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America’s Cities Are (mostly) Better Than Ever

July 2024
16min read

Today’s city, for all its ills, is “cleaner, less crowded, safer, and more livable than its turn-of-the-century counterpart,” argues this eminent urban historian. Yet two new problems are potentially fatal.

More than a decade ago the phrase “urban crisis” crept into our public conversation. Since then it has become a cliché, connoting a wide range of persistent and dangerous problems confronting our cities. Moreover, the phrase, like “missile crisis” or “energy crisis,” suggests both newness and immediate danger. The rioting, arson, and looting that erupted in the 1960’s fortified this general impression. Presumably something unprecedented had happened. Urban life had become unmanageable; in the professional and popular view, cities were “ungovernable.”

Something new, indeed, had happened. It was not that American cities had not known violence and race conflict before. They ran like thick red lines through the history of many cities. But the scale and ubiquity of the modern outbreaks had no earlier analogue. Large and small cities, both north and south, witnessed almost simultaneous explosions; the number of dead and injured and the amount of property damage easily exceeded those of anything previous. Few people predicted the rioting, hence most sought for an explanation in very recent developments—black migrations, the slow pace of desegregation, unemployment, broken families, and the Vietnam War.

Yet the fires of the 1960’s were not the arson of a single decade or generation. Urban society had been accumulating combustibles for well over a century. The seventies have simply tamped down the flames while the ashes still smolder and, unless the historical sources of the present crisis are better understood and public policy changed, a recurrence, next time probably worse, is almost inevitable. New York City’s experience during the 1977 black-out ought to have served as the first alarm for the nation.

What baffled most commentators in the sixties was that the convulsions came at a time when urban experts confidently had asserted that the nation’s cities were overcoming their afflictions. There had been, for example, a marked decline in the percentage of substandard housing; there were relatively fewer urban poor than ever before; hospital beds had caught up with need; federal programs were bringing health care to an unprecedented number of people; schools had reduced class size; new skylines attested to renewed downtown vitality; municipal government, though scarred by occasional scandals, was demonstrably more competent than it once had been.

To the historian the argument had a superficial validity. One only had to compare the city of 1970 with the city of 1900 to measure municipal progress. At the turn of the century every city had its concentrations of wretched neighborhoods where poor people huddled in run-down or jerry-built houses and in tenements lacking even toilets or running water. Primitive coal stoves provided the heat; kerosene lamps the light. Family cohesiveness, always fragile, often cracked under the weight of these oppressive circumstances. Nor were these conditions exceptional. Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives described the festering slums on New York’s Lower East Side in 1890; but as the title suggests, he was also discussing the predicament of over 50 per cent of the city’s population. Indeed, a congressional inquiry into urban housing at about the same time demonstrated that every metropolis matched New York’s dilapidated, unsanitary, and dangerous dwellings.

Nor was there much in the neighborhood to compensate for the miseries of home life. The droppings of thousands of horses made even crossing the street hazardous. Garbage clogged thoroughfares; sanitation carts picked their way through congested avenues and alleys once a week at best. Cheap shops and uninspected markets lined the sidewalks. No traffic regulations prevented horse-drawn trucks and carts, electric trolleys, and private hacks from creating a continual cacophony, day and night. And dense smoke from coal-burning factories and office buildings rolled darkly through downtown. Worse still, crime and violence were constant companions of slum dwellers.

Three institutions attenuated the misery of the slum—the church, the school, and the saloon. And they were attractive precisely because they provided what the tenement and neighborhood lacked. The church was clean and uncongested; its friendly priest, minister, or rabbi cared about the parishioners and their families. Even the most primitive schools took the children out of the tenement and into rooms that were at least heated in the winter. The saloon was bright and congenial, and the husband could meet with friends and neighbors away from the oppressive crowding of the apartment. Yet these oases could not conceal—indeed they only magnified—the grinding deprivation of the lives of these people. Later commentators would invest the “good old neighborhood” with charm, conviviality, and livability; but to most of its residents, life was a losing struggle against filth, noise, and disorder.

The whole family was drawn into the contest. Jobs for anyone were scarce and irregular. Good, steady work that permitted the father to feed, clothe, and shelter his family on his own was very rare. The wife and children usually had to enter the already overcrowded job market. Mothers and daughters sewed, packaged nuts, made artificial flowers. Young boys sold newspapers, picked coal, collected rags, ran errands. Frequent depressions did away with even these menial tasks.

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.

