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date: 19 October 2018

Globalization and the American City

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: globalization, Fordism, post-industrial, service economy, neoliberalism, global city, deindustrialization, labor, gentrification, real estate, finance, immigration, war, empire

Defining Globalization

Even before the nation’s founding, cities were sites of global circulation. In urban ports, colonial settlers, indentured servants, and enslaved people arrived from across the Atlantic, while American crops were shipped to markets overseas. Urban dwellers bought goods manufactured far beyond the colonies, while foreign investment built American infrastructure. At no point in its history was the American city anything but “global.”

Yet the relationship between American cities and the rest of the world changed dramatically during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the second half of the 20th century, New York became not only a global cultural capital, but one of the most important financial centers in the world, making possible the economic integration that engendered the phenomenon called “globalization.” Los Angeles and Silicon Valley were also crucial players in the global integration of the entertainment and technology industries, respectively. Less obvious contenders played a role as well. Houston, as the global headquarters of the international oil industry, grew from a mid-20th-century oil-producing behemoth to a white-collar headquarters of oil management, finance, and technology services, a place through which most of the world’s major players in the oil industry passed. And Miami grew into the financial and cultural headquarters of Latin America.

“Globalization” is a notoriously slippery term, but commentators generally use it to refer to the process of neoliberal world economic integration that began in the mid-20th century and accelerated at the end of the Cold War. Although markets were “global” even before the United States had cities, the intense economic global integration characteristic of the 1970s through the early 2000s is a largely new phenomenon. The era of contemporary globalization was characterized by a new monetary regime with the end of the Bretton Woods system in 1971; the entrenchment of a global assembly line ushered in by increased capital mobility; new technologies that made transporting people, goods, and ideas across large distances cheap and quick; the fall of the Soviet Union; the entrance of China into the World Trade Organization; and the integration of both nations into the capitalist world economy. As historian Thomas Zeiler explains, “globalization must be viewed as a historical phenomenon that involves the flow of goods, services, money, and people, as well as the diffusion of technology, directed toward the universal corporate ideal of big business of a single world market in which to allocate resources, shift production, market goods, and expand financial, legal, insurance, and information services.”1

However, the history of globalization and the American city begins much earlier than 1971. Describing the impact that late-20th-century globalization had on US cities—and the ways in which US cities shaped the process of globalization—requires tracing the longer history of how American cities have been transnational spaces. This historical context illustrates how the new era of globalization differs from earlier periods as well as how contemporary globalization grew out of older patterns in the urban past. The period of globalization can be characterized by three primary transformations in American urban life. First, a neoliberal economy dominated by the service sector supplanted the Fordist industrial economy of the early 20th century, transforming the character of urban economies. This transformation shaped the kinds and conditions of labor urban residents performed. Second, new patterns of investment, trade, commodity chains, and immigration directly linked US cities to international markets. None of these developments were entirely new, but they accelerated rapidly under neoliberal globalization. Finally, the shape of globalization that evolved resulted in hypersegregation, extreme urban wealth disparities, and new patterns of immigration, all of which have fundamentally reshaped urban politics.

American Cities and Global Exchange before the 20th Century

Early American cities were inherently global. Colonial cities were predominately organized around ports, which moved people and goods in and out, exporting raw materials like grain, flour, and cotton and importing manufactured commodities first from England, Europe, and the West Indies and later from South America and China. Moreover, American cities were crucial components in building the fledgling American overseas empire. US cities were, of course, crucial nodes in the brutal transatlantic slave trade, and after independence, the financial institutions in the port cities of the east financed the infrastructure for westward expansion and Indian removal. Historian Seth Rockman described the transnational character of early American cities well in his vivid description of Baltimore:

Imagine a scene on the docks of Baltimore in 1816, as American-born stevedores loaded crates of ready-made shirts aboard a merchant ship bound for South America. Focusing in on that ship, one might see a rural miller haggling with the captain over the price of one of the indentured teenagers whom the ship had recently brought from Bremen, or a free black mariner signing articles to work the outgoing voyage as an ordinary seaman . . . Along the waterfront, a middle-aged white domestic servant might be cooking breakfast in a Fells Point boardinghouse, where some of the ship’s crew spent its shore leave in the company of women supporting themselves through prostitution. In the harbor, Scotch-Irish dredgers on the mudmachine were battling sedimentation to keep Baltimore’s port open. From an even broader vantage, one might see the enslaved field laborers of a distant cotton plantation, whose growing market value encouraged urban slaveholders to resist liberating the men, women, and children they owned in Baltimore, or even the menial workers in Lancashire, Cap François, Ouidah, and Paramaribo—­the ‘Atlantic proletariat’ whose labor integrated an already global economy.2

