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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Beryl Satter Why did I love 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.  

By Arnold R. Hirsch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Making the Second Ghetto as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1983 and praised by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Thomas Sugrue, Arnold R. Hirsch's Making the Second Ghetto is the rare book that has only become more piercingly prescient over the years.

Hirsch's classic and groundbreaking work of urban history is a revelatory look at Chicago in the decades after the Great Depression, a period when the city dealt with its rapidly growing Black population not by working to abolish its stark segregation but by expanding and solidifying it. Even as the civil rights movement rose to prominence, Chicago exploited a variety of methods of segregation-including…


Book cover of Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place

Beryl Satter Why did I love 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.  

By John R. Logan, Harvey Molotch,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This sociological classic is updated with a new preface by the authors looking at developments in the study of urban planning during the twenty-year life of this influential work.


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

Beryl Satter Why did I love 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.  

By Annelise Orleck,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Storming Caesars Palace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Storming Caesars Palace, historian Annelise Orleck tells the compelling story of how a group of welfare mothers built one of this country's most successful antipoverty programs. Declaring "We can do it and do it better," these women proved that poor mothers are the real experts on poverty. In 1972 they founded Operation Life, which was responsible for many firsts for the poor in Las Vegas-the first library, medical center, daycare center, job training, and senior citizen housing. By the late 1970s, Operation Life was bringing millions of dollars into the community. These women became influential in Washington, DC-respected and…


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

Beryl Satter Why did I love 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.

By Khalil Gibran Muhammad,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the John Hope Franklin Prize
A Moyers & Company Best Book of the Year

"A brilliant work that tells us how directly the past has formed us."
-Darryl Pinckney, New York Review of Books

How did we come to think of race as synonymous with crime? A brilliant and deeply disturbing biography of the idea of black criminality in the making of modern urban America, The Condemnation of Blackness reveals the influence this pernicious myth, rooted in crime statistics, has had on our society and our sense of self. Black crime statistics have shaped debates about everything from…


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

Beryl Satter Why did I love 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.

By A.K. Sandoval-Strausz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Starting around 70 years ago, white flight out of America's major cities caused rapid urban decline. Now we are witnessing a resurgence of American urbanism said to be the result of white people's return. But this account entirely passes over the stable immigrant communities who arrived and never left: as whites fled for the suburbs and exurbs in increasing numbers, Latin Americans immigrated to urban centres in even greater numbers. Barrio America charts the vibrant revival of American cities in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, arguing that we should attribute this revival to the influx of Latin American immigrants --…


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Bessie

By Linda Kass,

Book cover of Bessie

Linda Kass Author Of Bessie

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Bookstore owner Learner Reader Historical novelist Long distance cyclist

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In the bigoted milieu of 1945, six days after the official end of World War II, Bess Myerson, the daughter of poor Russian immigrants living in the Bronx, remarkably rises to become Miss America, the first —and to date only— Jewish woman to do so. At stake is a $5,000 scholarship for the winner.

An intimate fictional portrait of Bess Myerson’s early life, Bessie reveals the transformation of the nearly six-foot-tall, self-deprecating yet talented preteen into an exemplar of beauty, a peripheral quality in her world. It is the unfamiliar secular society of pageantry she must choose to escape her roots as she searches for love and acceptance, eager to make her mark on the world.

Bessie

By Linda Kass,

What is this book about?

Just days after the close of World War II, Bess Myerson, the college-educated daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, is competing in the Miss America pageant. At stake: a $5,000 scholarship. The tension and excitement in Atlantic City's Warner Theatre is palpable, especially for traumatized Jews rooting for one of their own. So begins Bessie.


Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Bessie reimagines the early life of Bess Myerson, who, in 1945 at age twenty-one, remarkably rises to become one of the most famous women in America. This intimate fictional portrait reveals the transformation of the…


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