Though progress was often sporadic, city government widened its competence and improved its performance. Tensions between reformers and urban machines resulted in permanent gains, for after each revolt was beaten back, some improvements were always retained. Civil service slowly produced a bureaucracy that, for all its clumsiness, was distinctly superior to the earlier rampant patronage system. Zoning put a measure of predictability, if not control, into land use. And nearly everywhere the quality of urban leadership was noticeably better than before. A few old-time bosses persisted, but they were viewed as quaint anachronisms rather than as the logical expressions of city politics.

This considerable achievement rested on two historical conditions—the general prosperity of the period and the ample municipal limits which permitted expanding economic activity to take place within a single political jurisdiction. Except for the Great Depression and occasional sharp dips in the business index, American cities generally witnessed sustained growth. Even wartime did not interrupt the expansion; indeed, immense military spending acted as a swift stimulus to urban economies. Municipal progress cost money—a lot of it—and American cities generally had it to spend. And when they did not, they borrowed, confident that the future would be even more prosperous.

This was, moreover, the age of the self-sufficient city. Municipal boundaries were wide and continually enlarging. In 1876 St. Louis reached out into neighboring farm land and incorporated all the area now within its city limits. In one swift move in 1889 Chicago added over 125 square miles to its territory. And in 1898 New York absorbed the four surrounding counties—including Brooklyn, the nation’s fourth largest city—making it the world’s Empire City.

In 1900 municipal boundaries were generous, almost always including unsettled and undeveloped land. As populations grew, there were always fresh areas to build up. This meant that all the wealth, all the commerce, all the industry, and all the talent lay within the city. When serious problems arose, all the resources of the metropolis could be brought to bear to solve them. More prosperous than either the state or federal governments, the cities needed no outside help; indeed they met any interference with the demand for home rule.

For as long as these historical conditions prevailed, American cities could make incremental progress in attacking even the most vexing problems. But after the Second World War, two divisive elements entered the metropolis, destroying its economic and governmental unity and profoundly altering its social structure. The first division was between suburb and city; the second between black and white. Actually, these fissures always had been present, but not on the same scale or with the same intensity, and certainly not with the same significance.

Suburbanization is almost as old as urbanization. American cities always have grown from the inside out; as population increased, it spilled outside municipal limits. Initially these suburbs were not the exclusive resort of the wealthy; many poor lived there to avoid city taxes and regulations. But railroad development in the mid-nineteenth century produced modern commuting suburbs: Chicago had fifty-two of them by 1874. Though suburbs grew rapidly, their numbers were always relatively small and their locations governed by rail lines. By the 1920’s the automobile spawned a second generation of suburbs, filling in the areas between the older ones and setting off an unprecedented building boom beyond the municipal limits.

The crash of 1929 put an end to suburban expansion for fifteen years. During the Depression, people could not afford new housing, and when war came, the military consumed all available construction material. But the pent-up demand broke loose with the coming of peace. By 1970 the census reported that more people in the metropolitan regions lived outside the municipal boundaries than within. All cities, even smaller ones, were surrounded by numerous small jurisdictions, self-governing, self-taxing—and growing.

The historical remedy to this problem—annexation of surrounding areas—was no longer available. In most states the process required a majority of the voters in both the cities and the suburbs to support consolidation, and after 1920 the outlying areas were increasingly against incorporation. The cities, now with fixed boundaries, gradually lost population, while the suburbs experienced steady growth.

Moreover, this demographic change profoundly altered the social structure of the metropolis. The middle class rapidly evacuated the old city in favor of the suburbs. In turn, they were replaced by migrants from the South and from Latin America. The newcomers were mostly poor and racially distinct. With little education or skills, they were tax consumers rather than tax producers. They needed help on a large scale. Most of all they needed jobs. But industry and commerce had followed the outward movement of people. At just the time municipal government faced additional responsibilities, it saw its revenue base shrinking. Inevitably, various groups fell to quarreling over these limited resources, producing new tensions and anxieties.

The rioting of the 1960’s revealed another fissure in the metropolis—the division between black and white. Some blacks always had lived in cities, even under slavery. But the “peculiar institution” had confined most to the Southern countryside. After the Civil War, former slaves without land or urban skills drifted into Southern cities, where they quickly composed a large portion of the population. The urban South accommodated the newcomers within an elaborate system of segregation. The separation of the races was accomplished both by custom and, after 1896, under Jim Crow statutes.

The massive Northern migration of rural Southern blacks in this century, however, slowly altered the racial composition of nearly every city across the country. Municipal governments adopted no new policies to deal with the influx. Indeed, they assumed that the same process that had incorporated millions of immigrants into the metropolitan mainstream would also be available to blacks. That is, the newcomers initially would congregate at the heart of town, increase their numbers, get an economic foothold, and then gradually disperse into more pleasant residential neighborhoods away from the congested center. This process, though often cruel and painful, had served the immigrants, the city, and the country well.

