H-SHGAPE Question of the Week: The Urban Landscape in Microcosm

Jeremy Young's picture

Welcome to H-SHGAPE's Question of the Week! Each Wednesday, the list editors will ask a question about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that we hope will provoke lively discussion. We encourage you to share your thoughts by typing in the "Post a Reply" box below the original post, or, if you're getting this by email, by clicking on the "Read More or Reply" link. If you'd like to submit a question to be asked in a future week, please contact the H-SHGAPE Editor-In-Chief, Jeremy C. Young, at jeremy.young@dixie.edu. This week's question:

The emergence of the urban landscape is inextricably tied to the GAPE period, yet most scholarship concentrates on the largest urban centers, with little work on the smaller cities and towns of the period. Are those two experiences fundamentally different? Do we need more work on the smaller-scale urban landscape, or is the archival record too slim?

This is a great question! (Also this whole idea of the question of the week is brilliant, I'd love to see these discussions grow).

I've recently become really interested in contests over power in the urban context, and to what extent the labor conflicts of the period could be framed as contests over urban space. I'm thinking in particular of things like David Witwer's argument that Teamsters had great strategic power in the urban environment, plus the nature of their work drew them to other workers' struggles in which they could sometimes play a make or break role through sympathetic strike or boycott, so no wonder employers targeted them.

I think smaller cities are crucial in this; places like St. Louis or Omaha or Denver - and east coast cities too like e.g. Worcester, MA that Chad Pearson has written about. If anyone has any tips on further readings related to smaller cities and control over urban politics/space I'd love to hear them!

Surely Janet Ore's work on Seattle's Craftsman bungalows, which informed my thesis on bungalows in small towns of the Intermountain West, would qualify here. But yes, we definitely need more work on this!

Ore, Janet D. _The Seattle Bungalow: People and Houses, 1900 – 1940._ Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

As someone who has spent decades writing about and teaching and doing public history in both large and medium cities, I can speak to the question. There is a historiography of medium and small cities as well as an urban studies and social-science literature related to them. One might look at the work of Timothy Mahoney at the University of Nebraska, or some of the projects associated with Jim Connolly at the Middletown Center at Ball State University, or some of the many studies of small industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest from the 1970s onward, or some of the work on the town network that emerged, say, in upstate New York during the canal era. And so on. But this historiography is scattered and not conceptually coherent, as anyone involved in such research will admit.

The reason isn't lack of sources. In the United States, pretty much any metropolitan area over 100,000 has more documentary material than a trained and diligent historian could ever hope to use, and the same goes for many urban areas over 50,000, though one might not be able to research every topic of choice in every city.

The reasons in my experience are conceptual and professional. Most urban studies types are big-city people in mindset and orientation, and they don't see smaller cities as big enough topics. Also, urban history and urban studies in the United States still gives evidence of its roots in the social sciences and public policy going back to the Chicago School era. A cursory glance at any Urban History Association conference program or Journal of Urban History TOC will underscore the point. That conceptual mindset has many strengths and is often undervalued and misunderstood. But it tends to conceive of big cities as archetypes and laboratories and tends to treat individual cities as autonomous systems that need to be analyzed on their own. So case studies based in big cities are presumed to have application to smaller cities, and few of us develop distinct concepts and methods that might apply to smaller cities.

Beyond that, most people versed in the theory of urban history will point that among the major themes worth studying, urban networks and urban regions have remained the least well-worked out. This is partly a by-product of the tendency to analyze big cities on their own, distinct from their regions and networks. The weakness of the concept of the region discourages research on smaller metropolitan areas--this is hardly an original observation.

In some countries, urban history has long-standing ties to local history and to local historical societies and museums. Even after decades of the public history movement in the United States, connections remain sporadic between university-based scholars working in large universities in medium- and smaller cities and the local historical societies, museums, libraries, and planning commissions all around them. A lot of us simply don't know the city- and town-networks all around us, their issues, and their resources.

As the discussion this week goes on, I would urge people to think reflectively about what they mean when they talk about a medium or smaller city. The scale of contemporary urbanization can cause a foreshortened perspective even among trained historians. Without putting any respondent on the spot, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country in 1910 and even though the municipality has shrunk dramatically, the metropolitan area by any measure is still a substantial urban entity, the 20th largest MSA in the country. Denver's emergence is as regional metropolis is a significant episode in the extension of urban networks across the continent--Denver MSA was 19th in 2010. One of the things we're supposed to be studying is how shifts in networks of finance, exchange, information, and so on cause shifts in dynamism and relations among metropolitan areas, and we should always be aware of that and label cities with those shifting relations in mind.

Over the centuries, 100,000 people of course ranked as a large city and 50,000 as a significant one, but our unusual historical perspective causes us to perceive and discuss such cities as small. Writers nowadays range widely in the way they categorize smaller cities--sometimes the label is confined to places under 100,000, but sometimes it goes up to 500,000. Such a loose way of talking gets us no closer to understanding the place of satellite and secondary metropolises within urban networks or in devising relevant concepts and research agendas for them. Personally, I tend to think of metropolitan areas under 100,000 as small under current conditions and from 100,000 to 500,000 as medium. Worcester, which someone mentioned, has been a significant New England satellite city for a long time. The remnants of the older town structure in central Massachusetts and Connecticut can hide the extent to which these grown together into diffused metropolitan regions. In 1910, Worcester had over 140,000 people, which made it a substantial, if second-tier city by the standards of that time. According to the 2010 census, Worcester had 180,000 people in a metropolitan statistical area of over 900,000--that kind of urban pattern creates the illustion of a small city that the scholar needs to keep in mind. So we should pay more attention to history and to changing urban structure when discussing the definitions and roles of the smaller city.

Alan Lessoff
University Professor of History
Illinois State University

Dear All, 

It's particularly interesting to think of this in the context of the broader role of local and community studies in shaping other subfields of U.S. / North American history.  For at least a decade, scholarship on colonial North America, especially New England, was intensely focused on studies of individual towns. There was also a plethora of similar studies for the Age of Jackson and the Antebellum Period, and local history, sometimes focused more on rural counties, has long been integral to Reconstruction scholarship. One question we might consider in relation to the opening one is whether this trend of local community studies had light impact on the field of the GAPE relative to scholarship on earlier periods. Or did it just manifest itself in different ways? 

Kind Regards, 

David Prior
Assistant Professor of History
University of New Mexico