Sample Paper on Forces Transforming the American City in the 20th Century


Forces Transforming the American City in the 20th Century

In the article ‘What is an American City,’ Michael Katz gives an account of the birth of cities in the United States, with emphasis on the impact that the Second World War had on the cities. Katz maintains that the years after the Second World War marked some of the most transformative years in the history of United States’ cities. Some of the most notable changes to the cities occurred on the economic, demographic and spatial forms of the cities, and while the factors of change immediately after the Second World War are no longer with the US cities, they (cities) continue to transform as rapidly as the industrial revolution times. The olden definition of cities as fronted by Jane Jacobs in her book “Death and Life of Great American Cities” does not seem to capture the very description of cities in modern day America (Katz 20). While she described American cities as having mixed use, short blocks, mixed-age dwellings, and density as the true picture of the traditional American cities, this falls short of the current urban setting in the US. More cities today have transformed into growing, dynamic, and vibrant societies. Forces of transformation are strong in the cities, reshaping everything from family to gender, race to sexuality, culture to ethnicity.

One of the transformation forces of the urban cities today is the growth in industry and economics in the cities. For cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the growth of foreign industries, particularly electronics and automobiles, in addition to search for cheap labor by corporates, has hugely transformed the cities (Katz 21). Such changes began a nationwide city transformation in the economic, demographic and spatial spheres, which completely transformed the nation’s cities.

Economically, the shift from manufacturing to a service economy tremendously changed the cities, with some such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami among others, withstanding the industrialization process (Katz 21). On the contrary, cities that highly depended on industries, such as Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland nearly collapsed with the transformation into a service economy. Even more interesting is that with a shift to a service economy, cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque transformed their very economies, building them on entertainment, hospitality, and retirement (Katz 21).

The change to a service industry perhaps was the most significant force replacing manufacturing factories with office space in towers. The resulting cities were rife with financial institutions and services, most of which supplied the business services and financial products that were in high demand in the emerging world service economy. Even with the shift to a service economy, cities such as Los Angeles still saw the emergence of small-scale manufacturing, which took advantage of the growing cheap immigrant labor (Katz 21).

Immigrant labor and a shift in the demographic composition was yet another force that transformed the cities. Cities’ demographic transformation began with the migration of African Americans from the South to the northern, Midwestern and Western cities; places that the African Americans did not previously occupy. The entry of the African Americans into cities immediately occasioned the exit of the whites from the cities. The immigration of the African Americans into the cities and the emigration of whites to the suburbs between 1950 and 1970 led to the rapid growth of population in both cities and suburbs (Katz 22). With the growth in population (cities grew by 10 million while suburbs grew by 85 million) came an acute housing shortage, which more than ever pushed the whites out of the cities to the suburbs (Katz 22). The federal government fueled the emigration of the whites from the cities to the suburbs by providing them with long-term, low-interest mortgages, in addition to good transportation infrastructure through the interstate highway system.

Given that that the number of emigrants was not the same as the African Americans migrating into the cities, there emerged green ghettos in the inner cities, largely resulting from the abandoned houses and factories occupied by the leaving middle-class whites. Cities such as Los Angeles on the other hand, only grew, as most people were attracted by the economic opportunities that the city had to offer. Indeed, as the center of most business service and financial products to the emerging international service economy, the population of Los Angeles grew from 8.5 to 20 million between 1957 and 1990 (Katz 22).

Changes in the federal law on immigration in 1965 proved a significant force in the transformation of American cities. Following the passage of the law, which abolished the previously established quota of immigrants based on origin, and established a new policy that targeted the reunification of immigrant families and attracting skilled labor, the urban demography overly transformed. Immigrants flooded the US in the 1990s than at any one point in history, most of which were of Hispanic and Asian descent. The influx of the immigrants into the cities transformed the ethnic composition of the cities and led to the rapid cities’ population growth experienced in the 90s. Many of the immigrants settled in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami. These are largely referred to as gateway cities, given the potential and promise they hold for economic prosperity. The immigrants, however, also spread to other smaller cities and suburbs, with Hispanics spreading much faster in comparison with other immigrant groups.

Resulting from the incursion of African Americans into the cities, suburbanization and racial segregation additionally transformed American cities’ spaces. The phenomenon began after the Second World War, and resulted in not only the population, but also industries and other services being suburbanized. The suburbs remained primarily white until the invasion by African American towards the end of the 20th century (Katz 22). Even with their incursion, the African Americans remained bunched in segregated neighborhoods. Racial segregation was on the other hand, evident in the concentration of African Americans in poor districts. Racial segregation was so rooted that even the successful American Americans lived near other African Americans than near whites with similar incomes (Katz 2).

Of minimal but significant importance in the transformation of cities was the redevelopment of the urban space. This process transformed the urban centers by evicting population in poor residents and clearing of downtown land for use as offices and homes for the rich. Mostly, the evicted poor were left without alternative housing units or places. Thus, although gentrification did not have a huge impact on the population of the cities, it transformed the city space, attracting rich white professionals, who in the end demanded for services and amenities (Katz 22).

New Urban Definitions in the 21st Century

Changes in the urban population, space and demography meant that the former definitions of urban centers did not entirely fit the American cities. For this reason, there was need to give new definition to the urban centers. Two city metaphors emerged as alternative definitions to the 21st century cities. The inward-looking and the outward-looking metaphors, while not exclusive, provide a window into the ruptured reality of the city (Katz 23). The reality in question is the growing inequality, a result of the economic, demographic and spatial alteration of the American cities (Katz 23).

The inward-looking metaphor is tri-partite and includes the “inner city,” the “postindustrial” and the “Dual City” metaphors. The inner city defines the city within the realms of poverty, crimes, drugs and children born out of wedlock.  The poor colored and the blacks make up the largest population of the inner city metaphor (Katz 23). The postindustrial metaphor on the other hand, defined the city in terms of what it had lost. This is largely on the transformation from a manufacturing to a service economy; thus, largely the definition of the city from what it was rather than what it has transformed to become. The “Dual City” metaphor, as the third inward-looking metaphor, defines the city in terms of its division between the rich and the poor (Katz 23). The rich, according to this metaphor, have access to jobs in finance, information and high-end services, while the poor languish in dead-end jobs, informal economy and government assistance.

The outward-looking metaphor, like its counterpart, has a variety of metaphor within its definition. These are the “city region,” “metropolitan area,” “elastic/inelastic city” and the “galactic city.” The inward-looking metaphor attempts to extend cities within their legal boundaries (Katz 24). Proponents of this metaphor argue that, for correction of the political fragmentation of the cities, it is important that the city’s definition expand. The inward-looking metaphors, therefore, concentrate on the economic and political inequalities between central cities and the suburbs. It is the opinion of these proponents that city problems such as pollution, economic disparities and racial segregation among others are burden solvable by the Metropolitan authorities (Katz 24).

Different forces have acted on the transformation of the American cities into what they are today. Some of these forces continue to act on the cities, transforming them even further in today’s urbanized world. Transformation to a service industry still stands as one of the most significant forces of transformation for American cities. Equally important is the 1965 immigration law that opened the doors for immigrants into American cities and thereby transforming the demographic composition of the cities. In defining the cities however, two definitions prominently stand out; the outward-looking and the inward-looking metaphors. Both use the realities of the cities in defining them, painting a true picture of what has become of the 21st Century US cities.















Work cited

Katz, Michael, B. “What is an American City?” Dissent (2009): 19-26