In the port city of New Orleans, the trade of raw materials and commercial goods was surpassed by a far larger industry: the trade and sale of enslaved people. Not far from the port, the continent’s largest slave market brought together enslaved people first across the Atlantic and then from all over the South, establishing the city as one of the world’s most important markets for the trade in human beings until the Civil War.3

After Reconstruction (1865–1877), American cities’ engagement with global commerce increased. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States expanded its informal commercial empire and entered into the realm of formal, territorial, and overseas empire. These imperial ambitions produced a booming economy in American imports while also bringing new foreign imports through US ports. In the middle-class households of American cities and suburbs, white women produced a household domesticity that was explicitly global in its character. They hosted Orientalist teas, prepared around-the-world dinners, and celebrated—and exoticized—immigrants’ dances and clothing.4

In the context of a newly robust American empire, US cities were sites where the meaning and the implications of empire were negotiated on a daily basis. In the industrial cities of the North and West, immigrants from Europe and Asia labored in the burgeoning factories of cities like New York, Chicago, and Seattle.5 Beyond the original colonies, US cities grew through their relationships with far-flung markets. Western cities like Seattle contributed to the creation of the concept of a “Pacific world” that might allow white American boosters to reach coveted Asian markets. Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the city cemented their claims to citizenship by arguing that their presence bolstered the city’s cosmopolitanism—even while the West Coast remained “ground zero for . . . anti-Asian politics.”6 Immigrants themselves also reshaped the politics and urban environments of American cities. In the leisure capital of Miami, immigrants from the Caribbean gave form to the city’s sexual economy, which in turn shaped the city’s spatial development. At the same time, white boosters used immigrants and the sexual economy as a framework for debating urban modernity and the relationship between Miami and US imperialism.7

American urban spaces were sites of global exchange, but they were also models that carried transnational resonance. Beginning in the late 19th century, white urban planners, state governments, and real estate developers in cities as disparate as Freetown, Sierra Leone; Baltimore; New Delhi; and Rio de Janeiro reached a consensus that urban segregation was necessary and desirable to preserve real estate values and maintain social order. This form of urban planning was forged through transnational conversations among urban elites. For instance, the white Baltimoreans who penned the first urban segregation ordinance in the United States in 1910 were inspired by “segregation in British India,” French race theory, and “the anti-Chinese movement on the West Coast.” Moreover, their ordinance carried weight far beyond Baltimore, or even the United States; Baltimore’s segregationists were “besieged by letters from across the country, and even as far away as the Philippines, demanding copies of the ordinance” to be mimicked around the globe. In other words, this convergence was no accident; as historian Carl Nightengale writes, “such movements to segregate cities spread because they were interconnected.”8 The transnational development of formal segregation helped to create and sustain urban racial and class inequalities that shaped the development of the late-20th-century global city.

Not only transnational intellectual and policy connections engendered segregation in Baltimore; transnational investment literally shaped the city, too. In the 1890s, as historian Paige Glotzer argues, Baltimore’s planned streetcar suburb of Roland Park became one of the first large-scale planned developments in the United States. Building an entire development at once—rather than one or two houses at a time—was made possible through international investors hailing from Egypt, India, Antigua, and the Congo. In fact, the Roland Park Company itself was a British-held concern, founded to speculate in US and colonial land. After investing in projects such as South African diamond mining, the company turned its attention to residential development in the United States. To protect its investors’ money, and working off the assumption that racial integration threatened home values, the company required deed restrictions restricting home purchases in Roland Parks to whites, becoming the first such planned community in the United States.9 This early history of urban residential segregation in the United States illustrates how American cities were interwoven in a complex network of intellectuals, policymakers, and real estate investors that spanned the globe long before the era of globalization.

The Fordist City and the Global Economy

The industrialization of American cities continued rapidly in the early 20th century. Particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, massive industrial cities became host to skyscrapers, enormous factories, and thousands of workers, immigrant and native-born alike. Common planning wisdom coupled with the realities of energy and transportation infrastructure led to most new industrial sites being concentrated in cities. Increasingly, urban workers were employed in highly mechanized, assembly-line labor that produced manufactured goods quickly and cheaply. In 1908, Henry Ford determined to “build a car for the great multitude,” affordable to a majority of American consumers. To meet this goal, Ford developed the assembly line system, in which workers performed discrete, repetitive tasks on automobile parts moving down a conveyor belt to meet the worker. This new system was quick, cheap, and efficient, driving down prices while forcing workers to speed up their production performing mind-numbing tasks. Still, this system was extended far beyond the auto industry, making possible the mass production of a range of consumer goods. Preparation for World War I further expanded cities’ industrial capacity, as industrialists rushed to build weapons and ships for the war effort. Greater rates of manufacturing brought more workers into the nation’s cities. By 1920, for the first time more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas.10

Ford coupled the assembly line with the $5-a-day wage, a high income he offered both as a gesture of welfare capitalism and as an attempt to keep workers willing to perform such dull labor. Mass production, high wages, and the assumption that workers would eventually purchase the goods they produced—both because the assembly line drove down prices, and because the factory offered higher than standard wages—became known as the Fordist system, a set of economic assumptions about American industrial capitalism that white male workers grew to expect in the first decades of the 20th century.11 The Great Depression shook this relationship to its core, as workers had little income for any consumer goods purchasing.

