Carl Abbott. Urban America in the Modern Age: 1920 to the Present. The American History Series. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 2007. x + 230 pp. $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-88295-247-5.
Reviewed by Domenic Vitiello (Department of City and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Urban (March, 2008)
Planning History as Urban History
This second edition of Carl Abbott's 1987 overview of U.S. urban history since 1920 comes on the heels of two decades of especially active scholarship in the field. It incorporates recent work in history, sociology, geography, planning, and policy in its original three chapters and a new fourth chapter and postscript.
The book's chronology is a familiar one for urban historians. Chapter 1 surveys cities in the 1920s and the Great Depression, highlighting topics that include the formation of African American and immigrant neighborhoods, early automobile suburbs, political reform, and the rise of city and regional planning. Chapter 2 covers World War II and the immediate postwar era, with attention to the Second Great Migration of African Americans and the political and economic underpinnings of mass suburbanization and urban renewal. The 1960s and 1970s, including the growth of Sunbelt cities, the revival of immigration, the urban crisis, and the decline of federal urban policy, are treated in chapter 3. Finally, the real estate booms of the 1980s and 1990s, the spread of neoliberal urban policy, global city aspirations, the persistence of social inequality, and smart growth and the New Urbanism are the big stories in chapter 4. A photo essay and a modest number of well-selected maps and tables (all from secondary sources) complement the text.
Like any 200-page book that seeks to synthesize such a huge topic, from the Chicago School to the "creative economy," this text necessarily leaves out far more than it includes. Still, Abbott's geographical coverage is impressive, introducing readers to cities of all types and sizes across the United States. Charlotte, Nashville, Salt Lake, and other second- and third-tier cities receive more than a cursory mention. By concentrating on four main interrelated themes, Abbott also manages to make the book read as a coherent story. Those points of focus are: 1) the national system of cities; 2) the geography and built environment of cities and regions; 3) race and ethnic relations in a diverse metropolitan society; and 4) public policy and planning ideas and actions. While he incorporates a wide variety of urban studies literature, from environmental studies to major urban novels, his own narrative is principally the stuff of economic geography, social history, and community and regional planning.
Indeed, this is as much a planning history as it is an urban history. Abbott is ultimately concerned with the project of making "humane" cities, by which he--like most contemporary planners--means sustainable, livable, and equitable metropolitan communities. Readers who wish to dissect these ideas in detail will need to look to other sources for in-depth discussion. Abbott's four main chapters are meant to provide a broad historical context for this sort of inquiry.
Abbott's own views emerge most explicitly in a brief postscript entitled "The Promise of Urban America." At just four pages of text, like the rest of the book it does not delve deeply into any one argument. However, it reflects the major strains of liberal academic views of modern U.S. cities. Abbott blames the persistence of urban problems on "lack of commitment and political will," specifically "our willingness to use parts of metropolitan areas as dumping grounds for social problems" (p. 182). He rejects culture of poverty arguments and affirms the promise of public and social services to help people gain economic mobility. Pluralistic politics and civic engagement have included many people in decisions about urban growth and services, Abbott notes, yet "cities still need strong areawide institutions that can facilitate the equitable sharing of problems as well as opportunities" (pp. 183-184). At the end, Abbott highlights a central tension in urban America (and in urbanism), juxtaposing the social inequality and injustice exposed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with the hope for cities he sees in the courage and unity of New Yorkers during and after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Beyond his endorsements of smart growth, regional equity policies, and a stronger public sector, Abbott the urbanist seems most informed by Jane Jacobs. "Livable cities," he argues, "are those that have accepted the imperatives of variety and learned to deal with their character as mosaics," preserving mixed-use districts, ethnic diversity, and "everyday neighborhoods" (p. 183). He ends his narrative of U.S. urban history with a quote from Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961): "Dull, inert cities … contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves" (p. 185).
Thankfully, that is not the end of the book. Abbott's bibliographical essay is a superb contribution, especially for graduate students in urban history, city planning, sociology, and public policy. This new edition of the book will be especially useful for students and instructors of introductory survey courses, as well as scholars from other disciplines beginning to explore urban and planning history. This edition of Urban America in the Modern Age provides a solid, unusually focused and readable overview that can inspire and help to guide further exploration of particular urban issues.
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Domenic Vitiello. Review of Abbott, Carl, Urban America in the Modern Age: 1920 to the Present.
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