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An unapologetic gryphophile, though i pretend to write about other stuff too.- Ko-Fi/Patreon

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The History of American Urban Development Part 3: Mature Industrialism (1875 - 1920 CE) (Let's Talk About History #4) · 5:03pm Dec 11th, 2019

Hey everyone, welcome back to my slow decline into madness as I continue to tell the story about the history of urban geography within the United States. For today’s essay/blog I will be examining the period from 1875-1920 as the cities of North America fully embrace the industrial revolution.

In this period, the capitalist economic system, that came to dominate the American economy in the previous era, grew more sophisticated and combined with advances in communication and transportation technology to further consolidate the urban system while creating a never before seen level of regional specialization and integration.

It is during this period that cities really begin to take on their modern shape. Downtowns become spotted with skyscrapers, suburbs take form, and the cities of North America really become the modern metropolises that we are familiar with.

So, let’s gather around the campfire, light up, maybe enjoy a beer or two, and talk about the history of Urban Geography within the United States from 1875-1920.

God the sex blogs are way catcher.

What’s changed?

As mentioned in the introduction, there was great advancements in transportation technology and as noted in previous entries of this series, it is advances in this that drive urban growth. The most pronounced of these changes was the invention of steel rail tracks, replacing the rapidly aging iron rails of the early industrial period. These new rails could handle heavier loads and higher speeds, greatly encouraging the spread of trade between cities. This increased level of trade then further fueled the specialization of urban settlements to best suit local conditions, also another trend started in the previous era.

Along with this invention there was also a period of extreme rail construction as between 1860 and 1890 the US rail network grew from 30 000 miles of tracks to 160 000. This expansion of tracks allowed two new types of cities to gain new importance. The first were new settlements which became hubs on the rail network, such as Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, and Houston. The second were formerly important colonial centres which were given a second wind as hubs on the rail network. These included Savannah and Charleston. 

Beside this, the growth of rail infrastructure allowed for the speedy movement of people into the Great Plains, allowing for the rapid colonization and economic integration of these regions. This movement was sponsored by the rail companies themselves who used advertisement to “sell” these “virgin” lands, creating new customers who would rely upon the rail for transportation of grains and other agriculture goods.

As the rail networks of America were growing, so was the population. During this period, advances in diet, sanitation, public health, and scientific medicine drastically cut the death rate, allowing for steady natural growth. While this was happening, there was also the arrival of 12 million immigrants between 1890-1910, accounting for a third of growth in these two decades. This wave of immigration was met by fierce resistance by growing labour unions and nationalistic organizations, resulting in the Immigration Act of 1921, which limited immigration to 250,000 immigrants a year. A figure further reduced, in 1924, to 150,000.

Most of this growth was experienced within existing cities, with New York City growing to 4.75 million residents by 1920 (up from 1.3 million in 1875). This was followed behind by Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh with around 1.5 million (up from between 350,000-450,000 in 1875). This is also the period that we see the emergence of major settlements in the west (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle), southwest (Dallas), and the midwest (Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Louis.) While modest, at around 500,000 residents each, this was the first time these regions began to house major settlements.

There was also the emergence of many small towns during this period, a move sponsored by the increasing commercialization of western agriculture, exploitation of major mineral deposits, and the increasing demand for coal. These factors combined to double the number of urban settlements between 1870-1920.

It is also in this period that we see the foundations laid in the early industrial period come together within the Northeastern United States, as the Manufacturing Belt begins to form. 

To understand why this happened, we must first learn and understand the concept of cumulative causation. In a nutshell, cumulative causation is the idea that an initial investment in manufacturing can have a far-reaching butterfly effect. When an industry receives investment, it grows. When it grows, it increases the supply of its goods, decreasing costs for the industries that require said good, while also increasing demand for the products that are required to produce said good, hence making the raw resources more profitable and more likely to grow. This leads to more jobs, a higher tax base (more income and revenue to tax), which then leads to increased finances for cities, which leads to higher quality of life and better infrastructure (which also increases profitability as goods can move more easily).

