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The New City
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Page 12345

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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 and dispersed.

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.

[picture of a Chicago sweatshop]

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.

[picture of Jane Addams]

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 tenement reform.

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