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Finding A Community

April 2023
2min read

Gloomy enough, all of this, to be sure. Yet the automobile can be blamed too much. The development of the American city has followed its own pattern, and “urban sprawl” had set in well before the requirements of the automobile had had any substantial effect. If urbanization has brought a host of grave problems it appears that it is the city itself, rather than the means men use to get in and out of it and to and fro inside it, that needs examination.

Such an examination, much less emotional and also much more comprehensive and scholarly than the one just cited, is provided in The Urbanization of America, 1860-1915 , by Blake McKelvey, who undertakes to study what might be called the metropolitan character in America and tries to see just what was going on in the period before the motorcar took over.

In 1860 the Federal Census showed that the United States contained 141 cities, the Census Bureau defining as a city any place that contained more than 8,000 people. Nine of these cities were above the 100,000 mark, and all of them were ports, owing their growth and position largely to water-borne traffic. (They included New York, its sister city Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Chicago.) During the next half century both the number of cities and their respective sizes increased prodigiously; by 1910 there were 228 cities of 25,000 or more, 50 containing more than 100,000, and 8 of more than 500,000.

Clearly enough, the forces that pull men into cities to live and work had been greatly intensified in the years immediately after the Civil War. A big city was no longer of necessity a place based on water transportation; the railroad network was expanding, and the factory town was rising. America was becoming an industrial nation, and there was a new base for metropolitan development. Cities grew faster and larger than ever before, and as they did they tended for a time to become conglomerations of diverse peoples who came surging into centers that were not prepared to handle their social or material needs. It took a long time to bring the evolution of a genuine community out of such conglomerations, and before this happened there were troubles which the muck-rakers discussed as “the shame of the cities” early in this century.

Meanwhile, there were developments. The center of the city became less and less a desirable place to live, and with improved transit facilities people began moving out to the rim; but as they moved out, business people moved in—at least for daytime occupancy—and until around 1920 the trend toward urban concentration continued. Yet all this while, the city was proliferating into suburbs, the center kept thinning out, and presently it was the metropolitan district rather than the city itself that was important.

The city, in short, began to change radically late in the second decade of this century, changing not because of the automobile but because of the nature of its own growth. In effect, it began to turn into something different just as it began to reach maturity; becoming a genuine community, it started to turn into a complex aggregation of communities, with new problems which at bottom are no more difficult than the problems encountered earlier in its growth. The change began before the automobile; as Mr. McKelvey says, the process of urbanization reached its turning point by 1915.

The automobile, in short, is just one problem. There are many problems, all of them arising from the fact that the way we Americans live and work together is undergoing change. As Mr. McKelvey sees it there is no real cause for dismay here. No, the development of the past century has been good. As he sums it up:

The Urbanization of America, 1860-1915, by Blake McKelvey. Rutgers University Press. 370 pp. $10.

We have seen how policies and techniques of settlement, of production, and of distribution contributed to the growth and decay of cities; how these in turn created civic and social problems that required new adjustments: and how men and women of all ranks and places, organizing to work for the goals they sought, achieved through strife and compromise sufficient economic integration to enable the urban population … to attain an unprecedented state of material well-being.

Apparently we have reason to believe that the process will continue.

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