Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York's Graduate Center and author of Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World (California, 1991) and The Cultures of Cities (Blackwell, 1995).
"The best books about cities dare us to see spaces -- buildings, streets, or neighborhoods -- as statements about inequality and domination. My three favorites demonstrate the virtues of an eclectic materialism. Mike Davis's City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Vintage, 1992) makes the case that land--as both private and public space, as business investment and mythos--is the city's ultimate medium of power. William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis : Chicago and the Great West (Norton, 1992) argues that great cities are created by their ability to abstract nature, in the form of grains, meats, and lumber, into a medium for commercial speculation over vast distances. Finally, in Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, originally published in 1945 but reissued by Chicago in 1993, St. Clair Drake and Horace A. Cayton document the mutually reinforcing pressures of class and race in turning 'old' African-American ghettos, where not everyone was poor, into crucibles of poverty. These are books that have so shaped my sensibilities that I cannot experience a city without being aware of them."
Thomas Bender, professor of history at New York University, author of New York Intellect (Knopf, 1987) and Intellect and Public Life (Johns Hopkins, 1993), and co-editor of Budapest and New York (Russell Sage, 1994).
"The past five years," notes Bender, "have seen a proliferation of interdisciplinary and postdisciplinary studies of cities and their cultures. But the book I would single out is a monograph rooted firmly in the discipline of history. In The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 18501900 (Cambridge, 1994), Philip J. Ethington demonstrates that emerging electoral strategies and marketing practices promoted new civic identities that undermined formalist Victorian notions of the universal citizen. The resulting urban history brilliantly illuminates the prehistory of the post-modern city."
Saskia Sassen, professor of urban planning at Columbia, author of The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, 1991) and Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (Columbia, 1996).
"From the dozens of great books that have come out of the new interdisciplinary passion for all things urban, I would single out Preparing for the Urban Future: Global Pressures and Local Forces (Johns Hopkins, 1996), edited by Michael Cohen, Blair Ruble, Joseph Tulchin, and Allison Garland. It's a collection of essays by scholars and policy makers from around the globe that offers some of the best insights available into the urban challenge. Notable for me was a chapter on cities in Africa and the possibility that, beneath the breakdown of governments, we may be seeing new, often informal modes of governance by way of an increasingly active and empowered participation in development among the disadvantaged."
Zeynep Çelik, professor of architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology, co-editor of Streets: Critical Perspectives on Public Space(California, 1994), and author of Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule (California, forthcoming).
"In The Urban Image of Augustan Rome (Cambridge, 1996), architectural historian Diane Favro explores what made, and makes, a city memorable. Building on the ideas of the modern city planner Kevin Lynch, she analyzes the urban context, identity, structure, and meaning of Rome at the turn of the first millennium. At this potent historical moment, the first emperor Augustus transformed the cityscape to match new political imperatives--namely, the transition from republic to empire. Favro frames her analysis with descriptions of walks through ancient Rome. With these fictional tours, we come to understand how a distinct urban identity is forged by new buildings and materials, consistent iconography, and the calculated involvement of the citizenry."
Roy Porter, professor of the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Institute, London, and author or editor of more than sixty books, including London: A Social History (Penguin, 1996).
"Anyone who is tired of books about London is tired of life," quips Porter. "One I won't ever tire of is The London Encyclopedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert and brought out in an updated edition by Macmillan in 1993. Everything is there in its thousand pages, from histories of the Thames and London's Underground system to little entries on pubs and clubs past and present. If you've ever wanted to know where the "Portobello" comes from in the name of London's street market, or the history of street markets in general, this volume is indispensable. Also great fun is Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory (Granta Books, 1997), a wonderful travelogue of the dark and dingy side of town written by a brilliant reporter who makes it his thing to pound the sidewalks. Follow Sinclair around the East End or up to Geoffrey (Lord) Archer's Thames-side penthouse, and you'll realize what a wonderful eye for detail he has."
Margaret Morton, professor of art at The Cooper Union, co-author of Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives (Yale, 1993), and photographer and author of The Tunnel: Underground Homeless of New York City (Yale, 1996).
"After the construction of the Berlin Wall, trains from the West were forbidden to stop when passing through the East. The dimly lit stations were deserted except for the shadowy forms of East German border guards with submachine guns. Geisterbahnhöfe ("Ghost Stations"), by Heinz Knobloch (Ch. Links Verlag, 1992; available from www.mail-order-kaiser.de), chronicles the fifteen subway and railway stations that were sealed off from East Germans when the Wall was constructed in 1961. The photographs, by Michael Richter, were taken during the brief transition period between November 9, 1989, when the Wall fell, and July 1, 1990, the day of the two countries' currency union, when the stations were reopened. The pictures capture dirty plates on tables as well as dusty posters advertising exhibitions and circuses from the summer of 1961. The publisher is an exciting new house based in Berlin, and Geisterbahnhöfe makes a splendid visual companion to their best-seller Chronik der Wende, a two-volume, day-by-day narrative of the East German experience of the 1990 unification."
Robert Fitch, adjunct professor at New York University's metropolitan studies program and author of The Assassination of New York (Verso, 1996).
"In 1890, Jacob Riis invented the New York poverty photo shoot. How the Other Half Lives aimed a camera at the city's terrible conditions and convinced New York's elite to implement drastic reforms. Now a century later, and with the same visceral impact, comes Camilo Jose Vergara's The New American Ghetto (Rutgers, 1995). Vergara doesn't just photograph crumbling structures. His time-lapse photos reveal how housing destruction follows a predictable cycle, beginning with deferred maintenance and ending with the construction of low-rise ranch-style houses that replace the poor and their tenements. Vergara's stunning photo sequences and probing investigative analysis make it impossible to ignore how planners have created a new urban form that segregates, concentrates, and isolates the poor as never before in American history."
Ben Katchor, creator of the comic strip "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," collected in the book Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer: Stories (Little Brown, 1996).
"The fences I knew most intimately growing up in Brooklyn were of the chain-link and picket-and-wire variety. Chain-link seemed to be designed to accommodate the foot of a climbing child and to catch a Spalding rubber ball. The orange-dyed picket-and-wire fences were erected in public parks to mark off plots of earth for some undisclosed reason. Now Gregory Dreicer has decided to catalog, analyze, and explain their true history in an exhibition for the National Building Museum. Between Fences, the commemorative book published jointly by the National Building Museum and Princeton Architectural Press in 1996, is printed in shades of orange and gray, and contains eight essays by architects, theorists, and historians of the fence. Straightforward and tragic industrial biographies are interspersed with wondrous illustrations and brilliant points of design history to produce a book as beautiful and mysterious as the fences it describes."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.