Urbanization of America

The early United States was mainly rural. By the 1990s, three out of four Americans lived in an urban setting.

Until the middle of the 19th century, the center of a city was the most fashionable place to live. Merchants, lawyers, and manufacturers built townhouses on the main streets, close to the warehouses, offices, courts, and shops where they worked. Poorer people lived in back alleys and courtyards of the central city. Markets, taverns, and concert halls provided services and entertainment.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries transformed urban life. The increased number of jobs led to migration to cities. Development of transportation systems enabled city boundaries to expand. Heavier industry centered along the rivers and rail lines. By the second half of the 19th century, urban life had many specialized spaces—retail districts, office blocks, manufacturing districts, and residential areas.

The wealthy built separate neighborhoods for themselves. They lived in mansions on large plots of land at the edges of the cities. Housing developments of single-family or multiple-family homes were built. The houses faced broader streets and had plots of grass in front and sometimes in the rear. New apartments were large and often had balconies or porches.

As the middle classes left the cities, poorer people—newcomers from the countryside and immigrants—moved into the old houses. Landlords took advantage of them by dividing city houses into apartments and by building tenements, which were low-rent apartment buildings that were often poorly maintained and unsanitary. Immigrants were attracted by the promise of work in the center of cities or around factories.

The growth of cities outpaced the ability of local governments to provide clean water, garbage collection, and sewage systems into poorer areas, so conditions in cities worsened.

Source: Urbanization of America
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