Cities in American Political History


Edited by: Richard Dilworth

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    About the Editor

    Richardson Dilworth is associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University. He is the author of The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy and the editor of two books: The City in American Political Development and Social Capital in the City: Community and Civic Life in Philadelphia. He serves on the Philadelphia Historical Commission, where he is chair of the Historic Designation Committee.

    About the Associate Editors

    Andrew A. Beveridge is professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He is at work on several projects on long term urban change in the United States. He also is one of the developers of Social Explorer (, which allows the tracking of such change.

    Matthew Crenson is a native of Baltimore and professor emeritus of political science at The Johns Hopkins University, where he taught courses on urban politics. His is the author of seven books, including Neighborhood Politics, a study of Baltimore's residential communities.

    Margaret Garb is associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871–1919. She is currently working on a study of black politics in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chicago.

    Todd Gardner is a survey statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau. He works in the Center for Economic Studies and oversees all of the demographic data available to researchers in the Census Bureau's national network of Research Data Centers. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota in 1998.

    David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is the editor of the Journal of Urban History and the author of numerous books and articles on the urban South. He is a founder of the Museum of the New South in Charlotte and serves as a curatorial consultant to several urban history museums in the Southeast.

    Mary Ryan is the John Martin Vincent Professor of American History at The Johns Hopkins University. Over the last four decades she has been mining two different veins of American History: women's history and the history of cities. Her most recent publications include Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History since 1500 and Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in Nineteenth Century Cities.


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    This is a book about big American cities—more specifically, the ten largest cities in ten successive eras of United States history, stretching from the Revolution and Founding era (1776–1790), to the post–Cold War present (1989–2011). Each city in each chapter is discussed in a separate entry, resulting in a total of one hundred entries, covering twenty-nine separate cities that have at some point in U.S. history been among the ten biggest in terms of population size according to the U.S. Census.1 At the time of the first census in 1790, the majority of those big cities were located in New England (Boston, Massachusetts; Salem, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; Providence, Rhode Island; Gloucester, Massachusetts; and Marblehead, Massachusetts). The largest of the cities, New York, had 33,131 residents, mostly living at the southern end of Manhattan Island. The smallest of the cities, Gloucester, had a population of 5,317. By the last census count in 2010, seven of the biggest cities in the United States were located in Texas, Arizona, and California. The largest city was still New York, with a population of approximately 8.2 million spread over 309 square miles. The smallest city was San Jose, California, with a population of nearly one million spread across approximately 170 square miles.

    More specifically, the lists of largest cities used in this book come from the censuses of 1790 (chapter 1), 1820 (chapter 2), 1840 (chapter 3), 1870 (chapter 4), 1890 (chapter 5), 1920 (chapter 6), 1940 (chapter 7), 1950 (chapter 8), 1980 (chapter 9), and 2010 (chapter 10). While this book relies on only ten of the last twenty-three census counts of city population, it includes at least one entry on every city that has ever been counted by the census as being among the ten largest in the country, with the exception of Norfolk, Virginia (counted as the tenth largest city in 1800), and cities that were later annexed to other cities, such as Brooklyn, which is discussed as part of the entries on New York.

    The trend evident in the nation's largest cities, of a steady southwesterly progression, is part of a larger story about the overall movement of the U.S. population westward, fueled first by the hunger for natural resources and cheap land and facilitated by an increasing network of canals and railroads. These new means of transportation in the nineteenth century facilitated western population growth into Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, and cities in those states (namely Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, respectively) soon eclipsed in size and territory the New England towns and cities that had previously been among the largest in the country. Urban industrial growth in the Midwest proceeded into the twentieth century, as Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Detroit, Michigan, joined the ranks of the ten largest cities. Yet after World War II, companies were increasingly attracted to the southern and western states where, among other things, the relative lack of unions provided for cheaper labor costs, and the new Interstate Highway System decreased the advantages of traditional railroad hubs. Thus the postwar period, up to the present day, has witnessed a massive southern and western population shift, reflected in the rise of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose in California; Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio in Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona—a constellation of cities that came to be known as the Sun Belt. By contrast, nearly every large city in the northeastern and midwestern United States—a constellation known as the Rust Belt—suffered a period of net population loss after World War II, even as the U.S. population overall was steadily increasing.