But the blacks’ experience was fundamentally different. They did, indeed, gather at the center, and there they found what immigrants always had found: wretched housing, overcrowded neighborhoods, high unemployment, inadequate schools, littered streets, garbage-strewn alleys, rampant crime, and endemic disorder. However, the new ghetto, unlike the old, did not loosen and disperse. Rather it simply spread block by block, oozing out over adjacent communities. White residents retreated while blacks moved into new areas beyond downtown. Later a generation would grow up that knew only the ghetto and its debilitating life.

The immigrant ghetto had been tolerable because it was thought to be temporary, a rough staging ground for upward and outward mobility. Blacks increasingly perceived the ghetto to be their permanent home. And each federal census fortified this apprehension as the index of racial segregation moved steadily upward. There was, of course, some modest leakage here and there, but the barriers to escape remained formidable.

This confinement had two consequences that were different from those of the old ghetto. The first was the alienation of its black middle class. They, after all, had done what they were supposed to do: stayed in school, kept out of serious trouble, got higher education, and made good money. But they were still denied, by the color of their skin alone, that most important symbol of success in America—the right to live in a neighborhood of their own choosing with schools appropriate to their ambitions for their children.

The size of this black middle class is large; indeed, no other group has had a success story quite equal to it. In 1950 the federal census listed about 10 percent of American blacks as “middle class”; by 1960 that figure had climbed to nearly 18 per cent ; by 1970 it had jumped above one-third. To be sure, it often required two breadwinners in the family to achieve this status; that, plus ambition and hard work. For these people, continued de facto residential segregation was especially cruel. Even in fashionable black neighborhoods, hope turned into resentful bitterness.

For the less successful, the situation was much worse. The black ghetto contained the city’s worst housing, schools, and community institutions. It generated few jobs and experienced soaring unemployment. Crime rates were high, gang warfare common, and vice rampant. All this contributed to the breakdown of family life and the encouragement of dependency. Newcomers always had found it difficult to adjust to the ghetto; race compounded the problem. In the sixties, daily frustrations spilled over into violence. The young struck out against the symbols of their oppression that were closest at hand, reducing large ghetto areas to ashes.

Race, then, greatly widened the already yawning gap between city and suburb. Every important issue that arose within the metropolis reflected this division. School busing became the symbolic question: without residential segregation, no busing would be necessary. “Affirmative action” became a euphemism for introducing minorities into employment areas previously monopolized by whites. The collapse of mass transit left blacks riding in the front of the bus but with diminishing numbers of white companions. While crime rates rose in the suburbs, popular stereotypes still associated violence with inner-city minorities. In short, uniting the metropolis would have been difficult enough; the addition of race introduced an enormously complicating factor.

In the seventies the inner cities quieted down. But the new tranquillity came from black resignation rather than from a larger measure of justice. The unemployment figures contained the warning: 10 per cent in older cities; 20 per cent in the ghettos; 40 per cent among minority youth. In addition, middle-class blacks ran into all kinds of obstacles when trying to escape to the suburbs. The courts were ambivalent about legal restrictions, especially zoning, which had the effect of exclusion. And social pressures in the suburbs were often not very subtle. As a result, the ghetto still festered; indeed, its boundaries expanded each week.

Yet certain factors hold out some hope for the future. For example, suburbs are finding that they are no more self-sufficient than the cities. The same forces that led to urban decay earlier are now spreading into the surrounding communities. This is particularly true of those suburbs adjacent to the city limits. Indeed, the phrase “inner suburbs” surely will join “inner city” as shorthand for the long list of urban ills in the eighties. And for much the same reasons. They are the oldest part of suburban America. In order to keep taxes down, they allowed most of their land to be developed. Now there is no room for expansion. The new suburbanites go farther out; new industrial and commercial installations also bypass the closer-in suburbs. Large numbers of older residents, their children now gone, head for retirement areas or back to the city. Newer shopping centers in outlying suburbs skim off dollars from local merchants. Worse still, crime rates grow faster in these communities than in any other part of the metropolis.


In addition, suburban government is the weakest link in our governmental system. Until recently, residential participation in local affairs was low; most communities hired professional managers to make budgets and administer day-to-day affairs. Voting was light for local offices, and though suburbanites vote heavily Republican in national elections, suburban politics remain consciously nonpartisan. Hence, when the crisis moved in, most suburbs lacked the tradition or tools to grapple with it. By the 1970’s new suburban newspapers began to reveal the often scandalous relations between some developers and many town halls. Voters increasingly turned down bond issues, even for schools. The inner suburbs’ one trump card is that they still control the suburban lobby in most states. They played that card to get some relief for all local governments, hence they became the major beneficiaries. Yet neither this nor federal revenue-sharing programs could do more than postpone the inevitable fiscal impasse. When New York City slid toward bankruptcy, Yonkers, located in one of the nation’s richest suburban counties, was placed in receivership.

