Introducing a New Mini-Series: Neglected Gems

By Richard Harris

You know how Breitbart carries stories with captions like “The Democrats’ Five Steps to Socialism”? Or how the New York Times regularly updates its count of “The Whoppers that Trump Tells”? Well, herewith is my “Seven Neglected Gems in Urban History.” I’m hopeful it, too, will go viral.

The inspiration, if such it was, came while writing a book on the Urban Question, by which I mean ‘why cities matter.’ I finally got around to reading some works that I really should have tackled long ago (Richard Wade on slavery). I was inspired anew by some books that I hadn’t looked at in ages (Jonathan Raban’s Soft City). And I was disappointed by others that I had once revered (notably Mumford’s City in History). But what struck me most is the number of works – articles and books – that I found inspiring but which don’t seem to get much attention these days. I say ‘seem’ because, after all, I don’t read everything that urban historians write. (Who does?) And so my list not only reflects my tastes but also my biases in terms of period, place, and topic. Perhaps the gaps in this selection will inspire others to chip in.

Authors can be neglected for a variety of reasons. Perhaps their main subjects or periods were quite narrow, and so seem irrelevant to the rest of us who, after all, feel our own pressures to specialize. Or perhaps their area of interest has become unfashionable; maybe it was never popular. But I believe that, because in one way or another the following seven (plus a few others I have added in counterpoint) speak to the urban question, we should listen.

  1. Eric Lampard

Eric E. Lampard. 1983. The nature of urbanization. In Derek Fraser and Anthony Sutcliffe, eds. The Pursuit of Urban History. London: Arnold, pp. 1-53.

Eric Lampard is the obvious place to start. For two generations, Lampard told urban historians that cities mattered especially, but not only, in economic terms. He also exhorted us to think more about the matter. Everyone listened politely and then, it seems, went about their business. Part of the problem was that Lampard was an economic historian, and few of us, then or now, have been seriously interested in the internal workings of the urban economy. The other part was that most of us have been reluctant to think in a general way – a social scientist might say ‘in theoretical terms’ – about urbanization. But Lampard suggested that we should.

pursuit-of-urban-history-anthony-sutcliffe-9780713163834‘The nature of urbanization’ is a slightly misleading title. In this chapter, Lampard tells us about the various ways in which cities matter. He surveys urbanization since the nineteenth century, primarily in the developed world, interweaving the narrative with interpretations of its significance. Naturally, he takes account of economic issues, but he deals with social, political and even environmental matters too. There is, for example, a deft account of how urban centers create social settings for the consumption of commodities and the invention of new modes of living. He tells us how increasing size required reformed city governments that raised taxes to build the infrastructure that made cities work. Presciently, he deplored how growing homeownership had led to the “profitable capitalization” of the urban environment, becoming “as much the end of city life as the means.” And, also ahead of the curve, he noted the impact of transnational connections and competition, concluding with references to energy consumption and ecological effects. At 25,000 words, it was a tour de force, as relevant today as it was in 1983.

For all that Lampard speaks in general terms, he emphasizes the American experience. For a British counterpoint you cannot do better than to read David Reeder and Richard Rodger’s “Industrialization and the city economy,” a chapter in Martin Daunton’s excellent edited volume, The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Volume III. 1840-1950 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 553-592. The focus is narrower, but this sweeping account is equally lucid, explaining not only how industrialization shaped cities but how urban centers returned the favor. Both, then, are the sorts of works that show why urban history matters.

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): Russell Lee, “Jewler [sic] repairing a watch. San Augustine, Texas.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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