Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
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.
On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
Long regarded as a violent outburst significant mainly for California history, the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre raises themes central to America’s Civil War Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1877, namely, the resort to threats and violence to preserve traditionally conceived social and political authority and power. Although the Los Angeles events occurred far from the American South, the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre paralleled the anti-black violence that rose in the South during Reconstruction. Although the immediate causes of the violence in the post–Civil War South and California were far different, they shared one key characteristic: they employed racial disciplining to preserve traditional social orders that old elites saw as threatened by changing times and circumstances.
Daryl Joji Maeda
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism.
The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
Thomas J. Sugrue
Racism in the United States has long been a national problem, not a regional phenomenon. The long and well-documented history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racial violence in the South overshadows the persistent reality of racial discrimination, systemic segregation, and entrenched inequality north of the Mason-Dixon line. From the mid-19th century forward, African Americans and their allies mounted a series of challenges to racially separate schools, segregated public accommodations, racially divided workplaces, endemic housing segregation, and discriminatory policing. The northern civil rights movement expanded dramatically in the aftermath of the Great Migration of blacks northward and the intensification of segregation in northern hotels, restaurants, and theaters, workplaces, housing markets, and schools in the early 20th century. During the Great Depression and World War II, emboldened civil rights organizations engaged in protest, litigation, and lobbying efforts to undermine persistent racial discrimination and segregation. Their efforts resulted in legal and legislative victories against racially separate and unequal institutions, particularly workplaces and stores. But segregated housing and schools remained more impervious to change. By the 1960s, many black activists in the North grew frustrated with the pace of change, even as they succeeded in increasing black representation in elected office, in higher education, and in certain sectors of the economy. In the late 20th century, civil rights activists launched efforts to fight the ongoing problem of police brutality and the rise of the prison-industrial complex. And they pushed, mostly through the courts, for the protection of the fragile gains of the civil rights era. The black freedom struggle in the North remained incomplete in the face of ongoing segregation, persistent racism, and ongoing racial inequality in employment, education, income, and wealth.
The relationship between the car and the city remains complex and involves numerous private and public forces, innovations in technology, global economic fluctuations, and shifting cultural attitudes that only rarely consider the efficiency of the automobile as a long-term solution to urban transit. The advantages of privacy, speed, ease of access, and personal enjoyment that led many to first embrace the automobile were soon shared and accentuated by transit planners as the surest means to realize the long-held ideals of urban beautification, efficiency, and accessible suburbanization. The remarkable gains in productivity provided by industrial capitalism brought these dreams within reach and individual car ownership became the norm for most American families by the middle of the 20th century. Ironically, the success in creating such a “car country” produced the conditions that again congested traffic, raised questions about the quality of urban (and now suburban) living, and further distanced the nation from alternative transit options. The “hidden costs” of postwar automotive dependency in the United States became more apparent in the late 1960s, leading to federal legislation compelling manufacturers and transit professionals to address the long-standing inefficiencies of the car. This most recent phase coincides with a broader reappraisal of life in the city and a growing recognition of the material limits to mass automobility.
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.
John D. Fairfield
The City Beautiful movement arose in the 1890s in response to the accumulating dirt and disorder in industrial cities, which threatened economic efficiency and social peace. City Beautiful advocates believed that better sanitation, improved circulation of traffic, monumental civic centers, parks, parkways, public spaces, civic art, and the reduction of outdoor advertising would make cities throughout the United States more profitable and harmonious. Engaging architects and planners, businessmen and professionals, and social reformers and journalists, the City Beautiful movement expressed a boosterish desire for landscape beauty and civic grandeur, but also raised aspirations for a more humane and functional city. “Mean streets make mean people,” wrote the movement’s publicist and leading theorist, Charles Mulford Robinson, encapsulating the belief in positive environmentalism that drove the movement. Combining the parks and boulevards of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted with the neoclassical architecture of Daniel H. Burnham’s White City at the Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the City Beautiful movement also encouraged a view of the metropolis as a delicate organism that could be improved by bold, comprehensive planning. Two organizations, the American Park and Outdoor Art Association (founded in 1897) and the American League for Civic Improvements (founded in 1900), provided the movement with a national presence. But the movement also depended on the work of civic-minded women and men in nearly 2,500 municipal improvement associations scattered across the nation. Reaching its zenith in Burnham’s remaking of Washington, D.C., and his coauthored Plan of Chicago (1909), the movement slowly declined in favor of the “City Efficient” and a more technocratic city-planning profession. Aside from a legacy of still-treasured urban spaces and structures, the City Beautiful movement contributed to a range of urban reforms, from civic education and municipal housekeeping to city planning and regionalism.
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.
