The History of American Urban Politics
The 2010s in urban America have been marked by the depopulation of the cities and the shrinking of the metropolitan areas. The concerning trend co-occurred with the revival and proliferation of suburban life, mimicking the characteristic division between the city and the country in the 20th century. Apparently, Americans’ movement “back to the city” that followed the rise of the suburbs has been reversed. At present, the population of the US is largely dispersed, which is accelerated by the so-called urban sprawl. One of the biggest challenges that the United States is confronted with today is the crisis within its cities.
A plausible explanation offered by researchers is the maturation of the Millennials who have started to settle down in recent years and entered the housing market. The obstacles to urban renewal and invigoration can also be partly explained by the economy, especially given the federal budget deficit and amassed external debt. In reality, however, the main problems lie in the realm of politics and ideology. Apart from that, the schism between the city and the suburbs has a century-long history, which explains the survivability of its legacy today.
The first hint at the city/suburbs split became apparent as early as around the turn of the centuries. The country’s very foundation implied a certain romanticism associated with life outside the city and disdain for urban areas. One of the Founding Fathers of the US, Thomas Jefferson, famously stated that cities were stifling democratic impulses. The trend was fueled by the Romanticism movement of the late 19th century that praised the beauty of nature and the dirt and sinfulness of the city.
Technological advances and the affordability of cars made it possible to commute and live far away from city centers. The first two decades of the 20th century were marked by rapid urban growth. Cities became “madhouses of activity,” which, however, only lasted until the Great Depression disrupted economic growth and fast-paced urbanization. Suburbs also suffered from the economic crisis: housing prices became way too high for an average Joe to afford.
Another turning point in the history of the city/ suburbs split was during the Postwar era, or the baby boom era. The economy of the US was reviving, which stimulated demographic growth. The existing housing market could not meet the demands of newly formed families with children. Soon, the market became extremely fragmented, with thousands of companies for buyers’ attention, purchasing land at the outskirts, and building detached houses en masse. Between 1940 and 1950s, suburbs had shown 40% growth, while cities only grew by 14%.
Suburbs have never been exclusively populated by White people, housing; however, it was the demographic cohort that was most likely to leave urban areas. By the 1960s, the consequences of the so-called “white flight” became apparent. Inner cities were primarily inhabited by poor people and people of color; there, they could not enjoy the same benefits and services as affluent families. Essentially, the disadvantaged demographics were stranded and isolated from richer neighborhoods.
Starting in the 1970s, the United States has seen the return of the “back to the city” movement. This time, the rise of urbanism was explained by the strong immigration waves. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 put all migrants on equal ground and encouraged family reunification. Besides, the country has grown increasingly open to accepting refugees from socialist and communist countries. As one can imagine, the newcomers did not have many resources at their disposal to be able to afford a country house. Instead, they were drawn to metropolitan areas such as Boston and Los Angeles, where they could find a job and means for survival. Aside from that, inner cities often presented diverse ethnic groups, and new coming migrants were able to join their diaspora.
The question arises as to whether after the turmoil of the 20th century, the United States has been able to positively transform its situation. Judd and Hinze report that the split between the city center and suburbs, as well as racial and national segregation, have been on the ebb since the 1990s. The researchers cite a study that shows that inner-city neighborhoods were scoring much lower on the scale that measures the markers of social ills: female-headed households, high school dropouts, male unemployment, and welfare dependence. Despite the existing evidence suggesting the improvement, Judd and Hinze state that Americans should tame their optimism. The urban crisis has not yet disappeared, but it took another form.
According to the researchers, the segregation that existed between the city and the suburbs has started to manifest itself within metropolitan areas. Judd and Hinze write that not all migrants are equal: some of them flee their home countries and are more than ready to work menial jobs. Others, however, are high-qualified professionals who are seeking career growth and a better life. They may be living in the same city, but the difference between the neighborhoods in which the two categories of migrants are dwelling is striking. Drawing on this logic, it is safe to point out that some urban areas accumulate wealth and enjoy better services while others remain underdeveloped.
The question arises as to what role the government has played in the dynamics explained above. Judd and Hinze write that it is wrong to refer to the decisions made by the authorities as “national urban policy.” The authors claim that in the United States, there has never been a unified policy that would target the cities specifically. What the government was passing instead was a plethora of uncoordinated programs. Judd and Hinze believe that even though these programs were directly impacting cities, the said effects have never been truly taken into consideration.
One of the prime examples of a program that fueled the urban crisis was building a national highway system. In the early twentieth century, the US government was funding state-constructed roadways to connect farmlands to urban areas. By the 1930s, the objective of the political initiative had shifted, and promoting the use of automobiles had become its primary focus. During those times, the government was closely collaborating with the automobile industry to the point where it would impose penalties on states that used auto taxes for purposes other than highway construction.
Originally, the government was seeking to ensure better safety: a well-maintained infrastructure would be of use during wartime or other national emergencies. However, the program backfired: it drained cities’ budgets and spent urban taxes outside of the cities. Besides, highways made farmlands more appropriate for settlement, which lured many Americans away from the cities. An enlightening example of a policy that impacted social and economic groups is an urban renewal that started in the mid-20th century.
Back then, local and political elites were primarily concerned about the central business districts than they cared about slums and public housing. In the 1940s, the government made a few attempts to move African-American residents to public houses, but that decision was met with a great deal of resistance from white mobs afraid of racial integration. Authorities did not undertake any new attempts, and the guidelines issued by the HHFA (Housing and Home Finance Agency) essentially gave the local authorities a free pass to prioritize commercial development over all other forms.
Business leaders promised beneficial solutions for all the residents, but in reality, their objective was to make urban areas more attractive to investors. Under the guise of slum clearance and urban renewals, local governments were targeting poorer neighborhoods and destroying them to seize the land. Some of these neighborhoods were perfectly viable and well-kept, with thriving small businesses and a tight-knit interconnected ecosystem. By the 1960s, it had become clear that the program was failing. Even the conservatives withdrew their support because the government never acted on its promises, and the central cities’ decline continued. In summation, the city/ suburbs split into the United States is a complex historical phenomenon that lives to this day.
It takes its origin in the late 19th century and early 20th century and can be explained by ideological, political, and economic reasons. Ideologically, Americans were influenced by late Romanticism that showed disdain for city life, and praised the freedom of living in the country. Economically, Americans enjoyed the government promotion of automobile use and highway construction. Lastly, politically, elites were interested in racial and social segregation and appeasing business owners and enterprises. Cities and suburbs took turns in dominating the scene, which, however, did not avert the ongoing urban crisis.