City dreams and urban legends

Abereading t

Winter’s here – time to cozy up with a good book. Here, the young Abraham Lincoln, in a popular depiction of his log cabin youth.

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With the holidays approaching, The Brew asked some friends for suggestions on the best books about the past, present and future of American cities – particularly of our own beloved Athens on the Patapsco, Baltimore.

Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore Inc., a non-profit neighborhood preservation and development group, is a graduate of Harvard’s School of Design and a veteran lecturer on Baltimore’s urban history. For the big picture on the topic of what makes cities work and why they fail, he recommends “City: Rediscovering the Center,” by William H. Whyte, published in 1988.

Whyte, who also wrote the 1950s classic study of corporate culture “The Organization Man,” has been described as the mentor of Jane Jacobs, the renowned author of the hugely influential “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Whyte’s painstaking empirical research over 16 years overturned a lot of conventional wisdom about how cities function.

“’City’ sort of takes all of the ideas that you think of as Jane Jacobs’ and says, ‘Here are all the things you can do’ ” to make cities better, Duff says. “It’s a marvelous read. This is where I think you should start.”

Duff also strongly recommends “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West,” by University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon, published in 1991, which explains how in the latter half of the 19th century Chicago drew on the rich natural resources of the West to become the economic and political center of America’s expanding western empire.

Cronon, a Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Fellow, uses archival records of everything from catalogue sales to bankruptcies to track Chicago’s development in parallel with what is sometimes called the taming of the West. But Duff says his approach can be used to understand why any city, including Baltimore, was built in the first place and how it survives. “He’s just extraordinary,” Duff says.

Baltimore on the Chesapeake,” by Hamilton Owens, published in 1940, is “the best short book ever written about Baltimore, Duff says. “It’s quite thrilling and it’s a great book.” The best long book on Baltimore history, in Duff’s view, is “Baltimore: The Building of an American City,” by Sherry H. Olson, published in 1980. It was written, she says on her website, after reading past editions of city newspapers stretching back 200 years.

Duff says Olson’s book suffers, a little, from the Marxist politics of its author, a professor of geography at McGill University in Canada. But it’s required reading for any student of the city’s history. “That’s really a book you’ve got to read if you want to understand Baltimore,” he says.

Tragic Sprawlscape, Junked Cities

David Troy, a key figure in Baltimore’s tech-niverse, has spent a lot of time thinking about the city and its future. (A recent post of his on the relationship between voting behavior and population density got national traction.)

Among Troy’s favorite writers on municipal husbandry is James Howard Kunstler, the journalist-turned-critic of what he terms America’s “tragic sprawlscape of cartoon architecture, junked cities and ravaged countryside.”

Kunstler is probably best known as the author of “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscapes,” a 1993 book that provides a witty, succinct and pointed critique of America’s struggle to create an urban identity. Kunstler’s 1998 sequel “Home from Nowhere: Remarking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century,” switches from the diagnostic to the prescriptive in its approach, encouraging the rise of what has been called the new urbanism.

Troy likes Kunstler’s bold approach, although he thinks the author’s prescriptions are sometimes impractical. “He is a helluva funny guy and I love how he can come to a place like Baltimore and say, ‘All the time and infrastructure that you’re spending on parking is wasted. Why don’t you just cut to the chase and stop second-guessing yourself about the value of your city? You have a wonderful core.’ ”

(Kunstler came to Baltimore a couple of years ago and The Brew, in a somewhat primitive version of the website, did a piece on the occasion of his visit.)

Troy is also interested in the work of Charles Landry, author of “The Creative City: A toolkit for urban innovators,” published in 2000, and “The Art of City Making,” published in 2006. Landry focuses especially on how cities can reinvent themselves through cultural rather than physical changes.

Lately Troy has become interested in how mathematics shapes cities. Physicist Geoffrey West, formerly of the Santa Fe Institute, for example, says that simple mathematical laws govern a city’s wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other characteristics.

West is a co-author of the 2007 scholarly article “Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities,” published by the National Academy of Sciences, which calls for a quantitative theory of urban development. West and his colleagues found, for example, that doubling the size of a city raises a city’s average wages, per capita wealth and patents by fifteen percent. It also increases problems, like crime and AIDS rates, by about the same figure.

“When you think about all the urban renewal stuff that was done in the 1960s, like Charles Center — when they built that, there was a kind of hubris that if we built a place and put a sticker on it and said this was a public place, then people would come,” Troy says. “But they were not naturally the kinds of places that attract human activity. There is this hubris that we can place-make and do so successfully without paying attention to the signals that mathematically create public spaces.”

- All of these books can be either found at or ordered by

The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road
Baltimore, MD 21209

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  • baltimorebrew

    Wow, Marc what a great list. And thoughtful post. Yes indeed we’d love to hear from folks about other good books for our readers who care about cities… and especially this city. FS

  • Douglas Birch

    Marc, thanks for the great recommendations and I’ll add them to my personal list. It would be interesting to hear your take on Kunstler’s books, especially “The Geography of Nowhere.” — Doug

  • p johnson

    Anyone who wants to better understand part of what happened to the shipping business  should read “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson I found it much more interesting than his other more well know book “The Great A & P and the Struggle for for Small Business in America”, which is also worth a read. 

    And of course “Not in My Neighborhood” by Antero Pietila is a must read for Baltimore History.

    And I agree with Dave Troy in recommending Kunsler’s earlier works. 

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