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Society in Age of Great Inventions

Urbanization: Electric City, Electric Suburb

In the last few decades, urban America has experienced great changes. Inner city neighborhoods have been invaded by developers. Real estate prices have skyrocketed. Areas once avoided have been gentrified. The pattern of urbanization that had held up until the late twentieth century dates back nearly a hundred years to the Gilded Age, when technological advances fed the tremendous growth of industrial urban centers and helped create a new phenomenon in the American city: the suburb.

Nineteenth-century manufacturing tended to concentrate in urban locations with abundant labor, easy access to a wide variety of local services and markets, and the all-important railroad connections linking to a larger constellation of customers and resources. The increasing use of steam power late in the century allowed manufacturing growth to explode in these dense urban clusters. This process would be furthered with Nikola Tesla's 1888 invention of the first motor for translating electricity into mechanical energy and by the quickly widening range of uses for electrical power in industry. But harnessing electricity would have a massive impact on cities, moving far beyond simply feeding the industries first weaned on steam.

As electricity swept across the American cityscape in the late 1880s, the social geography of urban centers underwent a profound change. Following the establishment of the first successful electric streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, well over a hundred cities introduced electric streetcars. This early form of urban mass transit marked the death of the pre-industrial walking city and the birth of urban sprawl.14

Without the necessity of living within walking distance of work, centrally located housing was no longer the most desirable. Thus, the middle class began the trend of suburbanization, leaving the central business districts crowded with industrial pockets and working class neighborhoods and escaping to a ring of privilege miles away from the problems and pollution of the inner city.

The new suburbanites could enjoy the quiet and comfort of their remove in homes that, by the turn of the twentieth century, featured hot and cold water, central heating, electric lighting, and telephone service. Every morning, they could hop on a streetcar and be whisked through the city, right past its slums and social ills and on to the workplace.

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