The 1930s saw the beginnings of the phenomena that ushered in contemporary globalization. In 1934, at the very beginning of the New Deal, free trade enthusiasts convinced the US Congress that the United States must replace England as the world’s global marketplace. Instead of buying foreign goods from London, and allowing England to profit from the trade, the United States sought to import those goods directly. Doing so required skirting tariff and customs laws. Congress passed the Foreign-Trade Zones Act of 1934, which allowed for the creation of foreign-trade zones on US soil that were exempt from tariff charges if certain conditions were met.12 As historian Dara Orenstein explains,

If Ford or Toyota imports a car radio from Germany, or, more probably, from a free trade zone in Brazil, the tariff that normally applies is suspended; if the radio leaves the zone as a radio, the tariff is charged, but if the radio exits the zone in a new form, as part of a car, voilà! The tariff vanishes. A deceptively simple legal fiction, the FTZ and its attendant perks allow state and municipal agencies in places like Ohio and Alabama to attract corporate investment by promising “the benefits of offshore, onshore.”13

For the first time in the history of the nation, the US government “partially denationalized U.S. soil.” The first FTZ was established on Staten Island in 1936.14

FTZs laid the groundwork for a global economy that focused not on the mass production and high wages of Fordism but on cheap, tax-free circulation, enabling and encouraging a global assembly line. In the depths of the Depression, the FTZ represented the first signs of a new economy that would emerge during the second half of the 20th century, but catalyzing that economy would necessitate a war effort.

Warfare and the City

Just as was the case in World War I, World War II boosted industrial production in the nation’s cities and helped to recuperate urban economies struggling through the Depression. But the war abroad reshaped cities back home in other ways as well. Manufacturers developed new earth-moving tools, including tractors and bulldozers, for the war effort, and new military divisions like the Naval Construction Battalions engaged in land clearance overseas. At the war’s end, urban boosters, policymakers, and real estate developers fashioned the tools and the ideology of wartime land clearance for use in the nation’s cities.15 New racially segregated suburban developments dotted the post-war landscape, carrying forth both the imperialist history that had informed Baltimore’s early racially restrictive housing covenants and the wartime influences that inspired urban renewal and slum clearance.

FTZs laid the early structural groundwork for contemporary globalization, but the demands of the Cold War played a crucial—and underexamined—role in creating the conditions that engendered the global cities of the late 20th century. Urban renewal was not only a means of shoring up real estate values, continuing an ideology of wartime clearance, and entrenching urban racial exclusion; it was also a Cold War imperative. In New York, historian Samuel Zipp explains, urban renewal boosters including Robert Moses “saw modern rebuilding projects as a way to make Manhattan a symbol of American power during an age of metropolitan transformation and the Cold War.” Clearing slums and creating new, modernist structures contributed to the launching of New York as a “world-class city” and “an icon of global power.” Becoming a post-war world-class city through urban renewal “made room in the city grid for research medicine, high culture, and higher education,” and “announc[ed] . . . the rise of a white-collar world city” that was poised to become a global city at the end of the 20th century.16

This kind of white-collar city was made possible not only through urban renewal but also through federal defense spending motivated by Cold War concerns. Defense spending channeled through the Department of Defense created entire new industries and dramatically transformed the regional status quo of the nation, shoring up New England, the South, and the West and neglecting traditional industrial centers like the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. During the late 1940s and 1950s, defense spending created new high-tech industrial complexes in California, Texas, Massachusetts, and Florida. These high-tech centers employed highly skilled and highly educated white-collar workers, further laying the groundwork for the emergence of global cities.17

The Cold War emphasis on scientific research shifted urban developmental resources to a certain kind of spatial form: what historian Margaret O’Mara dubs the “city of knowledge.” Federal funding transformed universities during the Cold War, in the form of grants for scientific research and GI Bill loans supporting scores of new students. The most successful grant recipients built high-tech suburban research complexes aimed at attracting highly skilled white-collar workers. Silicon Valley was the most demonstrable example. Suburban cities of knowledge were elite but also homogeneous, heralding the racial and class exclusion endemic to post-war suburban development. As O’Mara writes, the “Cold War made scientists into elites, and mass suburbanization reorganized urban space in a way that created elite places.” Cold War research funding, in other words, “redefined the American city for a post-industrial Information Age.”18 If the tech-centered Silicon Valley is one archetype of the contemporary US global city (with New York and Los Angeles representing far different models of post-industrial global urbanism), it is impossible to imagine this kind of city being built without Cold War resources.

