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Cities and Historians: New Directions


ISSUE:  Summer 1977

Instant Cities. By Gunther Barth. Oxford. $11.95. The Urban Ethos in the South, 1920—1930. By Blaine A. Brownell. Louisiana. $12.50. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870—1930. By Kenneth L. Kusmer. Illinois. $12.95.The New Urban History. Edited by Leo F. Schnore. Princeton. $17.50.The Municipal Revolution in America. By Jon C. Teaford. Chicago. $9.75.


THE history of cities was long the special province of the real estate promoter or Chamber of Commerce executive, but in recent decades an impressive list of urban biographies and occasional volumes relating to the city have given urban history its academic credentials, Even so, urban history did not come of age until an “urban crisis” of the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s awakened the public to the dilemmas of the city. Historians belatedly jumped on the academic bandwagon to contribute their small part toward an understanding of the crisis. Those who became urban historians did so from unusual directions: politics, reform, black history all served as entrees into the discipline. Many of those who became urban historians were also affected by the ongoing “cliometric revolution,” Indeed, it became a common lament among American historians that they were scarcely aware of “urban history” before a “new urban history” was being widely heralded in scholarly journals and occasionally in the popular print. The fear was that the “new urban historians”—the cliometricians—would insist on quantification, theoretical models, and mathematical analysis and would quickly overwhelm more traditional understandings of the urban past, understandings gained through traditional, letristic (in the words of Eric Lampard) methods. It was feared that practitioners of the old methodologies would soon be without place in the writing of urban history,

This collection of recently published works on American urban history will arrest the fears of traditional historians; the old urban historian has as much to say about the urban past as the new. In fact, the distinction between old and new, as Leo Schnore reminds us in the preface to The New Urban History, is not always precise. The concerns of quantifiers who practice the new urban history are necessarily limited to measurable aspects of the urban past, aspects such as migration, housing patterns, or economic life in general. Unmeasurable yet understandable aspects of the urban past abound.

While these works should quell rumors of the imminent death of the traditional urban historians, they also raise a series of challenges to those who would understand the American city. The disparate origins of urban historians—old and new—are reflected in their scholarship. Many who work in the field are still more concerned about black history, the history of reform, political history, or economic change than they are about their calling as urban historians, This is not to say that their work is not good history, but it is to suggest that the field of urban history is quite ill-defined. Much of what passes as urban history is in reality political or black history in an urban setting.

These five topically disparate works give the reader a sampling of current urban history endeavor. Jon Teaford’s The Municipal Revolution in America is concerned with the governmental evolution of the American city. Through a look at the English background and the legislatively defined and regulated commercial city, Teaford argues for an emerging city whose behavior is dictated not by the commercial needs of an elite but by the collective needs of the city’s residents. No longer will trade determine the patterns of city government; rather we will find a gradually developing sense of a corporation dedicated to urban services such as health, water, or sewerage. This governmental ideal, Teaford argues, was fully emergent in the nation’s major cities by the end of the first quarter of the 19th century.

Gunther Earth in Instant Cities: Urbanization and the Rise of San Francisco and Denver is similarly intrigued with the developing city. However his study deals with the “instant city” phenomenon. Observing that cities have long been created almost overnight as temple cities, administrative cities, or mining cities, he finds that a peculiar variation existed in the silver and gold rush towns of San Francisco and Denver. In both cases the instant cities had a complement of extreme population mobility, rapid cultural change, instant and unplanned growth, but also technological change and adaptability pushed them beyond the typical instant city and made them into permanent commercial cities. The key was that they developed a commercial base and a commercial outlook, one that enabled them to survive. With that economic base secured, these cities could implement the “municipal revolution” and provide services to urban residents.

