The best books on the modern history of cities

Mark D. Steinberg Author Of Russian Utopia: A Century of Revolutionary Possibilities
By Mark D. Steinberg

Who am I?

I grew up in San Francisco and worked in New York City in the 1970s as a taxi driver and printing apprentice, and, after getting a doctorate at UC Berkeley, taught at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Illinois. Most of my publications and teaching have been about Russian history—I've written books on labor relations, working-class writers, the Russian Revolution, St. Petersburg, and utopias. I've been teaching comparative urban history for several years and am writing a new book on urban storytelling about street life, nightlife, and morality in Soviet Odessa, colonial Bombay, and New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. I recently retired and live in New York City and Turin, Italy.

I wrote...

Russian Utopia: A Century of Revolutionary Possibilities

By Mark D. Steinberg,

Book cover of Russian Utopia: A Century of Revolutionary Possibilities

What is my book about?

In my newest book, Russian Utopia: A Century of Revolutionary Possibilities, by “utopia” I mean less of an appealing but impossible fantasy about a nonexistent place or time than a critical method to question and transform reality toward what people believed ought to be. I look at utopian ideas and practices in Russia from the eighteenth century into the twentieth, among cultural elites and laboring commoners, in the halls of power and on the streets of resistance.

Naturally, most of the people in my book insisted they were not utopians in the sense of impossible dreaming, but partisans of radical possibility. One chapter examines efforts to imagine and create “new cities” that would be redemptive and liberating of the human body and spirit. Other chapters consider wings and human flight as visions of transcendent possibility, ideas about the “new man” and the “new woman,” and political power and dissent.

The books I picked & why

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Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siècle Paris

By Vanessa R. Schwartz,

Book cover of Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siècle Paris

Why this book?

Among so many brilliant authors on city life – if I could have chosen 10 books, I would have surely also have given you books by critics like Walter Benjamin and Marshall Berman, and writers like James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Baudelaire. One of the pleasures in reading Vanessa Schwartz’s book is that she knows and draws on so much of this older work to think about the astonishing spectacle of late 19th-century Paris. Here is life on its boulevards; sensational stories of the city as presented in mass-circulation newspapers; the morgue (!) as a place for both science and entertainment; the wax museum, the panorama, and the cinema. A sensationalized version of everyday life is what most fascinates the author, and us as readers, making us think about what is “real” and what is important to understand, public and private life, commercialism, modern ways of seeing and judging, and ourselves as moderns.

City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London

By Judith R. Walkowitz,

Book cover of City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London

Why this book?

This is Victorian London, a city of dynamic growth, extreme class divisions, obsessions with public sexual danger and pathology, growing anxiety in the face of so much that is unknown and uncertain, and moralizing campaigns for reform. Not least, and the book ends with this story, this is the city of Jack the Ripper. Sometimes Walkowitz is densely analytical, for she is skillful as both storyteller and theorist. In both genres, the experience of modernity is central, as are questions about the body and the self, ethnicity, class, and morality. The city that emerges, in all its dread and delight, is a story that inspires us to think about other cities, other streets, other scandals, and other modernities, including our own.

Reading Berlin 1900

By Peter Fritzsche,

Book cover of Reading Berlin 1900

Why this book?

When my students read this book they find Fritzsche’s idea of “the word city” incredibly compelling and useful for thinking about our knowledge and interpretations of the past but also for experiencing our own lives in cities. As in the books by Walkowitz and Schwartz, we wander with Fritzsche through the city as a tangible place and the city as a text, and how these shaped one other. We experience the ways newspapers saw and made the city: its voices, rhythms, fantasies, and dramas. With beautiful writing—Fritzsche is one of the most elegant and insightful of historical writers and I recommend all of his books—we explore turn-of-the-century Berlin, at street-level and eye-level, in search of stories that reveal much about living in modern times.

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

By George Chauncey,

Book cover of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940

Why this book?

The “urban culture” mentioned in the subtitle of this book will remind us of themes in other books about the modern city: the urban experience as one of flux and diversity, uncertainty and possibility, community and alienation, class and gender, sex and violence. Chauncey focuses on urban geography and spaces, especially boundaries, interstices, and enclaves. Most astonishing, and an important discovery, are the many spaces of “ambivalent toleration” for sexual and gender difference in pre-1930s New York. This meant spaces like the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Broadway, and Harlem, but also working-class, immigrant, ethnic, and racial subcultures where dominant normativities could more easily be ignored and challenged.

New York City was a “gay world before binarism”—before the time when gay and straight were stable identities rather than fluctuating practices, before modern flux and thus possibility were crushed by definitional and moral absolutism. This is a story, brilliantly uncovered and told, that reveals much about suppressed or forgotten histories of modern America and of cities.

High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing

By Audrey Petty,

Book cover of High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing

Why this book?

This is an extraordinary book: stories, in the voices of those who experienced it, about living in public housing projects in Chicago before these homes were demolished starting in the 1990s. Of course, there are memories of crime, gangs, drugs, violence, police brutality, sickness, and death: sometimes understood as the product of urban life, capitalism, and racism, but also as the product of individual mistakes and failures. But mostly these witnesses tell of community, of self-respect and determination, of learning to survive and even resist.

Students in my urban history class in a prison education program in Illinois reminded me that “urban” in their world—which was often precisely the world of High-Rise Stories—meant not the city as a whole, but the inner city, the world of the street, of the marginalized, of people of color. This is a compelling window into that story, told by people who lived it: without seeing and understanding this “urban” side of urban history, we understand only a part of what cities are about and have always been about.

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