The white-collar cities that emerged during the Cold War, from New York to California, were explicitly racially exclusionary. Throughout the post-war decades, African Americans were largely barred from the prosperous suburbs and white-collar jobs. Cold War politics, however, extended suburban homeownership to some Asian Americans in San Francisco and Los Angeles, places rife with anti-Asian sentiment and discrimination before and during World War II. “As the cold war deepened,” historian Charlotte Brooks writes, “a growing number of white Californians saw Asian American housing integration as a necessary price to pay for victory in the struggle,” since whites understood Asian Americans to be, at root, “foreigners” who represented their countries of origin and, therefore, should be treated diplomatically if the nation’s interests demanded it. This calculus allowed Asian Americans to move “to neighborhoods where blacks could not follow” during the post-war years.19 In Houston, whites likewise embraced international students from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East while eschewing the civil rights demands of local black and Latino Houstonians, reasoning that international students represented potential business colleagues in a decentralizing global oil industry.20 When it came to the low-income and predominately African American neighborhoods of the nation’s cities, the logic of the Cold War was deployed far differently. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, defense intellectuals in the late 1960s turned their attention away from war and toward nation’s cities, “maintaining domestic urban security by continuing to apply defense and aerospace innovations and ideas to city planning and management.”21 In other words, Cold War imperatives informed the building of white-collar suburbs while militarizing racialized urban spaces. The groundwork that the Cold War was laying for late-20th-century global cities would incorporate middle-class whites and certain middle-class nonwhites deemed sufficiently foreign to be useful in the emerging global economy, but most African Americans and Latinos were explicitly excluded.

Capital Flight

Part of the post-war vision for American prosperity in the Cold War heralded exporting American goods, like automobiles, abroad to showcase the strength of American labor and engineering. Prioritizing American exports was beneficial for the nation’s balance of payments, but it also sent an ideological message by showcasing American prosperity and ingenuity. Highlighting the “American standard of living” was a cause célèbre for Cold Warriors, most notably Vice President Richard Nixon who argued with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev at a US Trade and Cultural Fair in Moscow in 1959. The event was immortalized as the “Kitchen Debate.”22

This ostensible emphasis on American production notwithstanding, by the 1950s the US economy was shifting away from mass industrial production in important ways. By the late 1950s, Detroit—the birthplace of Fordism, the home of the iconic American auto industry, and the headquarters of some of the strongest labor unions in American history—was already losing much of its industrial might. Three major auto plants closed in the city between 1953 and 1957, and the city weathered four major recessions.23 Capital flight was the primary culprit. New advances in transportation, communication, and technology enabled factories to move outside the central cities and beyond the industrial Mid-Atlantic and Midwest entirely. A federal highway system made long-distance travel more viable, and the tremendous investments the federal government had made in developing the infrastructure of the rural South and West since the New Deal made new regions of the country viable for industry. Moreover, cities outside the industrial urban core explicitly courted industrial capital, promising lucrative tax breaks and pliable workers willing to accept low wages if only the industries would relocate.24 New automation practices also allowed employers to operate with fewer workers and threatened the power of unions.25 Even when industries stayed in place, other employers turned to white-collar contract workers to break strikes and circumvent union agreements.26 The impacts of these developments were devastating for the old industrial cities. In 1950, 56 percent of all automobile employment in the United States was located in Michigan; by 1960, only 40 percent remained, and the numbers kept declining.27

This early deindustrialization not only created the circumstances for the emergence of global cities; it served as a kind of proto-globalization in its own right. For example, the radio and television manufacturer RCA began production in New Jersey in the 1930s, moved to rural Indiana in the 1940s, relocated to Memphis in the 1960s, and finally left the United States entirely in 1968, employing workers in maquilas just over the Mexican border in Chihuahua. At each point of relocation, RCA sought more pliable workers willing to accept lower wages and fled powerful, unionized workers in their current location. “‘Offshore’ production may be a focus of political attention today,” writes historian Jefferson Cowie, “but neither the causes of the transnationalization of production nor the problems it creates differ dramatically from those of the transregionalization of industry several decades earlier.”28 Union leaders and business executives celebrated a “business-labor accord” in the post-war years, a presumed shared assumption that both sides would bargain fairly and try to avoid disruptive strikes, but RCA’s mobility suggests “that management may have been significantly less committed to its end of the bargain than many analysts presume.”29

