Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Reconsideration of Geographical Mobility in American Urban History

Article excerpt

IN modern times, the relocation of families and individuals has been the prime generator of urban growth. Between 1870 and 1910, for example, the two major Virginia cities of Richmond and Norfolk experienced remarkable increases in population. Norfolk grew from 19,000 people in 1870 to more than 67,000 in 1910, an increase of 250 percent. Richmond grew from 51,000 in 1870 to 128,000 in 1910, an increase of 150 percent. Birth rates in communities such as these were relatively low and usually were offset by death rates, so natural increase explains very little of the population explosion. Annexations, particularly in the early 1900s, accounted for some of the new residents, but net migration, more than any other factor, was responsible for the population rise.

Net migration, however, as such historians as Stephan Thernstrom and Peter R. Knights have shown, masks the extraordinary amount of total migration that has characterized American urban history. An increase in a city's population of, say, ten thousand people over one decade may have resulted from the total movements of fifty thousand or more people flowing into and out of that city over the course of the decade.(1) Even this number only represents the tip of the iceberg, because it does not include the masses of people who moved from one residence to another inside the city.(2) Throughout the twentieth century, sociologists and demographers have devoted considerable energy to measuring and explaining migration, especially urban migration.(3) But in spite of the massive internal flows of migrants throughout American history, the topic received little attention from historians until recently. Frederick Jackson Turner recognized the phenomenon of internal migration years ago, and a generation later his student Merle Curti developed the theme, but neither one gave it sustained focus.(4) Beginning in the late 1960s, however, urban and social historians became fascinated by migration and mobility.(5) Stephan Thernstrom and others trying to measure social mobility found their efforts frustrated by the frequent disappearance of individuals whose careers they were tracing. By the early 1970s, systematic calculation of the extraordinary in-migration to and out-migration from growing American cities prompted Thernstrom to conclude that the high rates occurred with "striking consistency" across the nation and Michael B. Katz, Michael J. Doucet, and Mark J. Stern to identify transiency, along with inequality, as the two major features of American social history.(6)

The purpose of this essay is not to review all the findings and methodologies regarding migration and mobility in American cities, nor is it to support or modify those findings with primary research on a particular place or places. Rather, this essay will review some of the conclusions and assumptions historians and sociologists have made about the topic and suggest a somewhat different interpretive spin on those conclusions and assumptions, a spin that perhaps will provoke new research and analysis of a still underexamined topic. Let us proceed by examining two ways the various specialists have chosen to analyze geographical mobility: from an individual perspective, or why people move, and from a societal perspective, or what effects in- and out-migration have on a community.

Individual Analysis: Why People Move

The voice of Robert E. Park echoes through most previous analyses of mobility on an individual level. Park and the sociologists whom he influenced believed that urbanization and its accompanying migration created the "marginal man," an individual caught, if only temporarily, between the cultural borders of two worlds. According to this theory, the migrant, detached from the order and communal life of traditional society, enters an urban society full of turmoil and disorganization. Whether or how well that person becomes integrated into the new environment depends on the width of the cultural gap between the newcomer and the receiving society. …

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