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Formation of American Cities

American cities were in their infanthood in the years right after the civil war. An amalgamation of cultural, political and historical factors dictated the growth and development of these cities from their state in the late nineteenth century to what they are today. The population increase in most American cities was at first a result of internal migration of Americans from countryside farms into urban dwellings and later a manifestation of immigration of people from different parts of the world, especially Europe and Asia. Immigrants were attracted to American cities because of the nearly irresistible lure of making a fortune in America. Industrialization, transport and infrastructure are among the factors that provided incentives for the immigration of foreign people into American cities, bolstering their population. This burst in the numbers of inhabitants of American cities brought with it different factors, such as overcrowding and crime, that eventually shaped the development of these cities.

This article will examine the social, political and historical ramifications of the growth of American cities. It will delve into the literary depiction of this growth so as to gain a deeper insight into the actual occurrences that shaped the development of these cities.

Historical factors

The American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, proved one of the most costly wars ever fought in the United States. However, it marked a crucial point in the History of America; the abolishment of the slave trade. This provided an environment that encouraged immigrants and natives to equally pursue their dreams. This would ultimately play a pivotal role in the growth of American cities.

The history of slavery in the United States is riddled with clashing opinions and sentiments. The fractionating issue of slavery came to a head in the American Civil War, which brought slavery to a decisive end in America. Prior to that, the immigrants who came to the United States, apart from settlers, consisted of slaves who were shipped to America against their will. However, the abolishment of slavery encouraged outsiders to immigrate into the United States, because they could now engage in self-development, unencumbered by the burdens and ills of slavery. Naturally, there was a consequent large inflow of immigrants into the United States after the Civil War, and they bolstered the population of American cities.

Most cities in the United States boast a diversity of cultures. This diversity has its origin in the immigration of people from all parts of the world into the United States. In the late part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, about twenty-three million immigrants flooded the United States. In fact, by 1890, immigrants outnumbered the natives in most cities.

Push factors in countries around the world engendered the emigration of people from those countries, but pull factors directed their flow into the United States. Historically, the immigration of people from different parts of the world into the United States can be divided into two parts. The first is the immigration and settlement of European settlers who ventured into America to bring it under the British colonial rule, and the second is the immigration of people from all over the world who sought an opportunity to pursue their dreams in a different land (slaves who were shipped into America are not considered part of either). A large number of people, who were neither settlers nor slaves, migrated into the United States because they were pushed away from their countries by different factors.

In the late eighteenth century, a combination of push-factors in Europe forced many people out of the continent to seek better places to live. These push-factors include the explosive population in Europe in the late nineteenth century, the loss of jobs by thousands of people as a result of the mechanization of jobs such as weaving and knitting, exploitative political systems and even natural disasters such as potato blights. In Ireland, for instance, a plague of potato blights and an exploitative landlord-tenant system sliced the population of the country by about a quarter. While these factors served to push people away from their countries of origin, other factors served to pull them into the United States of America.

First of all, for a long time, Americans had nothing against immigrants. If anything, their attitude towards immigrants was positive. Therefore, the restrictions to immigrant inflow were minimal. Immigrants landed in America with prospects of working in the ever-growing American economy and the corresponding demand for labor. Cities were growing feverishly, and transport networks were knitting the country into one single market; there was plenty of work for everybody. These factors served as an irresistible magnet pulling people away from their home continents into the cities within the United States.

Social Factors

Immigrant experiences transformed the social settings of most cities. While many natives detested the changes that these immigrants imposed upon the American culture, the immigrants insisted on carrying on with their cultures in this new setting. Thus, there were many manifestations of European culture in daily American life. For instance, there were Italian restaurants, Chinese hotels and so on. Even the street language began to pick on words from these immigrant languages, and accents in different zones resembled the accent of the immigrants who were predominant in those zones.

As immigrants made their way into the United States, they developed a penchant of settling where their fellow countrymen had already settled. This practice created nuclei of settlements of different people within cities. For instance, it was not uncommon to find German, Irish or Italian settlements within cities such as New York and Chicago. Immigrants encouraged close family ties and friendship within their own ethnic groups. This could be viewed as a result of living in a vastly unfamiliar territory or just an acute awareness that their culture needed to be preserved as much as possible. These sentiments were so strong that they even pervaded the Church. For instance, immigrants requested the Vatican to allow the local churches to appoint clergy on ethnic lines. The Vatican officially turned down this request, but it tacitly pursued a policy of appointing ethnic clergy so as to help preserve ethnic family values.

