Cities and Suburbs

views updated


With brute force, the Great Depression hit America's metropolitan areas, the centers of economic growth during the 1920s. The Wall Street crash nearly halted construction of skyscrapers and residential housing, then staggered output of durable goods. Pittsburgh steel mills, automobile assembly lines in Detroit and Flint, and tire factories in Cleveland and Toledo were all stilled. Declines in freight shipments laid off thousands from the docks of San Francisco, Memphis, and New Orleans, and slashed output at the American Locomotive Corporation in Schenectady. By 1933, idle blast furnaces at Birmingham's Tennessee Coal and Iron brought to that city the highest unemployment in the urban South. Only a few cities weathered the storm. Miami and Phoenix filled with sun worshippers, federal spending on Hoover Dam buoyed Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., became the New Deal's company town.


Although millions of jobless lived in the cities, few city governments distributed outdoor relief (with the notable exception of Boston). Most relied on voluntary charities and lodging shelters. Across the South, businesses moved whites into jobs held by African Americans, and New Orleans Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley required municipal employees to show poll-tax receipts. Officials in the Southwest deported aliens; Los Angeles alone repatriated over eleven thousand Mexicans, and the city dispatched police to turn away migrants at California's borders. By the fall of 1933, 59 percent of the Phoenix's Mexican population was on relief, compared to 11 percent of Anglos. Atlanta's jobless rate reached 25 percent, but was triple that in black neighborhoods.

Business-led voluntarism tried to stem the disaster. Mayor's committees in Buffalo and Nashville prevailed on industrial leaders to stagger layoffs, and Buffalo's Man-a-Block and Household Helper schemes scrounged for part-time jobs. Philadelphia's (Horatio Gates Lloyd) Committee for Unemployment Relief raised $4 million in private contributions. But when voluntary resources were exhausted in 1931, cities had to look elsewhere. The business-led Allegheny County Emergency Association launched a "Pittsburgh Plan" for quasi-public improvements, while Kansas City boss Tom Prendergast corralled the chamber of commerce behind a $50 million "Ten Year Plan" for boulevards and other public works. New York City's Welfare Council forced Mayor James J. Walker to create a department of public welfare.

In suburban New Jersey towns, governments slashed public works, chiefly road and sewer repairs, while regional school districts juggled the loss in per-pupil reimbursements. Communities forced salary givebacks from police, firemen, and teachers, the latter stereotyped as single and female. Charities attempted to serve the "invisible" white-collar jobless in the suburbs. Ramsey's Committee of the Unemployed searched for odd jobs and collected funds from churches and fundraisers like the Young Ladies Community Club's "prosperity bridge." Ridgewood disbursed charitable aid via the Social Service Association, then in late 1931 formed the Emergency Relief Bureau to provide direct relief and made-work. By December 1933 the Ridgewood Taxpayers Association obtained a voluntary 5 percent salary cut from teachers, who acknowledged a "clear understanding of civic affairs."

The relief crisis encouraged labor and liberal activists to challenge business primacy. In Detroit,Frank Murphy scored an upset mayoral victory in 1930 over the issue of relief levels. The election in Minneapolis of Farmer-Laborite William A. Anderson touched off demonstrations that ousted the conservative relief administrator. But strong Republican city-manager governments in Cleveland and Cincinnati resisted deficits to finance relief, as did property owners' leagues in Denver and Houston. Conservative bankers in New York, who held Detroit's commercial paper, forced slashes in Motor City relief, and Rochester's banking fraternity threatened a credit strike against the city manager's budget. In spring 1933, the House of Morgan and Chase National Bank boycotted the underwriting of New York municipal bonds until the city agreed to cut relief and hold down property taxes.


In May 1932, big-city mayors, led by Murphy of Detroit, pleaded for credit from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and in February 1933 they launched the U.S. Conference of Mayors to demand $5 billion for self-liquidating public works. They nudged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to accept federal emergency relief, and thereafter leveraged much New Deal spending, notably via the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). Such urban leaders as New York settlement head Mary K. Simkhovitch

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

and Cleveland activist Ernest J. Bohn, who spearheaded the nation's first municipal housing authority, demanded slum clearance and public housing.

