Blog for public history and politics
J. Michael Green
Theme: The Changing Shape of the City.
Lewis, Robert. Chicago Made: Factory Networks in the Industrial Metropolis. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Doyle, Don H. New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Zunz, Olivier The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development, and Immigrants in Detroit, 1880-1920. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
These three works represent the divergence of industrial growth, urbanization, and city development in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century. Historians consistently seek to label the period from 1877-1920 as a period of transitions. The United States evolves from the destruction of the Civil War to become a major world power in the twentieth century. However, it is the history of these transitions with their underlying factors that created the nation that would have the ability to become a world power. Consequently, it is within the city that one may find the details of urbanization, industrialization, urban planning, community development, and class conflict that define the tumultuous period between the late 1870s and the early twentieth century. Beginning with Robert Lewis, the works discussed here describe this transitory period of US history and how each geographic region addressed the complicated development of the city. Lewis writes from a uniquely geographic and economic perspective causing one to pause at the absence of many historical factors. Don Doyle will concentrate on the development of key southern cities addressing the emergence of those cities from the devastation of the Civil War. Finally, Zunz presents his work about the development of industrial Detroit illustrating the development of a class-caste system using statistical data to illustrate that emergence.
Robert Lewis begins his analysis of the development of the industrial city of Chicago from the unique perspective of economics and geographical development. Lewis states that “Chicago was unique in its development with the networks created with the suburban and urban manufacturers linked together in networks (Lewis 15).” However, despite these linkages that Lewis illustrates, the author leaves out of his analysis the importance of labor. In addition, one may challenge the uniqueness of Chicago’s economic development through the use of manufacturing business linkages. This is how Lewis describes the interconnectedness of businesses among the various industrial corporations that together developed the industrial landscape. Lewis claims that these relationships among the industrial elites remained the primary actors in developing Chicago into the industrial powerhouse of the Midwest. While work offers a unique perspective on city development, it is an incomplete assessment.
Lewis’ unique evaluation of Chicago growth verges on the biased side of plausible. Perhaps it is his training as a Professor of Geography that brings his perspective solidly down on the side of urban development and business leadership. The author does an excellent job detailing the logical methods business leaders used to sell Chicago as an industrial place to do business. From early in the 1880s business developers would arrange tours of the industrial landscape to potential entrepreneurs who would either start or move their businesses to Chicago. One of the most prominent was George Pullman who brought his railroad car business to the city. At the same time, these business developers would aid potential businesses in providing potential contacts establishing an interconnected link relationship between various businesses. One example Lewis cites is the aluminum can manufacturer who established a link with Armour meats to the extent that the can manufacturer had an assembly line that fed directly into the Armour plant next door. At the same time, Lewis describes the vast network of business links centralized in the business area of Chicago, now called the Loop. The interconnectedness of the furniture, steel, aluminum, meat, and wood industries all play a strategic role of Chicago’s industrial might. The interaction of these industries had a multiplier effect as other industries emerged to supplement and aid the larger industries. Hence, the emergence of the industrial developer occurs to aid manufacturers in finding a good location for their business. However, like many scientific hypothesis, the focus of Lewis’ work remains exclusively business oriented. From the grand industrial tours arranged by developers to the secondary industries that emerged, the sole explanation for the expansion of the Chicago industrial geography remained in the hands of the developers who sold Chicago’s location and the business leaders who established their factories within this extensive network. There is no doubt that this factor contributed to the growth of the city. However, this does not explain the development of the ethnic neighborhoods nor the development of communities that would defy definition as a singular “industrial” area. Lewis claims that manufacturing suburbanization was a key element in the growth of the city and singularly defines the makeup of the city. Yet, the author does not talk about the populations of workers that worked in the plants and lived in the communities. Why did certain groups live within proximity of each other? Could it be that social norms of the day encouraged and demanded this form of segregation? There is no doubt that ethnic populations had many social, political, and economic reasons for living in their communities. And, at the same time, they contributed to the growth of the urban population. This does not require the direction of business leaders nor does Lewis indicate the importance of the labor force in his geographical study.
In the end, Lewis’ work should be read with a jaundiced eye and careful analysis. Indeed, his work does illustrate how businesses and corporations worked together to build an industrial landscape. This is only part of the story. To deny the importance of the ethnic communities that began to emerge at this premier point in Chicago history, is to deny that part of the puzzle does not matter. How could these industries thrive, work, and build without the role of human labor. In short, they could not. Lewis remains candid in his focus that business and corporate leadership remained key elements in building Chicago. There is no doubt about this notion. However, to deny the importance of labor and city government for their contribution to city building eliminates a substantial element in the completeness of historical research.
Don Doyle in his work of the same period takes a similar approach to that of Lewis. Namely that merchants, financiers, and manufacturers were the key elements in building the New South in the wake of the Civil War. Doyle’s work solely focuses on the manner in which businessmen of four different cities confronted the challenges of the post-Civil War/ Reconstruction South. Doyle chooses two cities that were affected by an influx of northern entrepreneurs and two cities that reverted back to the older ante-bellum establishment as key elements in rebuilding their cities. From the beginning, the author states that while the South lingered on the road to modernization, there were important and sporadic developments in urban areas that helped to create the New South. At the same time, Doyle illustrates that those areas of development had the business class played a key role in shaping and defining the modern South. Clearly it was the wealthier elites who led the crusade to rebuild a destroyed social and geographic society. Finally, Doyle illustrates that the changing South through the shifting of economic focus from the port cities such as Charleston and Mobile to inland cities that became major manufacturing centers such as Atlanta and Nashville.