The best books about what happens when cities fall apart

Jeff Byles Author Of Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition
By Jeff Byles

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by cities—in all their glorious, polyglot, and all-too-human complexity—for more than 25 years. I’m a writer, community planner, and urban revitalization consultant who works to activate the potential of distressed places, and create strategies that support social, ecological, and economic vitality. Exploring the often overlooked ways we’ve unbuilt our cities has helped me see their powerful potential.

I wrote...

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition

By Jeff Byles,

Book cover of Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition

What is my book about?

From the boulevards that smashed their way through rambling old Paris to create the city we know today, to the televised implosion of Las Vegas casinos to make room for America’s ever-grander desert of dreams, Rubble stretches over five hundred years of razing and toppling. This lively story digs extensively into wrecking’s little-known historical record, reaching back to London’s Great Fire of 1666—when self-deputized wreckers blew houses apart with barrels of gunpowder to halt the furious blaze—and profiles the world-famous engineers of destruction who brought Seattle’s Kingdome to the ground in mere seconds with artfully placed dynamite. Throughout, Rubble movingly explores what happens when buildings fall, revealing the scientific, social, economic, and personal meanings of how we unbuild our world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of City of Quartz : Excavating the Future in Los Angeles

Why did I love this book?

Great writing on cities is rarer than it should be. The late Mike Davis, using Los Angeles as his muse, showed me—and so many others—new ways of thinking about cities through his vividly and passionately argued prose. Weaving together strands of architecture, urban history, social justice, and ecology, Davis has inspired me like no other author to examine cities critically, from unexpected perspectives and with a fierce point of view. Underlying his outrage at the injustices of the unravelling metropolis is a mordant sense of humor—making him an unbeatable guide as we all ride shotgun through desperate times. 

By Mike Davis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Courageously broad in its scope, City of Quartz changes intellectual gear - from history to sociology to urban theory - often with consummate ease, and fits its diverse threads together in a sort of 'history noir' as gripping as any Chandler. ' Listener.

In this taut and compulsive exploration, Mike Davis recounts the story of Los Angeles with passion, wit and an acute eye for the absurd, the unjust and, often the dangerous. He tells a lurid tale of greed, manipulation, power and prejudice that has made Los Angeles one of the most cosmopolitan and most class-divided cities in the…

Book cover of Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Why did I love this book?

Robert Sullivan sits squarely in the engagé mode of urban chronicles. Excitable and often wildly entertaining, he taught me how unpromising facets of city life could be mined as revelatory pieces of the larger urban mosaic. Whether examining the ever-confounding urban malaise of rats, or scavenging the landfills of New Jersey for the ruins of New York’s old Pennsylvania Station—as in his book The Meadowlands, which I particularly recommend—Sullivan artfully extrapolates meaning from the mundane. To get there, he puts himself and his sometimes delirious obsessions at the heart of the story, his journey of discovery one with our own.

By Robert Sullivan,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Rats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Public Library Book for the Teenager
New York Public Library Book to Remember
PSLA Young Adult Top 40 Nonfiction Titles of the Year

"Engaging...a lively, informative compendium of facts, theories, and musings."-Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

Behold the rat, dirty and disgusting! Robert Sullivan turns the lowly rat into the star of this most perversely intriguing, remarkable, and unexpectedly elegant New York Times bestseller.

Love them or loathe them, rats are here to stay-they are city dwellers as much as (or more than) we are, surviving on the effluvia of our society. In Rats, the critically acclaimed bestseller,…

Book cover of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Why did I love this book?

A gnawing hunger for the truth animates this towering author’s work on Robert Moses, New York City’s longtime “master builder” who reshaped and indisputably wrecked large chunks of thriving Gotham over the first half of the twentieth century. This book was staggeringly influential for me as a young urbanist and author coming to grips with the forces that mold the urban landscape. Caro’s intrepid, old-school reporting—a model of investigative journalism, the likes of which we could sorely use more of today—showed how one dogged writer could blow open the portals of power, hold the mighty to account, and reframe how we see our world.

By Robert A. Caro,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Power Broker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro is 'simply one of the best non-fiction books in English of the last forty years' (Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times): a riveting and timeless account of power, politics and the city of New York by 'the greatest political biographer of our times' (Sunday Times); chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time and by the Modern Library as one of the 100 Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century; Winner of the Pulitzer Prize; a Sunday Times Bestseller; 'An outright masterpiece' (Evening Standard)

The Power Broker tells the…

American Ruins

By Camilo José Vergara,

Book cover of American Ruins

Why did I love this book?

Little can match the raw power of urban photographer Camilo José Vergara’s images of our culture’s collective built fabric unraveling in plain sight. For more than four decades, Vergara has borne witness, in Detroit, in Newark, in Camden—in some of the most forgotten communities in America—to the devastating physical impacts of social, political, and economic forces gone relentlessly awry. In these chronicles marked by unassumingly brave, first-person pilgrimages to decaying mansions and among toppled public housing towers, Vergara helped me see what kind of mettle it truly takes to get the story straight.

By Camilo José Vergara,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The deterioration of the American inner city stands in stark contrast to the prosperity characteristic of the United States for much of the twentieth century. Skyscrapers that once defined the modern era stand derelict and abandoned. Massive industrial manufactories lie rusting, their cavernous interiors dark. Formerly vibrant theaters shed bricks and terra-cotta ornaments. These desolate fragments of America's cityscapes are the legacy of decades of proud investment in the urban realm followed by decades of devastating neglect. Photographer and sociologist Camilo José Vergara has spent years documenting the decline of the built environment in New York City; Newark and Camden,…

Book cover of Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey

Why did I love this book?

During the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when I was working on my own book and the motif of demolition was suddenly inescapable, this modest children’s book was published. In lovely gouache, Maira Kalman encapsulates the story of the salvaged fireboat John J. Harvey and its heroic journey on that dark day. As I struggled to make sense of a world falling apart, this book was a breath of fresh air. Kalman shows how to meld urban history and tragedy in a tale told with supreme deftness and charm that ennobles, no matter your age. Above all, her volume stands as a hopeful tribute to the power of collective human action, against all odds, to turn the tide.

By Maira Kalman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The John J. Harvey fireboat was the largest, fastest, shiniest fireboatof its time, but by 1995, the city didn't need old fireboats anymore. So the Harvey retired, until a group of friends decided to save it from the scrap heap. Then, one sunny September day in 2001, something so horrible happened that the whole world shook. And a call came from the fire department, asking if the Harvey could battle the roaring flames. In this inspiring true story, Maira Kalman brings a New York City icon to life and proves that old heroes never die.

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