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.
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.
Urban renewal refers to an interlocking set of national and local policies, programs, and projects, implemented in the vast majority of American cities between 1949 and 1973. These typically entailed major redevelopment of existing urban areas with a view to the modernization of housing, highway infrastructure, commercial and business districts, as well as other large-scale constructions. Reformers from the Progressive Era through the Great Society strove to ameliorate the conditions of poverty and inequality in American cities by focusing primarily on physical transformation of the urban built environment. Citing antecedents such as the reconstruction of Second Empire Paris, imported via the City Beautiful movement, and then updated with midcentury modernism, US urban planners envisioned a radical reorganization of city life. In practice, federal programs and local public authorities targeted the eradication of areas deemed slums or blighted—often as much to socially sanitize neighborhoods inhabited by racial minorities and other marginalized groups as to address deteriorating physical conditions. And while federal funding became available for public works projects in declining central cities under the auspices of improving living conditions for the poor—including providing public housing—urban renewal programs consistently destroyed more affordable housing than they created, over more than three decades. By the end of the 1960s, urban residents and policymakers across the political spectrum concluded that such programs were usually doing more harm than good, and most ended during the Nixon administration. Yet large-scale reminders of urban renewal can still be found in most large US communities, whether in the form of mid-20th-century public housing blocks, transportation projects, stadiums, convention centers, university and hospital expansions, or a variety of public-private redevelopment initiatives. But perhaps the most fundamental legacies of all were the institutionalization of the comprehensive zoning and master planning process in cities nationwide, on the one hand, and the countervailing mobilization of defensively oriented (NIMBY) neighborhood politics, on the other.
As places of dense habitation, cities have always required coordination and planning. City planning has involved the design and construction of large-scale infrastructure projects to provide basic necessities such as a water supply and drainage. By the 1850s, immigration and industrialization were fueling the rise of big cities, creating immense, collective problems of epidemics, slums, pollution, gridlock, and crime. From the 1850s to the 1900s, both local governments and utility companies responded to this explosive physical and demographic growth by constructing a “networked city” of modern technologies such as gaslight, telephones, and electricity. Building the urban environment also became a wellspring of innovation in science, medicine, and administration. In 1909–1910, a revolutionary idea—comprehensive city planning—opened a new era of professionalization and institutionalization in the planning departments of city halls and universities. Over the next thirty-five years, however, wars and depression limited their influence. From 1945 to 1965, in contrast, represents the golden age of formal planning. During this unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, academically trained experts played central roles in the modernization of the inner cities and the sprawl of the suburbs. But the planners’ clean-sweep approach to urban renewal and the massive destruction caused by highway construction provoked a revolt of the grassroots. Beginning in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, mass uprisings escalated over the next three years into a national crisis of social disorder, racial and ethnic inequality, and environmental injustice. The postwar consensus of theory and practice was shattered, replaced by a fragmented profession ranging from defenders of top-down systems of computer-generated simulations to proponents of advocacy planning from the bottom up. Since the late 1980s, the ascendency of public-private partnerships in building the urban environment has favored the planners promoting systems approaches, who promise a future of high-tech “smart cities” under their complete control.
Claudrena N. Harold
The civil rights movement in the urban South transformed the political, economic, and cultural landscape of post–World War II America. Between 1955 and 1968, African Americans and their white allies relied on nonviolent direct action, political lobbying, litigation, and economic boycotts to dismantle the Jim Crow system. Not all but many of the movement’s most decisive political battles occurred in the cities of Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Greensboro and Durham, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia. In these and other urban centers, civil rights activists launched full-throttled campaigns against white supremacy, economic exploitation, and state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. Their fight for racial justice coincided with monumental changes in the urban South as the upsurge in federal spending in the region created unprecedented levels of economic prosperity in the newly forged “Sunbelt.” A dynamic and multifaceted movement that encompassed a wide range of political organizations and perspectives, the black freedom struggle proved successful in dismantling legal segregation. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded black southerners’ economic, political, and educational opportunities. And yet, many African Americans continued to struggle as they confronted not just the long-term effects of racial discrimination and exclusion but also the new challenges engendered by deindustrialization and urban renewal as well as entrenched patterns of racial segregation in the public-school system.