Here’s What You Can Read If You’d Like to Think About Cities In Exactly The Way That I Do
I am always flattered when someone asks me for reading recommendations. I read a lot, and I prefer to read nonfiction that’s related to what I’m interested in—urban policy, sociology, history, cities, neighborhoods, critical theory.
I’ve been reading about these topics consistently, and recording the act of doing so, since I was an undergrad at University of Maryland. As part of my American studies degree, I wrote a thesis about gentrification and displacement in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. That thesis was heavily based on a literature review of existing texts about gentrification. I defended the thing, and graduated, in 2010. The landscape of literature about cities and how they work has absolutely blown up in the intervening years; when I was in school, it felt as if I had read really, truly everything I could get my hands on about gentrification and displacement, because it felt as if there wasn’t much at all.
I can’t find a copy of my thesis. I was unhappy with it—it was undergraduate work!—and wanted to continue my research, which was very qualitative, as a graduate student. I was even unhappier in grad school, and I dropped out. Somewhere in there, I changed computers and external hard drives enough to lose the document. I am generally OK with this because it’s not work I want to show off, but it had what I recall as a really great annotated bibliography.
Of course, the most frequent requests for reading recommendations I get are for things that explain cities, particularly housing. It’s a challenge to be asked, “Why do you think about cities the way that you do?” My answer is complex and iterative. There is no one book that I can suggest that summarizes my outlook on urban issues (though The Invention Of Brownstone Brooklyn comes very close), and discussing books alone would leave out all I’ve gleaned from nearly a decade of attending public meetings on development in D.C., San Francisco, and Cleveland. I’ve often wished to be able to at least link people to that annotated bibliography; it’s out-of-date, but would be a start.
So, here, I’m going to list everything I can think of that’s helped me craft the lens though which I see contemporary urban policy issues. (Mostly, I looked at all my bookshelves and listed titles that I own and have read.) Starred titles are the ones I find most critical. This is generally grouped by topic, with geographic breakouts for Cleveland and D.C., and it’s multidisciplinary: history, sociology, theory, economics, fiction, zines and comics, and so on. Eventually, I’ll update this to include some of the journalism and academic work that I typically link to or reference when I’m writing or talking about neighborhood change, as well as the things I want to read in the future.
GENTRIFICATION AND POVERTY, SPECIFICALLY
American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, Sudhir Venkatesh (2000): Venkatesh is too bombastic for me (I don’t think I can recommend Gang Leader For a Day in good conscience), but: ethnography.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang (2005): Chang’s writing is stupid-vivid, and this was published just as the discourse about gentrification in Brooklyn was reaching a fever pitch. On the surface, it’s about hip-hop, but it’s a wonderful cataloguing of New York that’s not encumbered by the “buts” and “howevers” that infect current writing about urban change.
*Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System, Douglas S. Massey (2008): “As Massey shows, privileged groups have systematically exploited and excluded many of their fellow Americans.”
*Evicted: Poverty and Profit In the American City, Matthew Desmond (2016): Desmond marries ethnography and data like no living academic. This is the most important book of the decade regarding American cities.
From Despair to Hope: Hope VI and the New Promise of Public Housing In America’s Cities, edited by Henry Cisneros and Lora Engdahl (2009): It’s very popular to talk about public housing, currently. This is booster-y — Cisneros was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Clinton, Kurt L. Schmoke wrote the introduction, and this heavily touts public-private partnerships — but there are so few substantial texts about contemporary public-housing policy and financing that it’s worth reading to better understand the topic.
Gentrification, Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly (2007): To my knowledge, this is the sole existing written-as-a-textbook textbook about gentrification; it’s got ~case studies~.
Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, Antero Pietila (2010): Exclusion, the Baltimore edition, and a good reminder that while online squabbles are often YIMBYs versus the far-left rose emojis, garden-variety racism and bigotry continue to block badly needed housing (regardless of how it’s financed).
*The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas J. Sugrue (1996): The Origins of the Urban Crisis is set in Detroit, but it’s such a good text overall about post-industrial American cities.
