The early cities were large only by comparison with their rural surroundings. They were mainly “entrepots – coast-hugging trade centers.. .for the exchange of the raw wealth from the endless
North American interior, for the luxuries and finished goods of Europe. [these early cities] were marked by the counting houses down by the wharves and, up on the hills, magisterial courts, churches, government houses, and mansions. ” 2 Of the three major cities, Boston’s population was fifty thousand, Philadelphia’s was forty thousand. New York at less than 30,000 was more like a large town, contained entirely at the southern tip of Manhattan, just below Canal Street. 3 By 1820, fifty years later, not much had changed. The percentage of urban residents had risen by only two percent. At the time, there was little concern about the growth of cities, since it was expected that the sizes of cities would regulate themselves as people began moving westward. But the real tension between the countryside and the city began with the rise of the industrial city. Between 1830 and 1850, the population of the U.S. almost doubled from 13 million to 23 million. The bulk of this influx occurred in the cities as immigrants from Europe arrived to work in the new factories. At around this time, flight from the city began in small ways. As early as 1820, over-crowding in cities like New York, had produced a small but steady exodus of middle class families from New York over to the “suburb” of Brooklyn, which at the time was more accessible by steam ferry than was the rest of barren Manhattan Island. Advertisements in magazines touted this first commuter suburb as the ideal place for young families with “pleasant surroundings, cheap land, and low taxes”.4 But as Manhattan developed, so did Brooklyn, and by the 1850s it was necessary to find “healthful surroundings” as far out as the new suburb of Llewellyn Park (1854) which was twelve miles outside of the city in New Jersey. Similar suburbs began sprouting up near every major city. Meanwhile, the anti-urbanist movement was gathering steam as the architect Andrew Jackson Downing and feminist writer Catharine Beecher individually extolled the virtues of a suburban home to the upper and middle class. They were particularly interested in appealing to the young wife
whose duties of domestic nurturing for the family were seen to be undermined by the distractions of the city. What these two writers did was no less than to convert the agrarian ideal of Jefferson’s into a push for the suburbs. This philosophy, as Margaret Marsh writes, was convenient to the middle class family since the head of the household needed a profession to support the family’s status. Thus, “ownership of a suburban house, did not make a man a farmer, but it brought him closer to nature than an urban township did.”5 Downing’s The Architecture of Country Homes went through nine printings. The popularity of his pattern books lay in their mixture of patriotic sermonizing, his lionizing of the familial responsibilities of his middle class patrons, and his rendered prints of Carpenter-style and Gothic-revivals, were as fashionable as his “villas in the Italian style” he designed. While readers thumbed through his catalogues looking for the dream home they hoped someday to have, Downing solemnly assured them that: “the solitude and freedom of the family home in the country.. .preserves the nation and invigorates its intellectual powers”. From 1850 until the turn of the century, Downing’s books were a standard feature on the shelves of many middle class families. For this he has been called one of “the most influential individuals in translating the rural ideal into a suburban ideal”6 and his contributions to the allure of suburban living could be matched only by Beecher. Beecher, by contrast, was interested primarily in updating Jefferson’s ideal of equal access to the means of agricultural production. Beecher’s contribution was an appeal to the woman as the guardian of the family’s status, which her husband had labored to achieve. The woman’s role, as Beecher saw it, was to manage her husband’s household in the retreat of the countryside as he did battle, far away, in the city’s business district. In 1869, she published her prototype description and layout for the “American Woman’s Home”, which above all was a domestic space in the service of men and children. 7 The advent of the commuter railroads led to new suburban retreats such as Olmsted’s Riverside outside of Chicago. Though their features and the social status of each town were different, all of them bore the marks of Downing’s and Beecher’s influences. As the urbanist Lewis Mumford wrote: “Who can doubt that suburban living is based on a Victorian template of patriarchal life, encouraged by all of the comforts and conveniences, the sense of internal space and peace, that brought the Victorian father back nightly to his snug household… “8 By the turn of the century, the invention of the automobile would begin to increase the accessibility of such a suburban retreat. That this antiurban bias which had been preached by Jefferson and Thoreau should find such widespread appeal among otherwise non-intellectual middle class families in the United States, was undoubtedly born out of a reaction to the rapid rise of the industrial city, as well, which is the focus of the second trend.
In the century between 1850 and the Second World War, cities in the U.S. grew at a rate never before seen in history due to industrialization. Economist Richard Knight writes that up until the Industrial Revolution there had been one predominant type of city, notably the imperial or mercantile city which presided over empires of colonial towns or the trading networks of their hinterlands. According to Knight, the early industrial cities, by contrast, could be described as historical accidents because their impacts were not predicted nor could they have been foreseen. As “shapeless masses formed by a thousand hands” there was no attempt to control them, partially because people generally believed that in a nation that believed itself to be rural, nature would take the best course. To them, “temporary” city problems in a country with so much open space would inevitably ease themselves as city dwellers left the congestion, perhaps migrating to the unsettled western parts of the country. 9 But the problems did not take care of themselves because as the cities grew, more and more people were drawn to them. Immigrants from abroad and from rural areas flocked there to seek their fortunes, and by the end of the nineteenth century, two-thirds of Americans were urban residents. Most of these residents had little choice in where they lived.
Their housing choices were dictated by economic limitations, the shortage of accessible land, and the necessity for most people to be able to walk (or take the street car) to their jobs. The result of this rapid growth and booming population in the Industrial city was that cities became places of chaos, pollution, and crime. Above all, intense, residential crowding and the lack of family privacy were facts of life for many city dwellers. Many lived in dark, airless tenements, or in cramped apartments carved up in houses which had been designed as single family dwellings in earlier times. Needless to say, conditions in the nineteenth century city were horrific even by the standards of the day. In tenement buildings, units could be no more than one room lacking air and light, heating and plumbing. Whole families did their cooking, eating, sleeping and child-rearing in them. Devastating fires were common. Disease epidemics spread easily through dense neighborhoods so that tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, and influenza claimed as many lives as did the industrial hazards in factories. Streets without sewers overflowed and flooded into buildings when it rained. Animals being taken to market were driven through the streets at night. Food sold in neighborhood markets was often spoiled or adulterated. Even sleeping in the city parks at night to escape the summer heat of the neighborhoods, could not relieve the noise, the pollution, the odors, and the filth that was present everywhere. Even among families who were fortunate to have their own houses, one in five had to take in boarders. Street crime was always a potential problem, despite the modern belief that the city today is more dangerous. Urban scholar Raymond Vernon writes that: “most major cities in the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contained areas in which law and order were simply not applied, and in which anarchy and gang rule was allowed to go unchallenged. The influx in immigration and urban xenophobia played a role in the tensions in neighborhoods. Slums were being filled with immigrants from southern Europe and elsewhere. From 1903 to 1910, almost one million.