Immigration and Urbanization

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What were the pros and cons of city life in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s?

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By the end of the nineteenth century, more Americans were living in cities than ever before. According to the 1890 census, 35% percent of Americans were living in urban areas; contrast that to just 5% a century before. The increase in urbanization of the country was largely the result of the rapid growth of the industrial sector. Since factories were usually located in cities, they needed a ready supply of labor, and people moved to cities for these jobs.

There were positives of city life for sure. Housing was more available and affordable in cities than elsewhere. This meant that a growing middle class could afford to be homeowners. It also meant that residents of cities had convenient access to educational institutions, cheap markets, and transportation networks. As already mentioned, there were also ample nearby jobs in the many factories that were built in cities during this period.

Of course, with the positives, came the negatives. Cities often grew faster than the utilities could— meaning sanitation and health services were often woefully lacking, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. Outbreaks of disease were not uncommon as a result. Tenement housing was often the only affordable option for the working class; many people shared crowded and dirty living spaces. Crime could also be an issue. Corruption was rampant in many city governments, as local politicians and civil servants were not above taking advantage of the system for personal gain. Many landlords charged high rent for deficient homes.

All in all, city life during this period was a mixed bag. Cities offered upward mobility, jobs, and access to inexpensive consumer goods. But they also came with crime, as well as crowded and dirty living conditions.

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The main positive of city life during this time is that cities were where economic opportunity and cultural activities were to be found.  Living in a city meant having access to more kinds of jobs.  It also meant having more in the way of cultural and entertainment options.  This was the age in which professional sports was starting to become more important.  So were things like theatrical performances and Wild West shows.  These things were moe commonly available in cities than in rural areas.

On the flip side, life in the cities could be very harsh.  Poor people in cities lived in squalor.  This was the time of packed tenements with poor sanitation.  It was a time when people were having to work in terrible conditions for low pay.  For many, cities were a horrible place to live.

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