Invasion-Succession Essay

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Ernest W. Burgess and other Chicago School sociologists developed the concept of “invasion-succession” in the 1920s to describe land use in the expanding U.S. industrial cities. Borrowing ecological concepts from natural science, Burgess saw the city’s land use as a mosaic resulting from market forces plus the cultural preferences of distinct groups of residents. Enlarged by migration, cities expanded outward from the central intersection of their rail, water, and trolley routes. Profitable enterprises—banks, law firms, department stores—and individuals with an interest in a central location were able to command commercial space in the business district or housing in adjacent “gold coast” apartments. Factories relying on ports and railroads dominated nearby areas. Their need for workers attracted migrants from the rural South as well as displaced farmers and laborers from overseas. Forced by poverty to take the cheapest housing, newcomers congregated in densely packed tenements in and near the factory zones. Speculators facilitated this clustering by building insubstantial rental flats and subdividing older housing that was abandoned as the wealthy moved on. Residents able to pool family wages were sometimes able to purchase buildings in these areas, creating temporary stability and facilitating ethnic homogeneity.

In-migrants, often lacking English, created ethnic enclaves in these zones of first settlement to reproduce familiar cultures. They supported churches and synagogues, religious schools, ethnic shops and restaurants, athletic teams, newspapers, and night life.

The congruence between enclaves and political wards allowed residents to elect officials who delivered jobs, contracts, and services. The concentration of enclave populations supported an ethnic small business class and preserved familiar ways of life in otherwise alien cities.

These neighborhoods, however, also experienced disequilibrium. Where central business districts expanded into these zones, office buildings replaced tenements. When residents adjusted to urban life and took advantage of expanding economies, they increased their incomes and sought better housing elsewhere. Many in the native-born generation sought greater independence from ethnic oversight by moving to less-homogeneous areas of second settlement. At the same time, a succession of new groups arrived. Initially, Irish wards became dominated by Jews or Italians. Some of these, in turn, became African American neighborhoods. The transition could be peaceful or conflictive, depending on its speed and the state of competition for the cheapest housing. The fact that the wider society invidiously sorted groups by race and ethnicity at the border, at work, and in politics heightened ethnic tensions while the need to share political and religious institutions promoted accommodating shifts in resources.

In the 1960s, manufacturing began a sharp decline in U.S. cities. Using the power of eminent domain and federal subsidies for “slum clearance,” cities sought renewal by demolishing the many ethnic neighborhoods remaining on the edge of their central business districts. Often office towers and convention centers took their place as economies shifted to a service base. While luxury apartment towers lured many white-collar professionals from the suburbs to the urban core, others sought out and renovated what remained of older substantial housing and converted obsolete industrial lofts into spacious living quarters. Artists replaced garment workers and were themselves replaced by attorneys; tenements that continued to house the oldest and least mobile Italians or Ukrainians were converted to upscale housing by speculators and expanding universities. This gentrification, initiated by professionals who saw themselves as “pioneers in the urban wilderness,” was quickly seized upon by city governments. They delineated historical districts, zoned streets for pedestrian use, moved cultural facilities downtown, and encouraged developers to create “festival marketplaces” for well-off residents and tourists. In many cases, a restaurant veneer of an ethnic enclave was all that remained. Government worked hand in hand with the postindustrial economy in this invasion-succession dynamic, enhancing the overall economy of cities but at the price of reducing the stock of affordable housing and ignoring manufacturing employment.


  1. Burgess, Ernest W. 1925. “The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project.” Pp. 47-62 in The City, edited by R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Gans, Herbert J. [1962] 1982. The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian Americans. New York: Free Press.
  3. Smith, Neil. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge.

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