American Urban History
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0048
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0048
American urban history embraces all historiography related to towns, cities, and metropolitan regions in the United States. American urban history includes the examination of places, processes, and ways of life through a broad and diverse range of themes including immigration, migration, population distribution, economic and spatial development, politics, planning, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Urban history emerged as an identifiable subfield of United States history in the mid-20th century, admittedly well after the establishment of similar areas of inquiry in other professional fields and academic disciplines, particularly sociology. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, a small number of academics, led by noted social historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., commenced the first wave of scholarly interest in American urban history with works on colonial seaports and select 19th-century cities. By the 1950s, urban history coalesced as a recognizable subfield around a reformulation of American history, emphasizing the establishment of towns, rather than the pursuit of agriculture, as the spearhead for the formation and growth of the nation. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a second round of interest in American urban history, set against the backdrop of the tremendous political and social changes that swept the nation and transformed the historical profession. Through innovative models of scholarship that broke with traditional consensus history, notably pioneering quantitative research methods, a self-identified “new urban history” emerged that emphasized spatial development as well as social, economic, and political mobility, conflict, and change. Over time, this new urban history was largely subsumed within social history, given the fields’ intersecting and overlapping interests in social and political issues viewed through the lenses of race, class, and gender. Social history’s broad focus resulted in an explosion of scholarship that all but dominated the American historical profession by the late 20th century. From the mid-1970s through the 1990s, books with urban settings and themes, most of them well within the camp of social history, won an impressive number of Bancroft prizes and other prestigious awards. Urban history itself has survived—even thrived—without a widely agreed upon canon or dominant research methodology. Scholars continue to make significant contributions to urban history, whether or not they embrace the title of urbanist. Note that attendance at the biannual meetings of the Urban History Association has grown significantly over the last two decades. The sources in this article’s twenty subject headings have been arranged to illustrate the depth and breadth of each prominent theme in the field and are by no means an exhaustive list of such scholarship, but rather a sampling of the most influential and innovative examinations of America’s urban canvas.
There are strikingly few general overviews of American urban history, even though the majority of people in the United States have been urban since 1920, with more than 80 percent living in such officially designated places today. Urban historians by in large choose to focus on a single city as a case study, and as such most urban scholarship is local and/or regional, concerned with specific themes, processes, or ways of life. There are only a handful of monographs seeking to cover the American city from colonial or precolonial times to the present day, and despite fifty years of innovative urban scholarship, few outlines of the larger American urban experience remain in print beyond their original editions. Schlesinger 1933, along with the author’s subsequent works, was the first to place cities on an equal footing with the countryside in accounting for the development of American civilization. Warner 1995 (originally published in 1972) provides a framework for studying the physical growth of cities over time. Monkonnen 1988 accounts for the role of cities as municipal corporations in the two centuries after the American Revolution. Unique among narrative overviews are the various iterations of Chudacoff, et al. 2016, widely read for its emphasis on evolution and change within US cities. The work is now in its eighth edition. Boehm and Corey 2015 provides a new narrative synthesis of American urban history through a comprehensive look at the establishment and growth of cities in the land now incorporated within the United States, drawing heavily from the contributions of urban studies scholarship. Among the most accessible overviews of urban history written by social scientists are Glaeser 2011, which liberally combines economics, public policy, and history, and Zukin 1995, which explores the role of culture.
Boehm, Lisa Krissoff, and Steven H. Corey. America’s Urban History. New York: Routledge, 2015.
This comprehensive narrative provides a synthesis of the changing nature of urbanization in what is now the United States, from precolonial Native American settlements to the highly networked global cities of the 21st century. The authors contend that Europeans settled America as an urban prospect and that the American city is in many ways the history of the United States. Mandarin edition also available.
Chudacoff, Howard P., Judith E. Smith, and Peter C. Baldwin. The Evolution of American Urban Society. 8th ed. New York: Routledge, 2016.
This book provides a comprehensive and reliable overview of American urban history. Designed for the general reader, the narrative launches with European colonization and ends with a look at terrorism, hurricanes hitting New Orleans and New York, and cities in the Great Recession.
Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
This best-selling work from a Harvard University economist surveys cities across the globe and through time to argue that they are our greatest creation and hope for the future. Although not entirely original in its thesis, this book works very well in an undergraduate setting, especially for introducing and comparing urban issues in the United States to the rest of the world.
Monkonnen, Eric. America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780–1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
This self-described cross between a textbook and scholarly monograph examines American cities from a world historical context in an attempt to account for differences with those primarily in Western Europe. Monkonnen constructs three eras of American city growth and examines their structure and form through their corporate status as municipalities.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Sr. The Rise of the City, 1878–1898. New York: Macmillan, 1933.
An examination of the clash between city and country, women in urban society, cities as “the fireplaces of civilization,” and other social characteristics and themes that Schlesinger continues to develop in subsequent essays during the 1940s.
Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Originally published in 1972, this general history of American urbanism features an introduction by Charles Tilly. A true history of cities at the macro-level written without much focus on human actors, though strong at considering questions of urban economics and physical development, with considerable detail on the evolution of transportation.
Zukin, Sharon. The Culture of Cities. Cambridge, MA: Blackstone, 1995.
Cities are not just places, but are also ideas. Zukin considers how cities rely on culture to reshape themselves physically by examining how culture is discussed and dissected, including theme parks, museums, culture, and Times Square. She asks what do cities mean, and to whom does the city belong? How does culture get utilized to frame a particular space?
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