American cities developed under relatively quiescent climatic conditions. A gradual rise in average global temperatures during the 19th and 20th centuries had a negligible impact on how urban Americans experienced the weather. Much more significant were the dramatic changes in urban form and social organization that meditated the relationship between routine weather fluctuations and the lives of city dwellers. Overcoming weather-related impediments to profit, comfort, and good health contributed to many aspects of urbanization, including population migration to Sunbelt locations, increased reliance on fossil fuels, and comprehensive re-engineering of urban hydrological systems. Other structural shifts such as sprawling development, intensification of the built environment, socioeconomic segregation, and the tight coupling of infrastructural networks were less directly responsive to weather conditions but nonetheless profoundly affected the magnitude and social distribution of weather-related risks. Although fatalities resulting from extreme meteorological events declined in the 20th century, the scale of urban disruption and property damage increased. In addition, social impacts became more concentrated among poorer Americans, including many people of color, as Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated in 2005. Through the 20th century, cities responded to weather hazards through improved forecasting and systematic planning for relief and recovery rather than alterations in metropolitan design. In recent decades, however, growing awareness and concern about climate change impacts have made volatile weather more central to urban planning.
Company towns can be defined as communities dominated by a single company, typically focused on one industry. Beyond that very basic definition, company towns varied in their essentials. Some were purpose-built by companies, often in remote areas convenient to needed natural resources. There, workers were often required to live in company-owned housing as a condition of employment. Others began as small towns with privately owned housing, usually expanding alongside a growing hometown corporation. Residences were shoddy in some company towns. In others, company-built housing may have been excellent, with indoor plumbing and central heating, and located close to such amenities as schools, libraries, perhaps even theaters.
Company towns played a key role in US economic and social development. Such places can be found across the globe, but America’s vast expanse of undeveloped land, generous stock of natural resources, tradition of social experimentation, and laissez-faire attitude toward business provided singular opportunities for the emergence of such towns, large and small, in many regions of the United States. Historians have identified as many as 2,500 such places.
A tour of company towns can serve as a survey of the country’s industrial development, from the first large-scale planned industrial community—the textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts—to Appalachian mining villages, Western lumber towns, and steelmaking principalities such as the mammoth development at Gary, Indiana. More recent office-park and high-tech industrial-park complexes probably do not qualify as company towns, although they have some similar attributes. Nor do such planned towns as Disney Corporation’s Celebration, Florida, qualify, despite close ties to a single corporation, because its residents do not necessarily work for Disney.
Company towns have generally tended toward one of two models. First, and perhaps most familiar, are total institutions—communities where one business exerts a Big Brother–ish grip over the population, controlling or even taking the place of government, collecting rent on company-owned housing, dictating buying habits (possibly at the company store), and even directing where people worship and how they may spend their leisure time. A second form consists of model towns—planned, ideal communities backed by companies that promised to share their bounty with workers and families. Several such places were carefully put together by experienced architects and urban planners. Such model company towns were marked by a paternalistic, watchful attitude toward the citizenry on the part of the company overlords.
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.
Chloe E. Taft
The process of urban deindustrialization has been long and uneven. Even the terms “deindustrial” and “postindustrial” are contested; most cities continue to host manufacturing on some scale. After World War II, however, cities that depended on manufacturing for their lifeblood increasingly diversified their economies in the face of larger global, political, and demographic transformations. Manufacturing centers in New England, the Mid Atlantic, and the Midwest United States were soon identified as belonging to “the American Rust Belt.” Steel manufacturers, automakers, and other industrial behemoths that were once mainstays of city life closed their doors as factories and workers followed economic and social incentives to leave urban cores for the suburbs, the South, or foreign countries. Remaining industrial production became increasingly automated, resulting in significant declines in the number of factory jobs. Metropolitan officials faced with declining populations and tax bases responded by adapting their assets—in terms of workforce, location, or culture—to new economies, including warehousing and distribution, finance, health care, tourism, leisure industries like casinos, and privatized enterprises such as prisons. Faced with declining federal funding for renewal, they focused on leveraging private investment for redevelopment. Deindustrializing cities marketed themselves as destinations with convention centers, stadiums, and festival marketplaces, seeking to lure visitors and a “creative class” of new residents. While some postindustrial cities became success stories of reinvention, others struggled. They entertained options to “rightsize” by shrinking their municipal footprints, adapted vacant lots for urban agriculture, or attracted voyeurs to gaze at their industrial ruins. Whether industrial cities faced a slow transformation or the shock of multiple factory closures within a few years, the impact of these economic shifts and urban planning interventions both amplified old inequalities and created new ones.
The use of illicit drugs in US cities led to the development of important subcultures with shared practices, codes, discourses, and values. From the 19th century onward, American city dwellers have indulged in opiates, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), crack, and 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (also known as MDMA or ecstasy). The population density of metropolitan America contributed to the spread of substance use and the rise of communities that centered their lives on drug consumption. In the history of urban drug use, opiates have outlasted all the other drugs and have naturally attracted the bulk of scholarly attention.
