Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The History of U.S. Cities

I happen to have a personal interest in U.S. urban history, so I decided to write this post on a whim.

I really love U.S. cities, and among a number of reasons is the fact that, given the period of their existence, it is possible to see the progressive unfolding of (in many cases) about two centuries worth of history sedimented in its spatial organization, architecture, and demographic patterns. And this history also happens to be the history of capitalism. There is no greater visual historical map of capitalism than the typical U.S. city.

Many cities in the eastern half of the U.S. were founded during the birthing period of capitalism (18th to early 19th century). The settlement patterns at this point were, in general, much the same as they had always been for a good part of human history. Namely, that they were determined by the location of waterways, which supported the primary form of human and commodity transport. Nascent U.S. cities tended to be small, both in land area and population, as the country as a whole was sparsely populated (it was still a frontier country). Downtown cores sat adjacent to seas and rivers, with industrial zones extending along the waterways. Generally, the wealthy elite either resided in central downtown areas (usually a main street), or owned large plantations in the vicinity and frequented the downtown for its services. The working class populated the rest of the downtown and the industrial zones. The outskirts of town were rural/agricultural.

Transportation Transformation
The first depression of capitalism in the 1840s was largely overcome through investment in the railroad industry. The rapid construction of railroad lines in the U.S. was a boon for British investors, and also facilitated a wave of European immigration (cheap labor). The growth of U.S. cities in the mid to late 19th century proceeded according to the following patterns:

1. Expansion of industrial zones and working class neighborhoods along railroad lines.
2. Influx of European immigrants and, in northern cities, free blacks; consequent population growth
3. Movement of white middle and upper classes away from the downtown core, facilitated by the construction of streetcare lines.
4. Deterioration and overcrowding in the downtown area.

Second Stage of Capitalism and First Wave of Urban Revitalization
Capitalism experienced its second major depression, on a larger scale than the first, in the later 19th century. However, with some reorganization on a global scale (entailing more imperialism), the era that followed was a Belle Opaque for the industrial centers, with transformed energy sources in the form of automated engines and electricity. The automobile industry accelerated growth in many cities. In keeping with these changes, the early 20th century saw a number of developments:

1. Urban renewal projects (following the "City Beautiful" movement)
2. Building boom, modernist architecture (including skyscrapers in some cities)
3. Further movement of upper classes spurred by automobiles, development of suburbs
4. Solidification of segregation, often enforced through neighborhood restrictions based on race/ethnicity

Late Capitalism and Suburbanization
After the depression of the 1930s, capitalism entered its third and current stage. The transition to this phase was marked not so much by technological changes (although automation of the entire production process via assembly line techniques and the like was an important factor), but moreso by organizational changes, including but not limited to the rise of transnational corporations, increasing vertical and horizontal integration, and the movement of manufacturing plants into the suburbs and overseas (to take advantage of lower costs).

During the economic upswing of this period, which lasted from the end of WW2 until about 1970, these organizational changes were accompanied by escalating racial tensions. Accordingly, many U.S. cities at this time experienced:

1. Race riots
2. Civil rights organizing
3. White flight
4. Manufacturing/population shift to the suburbs
5. The beginnings of urban decline

Racial tensions were fueled in part by population increases following WW2, northern migration of African Americans, and the movement of wealth and resources out of the cities (for example, manufacturing plants and offices were an important source of tax revenue) with the concomitant containment of blacks within. To make matters worse, black people were often prevented from owning their own property and were subject to exploitative rents and food prices charged by the suburban-dwelling property owners. However, riots only accelerated the process of white flight and further strained the dwindling resources of many cities.

Economic Stagnation and Urban Decay
By the 1970s, many U.S. cities were bereft of resources and political power, serving essentially as "garbage bins" for the nation's most impoverished people, and abandoned and neglected by everyone else. At this time, the global economy had entered into the period of stagnation which continues to characterize the economy today. Adding insult to injury, the conditions within cities began to deteriorate even further. For the next two decades, city dwellers faced problems of urban blight, a crack epidemic (and consequent imprisonment of a large portion of the young African American male population), and various "revitalization" projects that seemed to uproot, disturb, and harm local communities more than they "revitalized" anything.

When a large bubble was manufactured within the U.S. economy by the mid 90s, young professionals and new (often internet/tech-related) companies began to move back into cities to take advantage of the lower rents and property values. Furthermore, rapidly declining crime rates made these locations more attractive. The combination of temporary (and limited) economic growth along with the new migrations back into the city led to gentrification in circumscrbed neighborhoods, and in some cases, revitalization of entire cities (Washington, D.C. being a prime example).
However, this has been a heterogenous process and it is too early to tell what the lasting effects will be, particularly as the global economy still has not emerged from its longstanding period of stagnation. Stagnation generally ends with a transformation of the foundations of the economy, which in turns shapes the dynamics of city life. It is even possible that the old distinctions - urban/rural/suburban - may not be salient anymore as the spatial organization of economic processes undergoes yet another metamorphosis.

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