Urbanization is a major theme in modern American history and it is intimately connected to such events as the revolutions in transportation and manufacturing and the expansion of our borders to the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande. In the colonial era, America’s cities were primarily Atlantic seaboard ports, but canals and railroads created major metropolises in the center of the country, and westward expansion added cities like San Francisco, San Antonio, and Denver. Today, America is an urban society. Yet each city and each town in our country has its own character, and each carries its own special history.
In this issue of History Now, our historians focus on the character and history of six American cities: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Antonio, Detroit, and New Orleans. Woven into their unique histories are key elements of our nation’s political, social and economic history. But the stories of these cities do not exhaust the possibilities. It is our belief that students across the country can use the study of their own towns and cities to illuminate important developments in our national past.
In “Revolutionary Philadelphia,” Ray Raphael brings eighteenth-century Philadelphia to life. Philadelphia was a thriving seaport with artisans and merchants, slaves and servants, but it is remembered today as the political center of the revolution and the early republic. Thousands of Americans and foreign visitors still flock to Independence Hall to see where patriots like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton labored to create a republic. Char Miller’s essay, “Remembering the Alamo,” focuses on a different revolution: the struggle for Texas independence. Miller shows us how the Alamo remains a contested symbol, claimed sometimes as a triumph of white over Hispanic culture and of Protestantism over Catholicism, but is recognized today as a struggle by men and women of many cultures and religions for self-determination. In his essay, “Coming to America: Ellis Island and New York City,” Vincent Cannato chooses the point of entry for thousands of immigrants as the symbol of New York’s -- and America’s -- multiculturalism. From its inception in 1891, the immigration facility on Ellis Island was the first stop for those eager to make their homes and their fortunes in the United States. Robert Cherny turns our attention to San Francisco in his essay “San Francisco and the Great Earthquake of 1906.” While many of us who live in other parts of the country associate the city with the Gold Rush, trolley cars, and the Golden Gate Bridge, Cherny argues that its defining moment was a natural disaster. The earthquake that destroyed lives and property— and almost destroyed the morale of the city’s residents — forcefully reminds us that the built environment is always affected by the natural environment. In “Detroit: America’s Motor City,” Thomas Sugrue traces the rise and decline of “Motown,” showing us the impact of the automobile industry on the lives of generations of Detroit residents. In Detroit’s history, we can see the role of industrialization, unionization, and globalization in American life. Finally, in “New Orleans and the History of Jazz,” Loren Schoenberg traces the rise of a distinctly American musical genre in the south’s most effervescent city. Schoenberg points to the irony in the fact that the music that began in “Nawlins” was used by musicians from around the world to raise funds for the rebuilding of the city after the destruction by the hurricane Katrina.
For our interactive feature, Karina Gaige has designed a map of urban expansion which looks at the most populous cities in the US over the past 200 years. Look to Mary-Jo Kline’s column for multiple sources, both online and in the libraries, that can be used to build lessons on these cities. This issue’s master teachers have provided you with their lesson choices, each of them readily adapted to your classroom. We hope that these character studies of six cities will inspire you to create a lesson on your own town or city.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.