Urbanist Books of 2013

Been meaning to do this for a while – a brief rundown of city-related books I read in 2013. Highly recommended books are bolded.

1. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabella Wilkerson

A history of the Great Migration told through the stories of three individuals who made the move from South to North at various points in the middle of the 20th century. Absolutely deserves the attention it’s got. Not only provides a different angle on the issue of mid-century northern urban racial dynamics, but serves as a kind of bridge in the story of American caste structure between the “feudal” Jim Crow South and “modern” urban renewal in the North. That’s a link that gets buried way too much, and Wilkerson does a great job in illuminating it.

2. Making the Second Ghetto, Arnold Hirsch

The classic history of how Chicago got to be one of the most segregated cities in the developed world. The state power side of things is fairly well-known, but the connections with “polite” civic society groups and organized terrorist organizations – and the sometimes blurry lines between them – aren’t.

3. Black Chicago, Allan Spear

Basically a prequel to Hirsch’s book that covers the original formation of the ghetto between 1890-1920. (Hirsch’s book focuses on the middle of the 20th century.) More state coercion, concerned middle-class white citizens and violence. The history of the ideological and political development of the black community in Chicago is pretty fascinating.

4. The Power Broker, Robert Caro

What even to say? Only that Robert Moses puts Old Man Daley to shame, almost.

5. Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

Entertaining enough, but I’m not sure it’s actually more educational than The Wire.

6. The Declining Significance of Race, William Julius Wilson

7. Blueprint for Disaster, D. Bradford Hunt

A history of Chicago’s public housing program. Good to read with Radler’s Modern Housing below. Basic thesis is that extreme targeting to the poorest of the poor – driven both by liberals who wanted to help the most needy and conservatives and moderates who wanted to be sure they weren’t crowding out the private market – drove the system into a death spiral. Also spends a lot of time on the unusual but somewhat convincing idea that focusing on serving large families created an untenably large proportion of children in high-rise towers. Spends some time, though I wish it were more, contrasting with NYC’s comparatively successful program.

8. Family Properties, Beryl Satter

Story of Chicago’s movement against housing contract sales, the incredibly risky and exploitative financial tool blacks used to buy homes when they were redlined out of mortgages. If you’ve never heard of contract sales, you owe it to yourself to read this book. As crucial a part of the story of “how Chicago got to be that way” as Second Ghetto.

9. Modern Housing for America, Gail Radford

Fascinating story of the battle between – as Radler puts it – the reformers and the modernists in the fight for a public housing program, beginning in the Victorian era of Riis and going through the Settlement House movement and cresting in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The victory of the reformers, in some ways, drew the “blueprint for disaster” of Hayes’ book.

10. Origins of the Urban Crisis, Thomas Sugrue

The main lesson here is that Detroit is even more fucked than Chicago, and that it’s been that way for a long time. Still, the main reason to read this is if you don’t have time to read Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty.

11. Block by Block, Amanda Seligman

Covers a lot of the same ground as Satter and Hirsch. Good, but I think the others are better.

12. Housing Policy in the United States, Alex Schwartz

Actually very readable as a survey of…you know.

13. A  Better Way to Zone, Donald Elliott

A very fast read. If you’ve got a passing familiarity with zoning issues, it’s worth a look.

14. Contemporary Urban Planning, John Levy

A good introduction.

15. The Great Inversion, Alan Ehrenhalt

Marshals a lot of evidence for a phenomenon that is already conventional wisdom in most urbanist circles.

16. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue

If it’s criminal that every Chicagoan – even people passing through O’Hare – hasn’t read Second Ghetto, it’s criminal that every American hasn’t read this book. A history of the civil rights movement in the North, the book’s first task is to prove that its subject exists.

17. Rethinking Federal Housing Policy, Ed Glaeser and Gyourko

Whatever your already-existing feelings about housing policy, if you’re going to be part of the debate, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to read this book. The opening diagnosis of America’s dual housing crises – one for the middle class in elite cities caused by supply restrictions, the other for the poor everywhere caused simply by a lack of resources – is worth getting the book by itself. Most of the rest of the book is a systematic presentation of the overwhelming case against severe development restrictions, along with evidence that the true purpose of restrictions is actually exclusionary, instead of promoting some sort of common-sense urban form. Finally, a proposal for a federal program to encourage housing production and create affordable housing. Read it.

18. Human Transit, Jarrett Walker

Walker, in my opinion, has the best flavor of urbanism’s transit conventional wisdom (he sets a lot of it). This is his blog in book form. Worth it for reference.

19. The City That Became Safe, Franklin Zimring

A frustrating book (not entirely Zimring’s fault) that boils down to: We don’t know why American crime rates fell 40% between 1990 and the late 2000s. We also don’t know why NYC’s crime rates fell an extra 40% on top of that. But it probably didn’t have anything to do with putting people in jail.

20. Sprawl: A Compact History, Robert Bruegmann

See here, here, and here. If you consider yourself an “urbanist,” this is a good book for checking your priors.

21. Sprawl Repair Manual

Pretty pictures. Things to dream about while you look out the window of your bus/car.

22. The New Urban Frontier, Neil Smith

A Marxist take on gentrification, which dispenses with the usual demand-side explanations (change in culture, Millennial desire for vibrancy, whatever), and sticks to a pure supply-side theory that basically posits that there is an inherent cycle to capital investments in real estate, and that after a long period of disinvestment in older areas, we have now reached the stage of reinvestment. Worth reading, although I think a fair amount is left out: why some older areas maintain their investment while others fade, and so on.

23. There Goes the ‘Hood, Lance Freeman

Sociological study of gentrification in Harlem and Brooklyn; comes to much more nuanced conclusions about its effects – and the opinions of existing residents – than the typical conversation on the subject. Quick read.

24. Mayor 1%, Kari Lyderson

Basically a short biography of Rahm Emanuel, followed by a greatest hits of everything the Chicago left hates him for. If you’ve been paying close attention, there isn’t a lot new here, but it does put it all in one place. And there are a couple great anecdotes from Rahm’s past.

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