The model that these companies pursued domestically became a prototype for globalization beginning in the late 1960s. With long-distance travel more viable, and with new regulations in place that made moving offshore more attractive for employers, companies like RCA led the charge in moving beyond US borders in search of labor. With the introduction of containerization in the 1960s, transporting goods across long distances became even quicker and cheaper, further accelerating capital flight.30

This capital mobility encouraged labor casualization across the spectrum of work, from migrant laborers to office workers to consultants and executives. Seeking to maximize profits above all else, companies began to divest themselves of long-term workers with pensions in favor of short-term contract workers who could be hired and fired at will.31 This insecurity became an increasingly defining characteristic of the US urban economy by the 1970s.

The Rise of a Global Service Economy

With industrial urbanism under threat, many US cities witnessed the development of robust service industries that became more powerful players in their local economies. The service sector did not emerge to fill the void left behind by deindustrialization; rather, it developed independently, growing in strength even as industrial might waned. Urban service economies included both high-wage, high-prestige industries like finance, consulting, technological services, higher education, and medicine as well as low-wage, low-prestige industries including hospitality, food service, custodial service, and care work for elders and children. These industries boomed while heavy industry declined, in part because of Cold War investment in science, technology, education, and health care.

The shift toward services was not only the effect of the unintended consequences of Cold War investment, or the inexorable logic of the market; political contestation played a tremendous role. Proponents of the service sector had long sought to remake cities in their image. In Houston during the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, boosters disagreed about whether the city’s future lay in industrial development or in cementing the city as a hub of international circulation services that profited primarily through the port, banking, and import-export exchanges.32 The early 1970s, however, represented a key turning point in the history of the US service economy. Between 1971 and 1973, the global economy faced a crisis, as the Bretton Woods agreement collapsed, oil prices skyrocketed, and the United States faced foreign industrial competition from Japan and Germany. Republicans and Democrats alike met the crisis by supporting new policies that resulted in the shoring up of finance and real estate while further harming domestic manufacturing.33 Even more directly, when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1975, financiers took the opportunity to shift the city’s priorities—and its budget—toward supporting the financial, insurance, and real estate sectors at the expense of the city’s other interests.34 By the late 1970s, federal policymakers prioritized curbing inflation over ensuring high rates of employment and introduced reductions to capital gains taxes and other supply-side tax cuts, effectively ending the Keynesian system that had reigned since the 1930s.35 The US economy was fundamentally transformed during the 1970s, but also transformed was the nation’s political calculus, the balance of who held power and political clout. Nowhere was this transformation clearer than in the nation’s cities.

By the early 21st century, global cities were service cities, achieving international influence and prestige through their role in providing transnational services to clients around the world. These services ranged from finance, insurance, and real estate, as in New York, to the oil engineering and management services that guided the international oil industry, as in Houston, to the technological designs developed in Silicon Valley and produced through commodity chains spanning the globe. The leading economic sectors trafficked in services, be they financial, consulting, design, or engineering services. Although banking and trade long played a crucial role in urban life, contemporary global cities represented a radically new development. As sociologist Saskia Sassen writes,

When Max Weber analyzed medieval cities woven together in the Hanseatic League, he conceived their trade as the exchange of surplus production; it was his view that a medieval city could withdraw from external trade and continue to support itself, albeit on a reduced scale. The modern molecule of global cities is nothing like the trade among self-sufficient places in the Hanseatic League . . . [and] the territorial dispersal of current economic activity creates a need for expanded central control and management.36

The global city is inherently a service city, and the service city is inherently global, because the global city exists to dictate and manage the operation of a global assembly line. The global city represents the economic power held by certain cities over populations in other parts of the world, demonstrating that in practice, “globalization” means, for instance, establishing Houston elites as the managers of Nigerian oil capital rather than placing Nigerian and Houstonian workers on a level transnational playing field.

The flip side of these high-end, high-prestige services lies in the low-wage service industries that support them and make the global service city possible. Global cities demand luxury services including food service, hospitality, and other care work—service labor that is generally performed by low-wage, vulnerable workers, often immigrants. As anthropologist Rachel Sherman points out, “[i]n manufacturing, goods are sold in a market distant from the factory, which might be in Detroit or in Bangladesh, so customers who buy these products never see the workers who make them. Not so with servant clients, who are not only physically present as the interactive product is created but also, in fact, participate in its production.”37 And just as the assembly line became globalized, so too did reproductive labor. Citizens of low-wage nations frequently sought employment elsewhere. Filipina migrants, for instance, traveled to Europe, the United States, and the Middle East in search of childcare positions that paid better than work back home—despite the fact that leaving home left them legally vulnerable.38 The fact that low-wage service positions were generally gendered feminine and thus devalued, coupled with the fact that workers of color disproportionately performed this work, the fact that many of these workers were immigrants, and the fact that service labor (and particularly care work) was historically omitted from US labor regulation, meant that low-wage service workers had very little leverage to advocate for higher wages or better working conditions.

