Urban geography reading list – Tom Slater’s top 10

The following article was first published by ex-University of Bristol academic, Tom Slater, in the Urban Geography Journal in 2013. The article no longer exists at that link and the author has kindly given his permission for me to reproduce it here.

Bristol is in line for some big changes to its landscape — tall and wide changes, really, with new towers set to be built of over 20-storeys tall and new homes set to reconfigure the look of the Cumberland Basin, not to mention the new housing planned, and yesterday further ‘allowed’ by Theresa May.

At the same time, Mayor Marvin Rees has been on a real estate tour trying to attract investment from China. Never has ‘sold out’ and ‘gentrification’ been as loudly sung as in Bristol at the moment. From student housing to multinational corporations creating villages at the outskirts, it is time to learn from other’s struggles.

My definitive moment in understanding the potential for destruction came from the description of Chris Allen’s Housing Market Renewal and Social Class. The idea behind this following thought (from a different review admittedly!) completely blew me away: “ontologically, working class households relate to their homes in terms of a ‘we being’, as sites where their lives with others are played out, which is contrasted to the ‘me being’ demonstrated among middle class homeowners who seek to use their homes as a means to secure their class position, increase their wealth and impose themselves on the urban landscape.”

Homes for some of us are spaces for cohesion and family, while for others they are money-making opportunities. Which reality wins out from these two perspectives, or which is promoted, defines our societies and our lives. There is much more to all of this but that was for me a huge starting point.

I leave the rest to Tom Slater. I can’t possibly do it the justice it deserves, mixed with personal observations and context-setting, this is a thrilling read and insight into the urban studies literature.

Tom Slater’s Top 10 Urban Studies Books

This was an extraordinarily difficult yet very enjoyable assignment. I dislike intensely the league table and ranking culture that has permeated academic life under its neoliberal assault, but as I work on my latest book this task gave me a welcome opportunity to reflect upon the ingredients that make ‘books on and of cities’ memorable. I began scanning my office bookshelves and 10 minutes later I had pulled out 37 books for the shortlist! I then decided upon two criteria to reduce the pile to 10.
1. “Urban studies books that I found intellectually transformative”
2. “Urban studies books that I found emotionally stirring.”
It was deflating to find that some stunning works, ones I have cited many times and found utterly foundational for what I think about on a daily basis, did not make my top 10. An assignment like this demands terrible ruthlessness in the selection process! Nevertheless, here are my top 10 urban studies books, in alphabetical order by author (it would be pointless – and further agony – to try and rank them). Please note that they are my top 10 urban studies books – my top 10 academic books would probably include some of these, but not all.

Chris Allen (2008) Housing Market Renewal and Social Class (Routledge).

I’ve always wondered if it was the somewhat bland title and cover of this book that have led to it being so underrated. It was an honour to be asked by the author to write an endorsement for its back cover, for I consider this one of the finest urban studies monographs to have been produced by a British social scientist in decades, and certainly it is one of the most important, given the destruction of working class quarters of northern English cities caused by “Housing Market Renewal” (HMR) – a policy designed (shockingly) by UK housing scholars. The book is organised into three parts, of which the first two offer wonderful theoretical guidance and insight in respect of class formation in contemporary Britain. The author has encyclopaedic knowledge of the generic modes and traditions of class analysis (via Weber, Marx & Bourdieu), and also of their influence on contemporary writers such as Bev Skeggs, Rosemary Crompton, Mike Savage, Tim Butler. He then applies his knowledge of social class to the housing question, offering ammunition for the argument (inspired by phenomenology and drawing upon extensive interview data) that working class people see houses in terms of their practicalities (dwelling space) and memories, in contrast to the middle class people seeing them primarily as financial assets and a way to secure their class position. This argument is then hammered home in the final part of the book via a devastating critique of HMR, a policy that had as its foundation a fanatical devotion to the absurd view that urban “decline” in northern English cities was due to “housing market failure” caused by an “obsolete” terraced housing stock (officially, “unwanted dwellings”) that no longer “supported” an industrial working class.

