The Growth of Market-Oriented Urban Policy — A Review of Neoliberal Cities

Diamond, Andrew J. and Thomas J. Sugrue, eds. Neoliberal Cities: The Remaking of Postwar Urban America. New York: New York University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Tracy Neumann

Compared to their urbanist counterparts in other disciplines, urban historians—or at least Americanists—have been slow to grapple with neoliberalism. Some avoid the terminology because very few historical actors self-identify as neoliberals, while others worry that neoliberalism is used to describe too many things in too many places, and still others view the term as little more than an epithet thrown around by the Left to describe anything its ranks object to. This means that neoliberal urbanism has been heavily theorized but poorly historicized. Andrew Diamond and Tom Sugrue’s new edited collection, Neoliberal Cities: The Remaking of Postwar Urban America, is thus a timely and welcome appeal to urban historians to take neoliberalism seriously as an analytical category whose history demands to be written.

Neoliberal Cities contributes to a growing literature on neoliberalization as a decades-long process, offers compelling evidence that neoliberalism must be understood as both top-down and bottom-up phenomenon, and reveals how racism shaped the US variant of neoliberal urbanism. Diamond and Sugrue open the volume with an incisive critique of the theoretical literature on neoliberalism produced by urban geographers and sociologists and gently rebuke historians for their reluctance to engage with that literature. The introduction and seven essays that follow are carefully researched, engagingly written, and delightfully concise, making the collection well-suited to pandemic-era attention spans.

Each essay details how a particular policy arena (housing, commercial development, municipal finance, public-private partnerships, the carceral state, gentrification, and non-profits) became increasingly market-oriented over the course of the twentieth century. We learn that the hegemonic belief in free markets to solve social problems and the attendant remaking of state institutions that urban theorists have most commonly dated to the mid-1970s has a much longer history. Yet the extent to which the contributors are inclined to engage with neoliberalism as a theoretical construct or analytical category varies, and many of the essays raise more questions than they answer about neoliberalism’s periodization. 

Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, 2013. Levi Clancy, Wikimedia Commons.

Taken together, the essays point to a rather urgent need for urban historians to provide greater clarity on what and when they mean by neoliberalism. In this respect, Donna Murch’s piece on urban mass incarceration in Los Angeles is the collection’s standout, because she offers sustained reflection on neoliberalism’s utility as an historical category. She provides her readers with a working definition of neoliberalism, reflects critically on how it has been theorized and periodized, and outlines a research agenda through which historians of the carceral state might help clarify the murkiness she sees in the concept. It is a welcome antidote to some of the other essays, which mention neoliberalism in passing only in their introductions or conclusions. 

With this collection, Diamond and Sugrue urge us to ask not what neoliberal theorists offer historians, but what historians offer to the interdisciplinary study of neoliberal urbanism. Even though not all of the contributors were as conceptually engaged with neoliberalism as this reader would have liked, taken together the essays are a signal achievement in demonstrating that research at the nexus of American political history and urban history can help us understand how neoliberal policies became commonsense. They provide compelling examples of how urban history can point us toward a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of neoliberalization, without collapsing into anachronism or losing analytical coherence. Or without, as Nathan Connolly has cautioned us against, whitewashing a complex and variegated story.

Tracy Neumann is an Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University. She specializes in transnational and global approaches to twentieth-century U.S. history, with an emphasis on cities and the built environment. She is the author of Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and of essays on urban history and public policy. 

Featured Image (at top): Hugh Carey and Felix Rohatyn meet with Ford administration officials to discuss New York City’s fiscal crisis, 1975. White House Photographic Office Collection,National Archives and Records Administration.

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