To provide an example, say that a steel mill was to receive investment, increasing the output of steel. The mill itself would benefit from increased revenue. The car manufacturer, who requires steel, would profit due to their being more steel available (decreasing per unit costs). Meanwhile, the coal and iron mines that fuel the mills would also prosper, as there is now higher demand for their products (increasing per unit cost). Because of this initial investment, four industries benefited and became more profitable. This in turns means that there are more profits to tax by civic, state, and federal governments.

The Manufacturing Belt, with its large markets, well-developed transportation network, and excellent access to coal were easily able to take advantage of upsurges in consumer demand, increased communication efficiency (telegraphs), and reduced energy costs brought on by the advent of thermoelectric generating stations. Plus, with the expanding rail network, local industries could now market and sell their goods across the entire United States.

The Industrial City

Increasing population density, economic specialization, competition for space, and economic activity meant that urban land became highly competitive and sought after during this period. The factor that determined the use of land was the ability of an actor to pay rent, and during this period, no one could pay more than factories, meaning they were given the first pick for location. For most industries (chemical, textile, iron, and steel) this meant near the waterfront where they could secure a reliable source of water for steam boilers, coolant, and as a material in chemical solutions.

Around these factories, speculators built housing for workers, a departure from the early industrial period where no such quarters were built. This also had the side effect of creating the first generalized housing market and fostering the early stages of the mass market for rental housing.

This battle for land, led to two forces which reorganized the urban environment during this period. First, there was an outward (centrifugal) force which propelled affluent professionals and high-end retailing towards suburban and exurban developments. At the same time, there was also an inward (centripetal) force which drew in factories, warehouses, offices, and hotels towards the city centre.

While this was going on, there was also another pair of factors which greatly and rapidly altered the culture of cities within a relatively short amount of time. First, there was new technologies, such as gaslights, electrification, streel-frame skyscrapers, and elevators. Then there was a cultural change as increasing levels of wealth allowed for the consumption of new products, financing the creation of modern roads, tunnels, bridges, sewers, and street lights, with the increasing revenue generated via taxes. When these factors collaborated, it led to the constant making and remaking of the urban built environment and infrastructure networks.

Cities were now seen as beacons of modernity, progress, and optimism, with utopian visions of new streets, bridges, telephone networks, gasworks, streetcar systems, and electricity. It was also during this period that the gaslight allowed for the creation of the urban night life as the illumination of nocturnal streets led to greater security, and law and order.

On the inverse, cities had also now begun to take on an inhuman mindset, being seen as a complex machine that could be tinkered with and perfected. This train of thought was led by engineers and reformers who wanted desperately to improve and meddle with every aspect of cities.

An early proponent of this view was Baron George Haussmann who was hired by Napoleon III (a man who’d I’d love to write a bio on) to modernize the city of Paris. In order to achieve his vision, he was allowed to demolish large parts of the city between 1853-1870 and reshape it into a more efficient enterprise. When finished, this modern Paris was easier to move through, due to larger boulevards, healthier to live in, due to parks and gardens, and also had the added benefit of being safer from revolutionary politics, you know since wider streets are harder to barricade (cough… 1830… cough, also another thing I’d like to write about). While his work was incredible, it also meant that the vast majority of the Paris we think about is less than 200 years old.

The work done by Haussmann was studied by his American contemporaries who attempted to emulate his work in both the existing and newly minted cities of the United States. His approach to urban design was especially popular in the coming together urban settlements of the Midwest.

However, this dramatic reorganization of urban space created quite a bit of conflict and tension within cities, a problem made worse by the previously mentioned – in prior blogs - ethos of civil liberties in the United States. It is during this period, that we finally begin to see pushback against the free usage of land within US cities as the movement towards the zoning of land use enters the scene.

Initially, movements towards legally defining land use (what can operate where) were mobilized in the face of perceived threats, hazards, and nuisances. However, the early work of these movements was unfortunately racist and involved segregation. For example, the roots of land use zoning grew in the 1880s on the US west coast, where cities used these philosophies to target Chinese Laundries, and other ethnic businesses. Soon, these philosophies were also used to target brothels, pool halls, dance halls, livery stables, and slaughterhouses. 