    The rise of the Sun Belt and demise of the Rust Belt was not due to national population shifts alone, but also to the structures of the respective cities themselves. During the nineteenth century, Rust Belt cities routinely annexed outlying communities, thus expanding in terms of both territory and population size. By the twentieth century, these cities were increasingly surrounded by independent suburban municipalities whose residents and officials no longer wanted to be annexed to big cities, thus limiting the cities' potential for population growth. By contrast, the southwestern cities have been steadily annexing outlying land since World War II. They are thus larger in terms of territory and have more potential for population growth than the cities in the Rust Belt. In 1980, for instance, the census recorded the ten largest cities as being equally split between the Rust Belt (New York; Chicago; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Detroit; and Baltimore, Maryland) and the Sun Belt (Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, San Diego, and Phoenix). Yet in that same year, the Sun Belt cities were on average more than twice the geographic size of the Rust Belt cities (400 versus 176 square miles).

    Those Rust Belt cities that have managed to maintain their status as being among the largest in the nation (New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago) had more diversified economies, and were thus not as dependent on single industries that became increasingly globalized and moved beyond their original host cities, such as the automobile industry in Detroit and the steel industry in Pittsburgh. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia have also all found economic niches in increasingly global industries, such as financial services and biomedical research.

    Four cities that were at one point counted among the ten largest but later annexed to larger cities are not given their own entries in this book but are instead discussed in the entries for the cities to which they were annexed. Not including cities that were later annexed allowed for coverage of three additional cities that never quite made the “top ten,” thus providing slightly broader coverage. The cities that were annexed, and thus which do not receive separate entries, were the Pennsylvania cities of Northern Liberties (counted as one of the ten largest cities from 1790 to 1840), Southwark (1790–1830), and Spring Garden (1850), all of which were absorbed into Philadelphia as part of a city-county consolidation in 1854, and Brooklyn, which was counted among the ten largest cities from 1840 to 1890 but was absorbed in the creation of the five-borough “Greater New York” in 1898. Foregoing entries on those cities that were later annexed allowed space for entries on Gloucester; Marblehead; and Richmond, Virginia, and for extra entries on Albany, New York; Buffalo, New York; Providence; and Washington, D.C.1

    Foregoing separate entries on Northern Liberties, Southwark, Spring Garden, and Brooklyn allowed inclusion of additional entries in chapter 1 on Gloucester (twelfth largest city in 1790) and Marblehead (which, at 5,661 people, was tied with Southwark for being the tenth largest city in 1790); in chapter 2, Albany (eleventh largest in 1820) and Richmond (twelfth largest in 1820); in chapter 3, Washington, DC (thirteenth largest in 1840) and Providence (fourteenth largest in 1840); and, in chapters 4 and 5, Buffalo (eleventh largest in 1870 and 1890).

    The choice to bundle cities that were annexed into the entries on the cities to which they were annexed is in part recognition that, even in the late eighteenth century, urban settlements spilled out beyond formal municipal boundaries. In the case of Philadelphia, residents and businesses concentrated in settlements along the Delaware River that spilled over into the neighboring districts of Northern Liberties and Southwark, contrary to William Penn's intention that the city extend in an orderly grid westward, away from the Delaware. And in his classic multivolume History of the City of Brooklyn, published by subscription between 1867 and 1870, Henry Stiles noted of his city's growth that “Candor certainly compels the acknowledgment that it was chiefly attributable to the overflowing prosperity and greatness of its giant neighbor, New York.”

    While this book thus acknowledges that urban areas extend beyond the formal boundaries of cities, the subject here is decidedly cities and not larger urban areas—or, as the census came to call them by 1910, “metropolitan districts,” and later, “standard metropolitan statistical areas.” Even in the entries on Philadelphia and New York where outlying areas are discussed, those outlying areas are included only because they would later be formally absorbed into their respective neighboring cities. Nor is this a book about “urban” issues—a term broad enough to encompass most aspects of modern life, and which after World War II became a synonym (one might even say a euphemism) for issues involving concentrated poverty, racial conflict and violence, blight, and crime. Many of the more notable events from that period that might be described as urban, such as the formation of the Black Panthers in Oakland, California, or the violence that confronted the nonviolent protest marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 are not discussed herein because they did not occur in cities large enough to be included in this book. Readers will find a great deal of overlap between a general urban history and the histories of the cities covered in this book, but many urban events also occurred outside the boundaries of these cities.

