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Two books that map the political and economic forces that shaped the American built environment. One, an absorbing, annotated story, the other an aerial picture book with short explanations, both provide an ardent understanding of why our places look the way that they do.

Downtown, It's Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 / Robert Fogelson

Downtown is dead, finished, not coming back.  We should let it pass. 'Downtown' was an invention.  It was an American concept, invented in New York city in the 19th century.  In Europe there is a city center, often preserved as a historic reminder of an early settlement, within the larger city which is structured throughout as a mixture of commercial and residential uses.  But in America there developed a crowded, concentrated central business district that constantly expanded and erased what came before.  Every day people would commute downtown in the morning and back uptown at night to their homes in the as yet unnamed suburbs.  Downtown's do not exist legally or politically and they are often not 'down' geographically anymore, but the romantic pull of the idea remains strong as cities across America seek to revive downtown, often sentimentally referred to as the 'heart of the city'.   And across America you can see the consistent and ongoing failure of trying to reinstate this archaic concept in a modern distributed city.

Robert Fogelson has written a detailed, academic but readable history of the concept of 'downtown' in America.  It's a great story.

A Field Guide to Sprawl / Dolores Hayden

A lexicon of the colorful slang, from alligator investment to zoomburb, that defines sprawl in America today. Duck, ruburb, tower farm, big box, and pig-in-a-python are among dozens of zany terms invented by real estate developers and designers today to characterize land use practices and the physical elements of sprawl. Sprawl in the environment, based on the metaphor of a person spread out, is hard to define. This concise book engages its meaning, explains common building patterns, and illustrates the visual culture of sprawl. Seventy-five stunning color aerial photographs, each paired with a definition, convey the impact of excessive development and provide verbal and visual vocabulary needed by professionals, public officials, and citizens to critique uncontrolled growth in the American landscape.

Dolores Hayden is the author of several award-winning non-fiction books about the history of American landscapes and the politics of place. She is Professor of Architecture, Urbanism, and American Studies at Yale University.

1 like.
“I would also check out David Harvey's essay, "The Right to the City," and the exhibit, "Experimental Geography," curated by Nato Thompson. Boris Groy's book, Art Power, might be another one you would be interested in.”
Posted over 6 years ago
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