City Dwellers

views updated


The late-nineteenth century emergence of the city as a dominant American space revolutionized the national culture. Largely spontaneous and unplanned, the urban explosion of the last half of the 1800s irrevocably changed the economic, social, and cultural dynamics of life in the United States. Census figures cited in the World Almanac and Book of Facts 2002 (World Almanac, pp. 382–383) provide dramatic evidence of the astonishing growth of urban America: between 1850 and 1900 the population of New York City rose from approximately 700,000 to almost 3.5 million; Philadelphia from 120,000 to almost 1.3 million; Boston from a little over 136,000 to 560,000; Cleveland from 17,000 to almost 382,000; and Chicago from under 30,000 to almost 1.7 million. In Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, June Howard writes that "in 1870, 26 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, and there were fourteen cities with populations greater than 100,000; in 1900, 40 percent lived in urban areas, and thirty-eight cities had populations greater than 100,000" (p. 33). Urban migration accelerated throughout the twentieth century until its culmination in the post–World War II emergence of the suburb.


Because a great deal of this urban growth occurred in the northern part of the nation, and especially in the Northeast and the Midwest, the tensions between North and South that had previously brought about the Civil War remained strong. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the hegemonic control that the urban North had begun to establish over the rest of the nation intensified, inevitably producing regional resentments. New York City became the embodiment of the northern city and inspired intense emotions, both positive and negative.

Seemingly in the process of an unending expansion, New York supplanted Boston as the cultural center of the United States. In The Bostonians (1886), Henry James (1843–1916) sees the ascendance of upstart New York over the Massachusetts home of transcendentalism and the abolition movement as the triumph of a new, superficial, market-driven culture over a more cerebral and idealist national past. In this and in other writings, James also expresses misgivings about the implications of the kind of ethnic and racial diversity increasingly visible in New York City, the very diversity that Walt Whitman (1819–1892) would be inspired by and proclaim as the defining and redemptive characteristic of the American nation.

Note: In 1898 Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island were united with Manhattan to create the City of Greater New York.
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census.
New Orleans191,418216,090242,039287,104339,075387,219
New York942,2921,206,2991,515,3013,437,2024,766,8835,620,048
St. Louis310,864350,518451,770575,238687,029772,897
San Francisco149,473233,959298,997342,782416,912506,676
Total U.S. population39,818,44950,155,78362,947,71475,994,57591,972,266105,710,620

William Dean Howells (1837–1920) was also loyal to Boston and ambivalent about New York City as a cultural force. In A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), he explored the moral implications of the political, economic, and social power centered in New York, employing his unique cultural perspective, which was a mixture of his small-town Ohio upbringing and his lengthy adult residence in Boston. The sheer ambivalence of his resulting conclusions in A Hazard of New Fortunes produced a cultural breakthrough according to Sidney H. Bremer in Urban Intersections: Meetings of Life and Literature in United States Cities. Bremer writes that "here the city is, for the first time, the subject rather than the setting of a U.S. novel" (p. 53). Howells, though, was too much a traditionalist to develop an appropriately cinematic method for recording the diverse and ever-shifting New York life; that would be left to John Dos Passos (1896–1970) in Manhattan Transfer (1925). Manhattan Transfer, in fact, is evidence that the literary high modernists of the 1920s and 1930s would emerge as the authentic voices of American urbanism. Their experiments with narrative innovation, especially fragmentation, were often inspired by, and designed to reproduce, the nonlinear nature of urban life.