While the reception of immigrant by native people took a laid-back and nonchalant approach - perhaps even friendly - subtle hostilities greeted the immigrants from the quarters of the natives. It was not uncommon for derogatory ethnic jokes to be published in local dailies. Such jokes included remarks like "cheap Jews", the "frugal Scotts" and the "lazy Irish". One sociologist observed that Italians were "quite familiar with the sight of human blood", denoting how they were prone to violence.

The rapid growth of American cities required a corresponding growth of amenities and jobs to keep up with the population increase. As such, it inspired the development of infrastructural and transportation facilities. These sectors grew each day as the cities bristled with more and more life with each passing day. In fact, the modern American City resulted from the fierce competition by civic leaders to attract people, industry and wealth.

A notable inducement to the growth of the cities in America was the rapid development of the transport sector. Many different forms of transportation emerged as people sought alternative means of transport to and from their places of work. By the 1880s, most cities had streetcars. Later, there were such innovations as trolleys and underground trains that helped ease the transport headache of most large cities and help people move from place to place. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, and it became the largest suspension bridge.

Transport enabled the segregation of settlements by income. Lower earning income groups could not afford to travel long distances every day, and they, therefore, chose to have their housing within the cities. People within the middle-income bracket could afford to travel a short distance out of the cities, hence the suburbs developed.

Moreover, transport enabled the manufacturing industry to develop. The Midwest had become the hub of manufacturing by 1900. Most manufacturers and workers in the manufacturing industry had settled in the belt to the East of the Mississippi River and to the North of Ohio River. This boon to the manufacturing industry enabled the rapid growth of such cities as St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Nebraska, Kansas City, Missouri, Minneapolis and Minnesota.

The development in the housing sector was enabled by rapid advancements in the field of architecture. As land became scarce and expensive, there was the need for upward expansion. Chicago became a point of interest as far as skyscrapers were concerned. Louis Sullivan, an Architect in Chicago, contributed immensely to the development of skyscrapers in the United States. The Wainwright Building, the first skyscraper, which he designed, set the tone and pace for skyscrapers in Chicago and the rest of American Cities for a long time. The invention of the electric elevator also provided a spur for the construction of much taller buildings than the first skyscrapers. With time, other forms of housing gave way to skyscrapers in the cities of the United States, a phenomenon that has become so synonymous with American cities.

The rapid growth of American Cities came with a number of changes in the lifestyle of city dwellers. There were significant problems as far as housing, sanitation and poverty were concerned. Crime also became a serious concern in most of the major cities. Water and sewage services came to most cities at a sluggish pace. The overcrowded nature of most of the cities made them prone to devastating consequences of fire. One such fire is the infamous Chicago fire which fell short of wiping out the entire city by a whisker.

Another outcome of overcrowding in the cities was a shortage of amenities and resources to serve the entire population of city dwellers. As a result, deadly conflicts often arose in various cities. One such conflict inspired a movie by award-winning film director, Roman Polanski. The movie is a dramatization of the California Water Wars, a series of conflicts between dwellers of Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

The movie presents a cut-throat rivalry that threatens to consume anyone involved. In the movie, the chief character, Gittes, finds himself in an awkward position several times as a result of his involvement in investigating a saga that involves the water that is released from the reservoir. What happened in Los Angeles to inspire the movie was that the rapidly growing population consumed the water resources at a faster pace than anticipated, leading the city engineer to propose the construction of an aqueduct that would divert the water from the Owens Valley to the City. The resulting drop in the amount of water reaching the Owens Valley disrupted agriculture, prompting the farmers in the valley to make several attempts of destroying the aqueduct. This inevitably led to life-threatening contests among the dwellers of the city and the dwellers of the Valley.


Politics inevitably had a prominent influence in the growth and development of American cities. As has been observed, the growth of American Cities due to immigration in the late twentieth century went on almost unrestricted, leading to a population explosion in most of the American cities. Until the nineteen forties, the doors were open to immigrants from all over the world to come into the United States. The laws that had been passed before then attempting to curtail the entrance of immigrants into America were toothless laws that had little effect on this influx.

