The best books on urban history

Who am I?

I never read much urban history until I wrote one. For me, the problem was that most urban histories felt repetitive – they presented the same story over and over, just set in different locations. This was because most narrated the results of deeper, structural shifts (in spheres such as federal strategies of home finance, technological developments, demographic shifts, the rise or decline of manufacturing, political realignments, etc.) without sufficiently illuminating the causes. Regardless of whether they focus on Las Vegas or Philadelphia or Chicago or Dallas, each of these books – which I am presenting in order of publication date, not quality, as they are all excellent – will leave you smarter about the forces that shape our cities.  

I wrote...

Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

By Beryl Satter,

Book cover of Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

What is my book about?

In this powerful book, Beryl Satter identifies the true causes of the city's black slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country: not, as some have argued, black pathology, the culture of poverty, or white flight, but a widespread and institutionalized system of legal and financial exploitation.

In Satter's riveting account of a city in crisis, unscrupulous lawyers, slumlords, and speculators are pitched against religious reformers, community organizers, and an impassioned attorney who launched a crusade against the profiteers―the author's father, Mark J. Satter. Satter shows the interlocking forces at work in their oppression: the discriminatory practices of the banking industry; the federal policies that created the country's shameful "dual housing market"; the economic anxieties that fueled white violence; and the tempting profits to be made by preying on the city's most vulnerable population.

The books I picked & why

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Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960

By Arnold R. Hirsch,

Book cover of Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960

Why this book?

Many believe the myth that post-war public housing was constructed to help house the poor.  Hirsch focuses on the business and educational leaders who created urban renewal and public housing legislation to reveal their actual goal – to grab valuable land and displace African American residents who they viewed as threats to their investments. Like white working-class Chicagoans, these elites sought to exclude Black Chicagoans, but the white working class used riots and overt violence against Black residents who dared to enter their communities, while elites simply changed the laws to enable their more genteel form of ethnic cleansing. Published in 1983, Hirsch’s book pioneered whiteness studies. It remains a brilliant, scathing work on the mechanics of white supremacy and the racial politics of urban space.  

Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place

By John R. Logan, Harvey Molotch,

Book cover of Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place

Why this book?

If you want to understand gentrification, read this book. The authors unpack the municipal power dynamics that fuel that process, but that is only part of what Logan and Molotch uncover in their brilliant sociological analysis of urban space. Their distinction between the use-value and the exchange value of real estate, their dissection of how city elites transform cities into “growth machines,” and their overall, devastating attack on the claim that “growth” is always good, make this book as relevant today as when it was first published in 1987.  

Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

By Annelise Orleck,

Book cover of Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

Why this book?

Gripping and beautifully written, Storming Caesars Palace tells the story of Ruby Duncan and other Black welfare mothers in mid-twentieth-century Las Vegas. These women’s strategic and wide-ranging political activism challenged corrosive myths about welfare recipients in general, and Black women in particular, while wresting resources for school lunches, a health clinic, housing, job placement, and more from one of the most conservative states in the nation. By focusing on the lived experiences of Duncan and her fellow activists, Orleck illuminates how broad social changes like the mechanization of agriculture, the migration of Black Americans to cities, harsh living and labor conditions, and ideological attacks on “welfare” and labor rights impacted Black women, and the brilliance with which those women met such challenges.  

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, with a New Preface

By Khalil Gibran Muhammad,

Book cover of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, with a New Preface

Why this book?

Focused on early twentieth-century Philadelphia, Muhammad unpacks the ways that “statistics” were made to lie about Black criminality (and still do). He shows how the Progressive-era impulse to aid and rehabilitate those accused of criminal behavior vanished when the accused were Black. An intellectual history of both white social scientists and Black thinkers and activists from a range of classes, the book is a tour de force and must-read for anyone interested in issues of cities, crime, and racism.

Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City

By A.K. Sandoval-Strausz,

Book cover of Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City

Why this book?

Sandoval-Strausz examines Latino neighborhoods in Chicago and Dallas to explain “How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.” Along the way, he illuminates federal policies and private industries that together damaged cities. These include U.S. immigration policies that combined with economic conditions in Mexico and Central America to spur Latino immigration while creating obstacles to legal settlement within the U.SExplaining everything from international labor flows to urban architectural styles to the politics of gentrification, Barrio America is also an implicit account of how Latinos became “white.” Also recommended is anything by Arlene Davila, whose specialty is understanding the implications of neoliberalism on Latino communities.

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