Stuck In Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, Patrick Sharkey (2013): This has effectively become the book to cite for how wealth and racial inequality is tied to where you live.
*There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification From the Ground Up, Lance Freeman (2006): This is the only longitudinal, qualitative study of displacement in existence, and it finds gentrification to be quite favorable to Harlem’s long-term residents, especially homeowners. It was written pre-recession, and Freeman fully speaks to the need for an update. Still, it’s the only thing of its kind, which seems rather incredible given all the assumptions that we commonly make about displacement.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany (2001): I am so glad that this is the definitive take on the Disneyfication of Times Square, because it’s completely weird, and totally about sex, and is realistic about the messiness of human contact in public space without fetishizing it as an objectively authentic experience. Delany rules; read his science fiction, too.
The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, William Julius Wilson (1987): Thirty-one years ago, Wilson proposed massive job-training programs and an expansion of childcare 🤔
*A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity, Japonica K. Brown-Saracino (2009): Likely the book about gentrification that I reference most often. It’s good, and a stellar example of how to do qualitative research well.
A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities, Donald L. Elliot (2008): I understand that it is trendy to both blame zoning for everything, and mock the blaming of zoning for everything, but zoning is categorically problematic, and Elliot has sound ideas — not form-based codes — that move zoning from an aesthetic tool to an operational one.
City By City: Dispatches From the American Metropolis, edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb (2015): These essays are all over the place in terms of quality and readability, but in general, they present non-dominate narratives about non-dominate cities. (The Cleveland essay is about Gar Alperovitz!)
Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, Ben Ross (2014): Half of Dead End is a retelling of organizing around certain transit projects, and the other half is about the theoretical consumptive aspects of suburban life. Ross also references my man Thorstein Veblen.
Edge City: Life On the New Frontier, Joel Garreau (1992): “Edge city” is a term that never caught on that I nonetheless find quite useful when trying to differentiate between first-ring suburbs; uh, regular suburbs?; exurbs; and, like, Tysons Corner.
The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher (2013): This overstates, I think, the fading of suburbs and doesn’t address the exclusionary practices of most American cities, but it’s a respectable assessment of cultural trends as they relate to our existing built environment.
The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities, Fred Siegel (1996): Remember when cities were super-dark? I don’t, either, so it’s good that this exists.
*The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, Norman M. Klein (1997): How much of what we know about cities is simply what we believe? Narratives and myth likely have a greater impact on how we think about where we live than even our own experiences.
House By House, Block By Block: The Rebirth of America’s Urban Neighborhoods, Alexander von Hoffman (2003): An extremely booster-y take on community-led redevelopment efforts in the late ’90s to early ’00s.
How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken, Alex Marshall (2000): I am increasingly convinced that we don’t understand cities particularly well. This is considers four “types” of cities and discusses why they don’t work.
*Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century, John H. Mollenkopf, Peter Dreier, and Todd Swanstrom (2001): These guys argue that markets alone didn’t create economic segregation; politics under capitalism are just as much to blame. Their solutions to what they class as “place-based” problems, ergo, are focused on political processes, rather than overhauling systems.
Planning Los Angeles, edited by David C. Sloan (2012): The American Planning Association published this for its 2012 conference, but it usefully presents how formally planned L.A. actually is.
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, Ed Glaeser (2011): It’s easy to disagree with Glaeser at this point in time, because bashing market-based economic growth is deeply satisfying, but he is cited all the time, and that alone is a good reason to read him.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, Marshall Berman (1988): Anyone who loves critical theory and cities, encountered the Moses/Jacobs paradigm early in their entreé to understanding how places work, and minored in Russian studies—I know I’m not the only one—feels as if this was written for them. I suppose that Berman, a master of the long view who wrote of high-minded topics with clarity and anger and grace and a sensibility toward myths and experience, knew what he was doing.
*City Power: Urban Governance In a Global Age, Richard Schragger (2016): Categorically, the best book I’ve read about cities. Schragger’s challenge of conventional notions of economic development gave me the language I needed to articulate thoughts I hadn’t been able to connect. City Power is the framework through which I consider cities now. This book is incredible.