In the context of James and Howells, it should be said that it was not only middle-class white novelists in whom the cultural revolution represented by New York City and the northern city in general evoked an ambivalent response. Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) in The Sport of the Gods (1902), one of the earliest novels set partially in Harlem, dramatized the near destruction of a black family from the rural South by the hedonistic life of the city. For Dunbar, the rag-time music inspired by Scott Joplin, with its emphasis upon playful spontaneity, serves as an inclusive metaphor for the immorality of Harlem life. Dunbar's fictional family is saved only by a retreat to the rural South. Abraham Cahan (1860–1951) focused his 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky around the tensions and conflicts inevitably faced by Jewish immigrants, especially those from eastern Europe, in the pressure to assimilate into American culture. For Cahan, assimilation meant material success and economic prosperity, but only at the price of spiritual emptiness and the compromise of a rich cultural legacy. Cahan's concerns would be taken up again by Anzia Yezierska, Michael Gold, and Henry Roth among others.

Immigration was perhaps the central factor in the unplanned explosion of urban America, and especially of New York City. In fact, the diversity of the new urban America was as dramatic as its sudden growth. June Howard points out that "in 1880, 80 percent of the population of New York was foreign-born or born of immigrants; in Chicago the figure was 87 percent; in Detroit, 84 percent; in St. Louis and San Francisco, 78 percent" (p. 33). Thus, New York's Ellis Island, the federal facility through which immigrants to the East Coast were processed, can be said to have given birth to a vibrant new American culture.

Unfortunately, cynical politicians and opportunistic political parties quickly sensed the advantages to be gained by exploiting the new immigrant population. In New York, the Democratic political machine known popularly as Tammany Hall successfully manipulated tensions between nativist Americans, Irish immigrants, and the more recent arrivals from eastern Europe, the American South, and Asia. Controlled by William M. "Boss" Tweed and others, Tammany ruled city politics for more than seventy years.

Newly arrived immigrants in New York were predominantly housed on the city's East Side in over-crowded and poorly sanitized tenement districts. The tenement, in fact, became an emblematic new space in the middle-class American mind, a space connoting extreme poverty and ominous exoticism. Thus "established" Americans, whose more remote immigrant forebears were primarily English, Scottish, or at least western European, were simultaneously repelled by and attracted to the tenements. The ghetto, or inner city, that was emerging at the turn of the twentieth century, inspired emotions that bordered on the hysterical in such nativist writers as Frank Norris and Jack London. In sharp contrast, Stephen Crane (1871–1900) in 1893 privately published the early ghetto classic Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York), set in the infamous Bowery neighborhood of the city. Crane concisely expressed the dominant middle-class perspective of the inner city when describing his idealized, if not particularly intelligent, heroine, Maggie Johnson, as having "blossomed in a mud puddle" into "a rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl" (p. 24). Crane then dramatizes her descent into prostitution and her subsequent physical and spiritual destruction.

But it was a journalist rather than a novelist who most memorably depicted the tenement life of New York's East Side. In 1890 Jacob Riis (1849–1914), a first-generation immigrant from Denmark who came to America at the age of twenty-one and had first-hand experience of the East Side, published How the Other Half Lives, a pioneering work of photojournalism. Virtually a self-taught photographer, Riis recorded in brutally honest pictures the desperation and degradation of tenement life. His accompanying text, also honest and at times eloquent, inspired the city to institute some badly needed reforms of tenement living conditions. Unfortunately, Riis, in separate chapters devoted to various immigrant groups, propagates a number of demeaning racial and ethnic stereotypes—for example, Chinese Americans as secretive and unnaturally obsessed with cleanliness, Irish Americans as plagued by alcohol and senseless brawling, Italian Americans as prone to criminal activity. Despite this truly unfortunate aspect of his book, Riis's contribution to the school of muckraking journalism that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century was significant. (The term "muckraker" was rather loosely attached to a group of journalists devoted to exposing various forms of corruption in American society.)

