Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Zoning is a legal tool employed by local governments to regulate land development. It determines the use, intensity, and form of development in localities through enforcement of the zoning ordinance, which consists of a text and an accompanying map that divides the locality into zones. Zoning is an exercise of the police powers by local governments, typically authorized through state statutes. Components of what became part of the zoning process emerged piecemeal in U.S. cities during the 19th century in response to development activities deemed injurious to the health, safety, and welfare of the community. American zoning was influenced by and drew upon models already in place in German cities early in the 20th century. Following the First National Conference on Planning and Congestion, held in Washington, DC in 1909, the zoning movement spread throughout the United States. The first attempt to apply a version of the German zoning model to a U.S. city was in New York City in 1916. In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Ambler Realty v. Village of Euclid (1926), zoning was ruled as a constitutional exercise of the police power, a precedent-setting case that defined the perimeters of land use regulation the remainder of the 20th century.
Zoning was explicitly intended to sanction regulation of real property use to serve the public interest, but frequently, it was used to facilitate social and economic segregation. This was most often accomplished by controlling the size and type of housing, where high density housing (for lower income residents) could be placed in relation to commercial and industrial uses, and in some cases through explicit use of racial zoning categories for zones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), that a racial zoning plan of the city of Louisville, Kentucky violated the due process clause of the14th Amendment. The decision, however, did not directly address the discriminatory aspects of the law. As a result, efforts to fashion legally acceptable racial zoning schemes persisted late into the 1920s. These were succeeded by the use of restrictive covenants to prohibit black (and other minority) occupancy in certain white neighborhoods (until declared unconstitutional in the late 1940s). More widespread was the use of highly differentiated residential zoning schemes and real estate steering that imbedded racial and ethnic segregation into the residential fabric of American communities.
The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SSZEA) of 1924 facilitated zoning. Disseminated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the SSZEA created a relatively uniform zoning process in U.S. cities, although depending upon their size and functions, there were definite differences in the complexity and scope of zoning schemes. The reason why localities followed the basic form prescribed by the SSZEA was to minimize the chance of the zoning ordinance being struck down by the courts. Nonetheless, from the 1920s through the 1970s, thousands of court cases tested aspects of zoning, but only a few reached the federal courts, and typically, zoning advocates prevailed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, critics of zoning charged that the fragmented city was an unintended consequence. This critique was a response to concerns that zoning created artificial separations among the various types of development in cities, and that this undermined their vitality. Zoning nevertheless remained a cornerstone of U.S. urban and suburban land regulation, and new techniques such as planned unit developments, overlay zones, and form-based codes introduced needed flexibility to reintegrate urban functions previously separated by conventional zoning approaches.