America’s Cities Are (mostly) Better Than Ever

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Schooling was brief. Children dropped out, not at fourteen or fifteen, but at eight or nine. Even so, education was often inadequate: classrooms were crowded, teachers poorly trained and politically selected. No audiovisual aids or paraprofessional help assisted the beleaguered instructor; the truant officer became a familiar figure in the neighborhood. Reformers sought vainly to get class sizes down to fifty and replace patronage appointments with professionals.

Conditions in the area were tolerable only because those who lived there considered them temporary. Residential turnover was high; one of every five families had a different address each year. Most, of course, moved only a short distance and often because they could not pay the rent. But a significant number found housing in more pleasant communities away from the old slum. Scholars later argued over the percentage who “made it” out; yet every resident knew someone who did; a relative, perhaps, or someone on the block or in the parish. But the possibility of escape was as much a part of the experience as confinement.

The change over the subsequent three-quarters of a century was dramatic. In 1902 Robert Hunter estimated that over half the urban population lived beneath the poverty line. By 1970 that figure had fallen to less than 20 per cent, even though the definition of poverty had been raised substantially. Density in the inner city dropped drastically; Jacob Riis found over 300,000 people per square mile living in New York’s tenth ward; today, any concentration over 75,000 a square mile is considered intolerable. Public policy and private development removed the most visible downtown slums, though cancerous nodes remained behind. Public housing, with all its problems, replaced the most depressed and dilapidated areas. New building in the outer city and suburbs provided modern accommodations for an exploding urban population. In the sixties, experts argued over whether “substandard” housing composed 15 or 18 per cent of the total stock; judged by the same standards seventy years earlier, it would have composed more than half.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Even the crime rate was probably higher in 1900, though there is no way to prove it. Police organization was primitive, and systematic reporting of crime was still decades away. Politicians hired and fired the force; collusion between criminals and police was common. Constant gang warfare jeopardized the peace of nearly every downtown area. Political reformers always promised the “restoration of law and order.”

Municipal governments were too weak to control matters. State governments granted cities only modest powers, and then only grudgingly. Corruption riddled most city halls and municipalities. Political bosses and special interests united to plunder the public till. Lincoln Steffens made a national reputation with the book entitled The Shame of the Cities, which chronicled the boodle, bribery, and chicanery that he contended characterized nearly every American city. Good government forces occasionally broke the unseemly ring, but usually not for long.

In short, the present city, for all its problems, is cleaner, less crowded, safer, and more livable than its turn-of-the-century counterpart. Its people are more prosperous, better educated, and healthier than they were seventy years ago.

The slow but steady improvement in municipal affairs was the result of both particular historical conditions of the twentieth century and the efforts of many generations of urban dwellers. American cities enjoyed continued growth and expansion for most of the period. They were also the vital centers of a surging national economy. As the country became increasingly urban, the best talent and greatest wealth gravitated to the metropolis, where a huge pool of skilled and unskilled labor could be easily tapped. This combination made it possible for the United States to become the most powerful industrial nation in the world.

Technological changes, themselves largely products of the urban explosion, permitted new advances in municipal management. Subways, elevateds, and automobiles facilitated the movement of people throughout the expanding metropolis, retiring horses to the country. Modern medicine increased the effectiveness of public health measures. Electricity and central heating improved the comfort of new housing, and the long-term mortgage made home ownership easier to manage. Movies, radio, and television democratized entertainment, if they did not always elevate it. New laws forced more children into schools and kept them there longer.