An American Urban Residential Landscape, 1890–1920: Chicago in the Progressive Era

by Craig Turnbull


Urban landscapes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were shaped by an ideology of “improvement” that resonated throughout the United States during the Progressive Era. The core principle of improvement was based on an assumption that built environments reflected and shaped the moral, political, and cultural character of individuals and communities. Responding to the increasing diversity and chaos of cities, reformers and elites applied this idea in formulating plans for ideal urban environments that would encourage moral uplift, social order, and democratic sentiments. In Chicago, the monumental “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition provided one of the earliest and most striking examples of a meticulously planned and regulated urban environment. While these idealized plans helped transform cities, equally decisive were the grassroots improvement efforts of numerous middle-class Americans striving to create more desirable places of residence.

The growing number of improved residential landscapes in Chicago after 1890 were visually distinguished by features such as well-maintained, paved streets and sidewalks; street lamps; and “street trees." The production of these landscapes was overseen by thousands of reform-oriented Neighborhood Improvement Associations (NIAs). NIA projects such as tree-planting and street paving were partly inspired by a current of optimism about the future of urban America that pervaded the Progressive Era. However, grassroots improvers could also be motivated by a negative impulse that prompted them to adopt a more coercive, moralistic approach focused on keeping saloons and other “undesirable” people and places out of their neighborhoods. The presence of such contradictory impulses among Americans acting in the name of reform has often hindered historians seeking to explain the Progressive Era.

The task of explaining the Progressive Era has consistently produced debate and disagreement among historians. The search for the essence of “progressivism” has revealed a multiplicity of reform-oriented people, organizations, ideas, values, goals, programs, and motives. Complicating the search for progressivism is the existence of paradoxes among the array of people and groups advocating reform. The failure to identify an intellectually coherent, core progressivism prompted one frustrated historian to derisively claim that what characterized the progressive mentality was its “muddle-minded” jumble of oppositions, while others have regretted the scholarly inattention to how and why “strange theoretical combinations” of people and ideas existed side by side, working towards similar ends.

This book is partly a response to the challenges of understanding the Progressive Era. The book offers a systematic description and analysis of grassroots improvement, demonstrating the interrelatedness of the apparently contradictory elements of progressive thought and behavior. The history of improvement and its various advocates reveals the progressive capacity to simultaneously embrace both “positive” and “negative” reforms while remaining relatively unaware of their incongruities. By examining the changing meaning of grassroots improvement and the motivations of its practitioners, this book helps identify the forces responsible for the apparent contradictions of progressivism and the shifting balance between reform and illiberalism among improvers.

In this first full-length study of improvement and NIAs, Craig Turnbull explores the ideas and behavior of key improvement ideologues and practitioners. The book outlines the rural origins of improvement, and examines why Chicago became a focal point of grassroots improvement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book also offers the first systematic description and analysis of NIA objectives, activities, membership, politics, and organizational structures. It analyses the role of improvement in advancing the new professional agenda of real estate businessmen, and explains how and why they and NIAs became accomplices in adapting the ideology of improvement to develop and legitimatize the practices and discourse of legalized housing discrimination. The book concludes by explaining how the fine balance between reform and illiberalism underpinning grassroots improvement was upset by various structural and social changes, focusing on the increasing professionalism of reform leaders; the conflict between ascendant professional real estate businessmen and independent operators; the “Great Migration” of African Americans to Chicago; and the economic strictures imposed by World War I.

This important book will appeal to urban scholars in a range of disciplines and to a more general audience interested in the history of cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book would make an important addition to courses on urban history and urban studies, especially those that focus on the culture and politics of urban growth. The insights into the contradictions of progressivism offered by the book will be of particular interest to scholars and students seeking to extend their understanding of the changing dynamics of reform activity during the Progressive Era.


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