Localities responded guardedly, notably Baltimore, Richmond, and Portland, Oregon, where Democrats who favored states' rights attacked federal intervention. Although Roosevelt was reelected on an urban tide in 1936, his sweep of 104 of the country's 106 cities with populations greater than 100,000 blanketed pockets of disenchantment. Roosevelt carried 68.3 percent of the vote in Baltimore, including bellwether Polish and Italian wards, but in Philadelphia, he suffered a falloff among Irish and working-class Italians. Chicago's African Americans were weaned from Republican "race men" less by Roosevelt's appeal than by Mayor Edward Kelly's deft politics of recognition. Doubling his support from Chicago blacks, Roosevelt still garnered only 49 percent in 1936.

New Deal welfare spending did not bring a "Last Hurrah" for urban political machines. Relief was politicized in Jersey City, where Frank Hague controlled Public Works Administration (PWA) spending for the Margaret Hague Medical Center; and in Memphis, whose boss, Edward Hull Crump, tithed WPA employees and directed Army Corps of Engineers projects on the Mississippi River. The power of Tammany Hall had declined in New York City before Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wielded New Deal patronage to forge his own reform coalition, and Bruce Stave concludes that David Lawrence's Democratic organization in Pittsburgh "had its roots in the New Deal."


In the absence of a national urban policy, federal programs rested largely on 1920s social theory and modernist design: assumptions about the "social disorganization" of the slums, the importance of the "neighborhood unit," and economies of scale that civic centers and hospital complexes provided the sprawling metropolis. Bauhaus architects such as Marcel Breuer, the visionary architect Le Corbusier, famous for his "tower in the park," and industrial designers like Norman Bel Geddes helped popularize the Art Deco streamlined slab look, which has been dubbed PWA Moderne. Against machine-age efficiencies, proponents of small-scale English "garden cities" made little headway. Clarence Stein and Lewis Mumford of the Regional Planning Association of America envisioned new towns in suburban greenbelts. Although Resettlement Administration head Rexford G. Tugwell sympathized with this program, his agency realized only three such cities.

Federal relief dollars enhanced modern urbanization that was already underway. Nashville and New York finished civic centers with court houses and state office buildings, although the completion of the Federal Triangle on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., proved the most imposing project. The WPA financed the removal of trolley tracks in 224 cities, replacing unsightly rails with green medians and smooth asphalt. Planning departments designed schemes for traffic separation, including beltways around central business districts, a dream of vehicular flow inspired by the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads' Toll Roads and Free Roads (1936) and General Motors' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Redevelopers cleared decaying wharves for waterfront parks in Milwaukee and Des Moines and for riverside parkways like Boston's Storrow Drive.

New York City was transformed under Mayor La Guardia and Park Commissioner Robert Moses, the city's de facto public works czar. With its own WPA jurisdiction, the city accounted for one-seventh of all WPA appropriations. The agency refurbished scores of parks and playgrounds, over three hundred schools, and miles of parkways, along with North Beach Terminal (renamed La Guardia Field), the largest single WPA project in the country. Federal works also had a significant impact on cities in parts of the South, Southwest, and West that would later be called the Sunbelt, a region starved for such improvements. In New Orleans, the PWA improved sewerage, restored the French Quarter, and built the Charity Hospital, then the second largest health-care facility in the country. The WPA overhauled Nashville's streets, while the PWA built three high schools, including Pearl High for African Americans. The WPA installed the sewerage and water mains of Albuquerque's Near Heights subdivision and completed Las Vegas's War Memorial Building, vital to the town's convention economy. California historian Kevin Starr argues that federal public works—notably the construction of Boulder (Hoover) Dam and Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) investment in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—made possible California's future as a sun-drenched, populous, vehicular world.