Far more than in the past, the new power of finance and real estate capital reframed cities as sites of investment. Of course, urban real estate investment was long a means of profit-making, and cities have never been pure spaces of use-value. But the global service city reformulated real estate investment as an end in itself. In 1970s New York City, for instance, artists began to convert abandoned lofts, or those rented at low rates by small manufacturing concerns, into unconventional housing stock for their own use. City planners and real estate investors saw financial promise in this reuse. By the 1980s loft space—once the site of industrial production—was being converted into a space of consumption and investment at alarming rates. The gentrification of New York’s SoHo district on its face appeared to be a grassroots effort at artistic urban revitalization, but soon proved to be in fact a concerted effort of real estate speculation and the revalorization of underutilized urban capital.39 By the early 21st century, international elites were investing their excess capital into global cities’ real estate, sure of a steady return. In cities like New York and Miami, scores of apartments sit unoccupied, purchased sight unseen by investors who trust that a scarcity of housing stock protects their investment. This kind of pattern has exacerbated the already spiraling split between rich and poor in the nation’s global cities.40 In response, anti-gentrification movements emerged particularly in the nation’s global cities, demanding that urban space be seen primarily as a resource for urban residents rather than as a form of investment capital.41

The US cities that failed to become global cities were in even greater peril. The once-booming city of Detroit, for example, struggled in a contemporary economy in which manufacturing fled but high-wage service jobs concentrated in a few cities like New York and San Francisco. Although cities with high numbers of industrial jobs still exist in the United States, the broader trends toward capital mobility and the decline of unionization has made even those cities vulnerable to the same dynamics plaguing global cities and Rust Belt cities. Since 1990, the economic and legal infrastructure of globalization has continued to develop, as China aggressively began to welcome capitalist investment and as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated trade barriers between the United States and Mexico, paving the way for the rapid expansion of maquiladoras across the Mexican border where Mexican workers produced manufactured goods for American companies at low wages while those companies evaded tariffs.42

Immigration, Labor, and Resistance

Documented immigration into the United States accelerated rapidly after 1965. The Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 ended the national origins quota system that had been in place since the Immigration Act of 1924, which discriminated against immigrants from Africa and especially Asia in favor of Europeans. Under the new legislation, different regions of the world were ensured at least nominal equality under immigration law. During the 1970s, documented immigration was 32 percent higher than in the 1960s. During the 1980s, immigration increased 47 percent over the 1970s. The pattern continued to the end of the century as immigration in the 1990s increased 57 percent over the 1980s.43 During the first decade of the 21st century, more than 10 million documented immigrants entered the United States, with the majority hailing from Mexico (16.5 percent), China (5.7 percent), India (5.7 percent), and the Philippines (5.3 percent).44 Refugees and undocumented immigration made these numbers even higher.

The 1965 Immigration Act gave special preference to immigrants of the professional class.45 Yet many immigrants—documented and undocumented alike—entered the United States to work in low-wage positions, many of them in service fields including home health and child care.46 Undocumented immigrants in particular are vulnerable to labor exploitation within the United States, as is the case in Los Angeles’ garment industry which became notorious for employing immigrants in sweatshop conditions and robbing them of their wages.47 Yet Los Angeles immigrants were also the leaders of a new, robust labor movement, shocking observers who assumed immigrants were “unorganizable.”48

The changing shape of labor and the rise of new patterns of immigration fundamentally reshaped American politics. Among white native-born Americans, vitriolic anti-immigrant sentiment increased dramatically after 1980, reaching a nativist high point during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016. At the same time, immigrants who became citizens were reshaping the electorate. At the urban level, city governments increasingly had multiethnic representation with New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco becoming multiethnic “world cities,” with tremendously diverse populations hailing from around the globe and no one ethnic or racial minority. In fact, some observers have argued that multiethnic multiculturalism is a prerequisite for achieving “global city” status.49

Despite the multiethnic character of contemporary global cities, power remained unevenly distributed, and extreme socioeconomic stratification has been a defining characteristic. High-income white-collar urban residents—the vast majority of them white native-born Americans—reaped the spoils of globalization while the rest of urban residents scraped by. The political options available to urban non-elites were more limited than they were in the past, as unionized labor weakened, business and finance capital strengthened, and immigration policy left immigrants vulnerable to exploitation and legal insecurity. New politics—from anti-gentrification and squatting campaigns, to the organizing of service workers and the success of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in organizing janitors and homecare workers—have combatted the unique conditions endemic to the contemporary global city.

