The best books on cities and urban decline

Who am I?

As I watched abandoned buildings, homes, and factories spread throughout neighborhoods in Detroit while photographers came from everywhere to photograph the ruins, I became fascinated with why we are drawn to ruins, what role such imagery plays in our collective imagination, and how ruins today are different than, say, Greek ruins. I am also interested in the politics behind the ruins and the role of capitalism in creating our declining cities. I have written several books on visual culture and politics, engaging with issues of race, trauma, memory, war, and capitalist globalization.


I wrote...

Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

By Dora Apel,

Book cover of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

What is my book about?

Once the manufacturing powerhouse of the nation, Detroit has become emblematic of failing cities everywhere and the epicenter of an explosive growth in images of urban decay. While others have sung the praises of urban exploration or condemned ruin photography as “ruin porn,” I am interested in why ruin imagery is so popular and seductive. My book considers the ruins of Detroit and other cities as well as the strategies of ruin photographers in managing the fears and anxieties of cultural and economic decline while obscuring its causes (the state and corporations) and the racialized poverty and growing inequality that result. I also explore the expanding network of ruin imagery in advertising, television, video games, and zombie and disaster films.

The books I picked & why

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The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

By Thomas J. Sugrue,

Book cover of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Why this book?

Sugrue’s seminal historical study helped me understand that deindustrialization in Detroit did not begin after the Rebellion of 1967, as many believe, but in the wake of World War II when White rule of the city was established and enforced segregation, which in turn created a great housing shortage for Black people and helped pave the way for the later riots. I was moved by the way Sugrue describes the terror Black families faced when they had the courage to move into all-White neighborhoods.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

By Thomas J. Sugrue,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Origins of the Urban Crisis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Once America's "arsenal of democracy," Detroit is now the symbol of the American urban crisis. In this reappraisal of America's racial and economic inequalities, Thomas Sugrue asks why Detroit and other industrial cities have become the sites of persistent racialized poverty. He challenges the conventional wisdom that urban decline is the product of the social programs and racial fissures of the 1960s. Weaving together the history of workplaces, unions, civil rights groups, political organizations, and real estate agencies, Sugrue finds the roots of today's urban poverty in a hidden history of racial violence, discrimination, and deindustrialization that reshaped the American…


Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

By David Harvey,

Book cover of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

Why this book?

I am inspired by David Harvey’s impassioned Marxist perspective, which makes clear that people not only have a right to the city on its own terms but that this demand must be a political waystation to a much broader anti-capitalist movement. The city functions as a critical site of political revolt (think Paris Commune or the protests against the murder of George Floyd) but Harvey persuasively argues that such protests will be reabsorbed into dominant capitalist practices of displacement, decline, and dispossession unless they are organized on an anti-capitalist platform.

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

By David Harvey,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rebel Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Long before Occupy, cities were the subject of much utopian thinking. They are the centers of capital accumulation as well as of revolutionary politics, where deeper currents of social and political change rise to the surface. Do the financiers and developers control access to urban resources or do the people? Who dictates the quality and organization of daily life? Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, from New York City to S o Paulo. Drawing on the Paris Commune as well as Occupy Wall Street…


Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

By Greg Grandin,

Book cover of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Why this book?

Although Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts allude to it, I had no idea until I read Greg Grandin’s book that Henry Ford attempted to extend his auto industry empire into the Amazon by building the company town of Fordlandia in the Brazilian jungle. I am fascinated by the suspenseful narrative Grandin creates around Ford’s ultimately disastrous failure at creating his own rubber-producing teetotaling town.

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

By Greg Grandin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fordlandia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Pulitzer Prize-winning author Greg Grandin comes the stunning, never before told story of the quixotic attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon

In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious bid to export America itself, along with its golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands, indoor plumbing, and Model Ts rolling down broad streets.

Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an…


Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays

By Neil Brenner,

Book cover of Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays

Why this book?

Brenner blew my mind by explaining that the idea of the city as a circumscribed and autonomous space is an obsolete nineteenth-century concept. He made me realize that the boundaries between city, suburb, and rural space are superseded by capitalist urbanization and industrialization across the planet—under the oceans, across the land, and even in the atmosphere—and that it is utterly degrading the environment for purposes of commodification.

Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays

By Neil Brenner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Critique of Urbanization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Urbanization is transforming the planet, within and beyond cities, at all spatial scales. In this book, Neil Brenner mobilizes the tools of critical urban theory to deconstruct some of the dominant urban discourses of our time, which naturalize, and thus depoliticize, the enclosures, exclusions, injustices and irrationalities of neoliberal urbanism. In so doing, Brenner advocates a constant reinvention of the framing categories, methods and assumptions of critical urban theory in relation to the rapidly mutating geographies of capitalist urbanization. Only a theory that is dynamic-which is constantly being transformed in relation to the restlessly evolving social worlds and territorial landscapes…


The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

By Naomi Klein,

Book cover of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Why this book?

I found Naomi Klein’s argument that situations of shock and violence are seized upon and exploited by politicians and corporations to enact rapid corporate makeovers and privatize public services to be exactly what happened in Detroit when an “emergency manager” appointed by the governor began privatizing public services to the detriment of the city population. I think everyone who reads Klein’s elegant and persuasive explanation of disaster capitalism will see it happening around them.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

By Naomi Klein,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Shock Doctrine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Impassioned, hugely informative, wonderfully controversial, and scary as hell' John le Carre

Around the world in Britain, the United States, Asia and the Middle East, there are people with power who are cashing in on chaos; exploiting bloodshed and catastrophe to brutally remake our world in their image. They are the shock doctors.

Exposing these global profiteers, Naomi Klein discovered information and connections that shocked even her about how comprehensively the shock doctors' beliefs now dominate our world - and how this domination has been achieved. Raking in billions out of the tsunami, plundering Russia, exploiting Iraq - this is…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in financial crises, Detroit, and urbanization?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about financial crises, Detroit, and urbanization.

Financial Crises Explore 15 books about financial crises
Detroit Explore 42 books about Detroit
Urbanization Explore 6 books about urbanization

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Technics and Human Development, Debt, and Caliban and the Witch if you like this list.