The best books on cities and urban decline

The Books I Picked & Why

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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