*Critical Theory Since 1965, edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (1986): This collection has it all — “phenomenologists, structuralists, deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, reader-response critics, dissenters, and eccentrics” — and is my go-to when I need to reference my friends Lévi-Strauss, Saussure, Chomsky, Fish, etc.
Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, edited by John Storey (2008): What are cities if not popular culture? There’s great essays in here, particularly Stuart Hall’s “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture.” (Read Storey’s Introduction, too.)
*Introduction to Modernity, Henri Lefebvre (1962): “A classic analysis of the modern world using Marxist dialect” — yeah, that’s it.
Keywords For American Cultural Studies, edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (2007-present): A collection of essays on the words we use without thinking about what they could really mean, like “region,” “visual,” and “reform.”
*Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault (1961): All Foucault should be read, always, because cities — and gentrification and sex and disability poverty and living — are about power, and Foucault writes, objectively, of power. Start with Madness and Civilization, but read everything else.
Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander (1964): Alexander loves an iterative process. It was suggested to me to read him with a project in mind, and I do find that helpful. I like to reference this and A Pattern Language when talking about big, objective, idealistic design.
Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida (1967): Of Grammatology is Derrida yelling into the void for a new framework for linguistics — an act with which I closely identify. I have the Gayatri Spivak edition.
On Ideology, Louis Althusser (1970?): Althusser is my favorite critical communist, and, in essays like “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” simultaneously pushes back on and agrees with Marx.
*Policy Paradox and Political Reason, Deborah A. Stone (1988): Stone is the only public-administration thinker I’ve read that runs to embrace politics — through a framework she calls this the polis — as a creative and valuable feature of good policy.
Toward A Global Idea of Race, Denise Ferreira da Silva (2007): Mabel O. Wilson heavily references da Silva, who discusses post-Enlightenment intersections of race, power, and exclusion in a global context.
The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century, Ryan Avent (2016): Avent argues thatthe technological revolution is really an industrial one, which will require a rewriting of our social contract.
*What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, Gar Alperovitz (2013): Gar Alperovitz, a political economist, is who I think of when I think about organizing. His practical framework for closing the wealth gap is like nothing I’ve seen proposed elsewhere.
The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s, David Farber (1994): This is worth reading in advance of Rightward Bound, and contains an introductory history to the War on Poverty.
Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880, W.E.B. Dubois (1935): Read it all, but especially the second chapter, which is a brutal explication of the cascading effects of holding slaves as property.
Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1835): Love too have one’s nation studied by a Frenchman. Worth reading alongside the “City Upon a Hill” bit in John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity.
City On the Edge: Buffalo, New York, 1900-Present, Mark Goldman (2007): H/t TM for suggesting this when I finished Derelict Paradise; I wish there were more urban-studies histories of more cities like this.
*Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth T. Jackson (1987): Crabgrass Frontier is a definitive book, and is, as far as I can tell, timeless. Read it, especially as a precursor to The Color of Law.
*The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein (2017): Just read the damn book.
Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, Lily Geismer (2014): These are the neoliberals that you hate so deeply.
The Fifties, David Halberstam (1994): This is the best generalist history of postwar America, which is when—duh—the exurban landscape as we know it fomented.
Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, Gray Brechin (1999): San Francisco is literally the product of the rich.
Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, Jeff Benedict (2009): A super-easy, highly accessible read about the details of Kelo v. New London. Obviously, it’s very easy to claim that land has been “taken” for development, but takings is actually a constitutional-law concept, and knowing the landmark eminent domain case well is, I think, fairly important.
Manhattan Moves Uptown: An Illustrated History, Charles Lockwood (2014): Old photos! Of Manhattan! Moving uptown!
The Moral Order of a Suburb, M.P. Baumgartner (1991): Suburbs tolerate a superficial social harmony, repress honest communication, and promote isolation — that’s all in here; basically, what Kenneth B. Clark terms the “gilded suburban ghetto” in Dark Ghetto.
