A History of American Urban Life

Steven J. Hoffman
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Summer 1989 



The city is a physical artifact which can reveal much about our society, our values and our history. Using Pittsburgh as a kind of laboratory, we will take field trips to analyze patterns in the built environment. We will discuss how social and economic factors shape urban growth, and we will try to figure out why American cities look the way that they do. In addition to studying the urban landscape and discussing the social, cultural and technological influences which have shaped urban spatial patterns over time, we will explore the city's role as an arena in which the issues of class, race and gender are debated and resolved by society at large.


You will:

1. develop skills which will enable you to "read" the urban environment and place what you see in a historical context;

2. learn how to read historical essays and monographs "for the argument," looking for the main themes and interpretations rather than trying to master endless detail and mindless minutiae;

3. learn how to skim historical writings effectively and understand when it is appropriate to do so; and,

4. work on improving your writing skills and enhancing your ability to develop and communicate historical arguments both orally and in writing.

You will also

5. be able to understand and discuss several factors or forces which influence urban development and affect the nature of the human activity that occurs in the city;

6. be able to evaluate the theoretical frameworks we discuss in class in light of your own experience of the city (and vice versa), and develop your own personal interpretation of the urban environment;

7. leave the course with an increased understanding of the historical context of American urbanization.

8. develop a deeper appreciation of and greater sensitivity to the complexity of the urban scene and the variety of images and life experiences encompassed by the single term "the city."

I hope that by giving you the skills you need to read the American city and a base of knowledge concerning the history of urban development, this course will foster an interest in you to continue to explore the built environment in a meaningful way, and to work toward making our cities more humane places in which to live.

Course Organization and Requirements

This course consists of discussions in class, readings, four walking tours, one driving tour, five short papers linking our tours to the readings, a midterm examination and either one longer paper or a final exam. The choice of either a final examination or a final paper will be made by the class as a whole and not by the individual student.

Class participation and discussion of the readings form the core of the course. Students are expected to actively participate in class discussions, including commenting on ideas from the reading assignments, concepts presented by other students, and ideas advanced by the instructor. The success of the course depends in large part on the active participation of all of its members. The focus of our discussions will be on the major themes and frameworks developed in the readings and not on the memorization of details and "facts."

The tours are an integral part of this course and will form, along with the readings, the focus of the short papers. These short papers are reflective in nature and are designed to help you integrate the theoretical frameworks we discuss in class with your actual experience of the city. Reflective papers should be approximately 3-5 typewritten pages in length. Each reflective paper will be due on the Monday following the walking tour on which it is based.

The midterm and final examinations will consist of essay questions to be answered in class. These questions will come from a list of possible exam questions that I will give to you in advance.

The long paper, if selected as an option, will allow you to explore in more detail one of the themes touched on in class. I will hand out a schedule for the various stages of the paper when and if it is appropriate. These papers should be approximately 7-10 pages in length.

The components of your grade will be weighted as follows:

50% -- reflective papers (best 4 grades, i.e., drop lowest grade)
20% -- midterm
20% -- final exam or paper
20% -- class participation

Required Texts and Readings

  1. Grady Clay, Reading the American City
  2. Raymond Mohl, The Making of Urban America
  3. Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier
  4. Sam Bass Warner, Jr., The Private City
  5. Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape

Additional readings will be photocopied and distributed to you in class.

A note on reading: Read each assignment actively, that is, read each section with a series of questions in mind. What is the author's argument (i.e., what does he or she want me to believe about this subject when I'm done reading)? What bias does the author have--where is he or she coming from and how might that influence what they are saying (and my willingness to believe them)? What evidence does the author use to support their statements and how convincing is it?

I will give you additional questions to think about for each of the readings in this course so you can better prepare for our discussions. I will hand these questions out on the Thursday or Friday before the next week's readings are due.


Thursday July 6


Reading the City:

  • Friday July 7:
    • Clay, pp. 1-65.
  • Monday July 10:
    • Clay, pp. 66-181.

Images and Meaning

  • Tuesday July 11
    • Salter, "The Cowboy and the City: Urban Affection for Wilderness," Landscape (Vol. 27, No. 3, 1983), pp. 43-47.
    • Warner, "The Management of Multiple Urban Images," (in Fraser and Sutcliffe, The Pursuit of Urban History), pp. 383-394.
    • Drucker, "Language in the Landscape," Landscape (Vol. 28, No. 1), pp. 7-13.
    • Domosh, "The Symbolism of the Skyscraper," Journal of Urban History (May 1988), pp. 320-345.
  • Wednesday July 12
    • Mohl, The Making of Urban America, Introduction to Part One, pp. 3-11.
    • Goldfield, "Pearls on the Coast and Lights in the Forest: The Colonial South," in Mohl, pp. 12-23.
    • Nash, "The Social Evolution of Preindustrial American Cities, 1700-1820," in Mohl, pp. 24-44.
  • Thursday July 13
    • Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, pp. 12-44
  • Friday July 14
    • Walking Tour - Allegheny City/North Side

The City as Arena

  • Monday July-15
    • Davis, "Street Theater in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia," in Mohl, pp. 45-67.
    • Stanzell, "Women, Children, and the Uses of the Streets: Class and Gender Conflict in New York City, 1850-1860," Feminist Studies (Summer 1982), pp. 309-335.

