Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Influence of Population Shifts on American Life

From the 1870s to the 1990s the United States experienced a series of dramatic demographic changes as the result of immigration and emigration. The major changes included rural to urban migration from 1870-1900, the two Great Migrations of African Americans fleeing the South, and the seemingly simultaneous growth of suburbs in the Sunbelt after World War II.

During the last tree decades of the 19th century, the populations of cities exploded. Cities grew at double the rate of total population growth. Immigration from abroad contributed to the rise of cities as 14 million immigrants arrived on the east coast of the United States, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. At the same time, many Americans migrated from rural areas to cities seeking work as modernization of agriculture required less labor. Andrew Carnegie took advantage of this migration, hiring farm kids to work in his first steel mill.

The growth of cities led to dramatic changes in the nature of urban areas and in Americans' expectations of the role of government in their lives. Crowding in cities, outbreaks of disease in the 1880s, combined with reformers belief in using science to change society for the better led to changes in the role of government. After an 1882 typhoid outbreak killed 20,000 people in Chicago, city engineers expanded sewer and water systems. When the depression of 1893 struck, Detroit mayor Hazen Pingree hired the unemployed to build public facilities and railed against corruption in government as a threat to everyone. City problems also drove the development of the settlement house movement of reformers like Jane Addams, who used statistics to bring reforms to housing, to end child labor, and to protect workers. The huge growth of cities had a dramatic influence on American politics, helping to inspire the development of the Progressive movement.

The technological and demographic changes of the Gilded Age transformed the nature of American cities. In the 18th and 19th centuries Americans followed the trend of cities worldwide by placing houses as close to each other as possible because it made for shorter distances to travel and allowed all of the dwellings to be inside city walls. Historian Kenneth Jackson argues that the rise of domesticity during the 19th century led Americans to want a different style of housing, with more privacy and separation from work.

The development of transportation systems helped Americans to realize the dream of suburban living. Omnibuses and horse-drwan streetcars were the first examples of what became mass transit. These devices extended the ability of people to commute to work, changing cities from places where people lived within walking distance of their workplaces to having a central business district surrounded by rings of residences divided by income. No longer did the wealthy have to interact with poorer residents as they lived their lives. This economic segregation of housing increased as local trains, cable cars, and electric street cars increased the number of people who could commute.

The second great demographic shift after 1870 was the pair of Great Migrations of African Americans leaving the South for better lives in the North and West. Historian Jonathan Holloway argues that much of the first phase of the Great Migration, occurring from 1905-1930, started when blacks sought to escapee the Jim Crow laws that developed in the South between 1890-1905. he contends that the first phase of the Great Migration was understood as a political act in which African Americans changed how they claimed their citizenship rights because it reflected blacks' refusal to accept the South's social hierarchy. Holloway believes that in addition to disfranchisement, that it had become clear that sharecropping guaranteed life-long indebtedness, a situation worsened by the boll weevil's devastation of southern agriculture.

As European immigration declined during the early part of the 20th century while governments prepared for war, opportunities for industrial jobs in the North appeared. Not only did southern blacks discuss the availability of jobs and better housing, but the right to vote was a motivation for leaving the South. Northern factories, needing cheap labor, actively recruited African Americans. Like the earlier aves of migrants into cities, the arrival of blacks from the South changed the demographics of the places they went. Haarlem and the South Side of Chicago became centers of African American culture asa result of the Great Migration.

These changes were not without difficulty. Housing in cities became scarce and even more crowded. Racial violence erupted when black workers were brought in as scabs to break strikes, or even just as competition for jobs, peaking in 1919 following a resurgence of the KKK in northern and western cities. The release of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915 just inflamed tensions between the races. Holloway does not draw a direct connection between the rebirth of the KKK and increases in racial violence, but it accompanied race riots in East St. Louis, Chicago, and elsewhere.