Before long, a new system was put into place, where cities were divided into specialized zones in which only certain forms of development could take place. For example, in Los Angeles, the city created three distinctive zones: areas where only residential development could be undertaken, areas where only industrial development could be undertaken, and finally, areas which were focused upon residential but did allow for the development of light industries.

However, the most famous of these early land use plans was New York City’s, who began to draft a series of ordinances to control development in the city. This time, their target was the Jewish community who had begun to encroach about the garment manufacturers of Fifth Avenue. By 1916, the civic government had passed a comprehensive land use zoning draft.

Now, in the United States, where the ethos of civil liberties was strong, you’d expect some push back, correct? Well it turned out that both land users and speculators loved these new laws. For speculators, in particular, it brought on a degree of stability for their investment. Because with such rigorous division of land, someone investing in a middle-income housing development no longer had to worry about plummeting values if a slaughterhouse or dye factor moved in down the street. In fact, these lands use ordinances were so popular that by 1926 (10 years after New York City), 500 cities had followed their lead.

Suburban Growth

In 1888, Frank Sprague did something revolutionary. In the city of Richmond, Virginia he opened a streetcar service. However, unlike previous services, which relied on horse-drawn carriages, this one ran on coal-powered electricity.

A year later, Henry Whitney adopted this technology and opened the first integrated electrical streetcar system, in the city of Boston. It was so successful, that between 1887-1904 the amount of streetcar tracks in the city grew from 200 miles to 450.

One of the key reasons this new streetcar was so successful is that electricity allowed for electric carriages to travel far faster than their hooved counterparts. And as you might recall from the previous entries in this series, increased speed means increased range, allowing for residential development to spread even father out from the urban core. People could now travel upwards of 10 miles in 30 minutes, allowing for thousands of acres of new land to come under development.

These newly developed lands would be known as streetcar suburbs, and the sheer volume of land that came under development caused the price of it to utterly plummet, offering inexpensive suburban dwellings. This cheap land paired with cheaper commute prices (electricity was cheaper than feeding a horse and could also offer more power, allowing for more passengers) meant that developers could find a solid market amongst the growing middle-income urban dwellers.

For example, in Chicago, the streetcar allowed for the development of 80,000 new homes between 1890-1920.

Sprague’s invention was so successful that within 5 years, it was adopted by 200 cities and by 1902, there were 20,000 miles of streetcar tracks within American cities. Beyond the growth of suburbs, the streetcar had five other key impacts upon the urban form of cities.

1) The departure of thousands of middle-income households out of the inner city and into the suburbs allowed for their previous residences to be reassigned to non-residential uses in the newly coming together downtowns.

2) The low cost of the streetcar, allowed for suburban housewives to travel into the city and shop, sustaining a specialized shopping district (think department stores).

3) The creation of cross-town and circumferential streetcar lines spawned a series of junctions and inter-changes which allowed for the growth of small nuclei of commercial development, effectively beginning the slow process of decentralizing the commercial hegemony of the central city. A process which will only pick up steam with the automobile and further suburbanization.

4) Larger nodes of development occurred around terminus stops on the streetcar network, and to counter declining usage during the weekend and holidays, streetcar companies promoted the idea of weekend getaways to amusement parks, beaches, picnic grounds, and even cemeteries (what the fuck 19th century). 

5) The streetcar allowed for the growth of suburban settlements and satellite townships which would’ve otherwise been too small to sustain an economic base of their own. Soon the growing influx of professionals and customers into these communities allowed them to develop their own industrial bases, shops, and offices, further fueling the decentralization of cities.

Within larger cities, the congestion created by streetcars on city streets created a desire to separate them from the main urban corridors, instead moving them either above or below ground. These new rapid transit corridors would allow for faster travel and greater passenger numbers.

The pioneer of this philosophy was London, who in 1863 created the Metropolitan Subway Line and in 1884 created the Inner Circle Line. For the United States, this revolution would hit in 1897, when Henry Whitney (Yes, the guy who brought electric streetcars to Boston) opened a 1.6-mile-long subway line on Tremont Street in Boston. During its first year of operation, it would be used by 50 million passengers.

