The Shaping of Suburbia
In joining town and country, Yerkes helped bring into existence something
entirely new, and now long forgotten, the Streetcar City. The Streetcar City
altered the social landscape of the American city. Since the time cities were
first built in America, the rich and powerful lived in the center, and the poor
and powerless on the periphery. That's the way it had been in cities all over
the world for thousands of years.
In America, two things combined to change this: the streetcar and the
increasing desire of upward-bound people to escape the city. The catalyst for
it all was immigration. European immigrants, fleeing poverty and persecution,
had been pouring into American cities since the early 1800s. In Chicago, first
it was the Germans and the Irish; then toward the end of the century,
tremendous numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans: Italians, Poles, Slovaks,
and Russian Jews.
Many of these immigrants joined labor unions and radical political parties; and
their politics, their poverty, their alien religion and language, deeply
frightened older, predominately Protestant city-dwellers. Earlier in the
century, the rich and the middle class had no choice but to remain in town,
close to their work. But cable cars and trolleys allowed them to escape to the
borders of the city, yet to remain a short streetcar ride away from work, and
from theaters, department stores, circuses, baseball parks, and all the myriad
wonders of the Victorian city.
Thus began the greatest internal migration in the history of cities, the exodus
to the suburbs. Soon, even the better-paid working class headed for the
booming subdivisions -- older immigrants, as has always been the American
practice, running away from newer ones. In this way, the streetcar turned the
American city "inside out," shifting the center of population and prestige from
the center to the edge.
That's why American cities today, are different from the cities of continental
Europe, where the well-to-do continue to live in the urban core, and great
numbers of the poor reside in the suburbs. In the 20th century, urban sprawl
would lead to the abandonment of the city, as both people and jobs headed for
the borderlands. But at the end of the 19th century, city and suburb
complemented one another, as cities became, at the same time, more centralized
Slums and Sweatshops
With jobs and so many attractions downtown, a nickel ride away, nobody worried
about the suburbs killing the city. In their constant movement in and out of
the central city, the middle class rarely came into contact with the poor.
This was a divided city.
Chicago's worst slum, Packingtown, was located far to the south of the
downtown; but most of the city's ethnic ghettos were close to the downtown, yet
hidden from it by a belt of industry. In the Jewish quarter, multi-story
tenements served extra duty as small factories, or "sweatshops" as they were
called. Here men, women, and children labored up to sixteen hours a day in
their gloomy apartments making the inexpensive dresses that gave instant status
to those Marshall Field's shop girls.
Sickness was rampant in these unheated, unventilated places: smallpox, cholera,
consumption, tuberculosis, and scarlet fever. Milk arriving in non
refrigerated wagons was often dangerously spoiled. So, mothers gave their
children beer from the local saloon, which at least was pasteurized.
Were these conditions untypical? Well, in 1900, almost 400,000 Chicagoans in a
city of 1.7 million lived in squalor. Government turned a blind eye to these
problems, until reformers began to push and prod.
In 1889, a young, partially crippled woman from rural Illinois arrived in
Chicago and established Hull House, one the country's first settlement houses.
Her name was Jane Addams. Addams turned a run-down mansion in an Italian slum
into a refuge for neighborhood women and their children.
She set up a day care center, a playground, a gymnasium, and a bathhouse, along
with a reading club. And she put reproductions of great works of art on the
walls to bring some refinement into the lives of her new neighbors. Addams
tried to Americanize these people, urging them to shed their old-world customs
for middle-class ways.
Her smothering paternalism alienated some immigrants, but she began to change,
thanks to the influence of Florence Kelley. Kelley arrived at Hull House with
her three young children in 1891, fleeing an abusive husband. A fiery
socialist, she laughed at Hull House's decorous tea parties and art receptions,
and challenged Addams to alter the direction of the settlement's work from
moral uplift to social change.
Kelley's investigations of sweatshop conditions led to the passage of landmark
Illinois labor legislation and got her appointed as the state's first factory
inspector. She and Addams then published a comprehensive social survey of the
Hull House neighborhood. This was an effort to make an unassailable case for