Tuesday, July 10, 2007

An urban history primer

While not related specifically to Sacramento, there are a few books out there that identify some important trends in city development that apply to Sacramento and other cities. They make for interesting reading:

Fogelson, Robert, Downtown: its rise and fall, 1880-1950. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001

A close look at how urban downtowns went from the place where all the action was to the place nobody wanted to be anymore, and downtown's varied responses to those changes. Excellent chapter on urban redevelopment called "Inventing Blight" which explains that "blight," a term one hears constantly when people want to knock down old buildings, is an economic problem, not a social one.

Jackson, Keneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985

Worthwhile for its discussion of why Americans got so enamored of the idea of suburbs. Turns out the idea goes back to the 1830s. Explains the process of "redlining," a racially-driven land practice that encouraged suburban growth at the expense of inner-city neighborhoods.

Monkkonen, Eric, America Becomes Urban: The Development Of U.S. Cities And Towns, 1780-1980 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990)

Includes a good historiography of urban history, and provides insight into why American cities are so different physically from European cities. Also points out how, in many ways, city population densities rose shortly after the automobile replaced the streetcar.

Warner, Sam Bass Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900) (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1978)

I'm still reading this one but it provides an excellent specific case history of how streetcars and commuter railroads created suburbs around Boston, and the building forms that worked well with rail-borne public transit. The author's interest in the region is apparent, and his attention to detail parallels my own ongoing obsession with Sacramento's old neighborhoods.

Bottles, Scott L., Los Angeles And The Automobile: The Making of the Modern City.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press Ltd., 1987.

Another case study, this time of Los Angeles, which goes into some detail about how the development of Pacific Electric, not the automobile, was the seed of southern California's legendary sprawl. The lessons of Los Angeles were applied all over California--by "Borax" Smith and others in the Bay Area, and by the owners of Northern Electric in the Sacramento region.


Jim said...

As a model railroader, I love that picture at the top of the post! Also like the reading list.

wburg said...

Eventually I hope to have an HO scale model of that in my basement...I already have the part over by Blue Diamond. One great thing about electric interurbans and their freight terminals was that everything was very small, from the freight motors to the facilities and the sharp track curves, which makes it a model railroader's dream when it comes to fitting things in a limited space.