Discussion of the Literature

The first scholarship on globalization and the American city emerged from the social sciences. The founding text of global cities scholarship is Saskia Sassen’s The Global City, a book that theorizes the emergence of the global service city and its impact on urban spatial form, politics, and international relations. A robust first wave of scholarship on global cities emerged beginning in the 1990s, as the global city itself was first beginning to come to the attention of scholars, journalists, and global city residents. This scholarship tended to focus on economic and theoretical analysis.50

Qualitative sociologists and anthropologists in the 1990s also built a literature on the global city that focused on the phenomenological experience of workers and residents in globalized, post-industrial urban spaces. Sharon Zukin’s Loft Living represented an early example of scholarship that brought together cultural analysis of the emerging globalized, luxury consumption oriented city with economic data that explained its emergence, a tradition built upon in Aaron Shkuda’s The Lofts of Soho.51 Scholars in this tradition have built a robust literature on life in the global city, although much of this work focuses more heavily on the meaning-making of laborers than on the spatial development of the global city itself.52 A notable exception is Chloe Taft’s From Steel to Slots, which describes how the industrial city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was drawn into a global web of finance capital that remade it into a post-industrial site for leisure consumption.53

The first historians and geographers to address the emergence of the global city tended to focus on making sense of Los Angeles. The scholarship of Marxist urban geographer David Harvey has been—and remains—a central touchstone for this work. This body of work placed Los Angeles into a longer historical framework, tracing its transformation from an industrial to a post-industrial city and theorizing that Los Angeles represented the future of American cities as a multiethnic, decentralized, car-dependent service city.54 More recent scholarship on the global city seeks to place the emergence of the post-industrial city and the post-war suburb into an imperial framework.55 This scholarship suggests a relationship between post-war American global power and the rise of the post-industrial global city, though more work remains to be done to further illustrate these dynamics.

Much of the historical work on the global city remains to be written. Open questions include the role of business interests in directly building (rather than merely reaping the benefits of) the globalized city; the relationship between US foreign policy, particularly the Cold War, and the rise of the global city; the development of a feminized low-wage service economy and its relationship with the earlier history of groups excluded from labor protections; the emergence of a transnational professional white-collar class and its impact on cities; the dynamics of gentrification and real estate speculation; and the relationship between global cities and environmental change.56

Primary Sources

Research on globalization and the US city could take a variety of approaches. Those interested in capital flight will likely rely on the business records of a particular company, when they are available. State and municipal records will likely also contain discussions of the threat of losing industrial capital or proposals for attracting new capital. Labor union records will likely also include meeting minutes, newspaper clippings, or statements addressing capital flight. Finally, federal records—including Congressional meeting minutes and files in presidential libraries and the National Archives—will include discussions about national policy designed either to combat capital flight or enable it, as in the case of the institution of free trade zones and NAFTA. Scholars interested in the rise of service industries might again turn to corporate records, when they are available, and the records of unions like SEIU.

Historians of gentrification and real estate speculation can turn to county and municipal government records, where they can find property records and planning documents. Newspapers, zines, and, more recently, blogs would be useful sources for tracking the progress of anti-gentrification activism. Historians interested in documenting life in the global city at the scale of the city block will likely rely on ethnographies and oral histories. The papers of key activists or business leaders, when available, would be invaluable resources.

The history of globalization and the American city draws together labor history, business history, planning history, immigration history, real estate history, and foreign relations history, while operating at scales ranging from the city block to the entire globe. Potential sources for writing this kind of history are almost infinite and depend on the scale, scope, and motivations of the individual project. The unavailability of corporate sources makes writing this kind of history a special challenge, but historians interested in this topic have a great deal of understudied ground available to cover.

Further Reading

Abu-Lughod, Janet. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Broughton, Chad. Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Cowie, Jefferson. Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.Find this resource:

Fainstein, Susan. The Just City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Friedman, Andrew. Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of North Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Hackworth, Jason. The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. New York: Verso, 2006.Find this resource:

Kwak, Nancy. A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.Find this resource:

Mitchell, Don. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Nijman, Jan. Miami: Mistress of the Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.Find this resource:

O’Mara, Margaret Pugh. Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Phillips-Fein, Kim. Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017.Find this resource:

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Sherman, Rachel. Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Shkuda, Aaron. The Lofts of SoHo: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Smith, Neil. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. New York: Routledge, 1996.Find this resource:

Taft, Chloe. From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Zipp, Samuel. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.Find this resource:


(1.) Thomas Zeiler, “Just Do It! Globalization for Diplomatic Historians,” Diplomatic History 25, no. 4 (Fall 2001): 530.