The HMR strategy was violent and extraordinarily sweeping – vast swathes of terraced housing were placed under compulsory purchase (‘eminent domain’ in the US) in many cities and then demolished, their occupants were inadequately compensated, and the land was thus cleared for new developments more “attractive” to middle-class homebuyers. Allen’s book documents the appalling consequences of this policy (specifically, in the Kensington neighbourhood of Liverpool), its rogue “evidence base”, and the ways in which the meanings of both housing and home for working class people – within the overall “space of positions” that constitutes an inner-urban housing market – were completely disregarded by policy elites and academics behind this gentrification strategy.
Since the publication of this book, Chris Allen has been subjected to extraordinary and inexcusable abuse from those with vested interests in HMR, specifically its academic architects, who tried to block its publication whilst embarking on a campaign of public denigration, intimidation, verbal harassment and behind-the-scenes bullying. This has extended to the ongoing appearance of journal articles by UK housing scholars defending and/or lauding HMR, which exhibit tired critiques of the book based on their personal sentiment rather than any careful analytic scrutiny (the most popular and laughable critique is that Allen has somehow “romanticised the working class”). I invite anyone interested in joining in to read the book, and especially the words of people Allen interviewed, before forming an opinion on it. They deserve so much better.

Javier Auyero and Debora Alejandra Swistun (2009) Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown (Oxford University Press).

I became truly aware of the raw power of this remarkable ethnographic study when I read out the first three pages of the Introduction in a lecture theatre packed with 2nd year undergraduates a couple of years ago. These pages introduce the almost unimaginable suffering of a woman named Sandra Martinez, her husband, and their four children, who live in Villa Inflamable, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Buenos Aires “surrounded by one of the largest petrochemical compounds in the country, by a highly polluted river that flows with the toxic waste of tanneries and other industries, by a hazardous waste incinerator, and by an unmonitored landfill.” (p.4) As I read out Auyero and Swistun’s description of the terrible health consequences for (and dire economic needs of) this family, the students were unusually captivated. When I finished reading the pages and looked around, I noticed several students visibly moved, some even to tears. At 9am on a Monday morning, on a compulsory 2nd year introductory economic geography course, this rarely happens.
Flammable is an extraordinary exposé of the environmental, political and economic conditions not of the making of the approximately 5000 inhabitants who call this part of Buenos Aires home. The product of 2.5 years of collaborative ethnography between a non-resident (Auyero) and resident (Swistun) of Flammable – including a stunning demonstration of the power of visual methods (students at the local school were given disposable cameras to document ‘what they liked about the neighbourhood and what they did not like’) – it dissects the “toxic uncertainty” experienced by Flammable residents due to the practices of external actors contributing to what they know about their place. State officials, company personnel, physicians, teachers, journalists, and lawyers “influence what they [residents] ignore, what they want to know, and what they misrecognise” (p.5) – which contributes to the suffering already inflicted upon them.

What I found most memorable about this book was that it wasn’t a familiar “I began to get ideas in the field” ethnography, but rather a theoretically-guided one, using insights from Bourdieu, Scheper-Hughes and Ortner to inform an inquiry that was at heart interested in the linkages between collective suffering and power relations, where “data collection should be properly termed data production in that it was intimately bound with the theoretical construction of the object.” (p.160) The methodological lessons this book offers are therefore as powerful as its intense political urgency. Heartbreaking and stirring in equal measure, it is a beautiful example of the ethnographic craft in the context of urban marginality fuelled by the social and political production of a polluted reality.

Elijah Anderson (2003) A Place on the Corner (2nd Edition) (University of Chicago Press).