    There are several major themes in the history of American cities that in this book we have tried to capture under three headings in each entry: Government and Politics; Industry, Commerce, and Labor; and Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration. The first theme, government and politics, is central to the focus in this book on cities, which are formal institutions, endowed in almost every instance with charters that define the structures of their governments, the extent of their powers, and the specific territorial jurisdiction over which they exercise those powers.

    The history of American city government is marked by experimentation with new organizational forms and by a continuous struggle for authority with the states of which they are a part. As the entries in chapter 1 indicate, city government in the eighteenth century was a somewhat haphazard affair. In some cases, such as in Philadelphia; Baltimore; and Charleston, South Carolina, the city at some points had no government but was run as part of the state, and in other cases, a semi-official organization became the de facto government, as in the case of the Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company of Baltimore or the Charles Town Board of Police.

    After the Revolution, most big cities adopted charters that roughly mimicked the new national government, with a separate executive branch led by an elected mayor and a bicameral legislature consisting of an upper chamber of aldermen and a lower chamber most frequently called a common council. The reform period of the early twentieth century was marked by the introduction of new structures for city governance, namely the commission system (where the city was governed by a board of several commissioners, all elected at-large, sometimes with the commissioner who won the most votes designated the mayor) and the council-manager system (a quasi-parliamentary system with no independently elected executive but a “city manager” appointed by the elected council). The commission and council-manager systems were more readily adopted in smaller cities, with the result that most of the cities discussed in this book maintained the mayor-council structure, though with a unicameral council. However, the western cities in particular bear the marks of reform. San Jose, for instance, is governed under a council-manager system, though one that also incorporates a mayor.

    The extent to which cities are actually governments exercising genuine sovereignty or merely administrative subunits of states has historically been a matter of contention. Two competing legal doctrines from the nineteenth century defined the conflict over the extent of city sovereignty: The “Cooley Doctrine” (named after Michigan Supreme Court judge Thomas Cooley) argued that local governments were constitutive elements of states, and states thus exercised only a limited authority over local government. “Dillon's Rule” (named after Iowa Supreme Court judge John Dillon, also later a federal circuit court judge) argued that states created local governments over which they thus exercised complete control. Dillon's Rule has largely prevailed over the Cooley Doctrine, yet cities also established some level of independence through “home rule” charters—state constitutional provisions that established some protections against legislative meddling in city affairs and which often resemble in their language the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    The second theme of the entries—industry, commerce, and labor—addresses the central role that big cities have played in the national and international economy. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, cities were centers of commerce, with life organized around bustling ports and city government functions centered around trade, such as regulating weights and measures, entry into vocations, and maintaining docks and central marketplaces. During the nineteenth century, and especially after the Civil War, cities blossomed into industrial manufacturing hubs, and as such they also provided fertile ground for the growing labor movement, starting with the Knights of Labor, which had its heyday in the 1880s but was quickly eclipsed by the American Federation of Labor. Of course, many of the biggest labor conflicts of the late nineteenth century occurred outside of big cities, such as the 1892 Homestead Strike, and many (especially those that involved railroads and their growing networks) were national in scope, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which began in West Virginia but spread to cities as far apart as Baltimore and San Francisco.

    The previously noted population shift away from the Rust Belt and growth of the Sun Belt reflects as well a change in the labor movement. Though many Sun Belt cities have significant manufacturing sectors, their growth was premised more on high-tech and service industries, such as finance, insurance, and real estate, none of which require the same kind of labor force as did the traditional industrial manufacturing firms that were concentrated in the Rust Belt. These industries, however, have increasingly migrated overseas in search of lower labor costs. Corresponding with the shift away from manufacturing has been a decline in membership in the industrial unions, such as the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers of America, and a rise in unions more closely tied to service sectors, such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Reflecting the changing nature of labor in the United States, the SEIU, in conjunction with six other more service-oriented unions, broke from the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2005 to form a new labor coalition, Change to Win.