To revive mortgage financing and construction, in June 1933, the Roosevelt administration enacted the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), which over the next two years saved more than one million non-farm residences from foreclosure. Kenneth T. Jackson has pointed out, however, that the HOLC's standardized appraisals rated neighborhoods A to D (with D indicating neighborhoods of greatest risk, which were usually inhabited by Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, and African Americans) and daubed red on "Residential Security Maps." Lizabeth Cohen found that 60 percent of HOLC's Chicago loans went to C and D neighborhoods, but redlining starved home refinance in inner-city Detroit and Philadelphia. Discriminatory practices also affected Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance. Jackson showed that substantial mortgage relief was provided to A and B districts in suburban Essex County in New Jersey, and Ladue, Clayton, and Webster Groves in Missouri, compared to scant aid begrudged C and D streets in central Newark and Saint Louis.

Federal support engaged scores of cities in slum clearance and low-rent public housing. With data from the CWA Real Property Inventory, activists in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Newark documented the dimensions of the slum problem and won referenda for municipal housing authorities. After the National Industrial Recovery Act authorized grants and loans to municipalities to clear lands and build housing, PWA administrator Harold L. Ickes undertook direct federal construction (until deterred by the U.S. Court of Appeals' 1935 Louisville Lands decision, which rejected the federal government's use of eminent domain). By 1937, the PWA had completed 22,600 units at a cost of $130 million, including Atlanta's Techwood Homes, the 10,800-room Cleveland Homes limited dividend, and Philadelphia's Carl Mackley Homes, sponsored by the Hosiery Workers Union. Working with more than 150 municipal authorities after 1937, the U.S. Housing Authority sponsored an additional 130,000 units by 1941.

The low-rent program dovetailed with local priorities by stimulating business districts and maintaining segregation. Atlanta's all-white Techwood cleared blacks from a twelve-block slum near downtown, while the all-black (Joel Chandler) Harris Homes reinforced a racial barrier. The Cleveland Housing Authority built three projects in the heart of the ghetto, while ignoring black applicants for white projects. The PWA constructed the all-white Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn and the all-black Harlem River Houses, for which the New York City Housing Authority kept separate application offices. The Phoenix Housing Authority built distinct projects for Mexicans and blacks in South Phoenix and for Anglos on the city's west side.


The concentration of the unemployed made cities spawning grounds for radicalism (although Lizabeth Cohen argues that in Chicago, the city's common consumer culture provided a basis for working-class solidarity). As millions gave up on capitalism, self-help groups, such as Denver's Unemployed Citizens' League, canvassed for jobs and bartered work for food. In New York City, production-for-use enthusiasts organized an Emergency Exchange Association, which issued scrip and sparked similar exchanges in other cities. Stirred by African nationalists, eviction protests broke out in Harlem, while Communist Unemployed Councils stormed home relief offices. Communists staged food riots in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Saint Louis, and led the epic Detroit Hunger March on Ford Motor Company on March 7, 1932. Strikes also occurred among mortgage payers in Radburn, New Jersey, and renters in New York's Sunnyside, Queens, both garden city experiments of the 1920s. In January 1934, Denver's unemployed invaded the Colorado state capitol, demanding legislators fund state relief.

In New York, hundreds of writers, artists, and engineers were drawn to the Communist Party's Cultural Section and its John Reed Clubs. Eviction protests, sit-ins at relief offices, and other grass-roots actions mobilized working-class anger behind Toledo's Auto Lite strike in 1935 and sit-down strikes in Flint and Detroit in 1937. San Francisco's left-wing tradition, with its boisterous Embarcadero, energized the general strike of July 1934. Cities provided the crucible for the Congress of Industrial Organization's growth in the mass production industries.

These urban pressures also transformed race relations. Anger at inadequate relief allowances and rage against evictions touched off African-American self-help efforts and store boycotts in Phoenix, in Cleveland's Woodland ghetto, and in Harlem along 125th street. After the March 19, 1935, Harlem riot, Mayor La Guardia appointed a commission that spotlighted the ghetto's overcrowding. Outrage also spawned Reverend Adam Clayton Powell's protest for equal employment, which picketed the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The Depression-era American city gave a gritty, hard-edge look to design and culture, while artists became determined to document widespread want and protest, producing the CWA's Public Works of Art Project, the murals of the Treasury Relief Arts Project, the Federal Art Project, the American Scene style of painting, and Ben Shahn's proletarian realism. The golden age of revelatory photography inspired Berenice Abbott and Arnold (Weegee) Felig in New York and Dorothea Lange in San Francisco, while the docudrama of the WPA "Living Newspaper" reflected what historian William Stott has called the era's "sublime fidelity to fact."


