This list is condensed and edited from a much longer reading list — “Here’s What You Can Read If You’d Like to Think About Cities In Exactly the Way That I Do” — that I published on Medium. The titles here broadly pertain to sociology in urban spaces: they touch on neighborhood change; inequality, race, and wealth; policy and governance; and critical theory. These are some of my personal favorite books that have influenced the way that I conceptualize cities as well as the people who do or don’t live in them, and why that may be. Taken together, they provide an intersectional, multidisciplinary framework that I’ve found to be a useful approach to contemporary urban issues.
[Image: L.A. freeways, by Slices of Light.]
Russell Sage Foundation
Exploitation and exclusion in the U.S. is most broadly perpetuated by those possessive of characteristics that signify privilege. Massey, a sociologist, shows how inequality is manifested by privileged groups based on race, class, and gender.
Evicted: Poverty and Property in the American City
Desmond marries ethnography and data like no living academic. This is the most important book of the decade regarding American cities: it discusses what happens not in the gentrifying neighborhoods that so capture our imagination and our upper-middle-class discourse, but at the unstable — and expensive — bottom of the housing market. Desmond and his team recently built the first nationwide database of evictions.
Led by Matthew Desmond, the Eviction Lab has drawn on tens of millions of records to produce the first ever dataset of evictions in America, going back to 2000.
The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn
Oxford University Press
First-wave gentrifiers often present contradictory opinions, such as purporting to support diverse and inclusive neighborhoods on one hand while organizing to oppose new housing — which could maintain or increase diversity and inclusion — on the other. Osman dissects the squirreliness of this sub-group of Brooklynites against the backdrop of neighborhood and city politics.
Brownstone Brooklyn and the Challenges of Urban Change
In this review, Hertz offers insights into Osman's book above, and the ways that "he turns the tables on those who have long been the heroes of urbanist lore."
The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
Princeton University Press
We’re currently so very fixated on what’s going on in the wealthiest of America’s cities that it’s hard to remember that cities here were, relatively recently, places that most people with the resources to do so fled. The Origins of the Urban Crisis is set in Detroit, but Sugrue’s work is likely the best accounting for what happened countrywide when cities hollowed out in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
City: Rediscovering the Center
University of Pennsylvania Press
Whyte explicates what does and doesn’t work in public space, with maxims like: “fixed individual seats deny choice. The designer is saying you sit here and you sit there. This is arrogant of him. People are much better at this than designers.”
There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification From the Ground Up
Temple University Press
This is the only longitudinal, qualitative study of displacement in existence, and it finds gentrification to be quite favorable to Harlem’s long-term residents, especially homeowners. It was written pre-recession, and Freeman has spoken to the need for an update. Still, it’s the only thing of its kind, which seems rather incredible given all the assumptions that we commonly make about displacement.
Five Myths About Gentrification
"Everything about gentrification is controversial — even its definition," writes Freeman. In this article, he summarizes five of the most common misconceptions about the term.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
New York University Press
The “Disneyfication” of Times Square is occasionally summoned as shorthand for hyper-capitalistic redevelopment. Delany’s is the definitive take on this concept. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is weird in a brilliant way: it’s about sex as a commodity, and is realistic about the messiness of human contact in public space without fetishizing it as an objectively authentic experience. (Try his science fiction, too.)
A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity
University of Chicago Press
Brown-Saracino’s work is an exemplar of qualitative research. In this book, she synthesizes ethnographic research conducted in four different communities and neighborhoods, arguing that the institutionalization of certain types of culture is often perpetuated by newcomers seeking to set in stone a particular experience that they believe they bought into.
The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory
How much of what we know about cities is simply what we believe? Narratives and myth likely have a greater impact on how we think about where we live than even our own experiences. Klein explores “memory erasure” through some chapters that are true and some chapters that are fiction.
Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century
University Press of Kansas
The authors argue that markets alone didn’t create economic segregation; politics under capitalism are just as much to blame. Their solutions to what they class as “place-based” problems are thus focused on political processes, rather than overhauling systems.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity
Anyone who loves critical theory and cities, encountered the Moses/Jacobs paradigm early in their entreé to understanding how places work, and has a knack for Russian history — I know I’m not the only one — feels as if this was written for them. I suppose that Berman, a master of the long view who wrote of high-minded topics with clarity and anger and grace and a sensibility toward myths and experience, knew what he was doing.
City Power: Urban Governance In a Global Age
Oxford University Press
Schragger’s challenge of conventional notions of economic development provides a radical new framework for how cities can govern. Schragger is a law professor, and his approach to cities is one in pursuit of justice, making City Power much more about governance and structure than sociology or qualitative research.
Madness and Civilization
Cities — and gentrification and sex and disability and poverty and living — are about power, and Foucault writes, objectively, of power. Madness and Civilization specifically discusses leprosariums and the quarantine of “madness” as a manifestation of power rather than as an objective moral truth.
Policy Paradox and Political Reason
Stone’s polis is fundamentally an acceptance of the role of politics in public administration, a field that often avoids the unpleasant realities of politics and political will in pursuit of an idealistically pure structure of governance. Stone, however, argues that politics are a creative and valuable feature of good policy.
Toward A Global Idea of Race
University of Minnesota Press
da Silva discusses post-Enlightenment intersections of race, power, and exclusion in a global context, with significant implications for local and national applications of racial discrimination.
What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution
Alperovitz, like Deborah Stone, finds taking any sort of action to be a political engagement. What Then Must We Do? is focused on closing the wealth gap, and suggests evolving and reforming our existing economic system to democratize wealth.
Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
Oxford University Press
Crabgrass Frontier is definitive, and timeless. As Sugrue chronicles the decline of cities, Jackson shows how American suburbs were enabled and encouraged by racialized federal policy. Now, Crabgrass Frontier looks like a prequel to The Color of Law, but it stands on its own as a thorough and penetrating history of why, and which, Americans decamped to the suburbs.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Economic Policy Institute
Rothstein’s book has been rightfully heralded for its demonstration of how the federal government perpetuated segregation through housing, both public and private.
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study
University of Pennsylvania Press
The Philadelphia Negro is the first sociological case study of a black community and is the precursor to most modern qualitative studies of neighborhoods. Dubois’ taxonomy of the residents of several blocks in Philadelphia, as well as his retellings of the ins and outs of their lives, is a clear model for ethnographic works like A Neighborhood That Never Changes.