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Urbanization During the Second Industrial Revolution in America: Effects & Problems

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  • 0:05 The Lure of the City
  • 3:40 The Problems of Urbanization
  • 8:51 Urban Planning Emerges
  • 11:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

After the Civil War, America transformed from a rural nation to an urban nation. Learn where all those people came from and why. Using New York City as an example, you'll see some of the problems of urbanization and the steps they took to improve it.

The Lure of the City

On the eve of the Civil War, only about 17% of Americans lived in a town of 8,000 people or more. Just three decades later, more than 30% lived in an urban setting. And, by 1900, roughly 40% of Americans lived in cities, and the number was increasing every day. Philadelphia and Chicago were home to more than a million people each, and New York City held more than two million. Towns like Omaha, Nebraska, which had been tiny hamlets in a sea of farmland back in 1860, increased their population as much as 50 times! Overall, the United States population exploded from 31 million in 1860 to 92 million in 1910. This concentration of people into cities is a process that historians call urbanization. In this lesson, we're going to explore the phenomenon, particularly as it happened in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It took less than 50 years for cities to become America's social, cultural and economic lifeline. Massive amounts of capital poured into new manufacturing plants, accompanied by swarms of blue- and white-collar workers, and new businesses, banks and rail yards served the needs of a nation that was rapidly turning away from its agrarian roots. Ironically, the same technological achievements that allowed industry to flourish had made agriculture so efficient that many thousands of farmers found themselves obsolete. A migration from rural to urban areas ensued, accounting for all of that tremendous growth in heartland cities like Omaha. But, that was overshadowed by the 25 million immigrants who flooded Northern American cities around the turn of the century from all over Europe, plus Russia and Asia.

The cities were crowded, dangerous and dirty, but they offered what many have called, in hindsight, the 'American Dream.' Any one of these new urban dwellers could have been the next Henry Frick, a former farm boy, or Andrew Carnegie, a penniless immigrant, both who rose from rags to riches in this era. Most of these individuals were between the ages of 15 and 30. If your choices were life in a European slum with no hope for improvement or life in an American city with at least the promise of work and an education for your children, which would you choose? Or, if your prospects were life on an American farm, with years of unrelenting hard work and decreasing profits, would you consider trading that for a boring office job in a city with weekends off and plenty to see and do? Many thought it was an obvious choice. So, despite the difficulties of urban life, there was hope for a better life.

In this era, known as the Gilded Age, cities were places of wonder for those with a little money. There were museums and theaters, amusement parks, sporting events, zoos, indoor plumbing, electric lighting and telephones. Even the poor could marvel at skyscrapers, walk in a park or gawk at miles of sprawling, ostentatious mansions to inspire their dreams.

The Problems of Urbanization

But, of course, anything gilded has an underside. The infrastructure for basic health and safety standards either didn't exist, or it was insufficient to handle the onslaught of people. And, politicians at every level were infamous for their corruption and incompetence.

Think about a city with two million people and all their horses without trash pickup, a fire department, sewers, street cleaners or regulations for air and water quality. On an average day in 1890, horses left half a million pounds of manure on the unpaved streets of New York, which ran into the rivers where residents got their water. In Chicago, the meat-packing industry added both the refuse and the smell of thousands of slaughtered animals in the years before refrigeration. Coal smoke gushed from homes, and factories belched all kinds of pollution into the air, soil and water.

Now, police forces did exist in some cities, but they were ill-prepared for the crime that flourished in the poverty-ridden slums and the gang-type warfare that erupted between rival ethnic groups. Now, that may come as a surprise to those who cherish the notion of America as the 'Great Melting Pot' of the world. It's true that 42% of New Yorkers were foreign-born in 1890, but they separated themselves into ethnic enclaves, and more than half of all the residents spoke no English at all. They weren't melting. Social reformer, Jacob Riis, described the segregation this way, 'A map of the city, colored to designate nationalities, would show more stripes than on a skin of a zebra, and more colors than any rainbow. The city on such a map would fall into two great halves, green for the Irish on the West side tenement districts, and blue for the Germans on the East side. But intermingled with these ground colors would be an odd variety of tints that would give the whole the appearance of an extraordinary crazy-quilt.'

Housing was perhaps the most serious problem. It was simply impossible to build homes for people as fast as they came. City dwellers often found themselves crammed either into buildings, like warehouses, that weren't designed for housing or into hastily built, dangerous apartment buildings. Entire families sometimes packed into one windowless room without running water or toilets, joined end-to-end with other rooms, rather than opening to a hallway. Commonly called rookeries, the buildings were prone to collapse, and fire spread through them in minutes. Building codes in New York just after the Civil War attempted to relieve this dangerous situation by requiring that every room have a window, but clever slum lords addressed this by adding windows that simply opened into other rooms or hallways.

A revision of that law in 1879 required that every room have a window to the outside, resulting in the emergence of so-called 'dumbbell tenements.' They earned their nickname from the shape of the buildings. Now, the indentations allowed the rooms in the center of the building to have the required windows, but then, when the buildings were stacked side-by-side, so they could maximize the available lot space, the result was a narrow shaft that ran the height of the building. Unfortunately, the space intended for ventilation became a convenient place for residents to dump their trash and human waste, and without access to the shaft from the streets, the space quickly filled up. You can imagine why it would be better to live at the top of a building! Also, this updated design didn't relieve the overcrowding. So, even though the law technically required water taps and toilets for every 20 people, many times, more residents occupied a tenement than it was designed to hold. In 1895, New York City was the most densely populated city in the world, with some areas holding 800 residents per acre.

In the summer time, without air conditioning or proper ventilation, the smell of the slums was unbearable both inside and out. Insects and rodents flourished. The water that came from the community taps was often contaminated. In such conditions, diseases, like influenza, smallpox, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis and typhoid, were rampant. Of course, millions of homeless people, especially orphaned children, would've relished the opportunity to sleep inside a tenement. Despite the glitter of the cities and some of their richest citizens, American slums in the Gilded Age were among the worst in the history of the world.

Urban Planning Emerges

It's hard to believe that the upper class of society was completely unaware of just how bad things were. Now, this began to change when muckrakers revealed problems through their investigative journalism. Jacob Riis was one such muckraker, and he increased awareness of the tenements through the publication of his book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. And, no one could ignore the spread of disease. The combined efforts of concerned citizens, self-interested political machines and, later, the Progressive Movement, finally brought some reform.

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