Immigration brought about many changes to the American landscape, and the most notable one was urbanization. Rural America was quickly becoming a thing of the past, replaced by cities crowded with skyscrapers , bridges, and people.
America's rural and urban populations were both growing throughout the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. But the rate of urban population growth was greater than that of rural growth. The urbanization rate was more than four times greater than the increase in the rural population in 1890. An urban area is defined as one that has more than twenty-five hundred residents. In 1860, America had 392 urban places; by 1900, that number jumped 343 percent, to 1,737 places. The reason for the increase was the development of older towns and cities as well as westward expansion .
By 1900, America as a country was still just two-fifths urban. But the Northeast states (Maine , New Hampshire , Vermont , New York , Pennsylvania , Massachusetts , Rhode Island , Connecticut , and New Jersey ) were two-thirds urban. The American South (Texas , Oklahoma , Arkansas , Louisiana , Mississippi , Alabama , Tennessee , Kentucky , West Virginia , Virginia , North Carolina , South Carolina , Georgia , and Florida ) had the smallest urban population, with just 18 percent of its residents in cities. The North Central (Illinois , Indiana , Michigan , Minnesota , Nebraska , Ohio , and Wisconsin ) and Western (New Mexico , Colorado , Wyoming , Montana , South Dakota , North Dakota , Idaho , Utah , Arizona , Nevada , Washington , Oregon , and California ) had urbanization rates somewhere in between these two extremes.
Foreign immigration was responsible for half of the era's urbanization. The rest of the increase was due to Americans who left the countryside in hopes of a more prosperous life in the city. Economic depressions in the 1870s and 1890s forced many farms into bankruptcy (complete financial failure). Farmers joined the escape to the cities.
African Americans were another group that contributed to the urbanization of America. Throughout the 1870s, approximately sixty-eight thousand African Americans from the South migrated to Northern cities. These cities offered African Americans what no place in the South could: enforced civil rights and the opportunity to earn a living independently. Although slaves had been freed with the victory of the North in the American Civil War (1861–65), most white Southerners continued to look upon African Americans as an inferior race. In addition, nearly all land was still owned by whites. African Americans could work that land, but they would probably never own it or reap the profits of their hard labor. Moving to the North gave African Americans the chance to begin life anew, and in a more tolerant atmosphere. By the end of the nineteenth century, that number increased to one hundred and eight-five thousand. This group was not attracted to the largest cities such as New York and Chicago but chose instead smaller urban areas. These smaller towns and cities were more like their homes in the South, and the familiarity made the transition to a new region more comfortable.
Southern cities increased in size owing to the African American migration as well. Not all rural residents went directly north, though most eventually did. In the last twenty years of the 1900s, the African American populations of Savannah, Georgia, and Nashville, Tennessee, nearly doubled. African Americans also flocked to Atlanta, Georgia, an area that also experienced a dramatic increase, from sixteen thousand to thirty-six thousand.
Urban growth brings change
As cities became more crowded, their environment changed out of necessity. Before industrialization, urban areas were “walking” cities; because of this, there were no specialized districts. Commercial, governmental, educational, industrial, residential, and religious buildings were built next to each other so that pedestrians could navigate the city conveniently. The wealthy lived just a short distance from the poor.
Urban development was influenced mostly by the advent of the streetcar. Streetcars moved along iron rails like trains. By the mid-1880s, three hundred cities benefited from street railway lines. Horses and mules pulled these streetcars, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, cables replaced the animals. The streetcars were attached to the cables by grips, which allowed them to move faster and more smoothly thanks to a nonmoving engine that powered an underground cable. The downfall of cable cars was that they broke down often and repairs were costly. Electrified streetcars called trolleys eventually replaced them. Introduced in Richmond, Virginia, in 1888, they quickly caught on throughout the United States. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most urban mass transit systems were based on electricity. The underground subway in New York City opened on October 27, 1904. On the first day of operation, one hundred and fifty thousand passengers rode the subway at a cost of five cents a ride. By the 1940s, New York City's subway lines provided more than eight million rides a day.