The success of this enterprise spurred development in New York City who opened its own subway system in 1904. It is important to mention that these lines were not cheap to construct and it cost nearly $150,000 ($4.3 million today) to lay 100 yards of subterranean track. However, the model clearly turned out to be profitable as Philadelphia joined in, with its own, in 1908. Sadly, this would be the last American subway constructed until the 1940s.

An alternative to this was the construction of elevated electric railways, which were a popular option in cities such as Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, and Philadelphia.

As previously mentioned, there was a tremendously close link between mass transit and suburban real estate development. Often, it would be the same companies establishing both the rail infrastructure and owning the adjacent lands, using the rail as a means to boost the value of previously fringe and unprofitable real estate.

This was especially true on the west coast. Where, for example, F.M. Smith established trolley lines to the San Francisco East Bay where he happened to own 13,000 acres of land for development. Another example would be Henry Huntington, who would buy up land along perspective routes and service these areas while avoiding the lands of competitors, unless they made him a partner. One such partner was Harry Chandler who owned 47,500 acres of land in San Fernando that would receive lines from Huntington. This project was so successful that his holdings eventually grew to 270,000 acres. 

Until the 1920s, public transit overwhelming influenced the form, shape, and growth of cities. Transit corridors were the arteries of urban life, by which people moved and real estate grew. Transit stops became nodes of commerce and entertainment, and radial lines converged at the beating heart of the metropolitan areas.

Inside the Industrial City

Never before had there been such visible growth, intensive building/rebuilding, and new arrangements/rearrangements of the urban form and function. There were three key dimensions of growth in shaping the modern city: the growth of the Central Business District, the assignment of locations based on rent, and the emergence of distinctive patterns of residential segregation.

The Central Business District (CBD) was previously mentioned as it had begun to take on its embryonic stages during the Early Industrial Period. During the Industrial Period, its importance would climax before slowly withering away over the coming decades.

For now, however, the CBD was the symbol of progress, modernity, and affluence, especially after the emergence of technologies which made skyscrapers possible. The status and importance of a city could be read in the size and degree of differentiation within its CBD. The CBD was a hub of economic, social, political, and cultural life within a city with many distinctive districts. We will examine each in turn.

Department Stores and Shopping District: Retail dominated the use of land within the early CBD as specialized, higher-order, and exclusive retailers could generate sufficient profit to pay for the best downtown land. This district was rather limited in size, due to the unwillingness of customers to walk far and was generally only 300 yards in radius.

At the very centre of this district were grand multistory department stores. These were landmarks and were often stationed near busy intersections, near rail stations, and close to a stop on the downtown transit network, ensuring they were the first location that prospective clients hit. Shops for more specialized goods, such woman’s clothing stores, would often cluster together and take up position near department stores in the hope of catching the spillage of customers leaving them. The most high-end and specialized of locations, jewelers and high-end fashion, could afford to stray a little father away from the hubbub, in the knowledge that their exclusivity would bring customers to them and they didn’t need to rely on the most attractive of locations.

Downtown Office District: Larger American cities could support a cluster of high-order services such as banks, law offices, and medical facilities into a new district of office spaces. This district was often located next to the shopping district, due to it having similar requirements, such as a close proximity to transit corridors (both for the people working within it and those coming to use their services).

It was this office district that gave the CBD its most iconic landmark, skyscrapers. The first of these were constructed by insurance companies and publishing houses and soon it was realized that not only were they effective at keeping a workforce together but their sheer colossal size made them an effective means of advertising.

Soon, skyscrapers were being built by speculators, who rented out portion of their investment to smaller firms who wished to share in the boon of being located in a landmark and benefit from the opulence of marble floors and concierge services.

Warehousing Zones: In the previous era, the activities of storing goods and retailing them went hand in hand with many operations handling both in the same building. However, as the cities of the Industrial period grew larger, and the scale of these two operations grew in turn, it became necessary to divide these enterprises into separate districts. These new warehouse zones formed on the edges of the CBD, locating themselves near rail lines and freight yards, giving them easy access to the infrastructure necessary to not only move goods into the city, but also move goods from the central city to the growing satellite communities that encircled it.

