Ansley T. Erickson
“Urban infrastructure” calls to mind railways, highways, and sewer systems. Yet the school buildings—red brick, limestone, or concrete, low-slung, turreted, or glass-fronted—that hold and seek to shape the city’s children are ubiquitous forms of infrastructure as well. Schools occupy one of the largest line items in a municipal budget, and as many as a fifth of a city’s residents spend the majority of their waking hours in school classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums. In the 19th and 20th centuries urban educational infrastructure grew, supported by developing consensus for publicly funded and publicly governed schools (if rarely fully accessible to all members of the public). Even before state commitment to other forms of social welfare, from pensions to public health, and infrastructure, from transit to fire, schooling was a government function.
This commitment to public education ultimately was national, but schools in cities had their own story. Schooling in the United States is chiefly a local affair: Constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states; power is then further decentralized as states entrust decisions about school function and funding to school districts. School districts can be as small as a single town or a part of a city. Such localism is one reason that it is possible to speak about schools in U.S. cities as having a particular history, determined as much by the specificities of urban life as by national questions of citizenship, economy, religion, and culture.
While city schools have been distinct, they have also been nationally influential. Urban scale both allowed for and demanded the most extensive educational system-building. Urban growth and diversity galvanized innovation, via exploration in teaching methods, curriculum, and understanding of children and communities. And it generated intense conflict. Throughout U.S. history, urban residents from myriad social, political, religious, and economic positions have struggled to define how schools would operate, for whom, and who would decide.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. residents struggled over the purposes, funding, and governance of schools in cities shaped by capitalism, nativism, and white supremacy. They built a commitment to schooling as a public function of their cities, with many compromises and exclusions. In the 21st century, old struggles re-emerged in new form, perhaps raising the question of whether schools will continue as public, urban infrastructure.
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.
Betsy A. 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.
Changing foodways, the consumption and production of food, access to food, and debates over food shaped the nature of American cities in the 20th century. As American cities transformed from centers of industrialization at the start of the century to post-industrial societies at the end of the 20th century, food cultures in urban America shifted in response to the ever-changing urban environment. Cities remained centers of food culture, diversity, and food reform despite these shifts.
Growing populations and waves of immigration changed the nature of food cultures throughout the United States in the 20th century. These changes were significant, all contributing to an evolving sense of American food culture. For urban denizens, however, food choice and availability were dictated and shaped by a variety of powerful social factors, including class, race, ethnicity, gender, and laboring status. While cities possessed an abundance of food in a variety of locations to consume food, fresh food often remained difficult for the urban poor to obtain as the 20th century ended.
As markets expanded from 1900 to 1950, regional geography became a less important factor in determining what types of foods were available. In the second half of the 20th century, even global geography became less important to food choices. Citrus fruit from the West Coast was readily available in northeastern markets near the start of the century, and off-season fruits and vegetables from South America filled shelves in grocery stores by the end of the 20th century. Urban Americans became further disconnected from their food sources, but this dislocation spurred counter-movements that embraced ideas of local, seasonal foods and a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its food sources.
While colonial New Englanders gathered around town commons, settlers in the Southern colonials sprawled out on farms and plantations. The distinctions had more to do with the varying objectives of these colonial settlements and the geography of deep-flowing rivers in the South than with any philosophical predilections. The Southern colonies did indeed sprout towns, but these were places of planters’ residences, planters’ enslaved Africans, and the plantation economy, an axis that would persist through the antebellum period. Still, the aspirations of urban Southerners differed little from their Northern counterparts in the decades before the Civil War. The institution of slavery and an economy emphasizing commercial agriculture hewed the countryside close to the urban South, not only in economics, but also in politics. The devastation of the Civil War rendered the ties between city and country in the South even tighter. The South participated in the industrial revolution primarily to the extent of processing crops. Factories were often located in small towns and did not typically contribute to urbanization. City boosters aggressively sought and subsidized industrial development, but a poorly educated labor force and the scarcity of capital restricted economic development. Southern cities were more successful in legalizing the South’s culture of white supremacy through legal segregation and the memorialization of the Confederacy. But the dislocations triggered by World War II and the billions of federal dollars poured into Southern urban infrastructure and industries generated hope among civic leaders for a postwar boom. The civil rights movement after 1950, with many of its most dramatic moments focused on the South’s cities, loosened the connection between Southern city and region as cities chose development rather than the stagnation that was certain to occur without a moderation of race relations. The predicted economic bonanza occurred. Young people left the rural areas and small towns of the South for the larger cities to find work in the postindustrial economy and, for the first time in over a century, the urban South received migrants in appreciable numbers from other parts of the country and the world. The lingering impact of spatial distinctions and historical differences (particularly those related to the Civil War) linger in Southern cities, but exceptionalism is a fading characteristic.
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.
An overview of Euro-American internal migration in the United States between 1940 and 1980 explores the overall population movement away from rural areas to cities and suburban areas. Although focused on white Americans and their migrations, there are similarities to the Great Migration of African Americans, who continued to move out of the South during the mid-20th century. In the early period, the industrial areas in the North and West attracted most of the migrants. Mobilization for World War II loosened rural dwellers who were long kept in place by low wages, political disfranchisement, and low educational attainment. The war also attracted significant numbers of women to urban centers in the North and West. After the war, migration increased, enticing white Americans to become not just less rural but also increasingly suburban. The growth of suburbs throughout the country was prompted by racial segregation in housing that made many suburban areas white and earmarked many urban areas for people of color. The result was incredible growth in suburbia: from 22 million living in those areas in 1940 to triple that in 1970. Later in the period, as the Steelbelt rusted, the rise of the West as a migration magnet was spurred by development strategies, federal investment in infrastructure, and military bases. Sunbelt areas were making investments that stood ready to recruit industries and of course people, especially from Rustbelt areas in the North. By the dawn of the 21st century, half of the American population resided in suburbs.
The eighty years from 1790 to 1870 were marked by dramatic economic and demographic changes in the United States. Cities in this period grew faster than the country as a whole, drawing migrants from the countryside and immigrants from overseas. This dynamism stemmed from cities’ roles as spearheads of commercial change and sites of new forms of production. Internal improvements such as canals and railroads expanded urban hinterlands in the early republic, while urban institutions such as banks facilitated market exchange. Both of these worked to the advantage of urban manufacturers. By paying low wages to workers performing repetitive tasks, manufacturers enlarged the market for their products but also engendered opposition from a workforce internally divided along lines of sex and race, and at times slavery and freedom. The Civil War affirmed the legitimacy of wage labor and enhanced the power of corporations, setting the stage for the postwar growth of large-scale, mechanized industry.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was in large part the result of a deep political and cultural divide in America between heavily immigrant cities and far less diverse small towns and rural areas. The 1924 legislation, together with growing residential segregation, midcentury federal urban policy, and postwar suburbanization, undermined scores of ethnic enclaves in American cities between 1925 and the 1960s. The deportation of Mexicans and their American children during the Great Depression, the incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II, and the wartime and postwar shift of so many jobs to suburban and Sunbelt areas also reshaped many US cities in these years. The Immigration Act of 1965, which enabled the immigration of large numbers of people from Asia, Latin America, and, eventually, Africa, helped to revitalize many depressed urban areas and inner-ring suburbs. In cities and suburbs across the country, the response to the new immigration since 1965 has ranged from welcoming to hostile. The national debate over immigration in the early 21st century reflects both familiar and newer cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, and regional rifts. However, urban areas with a history of immigrant incorporation remain the most politically supportive of such people, just as they were a century ago.