Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/March 1906/Urban and Rural Life



AT the beginning of the twentieth century, approximately one third of the total population of the United States were living in cities, and were classed as urban inhabitants. A considerable percentage of this twenty-five million human beings are to-day living in crowded and uncomfortable quarters, despite the evident fact that there exist in nearly all sections of the nation many valuable abandoned farms and half-deserted villages. The exigencies of manufacture and trade, and the glamor and hurry of city life, as contrasted with the dullness and monotony of rural existence, have gathered this great host of men, women and children into our crowded, smoky, restless cities. In the building of the modern manufacturing and commercial city, everything held dear by the poet and the lover of humanity has been ruthlessly and heedlessly sacrificed on the altar of industry and wealth. Human life and happiness have been overlooked or ignored in the mad scramble for wealth, trade and power. Exports and imports, bank clearances, cotton, sugar, oil, beef, iron and steel, not men, or women, or children, are the important and desirable, even the paramount, considerations. Human health and human weal are thrown in the balance against gold and silver, and are found wanting. The unparalleled growth of cities during recent decades is, in a large measure, to be attributed to modern methods of transportation of goods and people, and of transmission of energy and intelligence. Change the conditions in regard to any one of these items, and the forces which make for centralization or decentralization are modified or reversed. Railroads and electric wires, telephones and telegraph instruments, rural free delivery and good roads are important factors in the distribution of population.

Great populations have migrated from country to city; long-established modes of living are quickly changed; old customs and habits, upheld and cherished by the dearest traditions, are suddenly brushed aside. A race of city dwellers is being developed. On the very threshold of a new century these questions are forced upon a reluctant people: Can a nation grow strong, vigorous and progressive if a large percentage of its population are dwelling in cities? Is city life natural? Is the sharp demarcation between rural and urban conditions conducive to healthful political activity? Are decentralizing tendencies becoming noticeable?

History records many rhythmic movements in human society. Certain tendencies are developed and carried to an extreme; but sooner or later new forces appear which produce a reaction; and the pendulum swings backward. The flood tide of city migration is near; an ebb toward the rural districts may be anticipated. Indeed the stream of population flowing toward the cities is being, in a measure, diverted into suburban channels; and at the same time a counter current is setting in from the crowded tenement-ridden quarters toward the more healthful outskirts of the city, where grass and trees are not wholly unknown. Our modern cities, our great manufactories, our railroads and our enormous trade are the results of the extensive use of steam power. While factories and cities did exist before Watt made his famous invention, conditions were radically different from those of to-day. Steam has molded our present civilization. But in recent years a new distributor of power, electricity, has come into extensive use. As a result the economies and limitations which caused centralization and crowding during the century of steam are removed to some extent. Electricity is modifying the distribution of population.

The movement toward the suburbs can be noticed by even a casual observer. Manufactories and residences are being built in the suburbs. Factories and homes are no longer erected in close proximity to each other. Shops are now designed to occupy a larger ground area, and are located further from each other. The age of decentralization is just ahead; the suburb is absorbing more and more of our city population.

The suburban type is becoming characteristic; the commuter is a constantly increasing factor among our people. Improved methods of communication and of transportation, better roads, rural mail delivery and new methods of transmitting power are substituting decentralizing for centralizing forces. As the country is covered with a network of trolley and telephone wires, the area available for the residence of city workers is enlarged. The use of elevated roads, inside the city limits, for suburban electric lines will still further lengthen the radius of the circle. Country or suburban homes, equipped with many city conveniences and advantages, are now available for the man engaged in business in the city. Country life of the immediate future is not to be what it was in the 'good old times'; new forces and new influence are infusing new life into the rural communities. Rural isolation will soon be a thing of the past in nearly all sections of the eastern and north central states.