An increase in criminal activity and the beginnings of organized crime in America were inevitable consequences of the extreme poverty and bitter ethnic tensions in New York City. The Five Points, or Mulberry Bend, section quickly became synonymous with urban crime and violence. In 1928 Herbert Asbury (1891–1963) published The Gangs of New York, a rather remarkable text (part history, part sociology, part fiction, and part folklore) that managed to simultaneously condemn the Five Points phenomenon, while evoking its exotic appeal. According to Asbury, Five Points "by 1840 . . . had become the most dismal slum section in America. In the opinion of contemporary writers it was worse than the Seven Dials and Whitechapel districts of London" (p. 29). Asbury proceeds to write an account of the rise of gang crime in the Five Points area that is at times preposterous and unbelievable but that serves nevertheless as one of the earlier evocations of the criminal as mythic urban antihero. He is, moreover, just as guilty as Riis of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes. Still, he is undeniably correct in pointing out that New York City gangs were often exploited by the city's political power structure, especially Tammany Hall, and that they fed on ethnic conflict.

Beginning even before the Civil War, African Americans became a kind of "domestic" immigrant group in New York. Freed slaves sought refuge in the Five Points neighborhood where they were, at best, tolerated by the Irish and other European immigrants and, at worst, greeted with outright hostility. The resulting tensions exploded in the 1863 Draft Riots inspired by the expansion of Civil War conscription. During the riots African Americans were tortured and lynched by roving white urban gangs. Nevertheless, as Dunbar foresaw, albeit with misgivings, Harlem by the 1920s had become the center of a vibrant African American community and culture. Jazz clubs imported talent from New Orleans, and an important group of black writers and artists worked out of Harlem. Thus, when Alain Locke in 1925 published his anthology of contemporary African American literary and artistic expression, he chose The New Negro: An Interpretation as his title. A group of New York–based African American writers that included Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Wallace Thurman were central to what would become known as "the Harlem Renaissance." All of these writers except Larsen and Thurman were included in Locke's The New Negro.

Jacob Riis was not the only significant muckraking journalist from New York. In 1904 Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and sometime associate of Riis, collected seven previously published magazine articles about major American cities under the general title The Shame of the Cities. Writing specifically about St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, Steffens delineates the degree to which these six urban governments were controlled and corrupted by the dominant merchant class while condemning the complicity of city dwellers in the hegemonic power of laissez-faire capitalism. Rather remarkably, Steffens finds New York City and Chicago to have the least corrupt and the most responsible governments of the six urban centers.


Next to New York City's emergence as America's preeminent city, the meteoric rise of Chicago was the most dramatic urban story of the last half of the nineteenth century. Originally a railroad and trading center and literally built on a swamp, Chicago, through the single-minded energy and vision of a group of determined entrepreneurs, rapidly established economic and cultural hegemony over much of the Midwest. The city parlayed its origins as a frontier trading hub into a national and even international center of commerce. The rise of Chicago was hardly pretty: in the stockyards district the assembly-line transformation of cattle into meat and related products was carried out with little concern for the health and safety of the workers or for city sanitation. The stockyards quickly became a magnet for European immigrants and newly freed slaves escaping the racial violence of the South. Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) intended his 1906 novel The Jungle to be a muckraking exposé of the exploitation of immigrant labor in the stockyards; and The Jungle possesses sufficient power, especially in its detailed accounts of the abuse of immigrant workers in the stockyards, to remain a central text in the Chicago school of literary naturalism that emerged in the early 1900s. The Jungle is, moreover, one of the few American novels that can categorically be said to have inspired governmental reforms; they were limited, however, to federal regulations of the meatpacking industry, which primarily affected the middle and upper classes, who as consumers of beef and pork were invested in governmental regulation of the meatpacking industry. The novel produced little, if any, improvement in the working and living conditions of Chicago's immigrant population.

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), Henry Blake Fuller (1857–1929), and Frank Norris (1870–1902) were other leading Chicago realists and naturalists. It has been said that the fiction of Dreiser, and especially Sister Carrie (1900), marked the emergence of the immigrant voice in American fiction; and, whether that is true or not, Sister Carrie is a still-unsurpassed study of urban consumerist culture. The novel's heroine, Carrie Meeber, originally from a Wisconsin village, is so thoroughly seduced by the luxury items advertised and, for that matter, sanctified in downtown Chicago store windows that, before the novel is over, she has come to personify the very spirit of consumerism. Dreiser focuses on Carrie's desire, and she desires material possessions most of all, with sex representing one means of obtaining them. It is more than a little appropriate that the novel takes place in both Chicago and New York City, the dominant shrines of the American consumerist culture.

