The risk of critiquing book lists is that a) it’s easy to kvetch about others’ lists, and b) you risk insulting the many wonderful writers who do appear on the original list, including the person who took the time to put together the list in the first place. But at the risk of doing both a and b, I have to say I am disappointed in Brent Toderian’s list of 100 best books on city-making for Planetizen. We can go around and around about this: I guess it depends on what he means by city-making. And a lot depends on what a person reads. But if you are going to go around labeling something “the best”, you’d better be well-read, and this list just doesn’t strike me as being that broad or that open to different perspectives on cities. Then, in his addendum, he adds some fiction, including the rape-y The Fountainhead, which he does include as a ‘negative’ example, I guess. But does that tiresome book really need more press? At least he included Calvino and China Meiville in the addenda. But this list and his addenda are standard white urbanist fare, with a lot of echoing of the same ideas from one white urbanist to another. It make me sad that our “best of” lists are still doing this. That said, Jan Gehl’s book is very fine, and you could spend a long time reading the wonderful books on this list.
And he does have some women on the list, but the ones chosen are not exactly writing from non-dominant perspectives, and there are some terrific books by Asian authors on the list, including work from my wonderful colleague, Tridib Banerjee. It’s not that I want to erase the people from the list. It’s that I really wish urban planners would read more widely and take seriously their job to understand and promote more than one perspective on cities, not just focusing on a perspective that simply creates an echo chamber for the wonderfulness of white urbanism and planning with its bike lanes and its downtown retail. At some point, all intellectual echoing becomes like watching only FoxNews or MSNBC for your news. You live in an intellectual cul-de-sac.
You are not educated until you get off your butt and start learning to see the world from a perspective other than your own.
Looking at the list, what major books present ideas in intellectual conflict to each other? Or…do they tell the same story about how cities are and how they should be and how planners and urbanists make cities for the better? Where are the controversies? Surely there are controversies? Or is it all one New Urbanist/Smarth Growthy/Urban Design-y family. That’s how I read that list.
City-making is not the exclusive purview of planners or self-declared urbanists.
So here are some to add to the list, in no order because I’m bad at order. I don’t claim these are ‘the best’–just books I have read that reflect cities and how they are made, that were worth reading, and that represent an effort to read what people from different perspectives have to say:
1. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Much of what you need to know about how ineffectual city government is in governing black neighborhoods appears here in the first few pages as Morrison riffs on “Not Doctor Street.”
2. There Goes the ‘Hood by Lance Freeman. Contemporary gentrification debates.
3. The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson. This book should be required reading.
5. Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America by Ella Howard. The first book from a very promising scholar.
6. Off the Books by Sudhir Venkatesh I don’t like his other, much higher profile books as much: this one tells the stories about how people make a living despite city regulation.
7. Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin. Read anything by Kathryn Edin. Just do it. This book focuses mostly on impoverished women in Philadelphia.
8. Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila There are some great books on Baltimore, but this one is a good recent one.
9. Gay New York by George Chauncey I wish I could assign this book more often; it’s long, and it’s not easy to chop up. But it is worth your time.
10. Barrio Urbanism by David R. Diaz I like David Diaz’s work a great deal anyway, but this is my favorite.
11. Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak by Bettina L. Love Young black women talking about the role of art and expression in their coming of age in Atlanta.
13. Jesuit Garden in Beijing and Early Modern Chinese Culture by Hui Zou So interesting.
14. Snow Drops by A.D. Miller A novel set in post-Socialist real estate in Moscow. Harrowing.
17. Sento at Sixth and Main by Gail Dubrow and Donna Graves This book made me cry.
18. 18. The Hiawatha by David Treuer Urban Indians in Minneapolis. A haunting, haunting novel.
22. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who did dystopian Los Angeles like nobody else.
23. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, by Samuel Delany. Oh, and read some of his novels, too.
25. Graceland by Chris Abani a wonderful novel about post-colonial Lagos
27. Factory Girls by Leslie Chang Follows the story of young women who move from village to metropolitan China.
29. Young and Defiant in Tehran by Shahram Khosravi (Author)
30. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde by Doryun Chong, editor. (Yes, I’m including edited volumes)
31. Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans By Emily Landau
32. Daily Life in Victorian London (an anthology) London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes was a terrible place if you weren’t rich.
33. The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick Good fiction, with a strong sense of place.
34 In The Land of Isreal by Amos Oz A wonderful book about people, politics, and territory.
35. Aztec of the City–these Comic books are cool, about an urban superhero in San Jose
36. Season of Migration to the North By Tayleb Salih a terrific novel about the influences of east and west and city and village in a globalizing context.
37. The Havana Quartet by Leonardo Padura. A police procedural set in Havanna.
38. Smeltertown by Monica Perales–the story of the Mexican residents who live in El Paso’s company town.
40. Anything written by Walter Mosley . Anything.
43. City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa by Adam LeBor (wonderful prose style and an intimate look at individuals and the contestation over urban space.
44. All Souls: A Family Story from A Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald
47. The Rise of Abraham Cahan by Seth Lipsky If you have an interest in migrants and the global reach of NYC media, here you go.
49. Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows edited by June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf
Another terrific edited volume.