There are many classics in the genre that has become known as “street corner sociology”, several of which came close to making my top 10. In the end I picked this one for the elegance of the prose, for the extent to which the reader feels as if they are actually there, both outside and inside a bar/liquor store called Jelly’s in the South Side ghetto of Chicago in the early 1970s. But above all, I picked it because it stands as the most important work in the refutation of the infamous “social disorganisation” thesis that still rears its head in discussions today of causal “neighbourhood effects” and assorted “underclass” (contagion) theories of urban poverty. Ever since the early Chicago School of human ecology, the poorest urban neighbourhoods in the US have tended to receive scholarly treatments pinpointing their shortcomings and those of their residents, including a focus on how both diverge from ‘mainstream’ society as measured by middle-class standards. The legacy of this reasoning – sustained by its illustrious intellectual pedigree – is present today in work arguing that the clustering of poor people in neighbourhoods, or the “concentration of poverty”, is responsible for all the social problems present in cities (e.g. crime, unemployment, substandard housing, delinquency, low educational attainment, joblessness, and so on.)
Yet these sentences, themselves indicative of the straightforward, pragmatic tone of A Place on the Corner, tell a different story:

“After being around Jelly’s neighbourhood for a while and getting to know its people, the outside observer can begin to see that there is order to this social world. For example, the wineheads turn out to be harmless, for they generally do the things people expect them to do: they drink on the street, beg passers-by for change, and sometimes stumble up and down the street cursing at others. One also begins to understand that what looks like a fight to the death usually doesn’t come near a fatal end. Often such a ‘fight’ turns out to be a full-dress game in which only ‘best friends’ or ‘cousins’ participate…. The city does not pay as much attention to this area as many residents would like, but somehow it doesn’t really seem to matter to anyone. People go about their business. …Most people who use this general area have come to accept their deteriorated physical world as it is. They simply make the best of it.” (p.2-3)

Anderson’s intensive, ground-level scrutiny based on direct observation reveals that, far from being “socially disorganised”, this part of Chicago is organised according to different principles – social life there is in response to a unique set of structural and racial constraints. I chose this 2003 edition for my top 10 as it includes a delightful ethnographic memoir that did not appear in the original 1978 publication. Teachers and students of qualitative methods would do well to study and absorb Anderson’s eloquent recollections of key events, meeting key informants, and analysing the data produced via the fascinating process of deep ethnographic immersion. Anderson has since published ethnographic works such as Streetwise and Code of the Street that have not sustained the important critique of the social disorganisation thesis, and worse, have been picked up by conservative politicians in the UK to endorse punitive welfare reform agendas. They should all be reminded of A Place on the Corner.

Philippe Bourgois (2003) In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (2nd edition) (Cambridge University Press).

It’s very difficult to convey the emotional whirlwind any reader will experience reading this book. Many times I had to put it down through sheer exhaustion, through outrage at the scenes and injustices the author was describing in such elaborate detail. I cried, laughed, vented, marvelled, worried. Bourgois and his family spent 5 years (from 1985-1990) living next door to a crackhouse in East Harlem in New York City, the apex years of the crack cocaine crisis in poor neighbourhoods of urban America. In a research project that was simultaneously dedicated and intensely courageous, the author unravels the dynamics of social marginalization, ethnic segregation and alienation in a book that is so much more than simply a study of drugs (I have often heard it referred to as a “book about crack”, which is a laughable caricature). As he states early on,
“The two dozen street dealers and their families that I befriended were not interested in talking primarily about drugs. On the contrary, they wanted me to learn all about their daily struggles for subsistence and dignity at the poverty line.” (p.2)

At times, the brutal honesty of the author makes the book a very tough read indeed. Bourgois shares accounts of appalling street violence and also of gendered brutality (one of the most distressing moments in the book is when we encounter a drug dealer boasting to the author about having participated in gang rape, and then we see the author’s disbelief and then his anguish in respect of the appalling ethical dilemma he faced in deciding how to report that particular conversation). In a chapter entitled “Families and Children in Pain”, there is a particularly haunting passage where we learn about the wholesale destruction of the children in the neighbourhood during the time the author was there, including an “outgoing, cute, eager-to-please” little girl who metamorphosed into “a homeless, pregnant, crack-using thirteen year old ‘teenager’” (p.261). This is not a book for the faint of heart. But it is certainly a book for the serious analyst, a book for those who want to look beyond demonising portraits and simplistic stereotypes, a book for those who want to know why people think, feel, and act the way that they do in this particular context.