(2.) Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 3.

(3.) Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(4.) Kristin L. Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

(5.) Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign People at Home and Abroad (New York: Hill & Wang, 2000); and Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

(6.) Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway, 4–14.

(7.) Julio Capó Jr., Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

(8.) Carl H. Nightingale, Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 2–14, 305–306.

(9.) Paige Glotzer, “Building Suburban Power: The Business of Exclusionary Housing Markets, 1890–1960,” Harvard University Joint Center for History and Economics.

(10.) Jonathan Rees, “Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, 1880–1920,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (July 2016).

(11.) Rees, “Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States.”

(12.) Dara Orenstein, “Foreign-Trade Zones and the Cultural Logic of Frictionless Production,” Radical History Review 109 (Winter 2011): 36–42.

(13.) Orenstein, “Foreign-Trade Zones,” 37.

(14.) Orenstein, “Foreign-Trade Zones,” 37, 42.

(15.) Francesca Russello Ammon, Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

(16.) Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5, 28, 29.

(17.) Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California 1910–1961: From Warfare to Welfare (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002); and Ann Markusen, Peter Hall, Scott Campbell, and Sabina Deitrick, The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

(18.) Margaret Pugh O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

(19.) Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 4.

(20.) Betsy A. Beasley, “Service Learning: Oil, International Education, and Texas’ Corporate Cold War,” Diplomatic History 42, no. 2 (April 1, 2018): 177–203.

(21.) Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 4–5.

(22.) Victoria DeGrazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005).

(23.) Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

(24.) Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938–1980 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994); and James C. Cobb, Industrialization and Southern Society, 1877–1984 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984).

(25.) Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

(26.) Betsy A. Beasley, “White-Collar Wildcatters and Wildcat Strikes: Oil Experts, Global Contracts, and the Transformation of Labor in Postwar Houston,” in Working for Oil: Comparative Social Histories of Labor in the Global Oil Industry, eds. Touraj Atabaki, Elisabetta Bini, and Kaveh Ehsani (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 257–284.

(27.) Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

(28.) Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 2.

(29.) Cowie, Capital Moves, 6.

(30.) Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

(31.) Louis Hyman, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary (New York: Viking, 2018).

(32.) Betsy A. Beasley, “At Your Service: Houston and the Preservation of U.S. Global Power, 1945–2008” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2016).

(33.) Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

(34.) Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017).

(35.) Stein, Pivotal Decade.

(36.) Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 4.

(37.) Rachel Sherman, Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

(38.) Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

(39.) Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989); and Aaron Shkuda, The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950–1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

(40.) Emily Badger, “When the (Empty) Apartment Next Door Is Owned by an Oligarch,” New York Times, July 21, 2017.

(41.) Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996).

(42.) Chad Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(43.) Xiaojian Zhao, “Immigration and the United States after 1945,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (July 2016), 10.

(44.) Zhao, “Immigration and the United States after 1945,” 10–16.

(45.) Zhao, “Immigration and the United States after 1945,” 35.

(46.) Parreñas, Servants of Globalization.

(48.) Ruth Milkman, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement (New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

(49.) Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton, NJ: University of Princeton Press, 2010), 8.

(50.) See, for instance, Sassen, The Global City; William Sites, Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Janet Abu-Lughod, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); and Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

(51.) Zukin, Loft Living; and Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo.

(52.) Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus; Parreñas, Servants of Globalization; Sherman, Class Acts; Katherine S. Newman, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 1999); Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); and Arlene M. Davila, Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

(53.) Chloe Taft, From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

(54.) Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 1990); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990); R. Deutsche, “Boys Town,” Environment and Planning D 9 (1991): 5–30; Michael Dear, “The Los Angeles School of Urbanism: An Intellectual History,” Urban Geography 24, no. 6 (2003): 493–509; and Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso, 1989).

(55.) Zipp, Manhattan Projects; and Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of North Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

(56.) For some emerging work in the history of US global cities, see Aaron Cavin, “The Borders of Citizenship: The Politics of Race and Metropolitan Space in Silicon Valley” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2012); Jeannette Estruth, “A Political History of the Silicon Valley: Social Movements, the High-Technology Industry, and the Utopia of the New Economy, 1945–1995” (PhD diss., New York University, forthcoming); Betsy A. Beasley, “At Your Service: Houston and the Preservation of U.S. Global Power, 1945–2008” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2016); and Jessica Levy, “From Black Power to Black Empowerment: Transnational Capital and Racial Integration in the United States and South Africa since 1969” (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2018).