The American people are beginning to recognize vaguely that life in a crowded city is not the best and most wholesome for men and women. Many individuals are buying homes in the country for purely sentimental reasons. But behind this sentiment is an unerring instinct which leads us back to contact with the soil and to communion with nature, to a simpler and less artificial kind of living; and also in the shadow of sentiment is an industrial situation which is steadily losing its antagonism to this instinct.

Furthermore, at the very moment when the forces of decentralization begin to make themselves manifest to the keen observer, a determined demand for governmental regulation of railroad rates appears. Railroads, as everybody understands, have played an important role in assisting the enormous growth of population at certain geographical points; they have undoubtedly wielded the power to build up towns and cities, or of retarding their development. Railroad companies have often exhibited a disposition to punish the small town, particularly if its location is such that there is little or no competition in regard to transportation. While electric lines offer indeed a partial remedy for this unfortunate situation, measures directly affecting the steam lines are needed, if this discrimination is to be entirely removed. If the United States government is in the future to take an active part in the control of railroads and the regulation of railroad rates, the people must decide whether centralizing or decentralizing forces shall be aided by the railroads, whether the large city shall be favored over the smaller one or the town, and whether the large shipper shall be permitted to receive special privileges in the shape of reduced rates on large or frequent shipments or for goods shipped under peculiar conditions, as, for example, in private cars. In the discussion of railroad-rate regulation the question of the treatment of small towns as compared with that accorded to cities ought not to be ignored. If railroad rates are to be determined or modified by governmental action with a view of benefiting the general public, we must decide whether the suburban type is desirable in the immediate future. We must, knowingly or unknowingly, stand for or against centralization of population and manufacture. Shall we use the power to regulate freight and passenger rates so as to accelerate or retard the growth of the suburbs? What is to be our attitude on this question? Shall we use the forces of legislation so as to act with or contrary to those economic and physical forces which are building up the suburbs, and which work unceasingly to mold our civilization into the suburban type?

As mankind becomes more highly civilized, wants become more numerous and varied. In a century, the civilized world has been advanced from a condition of penury to one of plenty; life is now more complex. The luxury of yesterday is the simple life of to-day. Requisitions for food, clothing and shelter are supplemented by demands for intellectual, social and esthetic enjoyment. Since machine production is employed chiefly in satisfying the demand for the common necessities of life, and because skilled and artistic work is necessary to create those articles and to furnish the services which particularly appeal to the artistic and esthetic demands of man, as wants of this latter sort develop, skilled workers will he gradually transferred from one class of industry to the other. Successful skilled workmen require clean, commodious and healthy home and shop environment. A demand for skilled craftsmen points toward a revival of village industry; because in the village or the suburbs only, as a rule, can such an environment be found at an expense which is not prohibitive. The use of water power and electrical transmission is especially suitable for furnishing power to small establishments. An authority on this subject has recently stated that about four fifths of the total water-power of the United States is found in falls furnishing less than one thousand horse-power; and that many now unutilized falls may be acquired and equipped to furnish electrical energy at a very reasonable cost per horse-power developed. The economic and industrial advantages are not all monopolized by the large business; but governmental regulation of railroads and of the exploitation of natural resources can also do much toward giving the small fellow and the small municipality a 'square deal.'

The steady increasing attention granted to art, architecture and the crafts movement, and the growing demand for public parks and playgrounds, are not entirely disconnected or distinct from the movement toward the suburbs. This latter movement has, to date, chiefly affected the well-to-do and the better paid class of artisans; but it is destined to persist until the homes and the environment surrounding the poorest are bettered. The cities are indeed growing very rapidly; but the foreshadowing of a new, more hopeful movement is there in their midst. Every demand for civic beauty and cleanliness is a demand for space and rapid transit.