It is in the final chapter of the book where its extraordinary importance becomes undeniable. Bourgois is clear that he is writing about “the public enemies of the United States”, and that his goal has not been to sanitize or romanticise their plight, but rather to present honest accounts of their struggles and survival and thus contribute “on a concrete practical level to calling attention to the tragedy of persistent poverty.” (p.318) The book closes with a series of policy recommendations that serve as an urgent plea to reconnect sterile policy debates with the empirical realities of the polarization of US poverty (along ethnoracial, class and generational axes) and longer-term structural trends in the world economy that have contributed to the vicious street scenes he described. Making it clear that self-destructive addiction is merely the medium for desperate people to internalize their frustration, resistance and powerlessness, he concludes that the economic dynamism of the drug economy must be reduced through drug decriminalization; that the fragility and hostility of the entry-level labour market needs to be transformed, and that prison is not the answer for drug dealers or users. These issues are dealt with sensitively and humanely in the 2nd edition, which contains an instructive Preface and a deeply moving Epilogue that revisits the neighbourhood and the updates us on the central characters still in search of respect.

Mindy Fullilove (2004) Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About it (One World Books).

It may seem strange that one of my top 10 urban studies books is not written by a social scientist, but rather a clinical psychiatrist. Until 2008 I had no idea that the book even existed, until Chester Hartman (himself nothing short of a legend for anyone working seriously on questions of urban displacement) spoke very highly of it at a conference I attended in Berlin that year. Directly after the conference I got hold of a copy and found myself arrested by the narrative, the importance of the observations and especially the argument. I should stress that Root Shock really is a scholarly tome, not a “how to” book like the awful subtitle suggests.

Root Shock is a book about the psychosocial stress that results from forced eviction and displacement. This was a condition that Fullilove “bumped into” in her clinical practice, and she did not feel there were adequate terms to capture the devastating experiences of those who had lost their place. Root shock was the term thus coined by the author to describe the “traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or one part of one’s emotion ecosystem” (p.11) that results from having one’s roots to a place involuntarily severed by an external force. So, for a period of 8 years, she “logged thousands of air miles, walked hundreds of city streets, examined archives, collected photographs, and talked to people who had stories to tell” (p.3). The result is a breathtaking historical survey of neighbourhoods in three US cities (Roanake, Newark, Pittsburgh) that were subjected to the violence and injustices of “urban renewal” (usually callous obliteration by bulldozer and wrecking ball, and profoundly affecting these segregated African-American communities). Working from the point of departure that “we can’t understand the losses unless we first appreciate what was there” (p.20), the author’s elderly respondents offer elaborate portraits of what mattered to them in the places they once called home. The reader becomes aware immediately that far from being “blighted” places in need of conversion to “highest and best use” (to use the diabolical language much beloved of neoclassical economists and some urban planners), the areas where so much was lost were places where happiness occurred, where memories accrued that were nothing to do with the stigmatising images associated with them.
For the reader that may be inclined immediately to think that this book is some sort of “romanticisation” of urban poverty, nothing could be further from the truth. This is because the author lets the data speak, lets her respondents tell us in their own words what their neighbourhoods meant to them (three chapters end with lengthy extracts from interviews with three key informants, hammering home the arguments Fullilove is making about the inestimable importance of social networks, kinship, and meeting points for the urban working class, rooted in place). I should add that the root shock conceptualisation spoke to me very vividly and personally, as it reminded me of the conversations I had (during my PhD research) with people either living under the threat of displacement, or who had actually been displaced in some form. These conversations – effectively expressions of grief – still haunt me today, and will all my life. As anyone who has conducted such research will testify, displacement is a shattering experience, and it matters much that urbanists follow Fullilove’s lead and document its effects – and offer thoughts on what might be done to stop it.

David Harvey (1973) Social Justice and the City (Edward Arnold).

