America's Urban History
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America's Urban History

Lisa Krissoff Boehm, Steven Hunt Corey

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eBook - ePub

America's Urban History

Lisa Krissoff Boehm, Steven Hunt Corey

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About This Book

The history of the American city is, in many ways, the history of the United States. Although rural traditions have also left their impact on the country, cities and urban living have been vital components of America for centuries, and an understanding of the urban experience is essential to comprehending America's past. America's Urban History is an engaging and accessible overview of the life of American cities, from Native American settlements before the arrival of Europeans to the present-day landscape of suburban sprawl, urban renewal, and a heavily urbanized population.

The book provides readers with a rich chronological and thematic narrative, covering themes including:

  • The role of cities in the European settlement of North America


  • Cities and westward expansion


  • Social reform in the industrialized cities


  • The impact of the New Deal


  • The growth of the suburbs


  • The relationships between urban forms and social issues of race, class, and gender


Covering the evolving story of the American city with depth and insight, America's Urban History will be the first stop for all those seeking to explore the American urban experience.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2014
ISBN
9781317813316
Edition
1

1 Pre-colonial and Seventeenth-Century Native American Settlements

Introduction: Indigenous Footprints

Urban settlements in the continental United States (U.S.) date back at least 1,400 years, and fundamental relationships and processes that comprise urbanization reach back even further. Traditional American history survey textbooks, and even urban history narratives, though, either rarely mention Native American communities or relegate them to a few preliminary pages in order to contrast the pre-colonial indigenous ways of life with the dramatic transformations brought about by contact with Europeans. Our understanding of American urban history is enriched when we consider in detail the story of populous Native American settlements, such as the city of Cahokia in the American Midwest, the Iroquois and Algonquin longhouses in the Northeast, and the canyon dwellings of the Southwest. This chapter argues that Europeans did not encounter a land unencumbered by history; rather, they came upon a landscape rich with its own history—a land shaped by diverse peoples living in varying patterns of settlement. In fact, Europeans benefited greatly by launching their colonial ventures in regions in which Native Americans had already cleared ground and established economic patterns that helped lay a foundation for the Europeans’ immense mercantile wealth.
Although urban communities created by American Indians (we use the terms Native American and American Indian interchangeably throughout this volume) did not evolve in a straightforward manner, without interruption, into present-day cities, examining their history informs the evolution of the built environment in the United States. In terms of physical appearance, Native American settlements were often dissimilar, having been constructed by various peoples over different periods of time, and in regions as physically distinct as the rocky, arid landscape of the Southwest and the dense forests of the Northeast. The most populous communities, though, shared certain characteristics common not only with each other, but also with urban forms found throughout the world, regardless of historical epoch. And while pre-colonial or pre-Columbian (meaning before European contact) settlements are interesting and historically important in their own right, they also resonate in contemporary American culture. U.S. cities and suburbs are grounded, literally, in the society and physical landscape fashioned by the interaction of European and native peoples.
Historian Coll Thrush finds Seattle, Washington to be a prime example of how American cities have historical roots in Native American places. As Thrush asserts, “Every American city is built on Indian land, but few advertise it like Seattle.” Thrush notes that Seattle is reputedly a haunted city, with stories circulating about how a white settler, Joshua Winfield, built his home directly on top of a Native American cemetery and later died of fright from ghosts in 1874. For Thrush:
in Seattle, visitors and residents alike tell and are told stories about this city: that it is built on Indian land, that that land was taken to build a great metropolis, and that such a taking is commemorated by the city’s Native American imagery. These stories in and of place, these place-stories, define Seattle with an indigenous pedigree.1
Indeed, American Indians did not disappear the moment Europeans arrived and appropriated their land; they have remained a part of the cultural, economic, political, and social fabric of villages, towns, cities, suburbs, and rural communities scattered throughout North America. Native Americans responded to change brought about by European contact by modifying their physical surroundings and social structure in order to preserve as much agency over their way of life as possible. Such adjustments also included the adaptation, to one degree or another, of European commodities, religion, and standards of living. During the seventeenth century, some Native Americans even joined so-called “praying Indian towns” or villages in New England organized by Protestant ministers and laid out like English settlements. These praying towns ultimately failed to convert and assimilate large numbers of American Indians into Christian culture and also failed to protect those who did join from English colonists who coveted their land. These praying communities, like other indigenous settlements, gave way to subsequent generations of European settlers and their descendants who built modern towns and cities over the footprints of a Native American past.

