article

Baltimore  

David Schley

Baltimore, Maryland, rose to prominence in the late 18th century as a hub for the Atlantic wheat trade. A slave city in a slave state, Baltimore was home to the largest free Black community in antebellum America. Nineteenth-century Baltimore saw trend-setting experiments in railroading as well as frequent episodes of collective violence that left the city with the nickname, “mobtown”; one such riot, in 1861, led to the first bloodshed of the Civil War. After the war, Baltimore’s African American community waged organized campaigns to realize civil rights. Residential segregation—both de jure and de facto—posed a particular challenge. Initiatives in Baltimore such as a short-lived segregation ordinance and racial covenants in property deeds helped establish associations between race and property values that shaped federal housing policy during the New Deal. The African American population grew during World War II and strained against the limited housing available to them, prompting protests, often effective, against segregation. Nonetheless, suburbanization, deindustrialization, and redlining have left the city with challenging legacies to confront.

Article

The Rise of the Sunbelt South  

Katherine R. Jewell

The term “Sunbelt” connotes a region defined by its environment. “Belt” suggests the broad swath of states from the Atlantic coast, stretching across Texas and Oklahoma, the Southwest, to southern California. “Sun” suggests its temperate—even hot—climate. Yet in contrast to the industrial northeastern and midwestern Rust Belt, or perhaps, “Frost” Belt, the term’s emergence at the end of the 1960s evoked an optimistic, opportunistic brand. Free from snowy winters, with spaces cooled by air conditioners, and Florida’s sandy beaches or California’s surfing beckoning, it is true that more Americans moved to the Sunbelt states in the 1950s and 1960s than to the deindustrializing centers of the North and East. But the term “Sunbelt” also captures an emerging political culture that defies regional boundaries. The term originates more from the diagnosis of this political climate, rather than an environmental one, associated with the new patterns of migration in the mid-20th century. The term defined a new regional identity: politically, economically, in policy, demographically, and socially, as well as environmentally. The Sunbelt received federal money in an unprecedented manner, particularly because of rising Cold War defense spending in research and military bases, and its urban centers grew in patterns unlike those in the old Northeast and Midwest, thanks to the policy innovations wrought by local boosters, business leaders, and politicians, which defined politics associated with the region after the 1970s. Yet from its origin, scholars debate whether the Sunbelt’s emergence reflects a new regional identity, or something else.

Article

Latinx Business and Entrepreneurship  

Pedro A. Regalado

Entrepreneurship has been a basic element of Latinx life in the United States since long before the nation’s founding, varying in scale and cutting across race, class, and gender to different degrees. Indigenous forms of commerce pre-dated Spanish contact in the Americas and continued thereafter. Beginning in the 16th century, the raising, trading, and production of cattle and cattle-related products became foundational to Spanish, Mexican, and later American Southwest society and culture. By the 19th century, Latinxs in US metropolitan areas began to establish enterprises in the form of storefronts, warehouses, factories, as well as smaller ventures including peddling. At times, they succeeded previous ethnic owners; in other moments, they established new businesses that shaped everyday life and politics of their respective communities. Whatever the scale of their ventures, Latinx business owners continued to capitalize on the migration of Latinx people to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean during the 20th century. These entrepreneurs entered business for different reasons, often responding to restricted or constrained labor options, though many sought the flexibility that entrepreneurship offered. Despite an increasing association between Latinx people and entrepreneurship, profits from Latinx ventures produced uneven results during the second half of the 20th century. For some, finance and business ownership has generated immense wealth and political influence. For others at the margins of society, it has remained a tool for achieving sustenance amid the variability of a racially stratified labor market. No monolithic account can wholly capture the vastness and complexity of Latinx economic activity. Latinx business and entrepreneurship remains a vital piece of the place-making and politics of the US Latinx population. This article provides an overview of major trends and pivotal moments in its rich history.

