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.
B. Alex Beasley
American cities have been transnational in nature since the first urban spaces emerged during the colonial period. Yet the specific shape of the relationship between American cities and the rest of the world has changed dramatically in the intervening years. In the mid-20th century, the increasing integration of the global economy within the American economy began to reshape US cities. In the Northeast and Midwest, the once robust manufacturing centers and factories that had sustained their residents—and their tax bases—left, first for the South and West, and then for cities and towns outside the United States, as capital grew more mobile and businesses sought lower wages and tax incentives elsewhere. That same global capital, combined with federal subsidies, created boomtowns in the once-rural South and West. Nationwide, city boosters began to pursue alternatives to heavy industry, once understood to be the undisputed guarantor of a healthy urban economy. Increasingly, US cities organized themselves around the service economy, both in high-end, white-collar sectors like finance, consulting, and education, and in low-end pink-collar and no-collar sectors like food service, hospitality, and health care. A new legal infrastructure related to immigration made US cities more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than ever before. At the same time, some US cities were agents of economic globalization themselves. Dubbed “global cities” by celebrants and critics of the new economy alike, these cities achieved power and prestige in the late 20th century not only because they had survived the ruptures of globalization but because they helped to determine its shape. By the end of the 20th century, cities that are not routinely listed among the “global city” elite jockeyed to claim “world-class” status, investing in high-end art, entertainment, technology, education, and health care amenities to attract and retain the high-income white-collar workers understood to be the last hope for cities hollowed out by deindustrialization and global competition. Today, the extreme differences between “global cities” and the rest of US cities, and the extreme socioeconomic stratification seen in cities of all stripes, is a key concern of urbanists.
Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese
Mass migration to suburban areas was a defining feature of American life after 1945. Before World War II, just 13% of Americans lived in suburbs. By 2010, however, suburbia was home to more than half of the U.S. population. The nation’s economy, politics, and society suburbanized in important ways. Suburbia shaped habits of car dependency and commuting, patterns of spending and saving, and experiences with issues as diverse as race and taxes, energy and nature, privacy and community. The owner occupied, single-family home, surrounded by a yard, and set in a neighborhood outside the urban core came to define everyday experience for most American households, and in the world of popular culture and the imagination, suburbia was the setting for the American dream. The nation’s suburbs were an equally critical economic landscape, home to vital high-tech industries, retailing, “logistics,” and office employment. In addition, American politics rested on a suburban majority, and over several decades, suburbia incubated political movements across the partisan spectrum, from grass-roots conservativism, to centrist meritocratic individualism, environmentalism, feminism, and social justice. In short, suburbia was a key setting for postwar American life. Even as suburbia grew in magnitude and influence, it also grew more diverse, coming to reflect a much broader cross-section of America itself. This encompassing shift marked two key chronological stages in suburban history since 1945: the expansive, racialized, mass suburbanization of the postwar years (1945–1970) and an era of intensive social diversification and metropolitan complexity (since 1970). In the first period, suburbia witnessed the expansion of segregated white privilege, bolstered by government policies, exclusionary practices, and reinforced by grassroots political movements. By the second period, suburbia came to house a broader cross section of Americans, who brought with them a wide range of outlooks, lifeways, values, and politics. Suburbia became home to large numbers of immigrants, ethnic groups, African Americans, the poor, the elderly and diverse family types. In the face of stubborn exclusionism by affluent suburbs, inequality persisted across metropolitan areas and manifested anew in proliferating poorer, distressed suburbs. Reform efforts sought to alleviate metro-wide inequality and promote sustainable development, using coordinated regional approaches. In recent years, the twin discourses of suburban crisis and suburban rejuvenation captured the continued complexity of America’s suburbs.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people. Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness. Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.