People: Urbanization of America

In the early United States 95 percent of the population lived in the countryside. After 1830 urban areas grew more rapidly than the rural areas. By 1890, 35 percent of Americans lived in urban areas. The number of Americans living in cities surpassed those in rural areas in 1920.

Growth Cities Until the mid-19th Century the city centers were the most fashionable places to live. Merchants, manufacturers, and lawyers built townhouses within walking distance of where they worked and shopped. Poorer people lived in back alleys and courtyards of the central city. The middle classes lived a little farther from the center and other poor people lived in the suburbs, farther from urban amenities. Cities were densely populated, as people had to live a walking distance from their workplaces. The narrow streets could only accommodate pedestrians and wagons.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries brought innovations in transportation and housing, encouraging migration to cities and expanding the boundaries of the city. People did not have to walk to work and began to seek out neighbors of similar social status, if they could afford it. By the second half of the 19th century retail, office, and manufacturing districts were separate from residential areas.

The wealthy built neighborhoods for themselves by building mansions on large plots of land at the edges of the cities or in the countryside. Housing developments of single family homes were built—catering to a new middle class of white-collar workers.

As the middle class left the cities, poorer people—newcomers from the countryside and immigrants moved into the old housing stock. Landlords took advantage of the demand for housing and offered poorly maintained and unsanitary conditions. Now the rich lived in the suburbs and poor near the center of cities.

From 1870 to 1920, Americans in cities grew from 10 million to 54 million. In the 20th century cities grew by absorbing nearby communities. Three-quarters of the city’s residents were born outside the U.S. Some found work but many suffered from poverty that was largely invisible to the rich living outside of the city.

The growth of cities outpaced the ability of local government to offer clean water, garbage collection and sewage systems in poorer areas. Cities in the late 19th century were large, crowded and impersonal places devoted to making money. Corruption was widespread in the government and among landlords and employers. High rent, low wages, and poor services produces misery in the midst of huge economic growth.

Source: People: Urbanization of America
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