    The third theme—race, ethnicity, and immigration—focuses on cities' traditional roles as the points of destination for new arrivals to the United States who made cities ethnically and racially distinct from the rest of the country. The first Europeans who came over in notably large numbers were the Irish in the early nineteenth century, quickly followed by Germans. By the end of the nineteenth century, decreasing numbers of Irish and Germans were more than supplemented by swelling numbers from Italy, Austria-Hungary, and eastern Europe. The total number of new arrivals from abroad to the United States peaked at nearly nine million during the first decade of the twentieth century, after which the blockade of Europe during World War II, followed by more restrictive immigration laws, began to stem the tide. As new arrivals from abroad decreased, the number of African Americans migrating from rural areas in the South to northern and midwestern cities began to increase dramatically. In 1965 a new immigration law known as the Hart-Celler Act reduced the preferential treatment of Europeans seeking to immigrate to the United States which had the unintended effect of facilitating a massive increase in the number of immigrants coming from Asian and Latin American countries. Indeed, based on immigration trends since 1970, the census estimates that people of Hispanic origin will comprise nearly a quarter of the total U.S. population by 2050, which would be double their percentage of the population in 2000. And though people of Asian origin comprise a smaller proportion of the total U.S. population, they too are increasing in numbers far faster than the average—three times the rate of growth of the total U.S. population in the first decade of the twenty-first century. By contrast, the census estimates the African American population will remain relatively stable into the middle of the twenty-first century, at roughly 13 percent of the total U.S. population.

    New arrivals to American cities, especially those belonging to an identifiable racial or ethnic group, have often faced hostility and violence, many times associated with fears that the new arrivals would threaten the economic positions of established residents. Thus the Irish confronted anti-Catholic violence, most notably in a series of riots in Philadelphia in 1844. As they moved in increasing numbers to cities in the early twentieth century, African Americans faced violence such as race riots in more than a dozen cities between 1917 and 1920. Similarly, the 1992 riot in Los Angeles was notable for the fact that Korean business owners were a target for violence. In part because of such hostility, including laws that prevented them from moving freely to different neighborhoods, but also no doubt from a desire to be among people with whom they shared a culture and language, immigrants often clustered in cities, creating “urban villages” and “ethnic enclaves.” In some instances this provided them with greater political power as they then represented majorities in local electoral districts, but in other instances it made them easier to ignore, as was often the case with African American neighborhoods, especially after World War II.

    Between the race riots of the earlier and latter parts of the twentieth century, the status of cities in the United States changed significantly. The increasing role of the federal government as a result of the Great Depression and World War II changed the relationship between cities and the nation, and cities became an active lobbying force through the U.S. Conference of Mayors, established in 1933, which was followed by the National League of Cities and other urban advocacy groups. The Lyndon Johnson administration was especially supportive of cities through its Model Cities Program and the establishment of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    Other federally sponsored projects, including the Interstate Highway System and federally guaranteed home mortgages, also dramatically affected the fortunes of cities, mainly by spurring suburbanization. The effects are evident in the changing population distribution of the country. The U.S. Census today counts 366 metropolitan areas in the country, in which approximately 84 percent of the U.S. population lives. Yet an increasingly smaller proportion of the overall population lives in the ten largest cities. From a peak of 16 percent in 1930, the percent of the U.S. population living in the country's ten largest cities dropped to 8 percent by 2000.

    In 1790 roughly 5 percent of the American population could be called “urban” in the sense that they lived in one of the twenty-four communities with populations over twenty-five hundred, the larger half of which are covered here in chapter 1, which included roughly 4 percent of the U.S. population. By contrast, we are today a decidedly urban nation, yet one in which the biggest cities are, just as they were in an earlier period of our history, demographically and economically distinct from the rest of the country, containing a greater degree of racial and ethnic diversity and a greater disparity in incomes. The continuity and change that marks the history of cities in the United States, and the variations between cities themselves, can be tracked in the entries in this book.

    Richardson Dilworth

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