The best books about buildings

6 authors have picked their favorite books about buildings and why they recommend each book.

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Family Properties

By Beryl Satter,

Book cover of Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America

Purposefully racist policies in major Northern cities often focused on the financial exploitation of upwardly-aspiring African Americans, with government-endorsed predatory lending practices impoverishing—and often leaving homeless—thousands of Black home-buying families. “Redlining” may be a familiar word, but the actual mechanisms of financial discrimination require a penetrating, clear-eyed examination, and Beryl Satter’s powerful account of how last-resort ‘contract buying’ left newly-arrived Black residents in the West Side Chicago neighborhood of Lawndale vulnerable to being fleeced by racist manipulators is one of the most important books ever written about the Black freedom struggle in the north.


Who am I?

I’m a legal historian, best-known for Bearing the Cross, my Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I’ve also written the standard history of Roe v. Wade (Liberty and Sexuality) as well as books on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Protest at Selma) and the FBI’s pursuit of Dr. King (The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.). I’ve been a top advisor for both the landmark PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize and for the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting Civil Rights. More recently I’ve been featured in both the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary film MLK/FBI (Hulu) and in the Emmy Award-nominated documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X? (Netflix)


I wrote...

Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

By David J. Garrow,

Book cover of Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

What is my book about?

When Barack Obama won his first presidential primary in early 2008, I knew next to nothing about him and began reading his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. Frustrated by Obama’s use of pseudonyms for most of his acquaintances, and by the incurious profiles of him that journalistic outlets were offering up, I began what would become nine years of work researching Obama’s life from his childhood in Hawaii through his formative political years in Illinois politics and his break-through election to the U. S. Senate in 2004. I conducted more than 1,000 personal interviews for Rising Star, and Obama himself read most of the book in typescript in tandem with over eight hours of White House conversations between the two of us about it. Named by the Washington Post as one of the Ten Best Books of 2017, Rising Star made both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists, and will likely remain the definitive account of Obama’s pre-presidential life.

A World More Concrete

By N.D.B. Connolly,

Book cover of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida

I love Miami, and I was immediately drawn to this stunning look at the relationship between the making of the cosmopolitan Miami we know today and the history of racial exclusion in the South. Before the high rises, the posh beach resorts, fine dining restaurants, and internationally renowned nightlife, South Florida epitomized all the forces of American history: conflict and negotiation with indigenous populations, reliance on immigrant populations, racially restrictive covenants, and powerbrokers of all colors looking to profit from real estate.


Who am I?

Anytime we imagine ourselves to be smarter or more clever than Madison Avenue or sponsored content on your social media feeds or a well-designed advertisement a nostalgia unlocking tweet will prove you wrong. We are all vulnerable to their manipulations, and it is from this belief that I explore the histories, the conflicts, and the techniques that strengthen capitalism’s hold on our imaginations. And yet, despite the lures of the marketplace, I believe that people can come together and outmaneuver corporations and their enablers. Whether it’s a fast-food restaurant that crashed and burned in the 1980s or the most popular toy of 1973 or failed TV spinoffs, I see these cultural contributions as rich texts to understand race, gender, and American identities.


I wrote...

Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

By Marcia Chatelain,

Book cover of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

What is my book about?

My book explains the strange alignment of the civil rights movement after 1968 and the rise of the fast-food industry in Black communities. Franchise discusses the ways that McDonald’s adopted the rhetoric of and capitalized on the uncertainties surrounding the direction of racial justice after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to fuel the move of fast food from the suburbs to the inner-city. By looking at the social, political, and economic implications of fast food’s engagement with racial reckoning, I let out a cautionary tale about pivoting to the marketplace to respond to the cries for racial justice.

Race for Profit

By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor,

Book cover of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

Race for Profit connects all the dots on the imbalances in housing in the United States today.  As someone who bought a first home right before the mortgage meltdown, I’ve always wondered about the experiences of Black homebuyers historically.  This is an expertly researched look at predatory inclusion, the nefarious ways that institutions—in this case the banks and real estate industry—extended opportunities for homeownership to poor, Black families to purchase homes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Rather than create high-quality public housing or enforcing the principles of fair housing laws, the federal government supported home buying schemes that ultimately imperiled buyers.  Taylor places emphasis on how discourses about Black women and housing planted the seeds for backlash against people who received public assistance and housing program users.


Who am I?

Anytime we imagine ourselves to be smarter or more clever than Madison Avenue or sponsored content on your social media feeds or a well-designed advertisement a nostalgia unlocking tweet will prove you wrong. We are all vulnerable to their manipulations, and it is from this belief that I explore the histories, the conflicts, and the techniques that strengthen capitalism’s hold on our imaginations. And yet, despite the lures of the marketplace, I believe that people can come together and outmaneuver corporations and their enablers. Whether it’s a fast-food restaurant that crashed and burned in the 1980s or the most popular toy of 1973 or failed TV spinoffs, I see these cultural contributions as rich texts to understand race, gender, and American identities.


I wrote...

Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

By Marcia Chatelain,

Book cover of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

What is my book about?

My book explains the strange alignment of the civil rights movement after 1968 and the rise of the fast-food industry in Black communities. Franchise discusses the ways that McDonald’s adopted the rhetoric of and capitalized on the uncertainties surrounding the direction of racial justice after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to fuel the move of fast food from the suburbs to the inner-city. By looking at the social, political, and economic implications of fast food’s engagement with racial reckoning, I let out a cautionary tale about pivoting to the marketplace to respond to the cries for racial justice.