While the warehouse did operate as storage for most goods, a few select goods were still housed within stores. These included low-volume, but high-value, goods, such as jewellery, which didn’t have the scale to justify a warehouse. The other was high-volume, but perishable, goods, such as vegetables and meats which had such a short shelf life that there was no practical need for off site storage.

City Hall and Civic Functions Zones:  As the CBD grew in importance, it led to civic officials finding it necessary to move their functions and offices to a central location for both their own convenience and those of their constituents. These civic hubs were largely a symbolic gesture, something to show that the civic government was at the hub of urban life. It also became a battleground as civic governments not only tried to construct opulent monuments, offices, and chambers to outshine other ventures within their own city but also trying to show up one another to display how one city was better than the rest.

This zone was dominated not only by the city hall but also by well groomed malls, parks, and statues, along with a surrounding district that held the city’s grandest library, the central post office, courthouses, museums, assembly halls, opera houses, art galleries, and the offices of lawyers, colleges and universities. 

How the CBD and Cities Were Shaped

As mentioned, the core of the CBD was a high-density zone dominated by retail, offices, entertainment, and civic zones. Then around this, was a lower-density frame which contained warehouse functions, educational institutions, hotels, medical facilities, and a mixture of more specialized shops (who could attract business by the sheer rarity of their service and not by having a swanky locale).

The CBD is however a very dynamic creature. The change of importance in industries, developments in transportation infrastructure, and the obsolescence of buildings ensured that there was a constant cycle of change. The core of this CBD often expanded, assimilating the lower-density frame, while also moving away from lower-status elements, ejecting them from the CBD and surrendering them to fringe activities (gambling, slums, and prostitution) and disorder.

A major determinant that fueled this change was the philosophy of land rent, in which relative location and use of land judged the value someone was willing to pay for it, with more attractive lands being pegged at a higher rate than less attractive ones. This ensured that the industries and activities which were doing the most well off could acquire the best locations and clustered together in high-status clusters. For example, in New York, in the 1920s, street frontage on Broadway was selling for $22,000 per square foot, yet half a mile away, it was $3000. This meant that Broadway had a unique pull to it that enticed investment. This type, and pattern, of land use can be seen in virtually every American city of his period.

This system of rent created a series of radial sectors which expanded outwards from the CBD. The highest rent lands were within the CBD, but beyond it, the wealthiest of individuals located their homes, and the most successful of business grew towards, a single sector that continued outwards continuously. These lands were located along major transit routes, on the highest lands – most removed from flooding - and seemed to be centred upon community leaders. To either side of this high-rent sector were two middle-rent sectors who located themselves close to the high-rent sector in an effort to be associated with their high-rent neighbours. Then opposite of the high-rent sector was a low-rent sector all the way on the other side of the city. This was filled with the working and lower classes who were often given the worst, or least attractive, lands.

Now one of the things the rich liked to do was move away from the city core and its congestion, leaving behind their now obsolete houses for newly built ones away from the city hub. This in turn left these still perfectly fine homes open for middle class families to filter into, who desired to chase the rich. This in turn left their properties open for the working class, who finally vacated their homes and left them to the lower classes. This is known as generational filtering and is a key player in that dynamic rebuilding of cities that opened this section, though on a residential level.


Well I think this might be the biggest blog I’ve touched on in a good long while, covering a pretty revolutionary period within urban life. Though hasn’t that been pretty much every single one of the blogs in this series?

You know when I first bit off this project I didn’t think it would grow into a year long endeavour. But hey we only have like another 90 years to write about and what could possibly change in that short of an amount of time? Oh right… the invention of the car… and automobile suburbs… and the decentralization of cities, and urban blight, and…

You get the point.

Anyways, I hope to see you all next time for this series, when I venture into the 1920s and push all the way to the end of WW2. Or if you like my sex blogs, we’ll be talking about impact play over there, which should be loads of fun!


Comments ( 2 )

This was a pretty interesting read, especially as someone who has always been gut-feeling skeptical of The City as an institution.

Not trusting cities? What are you an anarchist?

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