Article

The Central Business District in American Cities  

Emily Remus

The central business district, often referred to as the “downtown,” was the economic nucleus of the American city in the 19th and 20th centuries. It stood at the core of urban commercial life, if not always the geographic center of the metropolis. Here was where the greatest number of offices, banks, stores, and service institutions were concentrated—and where land values and building heights reached their peaks. The central business district was also the most easily accessible point in a city, the place where public transit lines intersected and brought together masses of commuters from outlying as well as nearby neighborhoods. In the downtown, laborers, capitalists, shoppers, and tourists mingled together on bustling streets and sidewalks. Not all occupants enjoyed equal influence in the central business district. Still, as historian Jon C. Teaford explained in his classic study of American cities, the downtown was “the one bit of turf common to all,” the space where “the diverse ethnic, economic, and social strains of urban life were bound together, working, spending, speculating, and investing.” The central business district was not a static place. Boundaries shifted, expanding and contracting as the city grew and the economy evolved. So too did the primary land uses. Initially a multifunctional space where retail, wholesale, manufacturing, and financial institutions crowded together, the central business district became increasingly segmented along commercial lines in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, rising real estate prices and traffic congestion drove most manufacturing and processing operations to the periphery. Remaining behind in the city center were the bulk of the nation’s offices, stores, and service institutions. As suburban growth accelerated in the mid-20th century, many of these businesses also vacated the downtown, following the flow of middle-class, white families. Competition with the suburbs drained the central business district of much of its commercial vitality in the second half of the 20th century. It also inspired a variety of downtown revitalization schemes that tended to reinforce inequalities of race and class.

Article

Public Housing in Urban America  

D. Bradford Hunt

Public housing emerged during the New Deal as a progressive effort to end the scourge of dilapidated housing in American cities. Reformers argued that the private market had failed to provide decent, safe, and affordable housing, and they convinced Congress to provide deep subsidies to local housing authorities to build and manage modern, low-cost housing projects for the working poor. Well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy decisions encouraged large-scale developments, concentrated poverty and youth, and starved public housing of needed resources. Further, the antipathy of private interests to public competition and the visceral resistance of white Americans to racial integration saddled public housing with many enemies and few friends. While residents often formed tight communities and fought for improvements, stigmatization and neglect undermined the success of many projects; a sizable fraction became disgraceful and tangible symbols of systemic racism toward the nation’s African American poor. Federal policy had few answers and retreated in the 1960s, eventually making a neoliberal turn to embrace public-private partnerships for delivering affordable housing. Housing vouchers and tax credits effectively displaced the federal public housing program. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration encouraged the demolition and rebuilding of troubled projects using vernacular “New Urbanist” designs to house “mixed-income” populations. Policy problems, political weakness, and an ideology of homeownership in the United States meant that a robust, public-centered program of housing for use rather than profit could not be sustained.

Article

Skyscrapers and Tall Buildings  

Elihu Rubin

The tall building—the most popular and conspicuous emblem of the modern American city—stands as an index of economic activity, civic aspirations, and urban development. Enmeshed in the history of American business practices and the maturation of corporate capitalism, the skyscraper is also a cultural icon that performs genuine symbolic functions. Viewed individually or arrayed in a “skyline,” there may be a tendency to focus on the tall building’s spectacular or superlative aspects. Their patrons have searched for the architectural symbols that would project a positive public image, yet the height and massing of skyscrapers were determined as much by prosaic financial calculations as by symbolic pretense. Historically, the production of tall buildings was linked to the broader flux of economic cycles, access to capital, land values, and regulatory frameworks that curbed the self-interests of individual builders in favor of public goods such as light and air. The tall building looms large for urban geographers seeking to chart the shifting terrain of the business district and for social historians of the city who examine the skyscraper’s gendered spaces and labor relations. If tall buildings provide one index of the urban and regional economy, they are also economic activities in and of themselves and thus linked to the growth of professions required to plan, finance, design, construct, market, and manage these mammoth collective objects—and all have vied for control over the ultimate result. Practitioners have debated the tall building’s external expression as the design challenge of the façade became more acute with the advent of the curtain wall attached to a steel frame, eventually dematerializing entirely into sheets of reflective glass. The tall building also reflects prevailing paradigms in urban design, from the retail arcades of 19th-century skyscrapers to the blank plazas of postwar corporate modernism.