As transportation improved, cities grew. They no longer had to be compact so that foot traffic could manage daily travel. Trolley lines went from one end of the city to the other, with many stops in between. Residents could now move to outlying urban areas because they knew they could travel easily throughout the city. Before the trolley, the most sought-after city residences were often near the city's center (because of
the convenience); mass transit, however, completely turned that pattern around. People began to divide themselves according to social class, ethnicity, and race. The middle of the city became home to society's lower classes, and the further toward the city limits one traveled, the more expensive the homes became.
Mass transit also encouraged the building of suburbs, or neighborhoods composed of the same “types” of people. Well before zoning laws and building codes were developed, construction companies were building entire neighborhoods of homes that were architecturally and structurally alike. Suburbs were built seemingly overnight on the outskirts of cities.
While suburbs sorted themselves out according to income and wealth, the core of the city divided itself into districts according to function. For example, New York's Wall Street was known—and still is—as the financial district, where banks and similar institutions based their offices. Other districts became known as the garment, entertainment, railroad, or government districts. Every large city followed this pattern. During this time, property taxes rose, as did the real estate value in these specialized districts. With few exceptions, single-family homes still in existence in the center of the city were forced out by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Birth of the skyscraper
As cities grew, so did buildings in order to accommodate the increase in people and the need for office space. Older buildings had been made of brick and masonry. These materials suited one-to-five-story structures well. Beyond that, the buildings would weigh too much and require incredibly thick lower walls and foundations. Railways allowed for horizontal urban expansion, but it took improved building techniques and materials to allow for vertical expansion.
Steel was the material of choice for urban building construction. A steel skeleton covered with light masonry marked the birth of the skyscraper in the mid-1880s. Chicago became home to the original skyscraper in 1885. The ten-story Home Insurance Building was erected, and soon thirty- and forty-story buildings were being constructed throughout the nation after the elevator was invented. Housing soon followed suit, with the arrival of apartment houses for the upper class and tenement housing for the working class.
For a number of years, the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge dominated the New York skyline. It opened to traffic in 1883. By the end of the century, however, the city's new skyscrapers dwarfed the bridge's towers.
A need to be clean
Engineering became a profitable occupation as cities hired engineers to design reliable water and sewage systems. The last twenty years of the nineteenth century saw vast improvement in technology that cut down on the number of diseases carried by water. Between 1890 and 1914, the population served by filtered water grew from three hundred and ten thousand to more than seventeen million.
Sanitary engineers designed filters and built sewage treatment plants that relied on new chemicals to keep urban America clean and healthy. Running water and indoor toilets became standard features in the urban homes being constructed in the 1890s. Before the first decade of the twentieth century had ended, many cities had gas, electric, and telephone service.
As urban centers became home to business districts, large industries and factories were forced to move. Larger industries like railroads and steel mills required vast amounts of land, and the center of these early cities simply did not have it. The cost of land was much higher in the city, too. So industry was pushed to the outskirts, and in the late 1800s, industrial suburbs (manufacturing districts on the outskirts of towns) emerged.
Is bigger better?
Many Americans welcomed the changes created by industrialism (an economy based on business and industry rather than agriculture). Housing was better. Life was made easier by the invention of electricity and the way its availability in homes and businesses improved transportation, communication, and daily life. Buildings were bigger, cities more exciting.
As urban areas continued to grow, so did the more bleak aspects of human nature. More people meant more crime. Cities were not accustomed to enforcing their own laws; that had always been the responsibility of state or federal governments. Mayors were elected but in reality had very little authority over city governments. Instead, corrupt political machines Ruled urban America. Crime and violence increased, as did social problems such as overcrowding. The labor movement, already in progress, continued to pit workers against management. Education was neglected as children headed for factories and mills to help families survive.