High Rise Stories

By Audrey Petty,

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

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:…


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.

Family Properties

By Beryl Satter,

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

The key to Beryl Satter’s book lies in her title, Family Properties. The book grew out of a daughter’s desire to know her father, who died when she was young. Satter peels back layers of her Jewish father’s fierce advocacy for Blacks in Chicago, his relentless effort to uncover and hold accountable the white men (both Jewish and Christian) who were profiting from the housing segregation that made Blacks desperate to move out of the ghetto. Satter follows her father’s ultimate failure to prevent the exploitation of Blacks. She also reveals the anger directed at him by many Jews who were on the other side. Satter writes with empathy, showing her father’s complexity (he was a landlord as well as a lawyer), and resists the impulse to judge him. 


Who am I?

I grew up in New York City on the corner of 16th Street and 7th Avenue in an apartment on the 11th floor. I loved the city’s pace, diversity, and freedom. So, I decided to study New York Jews, to learn about them from not just from census records and institutional reports but also from interviews. After publishing my first book, I followed New York Jews as they moved to other cities, especially Miami and Los Angeles. Recently, I’ve been intrigued by what is often called street photography and the ways photographs let you see all sorts of details that potentially tell a story. 


I wrote...

Urban Origins of American Judaism

By Deborah Dash Moore,

Book cover of Urban Origins of American Judaism

What is my book about?

Jewish immigrants to the United States landed in cities just as they began to grow. Starting with a string of colonial cities along the east coast, Judaism took root among the diversity of urban America. In three succinct chapters, Urban Origins of American Judaism tells the story of the emergence of synagogues in all their variety, the impact of Jewish street culture on religious life, and finally, the power of photographs to shape spiritual memory.

Making the Second Ghetto

By Arnold R. Hirsch,

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

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.  


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 Environmental Protection Hustle

By Bernard J. Frieden,

Book cover of The Environmental Protection Hustle

Not to be confused with Bernard Siegan, who wrote approvingly about the absence of zoning in Houston, Bernie Frieden undertook an on-site study of how the San Francisco Bay area became the pioneer in employing new environmental laws to make suburbs even more exclusionary than they were with garden-variety zoning. Unlike many critics of land use regulation, Frieden was an unabashed liberal who simply believed that ordinary people should be able to buy homes in communities as nice as those of the Sierra Club’s directors. Attacked at the time for overstating his case, Frieden now looks prophetic as California wrestles with its housing-cost crisis. 


Who am I?

When I studied urban economics at Princeton in the 1970s, theoretical models of urban form were all the rage. Political barriers to urban development such as zoning were dismissed as irrelevant. But as I read more about it, zoning appeared to be the foremost concern of both developers and community members. My service on the Hanover, New Hampshire zoning board made me appreciate why homeowners are so concerned about what happens in their neighborhood. NIMBYs—neighbors who cry “not in my backyard”—are not evil people; they are worried “homevoters” (owners who vote to protect their homes) who cannot diversify their oversized investment. Zoning reforms won’t succeed without addressing their anxieties. 


I wrote...

Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

By William A. Fischel,

Book cover of Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

What is my book about?

Zoning is the division of a city into separate uses such as residential, commercial, and industrial, and the regulation of each building’s size and location. It has been embraced by nearly every urban government for over a century, but Americans still think that it is mean old developers who cause urban sprawl and segregate our cities and suburbs. Zoning Rules! shows that the condition of our cities is very much the product of public land use regulation. My book explains how zoning works, why its politics is dominated by homeowners, and why it has recently pushed up housing costs. The books recommended here demonstrate that local land use regulation has enormous consequences for the environment, inequality, and economic growth. 

Golden Gates

By Conor Dougherty,

Book cover of Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America

Dougherty, a New York Times reporter, gives a timely review of how zoning and environmental regulations have made California the nation's poster child for overpriced housing. More encouragingly, he profiles several of the leaders who are fighting for reforms, including leaders of "YIMBY" movement (Yes In My Back Yard) and a state senator, Scott Wiener, whose initiatives have influenced state legislation to promote environmentally friendly infill development.

Who am I?

When I studied urban economics at Princeton in the 1970s, theoretical models of urban form were all the rage. Political barriers to urban development such as zoning were dismissed as irrelevant. But as I read more about it, zoning appeared to be the foremost concern of both developers and community members. My service on the Hanover, New Hampshire zoning board made me appreciate why homeowners are so concerned about what happens in their neighborhood. NIMBYs—neighbors who cry “not in my backyard”—are not evil people; they are worried “homevoters” (owners who vote to protect their homes) who cannot diversify their oversized investment. Zoning reforms won’t succeed without addressing their anxieties. 


I wrote...

Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

By William A. Fischel,

Book cover of Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

What is my book about?

Zoning is the division of a city into separate uses such as residential, commercial, and industrial, and the regulation of each building’s size and location. It has been embraced by nearly every urban government for over a century, but Americans still think that it is mean old developers who cause urban sprawl and segregate our cities and suburbs. Zoning Rules! shows that the condition of our cities is very much the product of public land use regulation. My book explains how zoning works, why its politics is dominated by homeowners, and why it has recently pushed up housing costs. The books recommended here demonstrate that local land use regulation has enormous consequences for the environment, inequality, and economic growth. 

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