Like Teaford and Earth, Blaine Brownell’s The Urban Ethos in the South, 1920—1930 is fundamentally a product of the old urban history. His particular concern is to outline the nature of the urban outlook of seven Southern cities (Atlanta, Birmingham, Charleston, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans) in the early 20th century. The argument suggests that Henry Grady’s “New South” ghost was still present in the early 20th century and that business concerns were advancing industry, promoting education, building streets, and promoting the city beautiful with an eye not only to their own well-being but also to that of their residents. Efforts to improve transportation or to insure low crime rates were all part of the proper urban image. Thoughts such as these would be most congenial to Teaford or Barth in their municipal revolutions or their instant cities, More than that, though, Brownell reminds us that the South does have an urban past. He joins a growing number of young authors— Leonard Curry, David Goldfield, or Zane Miller—who are convinced that the historians of the South have excluded the region’s urban element and that Southern history has been written too much in terms of slavery, plantations, and Robert E. Lee,

Kenneth Kusmer’s A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870—1930 is the work of one interested in black history in an urban setting. The book, though, extends beyond an interest in black history; Kusmer is also interested in the process of city growth. What were the dynamics of Cleveland’s developing ghetto? In a framework made famous by Gilbert Osofsky on Harlem, Constance Green on Washington, D. C., or Allan Spear on Chicago, Kusmer discusses the question in terms of residential patterns, institutional developments, leadership changes, and political development and participation.

The New Urban History represents a collection of essays first delivered at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin in 1970. Sponsored by the Mathematical Social Science Board, the authors explore topics in urban history from residential patterns to innovative diffusion to suburban growth to slavery to the intellectual history of the city. The unifying element is the commitment of each author to his quantitative data. Alan Pred previews his longer work on information flow and the development of an American urban network, Kenneth Jackson argues that the post-World War II suburbanization had its roots in the 19th century when suburbs first appeared only to be legislatively annexed later in the century, and Kathleen Conzen uses statistical analysis to discover residential patterns of early Milwaukeans. Not only wealth and status but ethnic background determined one’s residential location within the growing city. Zane Miller’s study of five Southern cities confirms the black struggle found in Kenneth Kusmer’s full length monograph on Cleveland. And, in a concluding series of essays, Claudia Goldin, Robert Higgs, Joseph Swanson, and Jeffrey Williamson use mathematical models and economic analysis to help them understand the compatibility of slavery with urban life, the problem of innovation, and the ideal location of a firm in the late 19th-century urban-industrial explosion.

These practitioners of the new urban history would be frightening to the uninitiated. Charts, tables, formulae abound in their pages, and all too often they fail to acknowledge Eric Lampard’s “agnostic forward” and remember that the historians’ first duty is to their readers. For that, though, these quantifiers do give precision—based en statistical sampling and mathematical model-building—to feelings that some more traditional thinkers have held about the city for years. The limitations of quantitative evidence are also apparent, and like the authors of the controversial Time on the Cross, these new urban historians find themselves compelled to resort to “soft” literary evidence when quantitative information is lacking.

If the quantifiers lose sight of their topic and their readers lose sight of the argument, the traditional historians join them in losing sight of some larger questions of urban historical interpretation. They are questions that affect all writers on the subject. They are questions that reflect not only the divisions between old and new urban historians but also the disparate origins of those who practice urban history. They are questions of definition. What is a city? What is urban? These seem simple enough questions, yet we have only recently overcome the notion that American urbanization and American industrialization are identical. Industry’s presence has somehow been equated with the city; the triumph of industry was the simultaneous emergence of urbanization. That notion overcome, practitioners of urban history still do not agree on how big a city is or how small, and they don’t agree on what a city does. Without at least some common understanding of these questions, it seems almost futile to speculate on why this “something” emerged.

