Big Cities in the Late 19th Century
The Rise of the Big Cities
The enormous influx of immigration made cities like New York grow. Between 1860 and 1900, fourteen million immigrants came to the United States. A great many of them settled in the port of entry. This skyrocketing population led to many changes in America’s largest cities. New buildings were constructed to house the growing population. New schools and hospitals opened. Mass-transit systems were put into operation. Settlement houses came into existence in the poorest neighborhoods.
Many immigrants could afford nothing better than tenement housing. Typical tenement buildings in New York were five or six stories high, with no heating systems or indoor plumbing. A typical family apartment was one sizable room, whose windows usually overlooked dark airshafts or alleys, with the wall of the neighboring building almost close enough to touch. There were no rent regulations, so a landlord could demand whatever rent he wanted, and tenants had only two choices: pay it or go somewhere else. A landlord was under no legal obligation to maintain the property in good condition. Conditions outside the buildings were no better; there was no public garbage collection, so trash was everywhere, which of course added to the smells, discomfort, and disease. Jacob Riis documented tenement life in an important work of photojournalism called How the Other Half Lives (1890). Many prosperous people were sincerely horrified when Riis’s work opened their eyes to the miserable conditions in which their neighbors were living. People began calling for reform.
The American settlement-house movement began in the 1880s with the goal of helping urban working families and immigrants. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr established one of the first settlement houses, Hull House, in Chicago in 1889. Addams’s goals were
- To offer classes to laborers and immigrants
- To bring culture and the arts to the poor neighborhoods
- To provide safe day care for the young children of working parents
- To train young middle-class women for useful careers in education or social work
- To provide the neighborhood with a social gathering place
Hull House accomplished all this and more. People from the neighborhood could go to Hull House to hear a concert, view an art show, take English lessons, learn to read, and send their children to classes. Hull House provided a place for social gatherings and political meetings. Settlement-house workers could help recent immigrants with many questions, such as finding a doctor or a job.
Settlement houses like Hull House and New York City’s Greenwich House succeeded because they were located in the heart of the neighborhoods. Settlement-house volunteers often lived in the house; they were part of the neighborhood and its activities. To the working poor, this made the house a community center rather than a charitable handout.
After 1860, more and more states began passing laws that required all children to go to school. By 1900, more than 70 percent of all American children were attending school. More and more colleges also opened as the population continued to grow. However, reform was needed. Many schools, especially those in poor urban neighborhoods, did not have adequate space or facilities for the students. In addition, college tuition was usually too expensive for any but the wealthy. And the wages paid to immigrants and laborers were so low that they continued to send their children out to work.
As the cities grew larger, mass-transit systems came into existence, enabling people who lived far from the center to travel to and from the cities easily and cheaply. In 1888, Richmond, Virginia became the first city to have a trolley system. In the early 1900s, New York City began operating its first city-owned subway lines. The subway tunnels were largely dug by Italian immigrant labor. Italians were also hired to pave the walls of each subway station with decorative tile mosaics, because they were skilled at this kind of tile work.
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