When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I developed an interest in urban history. For my thesis I studied an early urban urban renewal project in the city, the Gratiot Area Redevelopment Project. Since then, I’ve sought out books on the cities I’ve lived, first Washington, D.C., and now Boston. This page features some of my favorites from these cities, and some on other cities or urban history more generally. They reflect my interests in urban planning and development, and in particular the connection between culture, policy, and economy that continue to shape our cities today. The titles link to their entries on Worldcat, where you can find the books in a local library or order them online. They are presented in no particular order, and this list will remain a work in progress — I am always happy to hear feedback.
For further suggestions, the D.C. history email list H-DC has posted a list of 50 Essential Washington DC History Books.
The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro
by Zachary M. Schrag
This book is the first serious history of the D.C. Metro system, and draws upon painstaking research and detailed oral history interviews. At once academic and engrossing, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the transit system Schrag persuasively argues is continuing to re-shape our city. Read my review.
Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.
by Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood
This book is a combination biography of longtime D.C. mayor Marion Barry and history of the city during his tenure as mayor. Written by two longtime local journalists, the book is readable and rich in detail. I consider it a must-read especially for younger people who want to understand the city’s politics. The major drawback is a lack of any synthetic understanding of the metropolitan transformation that caused the “decline” of the city.
Ten blocks from the White House; Anatomy of the Washington riots of 1968
By Ben W. Gilbert; The Staff Of The Washington Post
This book was published shortly after the civil disturbance in D.C. which occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although long out of print most D.C.-area libraries have a copy and Alibris has copies for around $15. The book contains a highly detailed look at the event, describing in vivid detail both the actions of political leaders and average people. Although I believe there is a risk in exaggerating the role of the 1960s urban disturbances in accelerating middle class flight from American cities (which began much earlier and was generally caused by larger forces like FHA home loans and freeway construction), I think a close study of the events can be important for two reasons. First, considering the events can offer insight to understanding what Hirsch termed the “second ghetto,” and second, understanding the geography of rebellion is instrumental to understanding patterns of urban development today. The damage caused by the 1968 riot resulted in the current location of the Washington Convention Center, changed the routing of the Metro, and dictated the location of thousands of units of subsidized housing.
The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream
by Sheryll Cashin
This thoughtful book exploring housing segregation draws many examples from the D.C. area. Cashin is a Georgetown University law professor. Read my review.
Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C.
by Howard F. Gillette, Jr.
Perhaps the most well-known book about the development of 20th-century Washington, Gillette’s book focuses on the role of the federal government in the city’s development.
Washington: City and Capital
Published in 1937 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide series this 1,100+ page book is far more than a simple city guide, but an encyclopedic snapshot of the city and federal government in the 1930s. The book is available online. Read my post about it for the link.
Washington, D.C.: Inner-City Revitalization and Minority Suburbanization
By Dennis Gale
Published in 1987, this book contains an analysis of Washington by a professor of urban planning at George Washington University. The book contains an analysis of politics, education, and provides a good early resource on the trends of his title.
Upscaling Downtown: Stalled Gentrification in Washington DC
This study of Mount Pleasant describes some of the sociological implications of middle class whites moving into an established African American and Hispanic community.
- The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital by Constance Green
- The Hidden History of Washington, DC by Tingba Apidta
- Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C. by Francine Curro Cary
- The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop by Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson Jr.
- Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital by Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins
- The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital: The Masons and the Building of Washington, D.C. by David Ovason
- Washington Sculpture: A Cultural History of Outdoor Sculpture in the Nation’s Capital by James M. Goode
Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630
By Lawrence W. Kennedy
Covers a broader time period than most of the books on this page, but for Boston it is needed. Written with a particular interest towards the city’s physical layout and development.
Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900
By Sam Bass Warner
Warner’s classic history of this important period of urban growth.
From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors
By Larry Vale
This thoughtful and readable history places Boston public housing in a historical and national context.
Rites of Way: The Politics of Transportation in Boston and the U.S. city
by Alan Lupo, Frank Colcord and Edmund P Fowler
Lupo’s portion on how Boston neighborhood activists struggled to stop freeways and change the state’s approach to metropolitan transportation in the 1960s and 70s is fascinating. Although the second half has aged less well, it provides a window into a formative era for metropolitan transportation infrastructure and policy.
Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families
by J. Anthony Lukas
An epic (650+ page), detailed history of Boston in the 1960s and 70s through the eyes of three families.
The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
by Thomas J. Sugrue
This modern classic traces the history of Detroit from the late 19th Century until the eve of the 1967 civil disorder.
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution
by Dan Georgakas
A fascinating account of radical unionism in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s.
Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit
by June Manning Thomas
This nuanced history traces the history of urban planning in Detroit, sadly never published in paperback.
Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America
by David Freund
A history of the racial politics of suburban Detroit (particularly Dearborn), Freund weaves a complex argument about the connection between federal policy and a racial politics of highly segregated suburbs.
Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America
by Terry Smith
A cultural history of how industrial Detroit ushered in the modern aesthetic.
Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
by Kevin Boyle
A gripping, true-life story of the 1925 murder trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family. When the family moved to an all-white Detroit neighborhood, the neighborhood assembles a mob to force them out. When a mob member dies, the African American doctor and his relatives face murder charges.
The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin
by Christopher Klemek
A magisterial intellectual and urban history of what Klemek calls the “urban renewal order,” focusing on episodes from the history of New York City, Philadelphia, Toronto, London, and Berlin. Among other things, the books places Jane Jacobs in an international context, analyzing the tumultuous landscape of mid-century urban policy.
American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland
by Robert O. Self
A detailed political and economic history of Oakland, California and the east bay suburbs more broadly, touching on Black Power, the construction of the BART system, and the role of municipal financial policy in suburban development.
Urban Policy in Twentieth-Century America
Edited by Arnold R. Hirsch and Raymond A. Mohl
A collection of essays on urban history published in 1993. Essay topics including poverty in New York City (Michael Katz), residential segregation (Arnold Hirsch), and Interstate 95 and Miami’s Overtown neighborhood (Raymond Mohl).
The Federal Bulldozer
by Martin Anderson
A scathing, early (1964) history of the Federal government’s urban renewal program created by the Housing Act of 1949.
Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia
by W. Bruce Lincoln
A cultural and political history of one of the world’s great cities.
For more, see the online bibliography of over 33,000 items maintained by the journal Urban History.
Have a book to suggest? Drop me a line!