Henry Blake Fuller made a Chicago skyscraper both the setting and the cumulative central character of his 1893 novel, The Cliff-Dwellers. Along with such architects of the "Chicago school" as Louis Sullivan, Fuller thus valorizes the skyscraper as a vertical space of limitless possibility. Most obviously in New York City and Chicago, the skyscraper came to symbolize the new American capitalism. In two volumes of a planned "wheat trilogy," Frank Norris dramatized the potential for Chicago, as a centrally located urban and trade center, to assume control of American agriculture in the American West and Midwest. In fact, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903) envision the Chicago-based railroad industry and the Board of Trade as destroying the wheat ranchers of California and threatening to control the productive capacity of nature itself.

Social protest is a central ingredient in the fiction of Sinclair and Norris, who were both associated with the muckrakers. The rapid rise of Chicago to economic hegemony evoked concern in both of them, as well as in other writers. As in New York City, poverty and overcrowding assumed desperate and even tragic proportions in Chicago. Nevertheless, as Steffens notes, the political structure of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago was not as flamboyantly corrupt as those that dominated other flourishing midwestern urban centers, especially St. Louis and minneapolis. This happened in part because Chicago was governed by an inner circle of merchant princes ambitious for the city's economic and cultural future. As a result, they were conscious of its reputation among the post–Civil War national and international business elite.

The single-minded determination of such leaders as Marshall Field and Potter Palmer enabled Chicago to rise phoenix-like from a devastating 1871 fire that caused $100 million in property damage, approximately a third of the city's property valuation. The city leadership simply used the fire as an opportunity to encourage eastern financiers and businessmen to see in the challenge of rebuilding Chicago a unique opportunity for profitable investment, and they were phenomenally successful in pitching this idea. At the time of the fire, the city's population had reached approximately 330,000, making it the fourth largest city in America. Not long after its revitalization began, it had become the "second city" to New York in population, economic power, and cultural influence. To celebrate its power and influence, the city staged a legendary world's fair, the World's Columbian Exposition, in 1893. In addition to some famous and infamous sideshow entertainment, it offered dramatic exhibits of the city's architectural and related cultural innovations.


For a considerable time into the twentieth century, St. Louis, which also began as a frontier trading post and soon became a special magnet for Irish and German immigrants, rivaled Chicago as a midwestern economic and cultural center. Not surprisingly, its civic leadership was not going to be outdone without a fight, and, eleven years after the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, St. Louis sponsored its own world's fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of 1904. In terms of sheer space, it was even larger than the earlier Chicago extravaganza. Like the Chicago fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition was a strange mix of local boosterism, national and international cultural exhibits (the more exotic the better), and architectural and cultural innovation. Also, as in Chicago eleven years earlier, evidence of economic oppression, political corruption, and racial bigotry, was, at least as far as possible, denied and disguised. In fact, there seems to have been a great deal to hide. The tone of Steffens's essay on St. Louis, contained in The Shame of the Cities, is set in its opening words: "St. Louis, the fourth city in size in the United States, is making two announcements to the world: one that it is the worst-governed city in the land; the other that it wishes all men to come there (for the World's Fair) and see it" (p. 18). Steffens, in fact, evokes the name that personified New York's urban corruption in the title of his essay about St. Louis, "Tweed Days in St. Louis" (p. 18).


Urbanization reached the West Coast as well. After the 1848 discovery of gold in California, the "Gold Rush" to the West began. San Francisco, with its ideal location on San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, exploded from a village of a few hundred people in the 1840s to a city of almost 150,000 by 1870. By 1900 its population had reached almost 300,000. By the turn of the twentieth century it had started to develop the special identity that would characterize the city in the future. Part frontier boom town and part cosmopolitan cultural center, it epitomized West Coast culture until the emergence of Los Angeles later in the twentieth century.