The Depression accentuated regional discrepancies in city development. Urban population growth, which had risen to 27.3 percent in the 1920s, sank to 7.9 percent during the 1930s. Slowdowns in immigration, slumping birthrates, and the end of suburban annexations halted central city growth across the industrial North. Five of the twelve largest cities in the Midwest (Cleveland, Saint Louis, Toledo, Akron, and Youngstown) suffered losses in population during the 1930s. Among cities with a population of 100,000 or more, the only ones that grew by 20 percent or more were Washington, D.C., and Sunbelt wonders, including Miami, San Diego, Houston, and Los Angeles. While nearly all the northern metropolitan areas grew by single-digit percentages, metropolitan Los Angeles jumped by 25 percent, Houston grew 51 percent, and Miami soared 90 percent.

Subsidies from Washington sped expansion and modernization of municipal government. With federal dollars, cities took on more responsibilities, ranging from social work for relief recipients and felons to WPA day nurseries and city planning. City governments streamlined tax assessment and collection and turned functions over to special authorities, including ports, highways, and toll bridges. The tax revolt also hastened the spread of manager cities in Michigan, Virginia, Texas, and Florida. In the suburbs, lean budgets spurred the amalgamation of Jacksonville and Duval counties, consolidated services in Milwaukee County, and spirited the move for "home rule" in Hamilton, Mahoning, Cuyahoga, and Stark counties in Ohio. Most metropolitan counties extended zoning and undertook comprehensive plans for parks, parkways, and sub-division regulations. Modern executive government emerged in Arlington and other northern Virginia counties and in Nassau and Westchester, New York.

Nevertheless, the 1930s left American cities with an uncertain future. While the New Deal spurred an urban-Washington axis, and theoretical statements like the National Resources Committee's Our Cities (1937) affirmed the role of cities in national recovery, the country lacked an urban policy. Experts predicted that central cities would remain stagnant, with unemployment at permanently high levels. Yet cities were centers of revitalization. A zeal to reclaim blighted districts would galvanize the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association's postwar "renaissance" and fuel Robert Moses's ambitions for the arterial highways and residential towers of modern New York. They remained the centers of an urban liberalism that would define American politics for the next two generations.



Abbott, Berenice. Changing New York. 1939.

Argersinger, Jo Ann E. Toward a New Deal in Baltimore: People and Government in the Great Depression. 1988.

Biles, Roger. Memphis in the Great Depression. 1986.

Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. 1975.

Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. 1990.

Conkin, Paul K. Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program. 1959.

Dorsett, Lyle W. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the City Bosses. 1977.

Fine, Sidney. Frank Murphy, Vol. 1: The Detroit Years. 1975.

Fox, Bonnie R. "Unemployment Relief in Philadelphia, 1930–1932: A Study of the Depression's Impact on Voluntarism." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 93 (1969): 86–108.

Gelfand, Mark I. A Nation of Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933–1965. 1975.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. 1985.

Kessner, Thomas. Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York. 1989.

Lubell, Samuel. The Future of American Politics. 1952.

Radford, Gail. Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era. 1996.

Schwartz, Bonnie F. The Civil Works Administration: The Business of Relief in the New Deal. 1982.

Smith, Douglas L. The New Deal in the Urban South. 1988.

Starr, Kevin. Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California. 1996.

Stave, Bruce M. The New Deal and the Last Hurrah: Pittsburgh Machine Politics. 1970.

Sternsher, Bernard, ed. Hitting Home: The Great Depression in Town and County. 1970.

Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. 1973.

Trout, Charles H. Boston, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. 1977.

Wye, Christopher G. "The New Deal and the Negro Community: Toward a Broader Conceptualization." Journal of American History 59 (1972): 621–640.

Joel Schwartz Bonnie Fox Schwartz