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, W.E.B. Dubois (1899): There are a bazillion obvious reasons to read The Philadelphia Negro, not least of which that it’s the first sociological case study of a black community. All my thoughts about ethnography stem from having read this before reading anything else like it.
A Place to Live: The Crisis of the Cities, Wolf von Eckardt (1968): A thorough blaming of architects and planners for making cities into “urban mess[es].” I have an old copy of this, but I’d like to read the 2003 edition’s epilogue.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro (1975): 😎
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White (2012): Ostensibly about railroads, but mostly punctures myths about the Gilded Age.
Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, edited by Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (2008): I bought this for the Sulaimon Osman essay, but was pleased to find that it’s a wide-ranging look at how and what (culture! Politics! Finance!) become ideologically conservative. There’s a tie to NIMBYism somewhere, I’m sure.
*The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, Robert Gordon (2016): Gordon undergirds my piece about corporate urbanism in the heartland, and reading this helped clarify, for me, a particular framework of how to think about economics. It’s 700 pages, and I think you should read every one.
The Seattle Bungalow: People and Houses, 1900–1940, Janet D. Ore (2006): Bungalow boosterism!
The Situationists and the City, Tom McDonough (2011): Everything Situationists International said about cities in one place, with an extremely shiny silver cover.
*St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, Ada Calhoun (2016): This book is the only worthwhile writing about neighborhood change, and I am only being slightly hyperbolic.
Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968–1978, Chris Carlsson (2011): When I moved there, I didn’t understand quite how dark San Francisco in the ’60s and ’70s must have felt. There were, of course, the urban problems typical of the time, but, more grandly, the almost-supernatural-seeming shocks like the Zodiac Killer, the Jonestown Massacre, and the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.
The Unheavenly City Revisited, Edward C. Banfield (1990): A multidisciplinary review of extremely-’90s urban problems, like homelessness and drug use.
*Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead (2007): Whitehead, in this slim novel, writes the greatest contemporary allegory for placemaking (with gems like, “No, Albie’s wife hadn’t taken everything in the divorce. She had left him his inappropriate emotional reactions to small things”).
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor (1971): O’Connor puts real life in relief better than any other writer, and that’s worth as much as any history of anything.
*The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Ursula K. LeGuin (1974): I reread this this year and am firmly convinced it’s the only novel we need for 2018. LeGuin is spare, deliberately unclear, and resolutely non-judgmental in her worldbuilding of Anarres and Urras.
*City: Rediscovering the Center, William H. Whyte (1988): “Fixed individual seats deny choice. The designer is saying you sit here and you sit there. This is arrogant of him. People are much better at this than designers.”
How to Study Public Life, Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre (2013): One could pay Gehl Associates for their consulting talents, or one could read this.
*The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch (1964): Nodes, lines, and imageability! Kevin Lynch is the best, and the techniques in Image of the City are the best way, in my opinion, to understand how people move through space.
Streetfight: Handbook For an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan (2015): Sadik-Khan reshaped New York’s streets. It shouldn’t be so difficult for the rest of us to do the same.
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck (2012): When I needed to explain why walkability is morally, fiscally, and physically a good thing to my dad, this is the book I used.
Anacostia: The Death and Life of an America River, John R. Wennersten (2006): This is ostensibly an environmental history, but there’s also a great deal of information about the lands around the river itself.
*Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C., Howard Gillette (2006): I love Between Justice and Beauty, and don’t understand why my D.C. history friends think it’s not the best and most comprehensive text about this intersection of topics. I do, and if you must read one book about D.C.-specific urban studies, especially as an non-D.C. person, this is, I think the one.
District of Columbia, David L. Lewis (1976): This was put out, to my understanding, for D.C. public schools as a bicentennial text, and I’ve kept it around because it’s a relic.
*Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood (1994): “The Marion Barry book” is about far, far more than Marion Barry. Dream City is a definitive text.
Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., Scott W. Berg (2007): Whither Pierre Charles L’Enfant? (And, further, whither D.C.’s City Beautiful movement?)