The extension of city problems into the suburbs poked large holes in the crabgrass curtain that previously had separated the two parts of the metropolis. Now their common predicament created the possibility of a new cooperation to replace the hostility that historically had divided city and suburb. The inner suburbs were reluctant to recognize their own decline, but by the seventies they recognized that they had to trade part of their independence for outside help.

For the first time, a substantial suburban population has a stake in a united metropolis. The inner ring is no longer self-sufficient. It relies increasingly on state and federal aid rather than on its indigenous tax base. Hence, its most serious problems cannot be solved without cooperation with the city as well as with neighboring suburbs. In the 1950’s the movement for metropolitan government was essentially a big-city strategy; now that concept has natural allies. To be sure, the notion of a single governmental jurisdiction is politically impossible except in a few places.

A consolidation of effort by function, however, is already imperative. In housing, education, transportation, water, pollution, and police, control depends on devising programs that employ a concentrated, cooperative regional approach. Even this requires a change in state and federal policies, which presently funnel funds into old governmental units rather than into intergovernmental ones. But the crisis of the inner suburbs has produced the necessary condition for a fundamental shift in public policy based on metropolitan realities rather than on anachronistic political jurisdictions.

New demographic changes also brought some easing of racial tensions. The massive movement of blacks from the South to Northern cities virtually has stopped; indeed, some experts detect a slight reverse of the flow. The breaking of segregation and the availability of jobs in Southern cities made them at least as attractive as Northern ones. Moreover, urban black birth rates dropped rapidly. This reduced ghetto tensions somewhat but not ghetto conditions. In addition, the election of black mayors in many parts of the country lessened the feeling of isolation and powerlessness of urban blacks. The relative quiet of the ghetto in the seventies was somewhat deceptive but did provide some breathing space for the nation if the nation had the ingenuity and will to seize it.

But time is running out and we have not used it wisely to heal racial divisions or reduce urban-suburban tensions. Federal policy has neglected cities in favor of surrounding communities. Revenue-sharing formulas were based largely on population rather than on need; government installations usually were placed in outlying areas; special programs for the inner cities were either reduced or dismantled. Worse still, urban economies, historically the nation’s most resilient, recovered more slowly from recurring recessions than the suburbs with their newer facilities. And the outward flow of jobs and middle-class city dwellers continued unabated. The problem is more severe in the older areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Yet the “Sunbelt” cities show the same symptoms. The acids of urban decay do not recognize the Mason-Dixon line.

The persistence of the urban crisis has led many Americans to look elsewhere for solutions. But a look outward indicates that what some thought was a peculiarly American question is, in fact, an international urban crisis. Rome’s fiscal management makes New York’s look frugal; the inadequacy of London’s inner-city schools is more than a match for their American counterparts; Frankfurt’s pollution experts travel to Pittsburgh for advice; few American housing commissioners would trade jobs with their opposite numbers in Sydney. Russian urban experts see their limited growth policies overwhelmed by illegal migration; the smog in Sarajevo would frighten even an Angelino; Rumania’s ambitious satellite city plan has not inhibited the growth of Bucharest or produced any “new towns”; more than three decades after World War II, no major city in Eastern Europe has dented its housing shortage.

The record of foreign cities on race is no more instructive. British urban centers are producing their own “New Commonwealth” ghettos; not a single black sits in Parliament. Amsterdam cannot handle its old colonists of different color. Paris and Marseilles have been unable to assimilate their French Algerians. Moscow couldn’t manage even a small number of African students; in Bucharest, urban renewal is gypsy removal. In Sydney and Auckland, the aborigines, though small in number, face the usual range of discrimination. Indeed, the immigration policies of Canada and Australia are designed to avoid the issue.

The fact is that no society has learned to manage a large metropolis, nor has any society succeeded in solving the question of race. If these problems are to be solved, it will be done here in the United States. Perhaps that is the way it should be. Our national history has been almost conterminous with the rise of the modern city; racial diversity always has been a part of the American experience. We have managed in the past to take millions of people with different backgrounds, languages, and religions and incorporate them into the metropolitan mainstream.

In facing the present urban crisis, we only need draw upon our best traditions. But if we do not begin to unite the metropolis and to disperse the ghetto in the next few years, the eighties will be a decade of renewed tension and turmoil and will bear out Wendell Phillips’ grim prophecy of a hundred years ago: “The time will come when our cities will strain our institutions as slavery never did.”

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