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THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE AMERICAN CITY

The construction of new factories and the influx of immigrants from abroad and from the countryside helped to force the radical transformation of many industrial cities in this era. Before the Civil War, cities were relatively small, with most people who lived within the city being able to easily walk to work. Almost all cities had poor sections in them before the Civil War. The rapid influx of poor immigrants turned many of these sections into horribly overcrowded slums.

New methods of transportation aided in the transformation of the industrial city. Elevated trains (first introduced in New York in 1867), cable cars (in San Francisco), electric trolleys, and subways (first found in Boston in 1897) allowed middle- and upper-class citizens to move further and further away from the center of the city. In the early nineteenth century the “best” houses were found in the middle of the city; residents of these houses were now relocating to suburbia. Businesses, banks, and offices became located in the business district, usually found in the center of the city. Little housing existed in this part of the city. Located in various sectors surrounding the business district were factories and other centers of manufacturing. Cheap housing for workers usually was located very close to each factory. The upper and lower classes physically lived much further apart in the “modern” cities of the late 1800s than they had earlier in the century.

The conditions of working-class slums are well documented. Many workers lived in “apartments” that were created from residences formerly belonging to middle- and upper-class residents. Room in these buildings were divided and subdivided again so that large numbers of families could live in buildings that formerly housed one family. Tenement buildings were more cheaply constructed and were built to house as many families as possible. Outdoor bathrooms were still the rule in many slum areas. Even those that could receive water inside often emptied waste, human and otherwise, into back alleys (sewage system proved to be woefully inadequate in almost every city). Poverty, disease, and crime were the central elements of life for many living in industrial slums, although in many cities somewhat better conditions were available for workers who were better off. Technology did bring some changes to life even in the slums after the turn of the century, as a few worker residencies started to have gas, electricity, and running water. In the later 1800s cities such as New York also started to develop building codes for all new construction.

Office buildings in many cities became taller during this era. Before the Civil War the tallest buildings in most American cities were four or five stories high. The development of stronger and more durable Bessemer steel meant that steel girders could now support taller buildings, and the first elevators began to be installed in buildings in the early 1880s. The first actual “skyscraper” was the building of the Home Insurance Company in Chicago. Finished in 1885 this building was 10 stories high, with four separate elevators taking passengers to the top.

City officials in almost every industrial city realized the necessity of construction and city improvements. After the turn of the century, schools, public buildings, and even sewers began to be built at a rapid rate. However, lack of housing was a major problem that urban planners were unable to solve. Many urban reformers, who will be discussed in a later chapter, had other plans to improve the lives of the urban poor.

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