Academics and the Origins of Urbanization in the New World

There was a time when even the most preeminent of American historians argued that since there are no written documents from the pre-colonial Native American past, Native American history from the period could not be told. In 1965, Samuel Eliot Morison noted in The Oxford History of the American People that, “When we try to tell the story of man in America from the beginning, the lack of data quickly brings us to a halt . . . . Thus what we mean by the history of the American People is the history in America of immigrants from other continents.”2 Fortunately, with the evolution of Native American history as a subfield within the historical profession and the rise of interdisciplinarity throughout academia, American history surveys now begin with a discussion of those inhabitants who were native to North America by the time of Columbus’ arrival in the “New World.” Contemporary scholars use several terms to describe indigenous North Americans and their descendants, the most common being Native Americans, American Indians or Amerindians, aboriginals, indigenous or first peoples, and, in the case of Canada, even more specified terms, such as members of the First Nations. European explorers and colonists, though, still enter the story in history textbooks very quickly. This brief reference to native people and their culture is what Native American scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. terms the “cameo theory of history.”3
The tendency to dash past American Indians in history surveys is changing. Historians are now more comfortable in drawing upon the conceptual framework and methodologies of scholars outside their discipline to discuss aboriginal cultures. Archaeologist and anthropologists in particular have been useful for historians in addressing the formation and structure of pre-Columbian American Indian communities. In addition, new trends in historical research methodologies, including an increasing reliance on oral history to capture otherwise untold tales, the use of folklore, and the integration of visual artifacts within traditional scholarship, have allowed scholars to move past the exclusive use of written records.
The intellectual underpinnings informing the study of Native Americans and their culture have also changed significantly over the last few generations, enhancing our understanding of an indigenous urban past. Not surprisingly, scholars in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries commonly viewed American Indians and their communities as “exotic” and “different,” ranking these cultures several notches below the “civilization” created by white Europeans, and hence unlikely to have ever established advanced urban centers and ways of life. Attitudes in the academy progressed after World War II, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s alongside the “Red Power” movement in the United States, which was analogous to the better-known fight for civil rights for African Americans. What came to be known as the “new Indian history” sought to recast Native Americans on their own terms rather than as victims of abuse who suffered genocide at the hands of European immigrants and their descendants. This new history emphasized that native peoples were motivated by their own unique cultural patterns that adapted to change over time.4
As with pre-colonial American Indian culture, historians also rely upon the work of scholars outside their discipline to determine what makes a place urban. In terms of classifying ancient settlements as “cities,” the most influential line of reasoning remains that set forth by V. Gordon Childe, an Australian archaeologist, in his seminal 1950 Town Planning Review article, titled “The Urban Revolution.” Childe conceived of human development in four distinct stages: Paleolithic, Neolithic, urban, and industrial. Childe’s stages are bridged by three revolutions—the Neolithic, which brought settled agriculture, the Urban, which saw the concentration of population in the first cities and the rise of manufacturing and trade, and the Industrial Revolution, in which human and animal power were replaced by alternate sources of energy that fueled complex machines. Childe traces the earliest cities to the settlements around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is commonly termed the “Fertile Crescent” in modern-day Iraq around 4000 BCE (“before the common era,” also known as BC for “before Christ”). However, other arguments can be made that trace cities back even further, to places like Çatalhöyük in what is now the modern nation of Turkey, which housed about 6,000 people in 6500 BCE.5
Some urban theorists, most notably Jane Jacobs and Edward Soja, have even questioned Childe’s supposition that settled agriculture must predate urban settlement, and instead these scholars wonder whether the desire for humans to settle together in villages actually led to advances in agriculture. Archaeologists by and large, though, contend that a society must possess sufficient excess in its agricultural harvest to support specialized urban workers who do not farm. The existence of these nonagricultural laborers is therefore a key component in differentiating a true urban settlement from a large village. According to Childe, several other factors that help define a location as urban are: population size, density, monumental public buildings, a ruling class, a system of writing and predicative sciences, artistic expression, trade, a significantly sized non-farming population, and a society built on residence rather than familial ties.6
While Childe’s list provides considerable guidance in defining what is, and in some cases what is not, urban, there is considerable leeway amongst academics as to what are the most essential criteria for cities. Attempting to categorize American Indian settlements is a case in point. Should we look for physical signs of urbanization left on the landscape? Iroquois and Algonquin longhouses in the American Northeast were large enough to contain two hundred members of an extended familial network. Dense clusters of longhouses were typically surrounded by substantial palisades like the massive fortifications of ancient walled cities found in the Middle East. Other American Indian communities built extensive irrigation systems that could also help their communities be classified as urban. However, does physical infrastructure equate to urban cultural achievement? And must Native American ways of life and divisions of labor be similar to that of Mesopotamia or even Çatalhöyük in order to be considered urban? These questions attract, beguile, and ultimately may even confound urbanists (those who study and/or appreciate cities and the processes and characteristics of urbanization), yet they must be considered when studying and attempting to identify early America cities.
So when and where did the earliest American Indians live? Even with advancements in research methodologies and a greater appreciation of Native American history and culture, scholars still remain uncertain about the details of the process of populating the North and South American continents. The most popular theory holds that a land bridge provided a connection between Asia and North America, although recent academic works reveal a growing skepticism of this explanation. According to the land bridge hypothesis, Asia and North America were joined by a 1,000-mile-long landmass known as “Beringia,” which was exposed when glaciers extended in size and the water level dropped. Somewhere between 10,000 and...

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