American Native began having eerie feelings about the flooding of foreign people into their land. They unsuccessfully attempted to pass legislations to stem these influxes. Between 1880 and 1943, a number of legislations passed in the United States was meant to check the migration into the United States of foreign people. For instance, in 1882, the Congress passed the law that excluded people of lower social standing such as convicts, paupers and mental retards. This was more a de jure law than a de facto law. It was almost entirely nominal, for it had little if any, effect on the immigration of people into the United States. Three years later, Congress also denied contracted laborers the right of entry into the United States. Again, this law had little effect upon the migration of people into the United States.

However, a couple of decades later, Congress finally made a decisive decision to filter people entering the United States. This was almost coincident with and partly inspired by, the great depression. Since the 1840s, the doors of the United States were open to much of the World. However, between the 1930s and 1950s, the United States Congress imposed severe restrictions to the inflow of outsiders into the country. The people who came to the United States after had to circumvent a thorough screening process in order to set foot in the country.

Politics also played a fundamental part in the role in the development of city amenities. There was fierce competition between town authorities to attract people, industries and investors. As such, politics played a pivotal role in setting up machinery to attract the requisite amenities. For instance, cities in the Midwest engaged in an aggressive race to attract patronage by embarking on commerce, banking and other services. Such cities included Kansas and Minnesota. The civic leaders offered attractive incentives to investors to entice them into investing in their cities, and this spurred the growth of cities in the United States.

The system of city politics was a vastly different from what we know it to be today. Power rested in the hands of people known as bosses. A famous example is George Cox from Cincinnati. They handpicked candidates and engineered the electoral process. Although this system was not democratic, the bosses provided vital services to their cities. For example, they provided welfare system where the less privileged in the society would get respite. They provided food and money to the poor, mediated disputes between city residents and the police and other city agencies and arranged jobs for the jobless people.

As has already been mentioned, the growing population of most American cities came with disturbing challenges in just about all sectors of urban life. City authorities endeavored to alleviate these problems by providing timely and resolute solutions. The density of the population hampered any interventions by the city officials, but they tried to circumvent the problem. Statistics had it that the Polish section in Chicago harbored about three hundred and forty people per acre of land. With such thickness in the population, managing the sewage plants was a headache. However, the sewage facilities came into the city gradually.

Also, the authorities embarked on trying to rectify the morals of the city dwellers, which had spiraled out of control. The crime rates had risen to unprecedented levels, and there was a grave concern over how the authorities would handle the matter.

The authorities not only embarked on efforts of mending the morals of the people, but they also adopted strict policies for protecting the cities. Prostitution, gambling, theft and public drunkenness were common in most cities. To thwart such misdemeanor, the communities established programs for volunteer or paid watches. These watches proved vastly inadequate because they did little more than to reassure the residents that there was somebody on watch. The crime rates in most cities howled for the creation of a police force.

The first modern model of a police force was established in New York in 1945. Many other cities copied this model of the New York police. These included Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia. However, another problem lay in wait for these police forces. The people who were meant to protect and restore order and sanity to the cities proved extremely vulnerable to corruption. Enormous effort was required to restore rationality in the police force.

Specialized public institutions were set up to deal with mental illness, poverty and other social ills that wracked the cities within the United States. These institutions sought to offer comfort to afflicted people, and, more importantly, institutionalize such efforts. The people who came to the aid of afflicted people included such names as Robert Hanley and Charles Loring. He channeled his efforts through an association in New York City whose aim was to improve the living conditions of the poor. The association championed for such amenities as pure milk, public baths and better housing. Charles Loring concentrated on improving the conditions of children.


American cities were spurred to life in the late nineteenth century due to internal migration of people from the rural farms to the urban areas and, even more importantly, from many different countries around the globe into the United States. This mass influx of people into the cities in the United States not only helped build the population base in these cities, but it also inspired the development of transportation facilities, infrastructure and social amenities. Historical, social and political influences were all brought to bear in the development of the cities in the United States. In a nutshell, the development of cities in the United States went through the slow and strenuous process of growth that is characteristic of most cities. However, the scale of it was remarkable, and the remarkable nature of American cities today is the testimony to this truth.