Housing Segregation and Inequality in 19th-Century American Cities

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:50 PM
Room 501 (Colorado Convention Center)
Robert Shepard, University of Iowa
Contemporary American cities are often places of significant de facto housing segregation and socioeconomic inequality among neighborhoods. Widely attributed to twentieth century phenomena such as "white flight" out of racially or economically diverse areas (enabled by the automobile or commuter rail), scholars rarely have attempted to map and spatially analyze household-level disparities within cities as they existed before commuter culture. Many large American cities became modern industrial urban places during the mid- to late-nineteenth century, so it is critical to understand the reality of human dimensions in cities during this period.

Buried in U.S. Census records is a wealth of geographic information about socioeconomic variables during this key formative period in American urban history. The 1860 and 1870 censuses were especially unique in that they collected each individual's personal estate value and real estate value (these economic variables were omitted from subsequent censuses). However, prior to the 1880 census, there is no direct way to geolocate individuals, as census takers did not record address information until that time.

This study develops an historical address locator system, and pairs descriptive location information about residents from city directories with rich datasets about those individuals in censuses in order to geolocate residents (and their attributes) and investigate historical socioeconomic segregation on a smaller scale. By geolocating individuals, this research also highlights individual living situations and helps to complement anecdotal accounts from common primary sources such as journals and letters. Drawing upon three geographically disparate large cities (Washington, D.C., Nashville, TN and Omaha, NE), empirical data demonstrate that mid-nineteenth century urban areas already were experiencing substantial housing segregation, well before serious adoption of commuter rail and the automobile.