Review: The New, New Urban American History? Richard Harris on The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Urban History

Timothy J. Gilfoyle, editor. The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Urban History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.  2 volumes. ISBN 9780190853860 (set)

By Richard Harris

No question, The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Urban History stands as a major achievement testifying to the extraordinary quantity, quality, and diversity of contemporary research on American cities and suburbs. Unlike many edited collections, the entries here were peer-reviewed—helping to make this a reliable and, in some cases, essential reference. And it is, well, encyclopedic. Over the course of two volumes, 92 entries, 1572 large pages, and a 91-page index (!), we discover American urban history from pre-Columbian settlement to the Bloomberg mayoralty of 2002-2013.

There is a strong chronological dimension. The first chapter deals with early riverine settlements, while the last of ten sections covers the postwar period. Twelve topical chapters, often paired, cover particular periods: industry (1790-1870; 1880-1929), followed by the postindustrial experience and deindustrialization (both 1950-); urban politics (to 1940, from 1945); suburbanization (to 1945 and since); religion (1600-1900; 1900-2000); and food (19th century and 20th century) All topical chapters comprise an extended narrative, followed by sections on historiography and sources. The narratives could appeal to a general reader; the remainder is for scholars. A useful, thoughtful organization.

9780190853860So what is covered in these topical chapters? The following can give only a general impression. The opening sections cover ‘varieties of urbanization,’ defined mainly by their economic base, political economy, and then ‘informal economies.’ A pair then deal with migrations (internal and from elsewhere) and neighborhood communities, including general treatments as well as specific groups. The next two cover the built environment and then nature and the environment. These are followed by two more on the social fabric, and the violence and disorder that threaten it. The last section, on the postwar period, covers political and social movements, suburban development, urban renewal, zoning, and gentrification. Contributors include a good mix of junior and more senior scholars, men and women. Most, not surprisingly, are historians.

It would be arbitrary to single out particular chapters for commentary, but that is what I will do. Among those that dealt with topics about which I am largely ignorant I picked two at random. Most impressive. I learned much about Latino urbanism: the Spanish and indigenous American roots that produced urban “hybrids and palimpsests” (p. 698), their transformation following annexation by the United States, and then their reworking by Mexican immigrants. With its account of immigrant influences and the creation by migrants of Protestant congregations and churches, a chapter on religion complicated and challenged my assumption that urbanization is a secularizing force. Both chapters offered extensive surveys of interdisciplinary literatures. Indeed, it seems that many authors embrace – and were perhaps encouraged to embrace – a wide range of scholarship. This is urban history with a broad vision.

But what of limitations and omissions? There are two types. One concerns aspects that are idiosyncratic to The Encyclopedia. None (of those I noticed) are complete, but let me mention four. In recent decades, urban historians have told us much about how women have shaped and responded to urban life. The Encyclopedia includes a chapter on prostitution, and elsewhere references are made to women’s experience of poverty, as consumers, as suburbanites, and in the temperance movement. But this amounts only to a scattered and incomplete picture. Jazz, rap, blues, and rock ’n roll are treated, but not country, whose popularity since the 1930s has depended on city-based radio stations and studios, a clear demonstration that cities matter. Nashville is not referenced for music. (In fairness, I should add that I would probably not have noticed this omission except for Ken Burns’ recent documentary on the subject.) And although the process of suburban development is described, the markets for urban land and housing are not discussed in a focused manner, although they are arguably two of the most important, and distinctively urban, elements on the scene. But surely the most idiosyncratic feature is that the table of contents for the printed version includes no page numbers! I wonder whether that’s a sneaky way of encouraging readers to wander and explore, as textual flâneurs.