The Second Great Migration, from 1940-1970, saw five million African Americans leave the South and West for place that allowed them to live, work, an vote without pressure from southern whites. Historian James Gregory argues that this wave of black migration mostly followed the patterns of those who had migrated north and west from 1905-1930. Even more than before, the new migrants fled the South to cities on the West coast, leading to huge demographic changes in Los Angeles, the Bay area, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland. This process also changed the makeup of those living in the South. In 1940, forty-five percent of blacks living in the South lived in rural areas/ By 1980, only eighteen percent of southern blacks lived on farms. One major result of this immigration was that some cities achieved African American majorities for the first time.

After World War II, the major changes in population were the growth of the suburbs and of the Sunbelt. The suburbs have been symbols of affluence since their massive growth during the 1950. Eleven million of the thirteen million houses built during the 1950s were constructed in the suburbs. By 1960, twenty-five percent of all Americans lived in suburban areas. The development of the suburbs came as a result of increased need for housing as veterans returned home from World War II. Federal housing policies dating back to the 1920s also fueled suburban growth. Historian Adam Rome argues that Herbert Hoover set the stage for suburban expansion as Secretary of Commerce. Hoover believed homeowners provided a solid core for society due to their work ethic and community involvement. Because he wanted more homeowners, Hoover wanted to make it easier for working Americans to buy a home, and argued that the construction industry should become more efficient so it could build large numbers of affordable houses.

Calls for federal involvement in the housing industry to help it meet demand went unheeded until the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934 created the FHA, which made it easier for workers to get mortgages. The FHA also set standards for the homes it insured and provided developers meeting its standards acceptance of their home designs. That allowed builders to get the funding they needed for large projects and led to the development of cookie-cutting suburbs like Levittown. Kenneth Jackson also believes that government policy pushed the development of suburbs by funding interstate highways that made it possible to quickly drive to work in the city. Other government efforts included taxing city residents to finance improvements in the suburbs, and by offering huge tax deductions on mortgage interest that renters could not get. The development of suburbs had some unexpected consequences - they further polarized American society along the lines of race and income.

Levittown housing contracts forbade their owners to sell their homes to nonwhites in order to protect property values, a requirement enforced by FHA and VA loans, which would not allow the purchase of a home in a "mixed" neighborhood. Suburbs thus attracted families worried about desegregation of schools. Historian Matthew Lassiter argues that suburbanites were not against busing and desegregation in principle, as long as it was one-way, and they tried to cooperate with Brown v The Board of Education by allowing "meritocratic" black students into their schools. They especially did not want there kids to leave their neighborhoods to desegregate schools. The Charlotte, North Carolina, schools system started out with this model of desegregation, but developed over time to include two-way busing for desegregation in what became recognized as the most successful example of desegregated schools in the United States.

The suburbs, especially those in the Sunbelt, seem responsible for dramatic changes in American politics during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. For example, historian Adam Rome credits the development of the environmental movement to quality of life issues that Americans faced as the result of profit-driven decisions made by developers. Builders determined house design and features based on profitability rather than in response to consumer choices. Profit led developers to choose septic systems over sewers despite any consideration of geographic appropriateness for the systems, and more generally eliminated geographical adaptations for cooling and heating in order to save money on construction costs, and chose electric heating and stoves to get discounts on wiring despite the increased long-term costs to consumers. Rome argues that housing practices that led to over saturation o soil with septic run-off ad houses sliding off hillsides in California led mothers, reformers, and even the Nixon administration to create the modern environmental movement.

Suburban and Sunbelt population growth also had large effects on the balance of political power in the United States by shifting American politics to the right as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's liberal consensus came apart under the strains of the civil rights movement and Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," which appealed to the fears of suburbanites across the country. Te West and Southwest played an important role in this process as the population of California doubled, surpassing New York. The surge in population was caused by the development of air travel, air conditioning for industrial uses, and the ubiquity of the automobile. The defense industry was critical to the economic development of the South and the West, leading to prosperity in Sand Diego and San Antonio. The lion's share of Cold War spending went to the Southwest, so that by the 1960s, one third of all workers there were in defense related industries. Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors and Thomas and Mary Edsall's Chain Reaction describe the political process involved - which I'll deal with in the next post.

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