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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

Urbanization and the Problems of Cities

Studying the development of Washington, D.C., could easily lead to analysis of problems that other urban areas faced at the turn of the 20th century. "Work of the Colored Law and Order League" describes conditions in which African Americans in Baltimore were living and working in 1908 and outlines actions this group recommends for improving conditions (focused largely on prohibiting the sale of liquor in particular neighborhoods).

  • List at least five problems that confronted African Americans living in Baltimore in 1908. Which problem seems the most serious to you?
  • Why do you think the committee was so focused on the problem of alcohol? What course of action did they decide to take? Do you think their plan was a good one?
  • What were the common questions the committee faced when they met with "leading white men"? What kind of evidence did they use to answer these questions? Do you think their use of census data was effective?

The last half of the 18th century saw the development of urban police forces, another type of organization that sought to address urban problems. In Reminiscences of Baltimore, former Marshal Jacob Frey reflects on the role of the police in a city, including their role in providing charity:

In another direction the police have accomplished a great deal; that is in the way of organized charity. There are not only funds which are intended for the especial benefit of members of the force and their families, but charity is bestowed through the police upon outsiders, who are suffering from cold or hunger and of whose condition the work of an officer often gives him a chance to know, and to relieve such is considered a point of honor. It need not be said that the policeman is far from being wealthy. His pay is small and what he gives he denies himself to bestow, yet not only by contributing his work as a collecter and distributer of funds, but by actually putting his hand in his own pocket he does much.

(Page 326, “Chapter XXII,” in “Reminiscences of Baltimore”)

Read Frey’s discussion of the Baltimore police and consider the following questions:

  • Why did Frey think the police were especially well qualified to provide charity to needy families? Do you think his argument is convincing? Why or why not?
  • What kinds of crimes did Frey describe as particularly difficult? Are these kinds of crimes still problems today?
  • What did Frey mean when he said "A great deal of the most effectual work which we have to do must be done before attempting an arrest"?
  • Identify two innovations in police work that Frey put in place in Baltimore. Why did such practices become necessary as cities grew? Try to find out how city police today are developing new ways to deal with urban problems.

Fires in urban areas were a problem in the early 20th century, and Baltimore suffered a serious fire in 1904. Search the collection using the keywords Baltimore fire and use the numerous documents to develop an account of the fire, its causes, and its effects. The fire could be compared with the more famous conflagrations in Chicago and San Francisco to determine whether a common set of remedies might have prevented such fires or whether the three fires resulted from unique sets of problems.