Chicago Federal Center, Chicago, Illinois, Carol M. Highsmith, July 27, 2017, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

And then there are limitations that reflect the current state of urban history in the United States. Coverage leans towards the larger cities, especially New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – and not just in the chapter on professional sports. Versions of this fact are acknowledged by several contributors, for example Jessica Sewell writing about urban space (p. 991). In this regard, this Encyclopedia differs from its British equivalent, whose three volumes each contains at least one chapter on towns. The likes of the Lynds’ Middletown (pop. 46,500 in the 1920s), and certainly smaller places like J.B. Jackson’s fictional community, Optimo (pop. 10,783; alt. 2,100 feet in 1952), get short shrift.[1]

Typically, too, this is urban history framed and understood within a national context. To be sure, and appropriately, the chapters on ports and various migrations, as well as segregation, note connections with (cities in) other countries, especially Mexico. Several chapters, including those on globalization, segregation, Latino urbanism, zoning, and urban renewal, put the US experience in an international context. But, overall, the general rise of interest in transnational research finds no more echo here than it has yet within the field as a whole: some, but not much.

Street repairs disrupt auto and pedestrian flow in downtown Muncie, Indiana, the subject of Robert Staughton Lynd and Hellen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown studies in the 1920s, Carol M. Highsmith, September 23, 2013, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Then again, neither the editor, in the brief Preface, nor the contributors compare the character of U.S. cities – their rate or periods of growth, density and sprawl, industrial base and means of transportation, social composition and segregation, politics, or culture – with those elsewhere. A comparison with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, might raise questions as to whether in white settler colonies the timing of European settlement might matter as much as the national context.[2] British and European counterpoints could highlight the effects of planning controls, or their absence, two-way exchange of urban policy.[3] And of course comparison with cities anywhere could provoke reflection on what U.S. cities share with others: what makes urban places distinctive.

That points to another symptomatic limitation. There is no discussion of what might be called the urban question: what, if anything, does the urban setting add to our economy, society, culture, and politics? This is a hoary conundrum, one broached periodically by historians (notably Jim Dyos in Britain and Eric Lampard in the United States) but never thoroughly discussed, and certainly not resolved. Tim Gilfoyle has gone on the record as expressing doubts about the usefulness of this debate, and in his Preface to the Encyclopedia, and presumably in its design, he has remained true to that belief.[4] It’s a view that seems  to express mainstream thinking: most urban historians do not talk explicitly about how the urban setting creates or shapes the things that happen there: the advantages it offers to industry; the opportunities to enable eccentricity, innovation, or community; the peculiar challenges it poses for governance. At most, these influences are sometimes implied. I worry about this: why, else, would we call ourselves ‘urban’ historians (or in my case historical geographer) if not to wrestle with this question?

Pico House on Olvera Street in the oldest part of downtown Los Angeles, California, Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs, Division Library of Congress

But let us celebrate what is here, and then use it. For interested laypersons, for urban historical students and researchers who are embarking on new fields of enquiry, for those who want to check that they haven’t missed something important in their own area of interest, and on an almost limitless range of topics, The Encyclopedia will be an indispensable starting point for many years to come.

harrisPast president of the UHA (2017-18), Richard Harris teaches urban geography at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He has written several accounts of Toronto’s suburban development, notably Unplanned Suburbs. Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900-1950. (Baltimore, 1996).


Featured image (at top): Dusk view of skyline, San Diego, California, Carol M. Highsmith, May 2013, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


[1] D. M. Palliser, ed., The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. I. 600-1540. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Peter Clark, ed., The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. II. 1540-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Martin Daunton, ed., The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown. A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929; John Brinkerhoff Jackson, “The almost perfect town,” Landscape 2,1 (1952): 2-8.

[2] Lionel Frost, The New Urban Frontier. Urbanisation and City-Building in Australasia and the American West. Melbourne: New South Wales University Press, 1991.

[3] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century. Social Change and Urban Growth in England and the USA. New York: Berg, 2003; Daniel T. Rogers, Atlantic Crossings. Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1998.

[4] He observes that “Scholars will probably always contest the meaning of ‘urban’ and ‘city’. By now, the debate is pointless,” and then adds “People identify cities as places; what happens in those places is considered ‘urban.’” Tim Gilfoyle, “White cities, linguistic turns and Disneylands. The new paradigms of urban history,” Reviews in American History 26, 1 (1998), 176.

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