Topics: City, New York City, Chicago Pages: 45 (13385 words) Published: May 24, 2013


The Industrial City: Building It, Living in It

isiting his fiancée’s Missouri homestead in 1894, Theodore Dreiser was struck by “the spirit of rural America, its idealism, its dreams.” But this was an “American tradition in which I, alas, could not share,” Dreiser wrote. “I had seen Pittsburgh. I had seen Lithuanians and Hungarians in their [alleys] and hovels. I had seen the girls of the city — walking the streets at night.” Only twenty-three years old at the time, Dreiser would go on to write one of the great American urban novels, Sister Carrie (1900), about one young woman in the army of small-town Americans flocking to the Big City. But Dreiser, part of that army, already knew that between rural America — Henry George, 1883 and Pittsburgh, an unbridgeable chasm had opened up. In 1820, after two hundred years of settlement, the vast majority of Americans lived in rural areas. After that, decade by decade, the urban population swelled until, by 1900, one of every five Americans was a city dweller. Nearly 6.5 million people inhabited just three great cities: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia (Table 18.1). The city was where the factories went up and where the new immigrants settled, constituting one-third of all big-city residents in 1900. Here, too, lived the millionaires, and a growing white-collar class. For all these people, the city was more than a place to make a living. It provided the setting for an urban culture unlike anything seen before in the United States. City people, although differing vastly among themselves, became distinctively and recognizably urban. 523

These vast aggregations of humanity, where he who seeks isolation may find it more truly than in a desert; where wealth and poverty touch and jostle; where one revels and another starves within a few feet of each other — they are the centers and types of our civilization.


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PA R T F O U R A Maturing Industrial Society, 1877–1914

TABLE 18.1

Ten Largest Cities by Population, 1870 and 1900
1870 1900 Population 942,292 674,022 419,921 310,864 298,977 267,354 250,526 216,239 191,418 149,473 City New York Chicago Philadelphia St. Louis Boston Baltimore Cleveland Buffalo San Francisco Cincinnati Population 3,437,202 1,698,575 1,293,697 575,238 560,892 508,957 381,768 352,387 342,782 325,902

City 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. New York Philadelphia Brooklyn* St. Louis Chicago Baltimore Boston Cincinnati New Orleans San Francisco

*Brooklyn was consolidated with New York in 1898. SOURCE: U.S. Census data.

“The greater part of our population must live in cities,” declared the Congregational minister Josiah Strong. And from another writer, “There was no resisting the trend.” Why this sense of inevitability? Because of another inevitability of American life: industrialism. Until the Civil War, cities were the places where goods were bought and sold for distribution into the interior or out to world markets. Early industry, by contrast, sprang up mostly in the countryside, where factories had access to water power, nearby fuel and raw materials, and workers recruited from farms and villages. As industrialization proceeded, city and factory began to merge. Once steam engines came along, mill operators no longer depended on water-driven power. Railroads enabled factory builders to locate at the places best situated in relation to suppliers and markets. Iron makers gravitated to Pittsburgh because of its superior access to coal and ore fields. Chicago, midway between western livestock suppliers and eastern markets, became a great meatpacking center. Geographic concentration of industry meant urban growth. So did the rising scale of production. A plant that employed thousands of workers instantly created a small city in its vicinity, sometimes in the form of a company town like Aliquippa, Pennsylvania,...
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