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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, is famous for being known as the Windy City and as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. But it is also a paradigmatic case of how migration has influenced urban growth and industrial development. Between 1850 and 1930, Chicago grew from a small town of 30,000 people to a major metropolis with almost 3 and 1/2 million inhabitants. For several decades, it was the fastest growing city in the world. This spectacular growth was the direct result of a mass influx of migrants from Northern, Eastern, and Southern Europe, especially from Germany, Poland, and later Italy. In addition, people moved to Chicago from the East Coast of the United States.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds And from the early 20th century onwards, African Americans arrived from the rural South. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed several square kilometres of the centre and left 100,000 residents homeless. But this did not stall the city’s development. Instead, it served to improve building and planning techniques. The era saw the expansion of labour-intensive industries, such as meatpacking, steelworks, and sweatshops, which provided abundant but low-paid and dangerous work to the newcomers. Although Chicago continued to allure new arrivals with the promise of potential fortunes, many found themselves trapped in poverty. This is the central theme of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 best-selling novel The Jungle, which recounts the life of a Lithuanian immigrant and the appalling conditions he endures in a slaughterhouse.

Skip to 2 minutes and 6 seconds Chicago was an important centre of the workers’ movement. The world’s first-ever May Day demonstration was held in Chicago on May 1st, 1886. A couple of days later, a rally in Haymarket Square, attended mainly by migrant workers, ended in chaos after a bomb was thrown at police. The speakers were arrested and most of them later executed. For decades around the world, the Haymarket affair remained a symbol of workers’ injustice. At the time, however, some in the US saw it as evidence of the threat of foreign ideologies, such as socialism and anarchism, that were being brought over by European migrants. Chicago’s migration-fueled growth had a direct influence on early urban sociology and on what came to be known as The Chicago School.

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 seconds For the first time, sociologists set out to systematically survey and map problems associated with urbanisation, such as poverty and crime. Others conducted pioneering ethnographies with some of the communities that had settled in the city. Others attempted to theorise the type of urban life that had emerged in Chicago. For instance, the landmark study The Polish Peasant in Europe and America published in 1918 argues that the sudden freedom of immigrants released from the controls of Europe to the unrestrained competition of the new city had been a dynamic for growth. In other words, from its very inception, the relationship between migration and cities was a central focus in urban studies.

Human mobility and the birth of Chicago

This video describes the spectacular growth of Chicago during the nineteenth century as a result of international and internal migration.

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This video is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)