The Guide to Black Washington: Places and Events of Historical and Cultural Significance In the Nation’s Capital, Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria R. Goodwin (2000): Quick hits on sites that might otherwise go overlooked, written in a narrative fashion that’s unusual for a guidebook.
*The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, Zachary M. Schrag (2006): A fine-grained history of how Metro came to be, with lots of gems about the interplay between federal, regional, and local bodies.
The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Complexion, and Community in Black Washington, D.C., Audrey Elisa Kerr (2006): D.C. was a majority-black city. Colorism mattered a great deal. Here’s the book about how that shaped community institutions.
Southern City, National Ambition: The Growth of Early Washington, D.C., 1800–1860, Howard Gillette (1995): Ye olde D.C. history business.
*Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, Elliot Liebow (1967): Liebow listened to what guys hanging out on a particular block were saying, and published the first pushback the culture-of-poverty thesis.
*Believing In Cleveland: Managing Decline In the Best Location In the Nation, Mark Souther (2017): This city loves a branding effort, and Souther shows how inextricably tangled image-making, politics, and policy became in modern Cleveland.
Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader, W. Dennis Keating, Norm Krumholz, and David C. Perry (1995): A long — like, three-centuries-long — look at Cleveland with contributions and edits by the grandaddies of community development.
*Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio, Daniel R. Kerr (2011): I read this shortly after moving to Cleveland, and referenced it here. I appreciate it even more now for questioning equity planning and community development corporations.
*Fütchi Perf, Kevin Czap: This is the collective, publicly supported, close-knit Cleveland I dreamed I would live in. It’ll never be so real as in Fütchi Perf, but the thought of leaving here is heartbreaking because sometimes I felt like I got so very, very close.
Progressive Vision Cleveland, Holly M. Rarick (1986): A softball coffee-table book published for Case Western Reserve University. H/t MG!
*The Suburban Racial Dilemma: Housing and Neighborhoods, W. Dennis Keating (1994): Fair housing efforts in Northeast Ohio wrote off the city for the suburbs, and Keating explains, in minute detail, what exactly integrating Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights entailed.
Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900–1980, Todd M. Michney (2017): Michney gives a super-detailed history of the middle-class neighborhoods on Cleveland’s southeast edges, which are now mostly black but changed, and changed again, in this 80-year period.
Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction, Keith Krumwiede (2017): “But what if the McMansion could be put in the service of urbanism instead?”
Beta Testing the Apocalypse, Tom Kaczynski (2012): A series of short stories — comics! — about the “contemporary global megalopolis.” This is gorgeously illustrated and presents a funny sort of utopia.
Block By Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, edited by Timothy Mennel, Jo Steffens, and Christopher Klemek (2007): These essays are a reflection on Jacobs, but they also complain about developers.
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Michael Braungart and William McDonough (2002): I think this is a more effective approach to sustainability than anything I studied to get my LEED certification.
The Community Land Trust Reader, edited by John Emmeus Davis (2010): This is my entire and only framework for understanding community land trusts.
*Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy (2015): Leovy’s reporting and storytelling finely and forcefully demonstrate what’s wrong with modern policing, and how the failure to solve homicides is linked to police-department priorities.
The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenburg (1999): This is the book about third spaces, if you ever need the citation.
A Jacques Barzun Reader: Selections From His Works, Jacques Barzun (2003): Barzun is a critic, and his essays are not about urbanism. But, much like those in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, they’re about people — sports, Shakespeare, Paris, race — and the places we occupy.
Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transit, William S. Lind and Paul Weyrich (2009): This is out of print and unfortunately very expensive. It’s a bunch of case studies of transit spurring economic development — which is, in my experience and also unfortunately, the best way to talk to people who think transit is for poor people about why transit matters.
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, Geoff Dyer (2011): Geoff Dyer takes the tiniest pieces of living as seriously as they deserve. The closer to this collection, about a trip to Burning Man, is a transcendent story about place.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt (2008): Ban cars.
Why Preservation Matters, Max Page (2016): Every conventional notion of preservation presented in, much to my chagrin, an uncritical fashion.