The problem of size is perhaps the least important but perhaps the most persistent. Somehow size is supposed to define a city. To many historians, places smaller than New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Phoenix are not cities. But to residents of North Platte, Nebraska or Albany, Georgia, their problems, their concerns are city or urban concerns. They have far more in common with the growth processes of New York than they do with a neighboring farm. Although it cannot be denied that the larger urban places have more urban functions, are those with fewer functions or fewer people non-urban? The difficulty is compounded over time. The United States Census Bureau has shifted its own rather arbitrary definitions of “city” from 2500 people to 8000 to the more recent Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA). Historically, though, places of just a few hundred in a sparsely populated area provided the same market functions, information centers, and political nerve centers that a much larger city provided in a more densely populated area or for a larger region. These authors perpetuate the historians’ difficulty with size. Brownell considers only cities of 100,000 or more by 1920; Claudia Goldin includes “ten major Southern cities” in her work on slavery but “major” is entirely based on size. The difficulty is most evident in Martyn Bowden’s New Urban History essay on the emergence of central business districts. He argues that a population threshold for an emerging central business district does exist but finds great variation in just what that threshold is. Rather than abandon city size as a part of his analysis, Bowden suggests a range of sizes from 70,000 people to 550,000. At the same time, he does not seek his threshold in the size of the region served by the city. The latter is far more important in the emergence of specialized urban functions, The problem of city size will not easily be solved, and it probably will not disappear, Jon Teaford has a possible solution in his implicit rejection of size as an important element. He studies the municipal revolution in places that had city charters. Not size but legislative recognition thus defines the city. The notion has problems of its own, but it does allow the historian some alternatives in selecting cities for study. That, as Earth demonstrates, allows the historian the privilege of studying the urban failures such as Monterrey, California or Champoeg, Oregon, failures that experienced phases of urbanization but never reached a commensurate size for the “successful” city. If we are to understand the historical development of cities, we need to understand failures as well as successes. The abandonment of any particular size for the “city” is one way of including a wider range of urban alternatives for study.

More difficult to define is the function of a city. Most historians now agree that urbanization and industrialization are only related and not synonymous phenomena. Most agree, too, that cities have commercial functions and that some never become industrial cities. Beyond this, though, there is considerable definitional doubt. The new urban historians are perhaps most limited in their scope. They implicitly accept the commercial and industrial city because those characteristics are most easily measured. Even Kathleen Conzen or Zane Miller, both of whom are concerned with life in a city, categorize their residential patterns or their Southern black residents in commercial or economic terms. The municipal revolution of Teaford or the urban ethos of Brownell suggest there is more. The city is also a place to live; a city’s history must also consider the process of living in it. That process of living, of coping, is only partially understood through a statistical framework. The participants at the Madison conference rightfully observed that broad questions of urban institutional development are not amendable to quantitative analysis. By using literary evidence, Teaford and Brownell suggest a city that was more than an economic place, they suggest a city of health, water problems, streets, and schools. If the evidence from Teaford or Brownell is correct, the study of the city should not lose its economic component but merely add other dimensions to it. Historians must broaden their definition of the city. They must be aware of the problems of coping, the institutional difficulties that had to be overcome in managing a city. Obviously the definition itself must change with time.

Teaford is again suggestive here. The idea of what a city should be changed in the early 19th century; Earth and Brownell show how some of those ideas affected instant or Southern cities.

Finally the problem of defining the city has been one of location. It has been all too customary to adhere to the notion that the Northeast was the region of cities, that the Midwest came to an urban society rather belatedly, and that the South was a rural backwater. The essays in The New Urban History, the work of Brownell or Earth, all suggest that urban historians are now approaching a more broadly conceived notion of urban location. We are beginning to understand the urban problem not as one facing the Northeast alone but one that is national in scope. This positive trend will, of course, be helped by the abandonment of size as a definitional criterion of the city; it will also be helped by an enlarged sense of what a city does.

There is little doubt that a division or several divisions exist in the practice of urban history today. There are advocates of the new urban history and of the old; there are historians of the city and there are historians who work with topics that happen in a city. The divisions are not without resolution, however. Insofar as urban historians adopt more flexible definitions of what a city is and does, they can proceed to broader understandings of urban history. These recently published works suggest that we can be optimistic. Not only is the old urban history still alive and contributing, but a sense of purpose about urban history is beginning to emerge. Perhaps a discipline that emerged in response to an urban crisis is now ready to comment on and understand the “urban” rather than merely the “crisis.”

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