Capitalism and the City

  • Tuesday July 18
    • Warner, The Private City, Introduction and Part I, pp. ix-45.
  • Wednesday July 19
    • Warner, The Private City, Part II, pp. 49-157.
  • Thursday July 20
    • Warner, The Private City, Part III, pp. 161-223.
  • Friday July 21
    • Driving Tour - Metropolitan Pittsburgh

The City and Technology

  • Monday July 24
    • Tarr, Transportation Innovation and Changing Spatial Patterns in Pittsburgh: 1850-1934, Essays in Public Works History, no. 6 (Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1978) pp. 1-39.
    • Lawther, "Mount Washington: A Demographic Study of the Influence of Changing Technology, 1870-1910," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, (Jan. 1981), pp. 47-72.
  • Tuesday July 25
    • Schultz and McShane, "To Engineer the Metropolis: Sewers, Sanitation, and City Planning in Late Nineteenth-Century America," in Mohl, pp. 81-98.
    • Kleinberg, "Technology and Women's Work: The Lives of Working Class Women in Pittsburgh, 1870-1900," Labor History
    • Bayor, "Roads to Racial Segregation," Journal of Urban History (Nov. 1988), pp.- 3-21.

The Industrial City.

  • Wednesday July 26
    • Mohl, The Making of Urban America, Introduction to Part Two, pp. 71-80.
    • Warner, "The Segregated City," (The Urban Wilderness, Chap. 4, pp. 85-112).
  • Thursday July 27
    • MIDTERM, (covers material through TUESDAY, JULY 25)
  • Friday July 28
    • Walking Tour - Downtown Pittsburgh

Streetcar Suburbs: Development on the Urban Periphery

  • Monday July 31
    • Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, pp. 116-189.
    • Jucha, "The Anatomy of a Streetcar Suburb: A Development History of Shadyside, 1852-1916," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Oct. 1979), pp. 301-319.

Race, Class and Ethnicity in the Industrial city

  • Tuesday Aug 1
    • Rosenzweig, "Workers in an Industrial City, 1870-1920," (Eight Hours for What We Will, Chap. 1, pp. 1-34).
    • Bodnar, Weber and Simon, "Migration, Kinship, and Urban Adjustment: Blacks and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900-30," in Mohl, pp. 170-186.

Working Class Leisure

  • Wednesday Aug 2
    • Kingsdale, "The 'Poor Man's Club': Social Function of the Urban Working Class Saloon," in Mohl, pp. 122-137.
    • Rosenzweig, "The Struggle Over the Saloon, 1870-1910" (Eight Hours for What We Will, Chap. 4, pp. 93-126.
  • Thursday Aug 3
    • Peiss, "Leisure and Labor," in Mohl, pp. 138-156.
    • Byington, "Family and Milltown: Homestead," (in Lubove, Pittsburgh, pp. 34-44).
    • Miner and Roberts, "Engineering an Industrial Diaspora: Homestead, 1941," Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Winter 1989), pp. 4-25.
    • Friday Aug 4 Walking Tour - Homestead

The African-American Experience: Blacks in the City

  • Monday Aug 7
    • Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, pp. 1-65.
  • Tuesday Aug 8
    • Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, pp. 66-156.
  • Wednesday Aug 9
    • Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, pp. 157-234.
  • Thursday Aug 10
    • Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, pp. 235-274.
    • Epstein, "The Negro Migrant, n (in Lubove, Pittsburgh, pp. 60-65)
  • Friday Aug 11
    • Walking Tour - Hill District

The Metropolitan City: Suburbanization and the American Dream

  • Monday Aug 14
    • Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, pp. 190-305.

Suburbanization and the 1980s -- A New Type of City?

  • Tuesday Aug 15
    • Fishman "American Suburbs/English Suburbs A Transatlantic Comparison," Journal of Urban History (May 1987), pp. 237-251.
    • Jackson, "Suburbanization in England and America: A Response to 'A Transatlantic Comparison'," Journal of Urban History, (May 1987), pp. 302-306.
    • Conzen, "American Cities in Profound Transition: The New City Geography of the 1980s," in Mohl, pp. 277-289.

The City as an Environment for Living

  • Wednesday Aug 16
    • Warner, "The Peaceable Kingdom," (The Way We Really Live, Chap. V, pp. 51-59).
    • Warner, "The Metropolitan Zoo" (The Way We Really Live, Chap. VI, pp. 60-73).