A cursory glance at the worker employed in machine production reveals the fact that he has been reduced to the position of a mere machine tender. Long hours devoted to this kind of work makes a man narrow, it blunts his sensibilities; he finally becomes like unto the machine he tends. Machine production is a necessary accompaniment of our civilization; the machine is to remain among us, nor do we wish to dispense with its services. The machine must be used so as to benefit, not degrade mankind. The hope of the worker is in a shorter working day. If a shorter working day is obtained will the worker, is he able to, improve his leisure time? In other words, is a desirable and beneficial use of leisure time probable in the crowded portion of a city with its dull, monotonous scenery; its noise, hurry and smoke; its foul odors, bad streets and worse places of amusement or debauchery; its lack of natural scenery, fresh air and wholesome food? Amelioration of conditions is possible, feasible and desirable; but a movement of manufacture to the suburbs, the development of rapid suburban transit, the revival of village industry in the skilled trades and education which tends to raise the standard of living, are the real panaceas for the evils of the crowded city. Our statesmen can aid in hastening the solution of the problem by directing their attention toward the regulation of steam and electric railroads.

Agriculture also is undergoing a transformation; it is changing, in this country, from extensive to intensive methods. Our greatest industry does not readily lend itself to consolidation and combination. The small and medium sized farm triumphs, in the long run, over the bonanza farm, except perhaps in the cultivation of such crops as cotton, sugar-cane and tobacco, where the plantation system seems destined to continue. As the population increases the big farm breaks up and disappears, leaving several smaller ones in its place. Farming must, therefore, be classed with those occupations which do not readily submit to minute division of labor, or extreme specialization of industry. Scientific agriculture must be classed among those industries or trades which require skilful and artistic individual work. Its possibilities are not generally realized. The era of free public land is practically over. Men can no longer go west and take up new, unbroken ground. A few decades ago the competition of the newly opened western lands injured temporarily the farming regions of the eastern and north central states. To-day the situation is changing, many western farms have been robbed of their virgin fertility by uneconomical and short-sighted farming, and the eastern farmer is daily finding new opportunities for profitable agriculture. Dairy farming, stock raising, horticulture and market gardening are more and more attracting his attention. Scientific methods are being adopted; renewal of soil fertility is the first care. The 'good' farmer is one who makes a profit at the end of the season, and who also preserves unimpaired the fertility of the soil. To be a successful farmer in this country it will be necessary to have definite ideas regarding farm management, and the proper methods of crop rotation and fertilization must be understood. Business methods must be adopted, and the cost of each crop must be accurately determined. The farmer will be obliged to keep in close touch with the industrial and commercial life of the nation. Agriculture will be a business, and business principles will be applied. The era of the unscientific, haphazard, go-as-you-please style of farming is rapidly becoming obsolete. The rise of the agricultural college and secondary school, and the potent influence of the United States Department of Agriculture, together with the general introduction of the trolley, the telephone and rural mail delivery, mark a new and promising epoch in the history of American agriculture. The agricultural transformation will diminish the drain of ambitious young men from the farm to the factory, the store and the bank.

The formation of a numerous and influential suburban type of people may, therefore, be anticipated for three reasons: the introduction of new methods of transmitting and distributing power; an increasing demand for goods of a varied, unstandardized character; and the development of scientific intensive agriculture. The development of such a social type may be hastened by appropriate legislative action. The city will gradually take on many desirable rural characteristics; and, on the other hand, the country will receive the benefits of many hitherto purely urban conveniences. The characteristic rural and urban types will present fewer dissimilar and discordant features. Decentralization—the merging of the urban and rural into the suburban—only can remove the well-known antagonism between the interests of city and country. State political machines have been constructed upon the foundations laid and cemented by this mutual antagonism and distrust between the city man and the farmer. True representative government breaks down and becomes a farce in the face of such an unfortunate situation. This line of demarcation may, as the suburb grows, be expected to fade away until the two types blend into the suburban; and then the forbidding menace to our democratic institutions caused by the distinct and often divergent interests of country and city will be, in a large measure, removed. Legislative power can not initiate or suppress such a social and industrial movement, but it can accelerate or retard such a tendency.