The nature and identity of these illicit subcultures usually depended on the pharmacology of the drugs and the setting in which they were used. Addictive substances like heroin and amphetamines certainly led to the rise of crime in certain urban areas, but by the same token many urban Americans managed to integrate their addiction into their everyday lives. The more complex pharmacology of psychedelic drugs like LSD in turn gave birth to rich subcultures that resist easy classifications. Most drugs began their careers as medical marvels that were accepted as the product of modernity and often used by the middle class or medical practitioners. Race, age, and class prejudice, and the association of drugs with visible subcultures perceived to pose a threat to the moral fabric of society can partly explain their subsequent bans.
Vincent J. Cannato
The Ellis Island Immigration Station, located in New York Harbor, opened in 1892 and closed in 1954. During peak years from the 1890s until the 1920s, the station processed an estimated twelve million immigrants. Roughly 75 percent of all immigrants arriving in America during this period passed through Ellis Island. The station was run by the federal Immigration Service and represented a new era of federal control over immigration. Officials at Ellis Island were tasked with regulating the flow of immigration by enforcing a growing body of federal laws that barred various categories of “undesirable” immigrants. As the number of immigrants coming to America increased, so did the size of the inspection facility. In 1907, Ellis Island processed more than one million immigrants. The quota laws of the 1920s slowed immigration considerably and the rise of the visa system meant that Ellis Island no longer served as the primary immigrant inspection facility. For the next three decades, Ellis Island mostly served as a detention center for those ordered deported from the country.
After Ellis Island closed in 1954, the facility fell into disrepair. During a period of low immigration and a national emphasis on assimilation, the immigrant inspection station was forgotten by most Americans. With a revival of interest in ethnicity in the 1970s, Ellis Island attracted more attention, especially from the descendants of immigrants who entered the country through its doors. In the 1980s, large-scale fundraising for the restoration of the neighboring Statue of Liberty led to a similar effort to restore part of Ellis Island. In 1990, the Main Building was reopened to the public as an immigration museum under the National Park Service. Ellis Island has evolved into an iconic national monument with deep meaning for the descendants of the immigrants who arrived there, as well as a contested symbol to other Americans grappling with the realities of contemporary immigration.
Robert R. Gioielli
By the late 19th century, American cities like Chicago and New York were marvels of the industrializing world. The shock urbanization of the previous quarter century, however, brought on a host of environmental problems. Skies were acrid with coal smoke, and streams ran fetid with raw sewage. Disease outbreaks were as common as parks and green space was rare. In response to these hazards, particular groups of urban residents responded to them with a series of activist movements to reform public and private policies and practices, from the 1890s until the end of the 20th century. Those environmental burdens were never felt equally, with the working class, poor, immigrants, and minorities bearing an overwhelming share of the city’s toxic load. By the 1930s, many of the Progressive era reform efforts were finally bearing fruit. Air pollution was regulated, access to clean water improved, and even America’s smallest cities built robust networks of urban parks. But despite this invigoration of the public sphere, after World War II, for many the solution to the challenges of a dense modern city was a private choice: suburbanization. Rather than continue to work to reform and reimagine the city, they chose to leave it, retreating to the verdant (and pollution free) greenfields at the city’s edge. These moves, encouraged and subsidized by local and federal policies, provided healthier environments for the mostly white, middle-class suburbanites, but created a new set of environmental problems for the poor, working-class, and minority residents they left behind. Drained of resources and capital, cities struggled to maintain aging infrastructure and regulate remaining industry and then exacerbated problems with destructive urban renewal and highway construction projects. These remaining urban residents responded with a dynamic series of activist movements that emerged out of the social and community activism of the 1960s and presaged the contemporary environmental justice movement.
Ethnicity is a concept employed to understand the social, cultural, and political processes whereby immigrants and their children cease to be “foreign” and yet retain practices and networks that connect them, at least imaginatively, with places of origin. From an early juncture in American history, ethnic neighborhoods were an important part of such processes. Magnets for new arrivals, city neighborhoods both emerged from and reinforced connections among people of common origins. Among the first notable immigrant neighborhoods in American cities were those composed of people from the German-speaking states of Europe. In the second half of the 19th century, American cities grew rapidly and millions of immigrants arrived to the country from a wider array of origins; neighborhoods such as the New York’s Jewish Lower East Side and San Francisco’s Chinatown supported dense and institutionally complex ethnic networks. In the middle decades of the 20th century, immigration waned as a result of legislative restriction, economic depression, and war. Many former immigrant neighborhoods emptied of residents as cities divided along racial lines and “white ethnics” dispersed to the suburbs. However, some ethnic enclaves endured, while others emerged after the resumption of mass immigration in the 1960s. By the turn of the 21st century ethnic neighborhoods were once again an important facet of American urban life, although they took new forms within the reconfigured geography and economy of a suburbanized nation.