Like Chicago, San Francisco survived a disaster that would have meant the end of most urban centers. In 1906 an earthquake, followed by a series of deadly fires, destroyed 490 city blocks and 250,000 buildings in San Francisco and caused property damage of approximately $350 million. But also like Chicago, the city quickly rebuilt and reassumed its position as the cultural capital of the West Coast. Like its midwestern counterpart, San Francisco became the home of an important group of literary naturalists, including Frank Norris (who was born in Chicago but who grew up in San Francisco) and Jack London (1876–1916). In contrast to Dreiser, Riis, Cahan, and other significant New York and Chicago literary realists and naturalists with recent immigrant experience, Norris, London, and other leading members of the San Francisco naturalist school wrote from a distinctly nativist Anglo perspective. Norris's groundbreaking naturalist novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) is, on one level, a kind of allegory of the disintegration of the allegedly pure Anglo frontiersman trapped in a distinctly "foreign" urban immigrant culture. Similarly, London's The Valley of the Moon (1913) recounts a search for non-urban space where Anglo-Saxon purity can be rediscovered.

Nevertheless, San Francisco became the primary West Coast home of Chinese Americans who were initially recruited to do the physical labor of constructing railroads in the United States and subsequently exploited and subjugated both economically and legally. Inspired by the attempts of individual states to control immigration, the federal government passed two laws in 1882 that virtually prohibited further Chinese immigration. Ultimately, all immigration from Asia would be restricted. Angel Island was established in 1910 as a clearinghouse and detention center for what little Asian immigration remained (primarily relatives of earlier immigrants). Still, there was already a considerable Chinese American population on the West Coast, and San Francisco's Chinatown became its urban center. Nativist fears of a "yellow peril" impeded the assimilation of Asian Americans into mainstream culture, thus ironically guaranteeing preservation of many Chinese cultural traditions. Like Abraham Cahan for New York Jewish immigrants, Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914) explored the possibilities and the tensions inherent in the assimilation of Chinese Americans into mainstream American culture. Born in England to a Chinese mother and an English father, Eaton wrote under the pen name Sui Sin Far. Her collection of short stories Mrs. Spring Fragrance was published in 1912.

From coast to coast, the United States, in the last half of the nineteenth century, was transformed from a culture of agrarian farms and small towns into an urban nation with undisguised imperialist ambitions. With most of the world already controlled by Europe, the United States, with a few exceptions, had to settle for internal exotic colonies—the ghettoes of the new American city. Whatever the concerns about or even opposition to such a dramatic cultural change, the push toward a city-dominated economy and culture was irresistible. During the twentieth century, that push would only intensify. Cultural diversity, and thus a new understanding of what the nation was and what its legitimate aspirations should be, was the major gain from this crucial national transformation. Such benefits did not come without extensive suffering, scandal, and oppression, but they were ultimately realized.

See alsoAssimilation; Chicago; Immigration; The Jungle; Maggie, A Girl of the Streets; Migration; Muckrakers and Yellow Journalism; New York; Poverty; The Rise of David Levinsky; Sister Carrie


Primary Works

Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An InformalHistory of the Underworld. 1928. Reprint, n.p.: Wheeler Publishing, 2003.

Crane, Stephen. Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry. Edited by J. C. Levinson. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Steffens, Lincoln. The Shame of the Cities. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.

Secondary Works

Bremer, Sidney H. Urban Intersections: Meetings of Life andLiterature in United States Cities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Howard, June. Form and History in American LiteraryNaturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

World Almanac and Book of Facts 2002. New York: World Almanac Books, 2002.

James R. Giles

About this article

City Dwellers

Updated About content Print Article


City Dwellers