So much has been said and written about this book that it is probably impossible to say anything original about it. No self-respecting urbanist can possibly be unfamiliar with its arguments, its impact on the field, and its importance in how we understand urban places. I first encountered it, like all geography students do, as an undergraduate (from 1995-1998). I studied at Queen Mary, University of London, where I was privileged to be given a crash course on Harvey’s famous metamorphosis (from quantitative spatial scientist to revolutionary Marxist) by David M. Smith, as part of his spellbinding and existentially exhilarating course entitled “Geography and Social Justice” (his book of the same name is easily in my all-time top 10 books, but it’s not strictly an urban studies book). I remember Smith describing the AAG meeting he attended in Boston in 1971, where Harvey apparently arrived at some radical geography sessions organised by Dick Peet looking more ready for a commune than a conference. Harvey gave a paper at that meeting entitled “Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary theory in geography and the problem of ghetto formation”, which apparently rocked the house. The book was no different – it rocked the entire disciplines of geography and urban studies – and that paper is now the chapter in the book that students consult to see Harvey’s “Socialist Formulations” in his switch to Marxism, from which he has never looked back.

These days the story behind SJ&C is as familiar as the arguments within it. In 1969, Harvey decamped from his first teaching post in England and arrived in Baltimore, a city with districts hit hard by grotesque racial injustices, systematic disinvestment and rioting in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The previous year Harvey had submitted the manuscript of Explanation in Geography (a landmark text in the quantitative/positivist geographical tradition), and felt politically irresponsible, as he later recounted:
“I turned in the manuscript in the summer of 1968 with near revolutions going on in Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Bangkok, Chicago and San Francisco. I had hardly noticed what was happening. I felt sort of idiotic. It seemed absurd to be writing when the world was collapsing in chaos around me and cities were going up in flames.”

In SJ&C, I still get excited reading Harvey’s blistering critique of the neoclassical land-use models of urban structure that had been built upon the analytic foundations laid by J-H. von Thünen (a Prussian landowner). Harvey argued that eliminating urban inequality requires “the von Thünen theory of the urban land market to become not true.” That theory involved one central mechanism – competitive bidding for the use of land – and Harvey argued with characteristic gusto that we must simply “eliminate” that mechanism if we want to address the crisis of urban inequality that had led to Baltimore going up in flames. This critique is not now a victim of history. It is acutely relevant today, at a time when neoclassical land use assumptions have been revitalized and appropriated by the political triumphs of neoliberalism. It helps to keep reading SJ&C to understand what needs to be done.

Neil Smith (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (Routledge).

The tragic early death of Neil Smith last September hit geography and urban studies very hard. The torrent of heartfelt tributes that were posted on the webpages of CUNY, where Neil worked, confirmed that, among other wonderful qualities, he was a massive intellectual influence on generations of urbanists, and will always remain so. This book is very special, and unmissable for any scholar of urban affairs (especially gentrification). As well as collating, synthesising and updating all of his foundational writings on gentrification (notably the brilliant simplicity of the concept of the rent gap), the book contains a remarkably cogent and gripping argument, based on Smith’s identification of striking similarity between the political climates of late 19th century Paris and late 20th century New York City. “Revanchists” (from the French word revanche, meaning revenge) were a group of bourgeois nationalist reactionaries opposed to the liberalism of the Second Republic, the decadence of the monarchy, and especially the socialist uprising of the Paris Commune, where the working-classes took over from the defeated government of Napolean III and controlled the city for months. The revanchists were determined to reinstate the bourgeois order with a strategy that fused militarism and moralism with claims about restoring public order on the streets. They hunted down enemies (the Communards) with a noxious blend of hatred and viciousness, intent on exacting revenge upon all those who had ‘stolen’ their vision of French society from them. In the late 1980s, Smith was disturbed by the developments in New York City that had emerged to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of 1960s/70s liberal urban policy. He coined the concept of the ‘revanchist city’ to capture the disturbing urban condition created by a seismic political shift: whereas the liberal era of the post-1960s period was characterised by redistributive policy, affirmative action and antipoverty legislation, the era of neoliberal revanchism was characterised by a discourse of revenge against minorities, the working class, feminists, environmental activists, gays and lesbians, and recent immigrants: the ‘public enemies’ of the bourgeois political elite and their supporters.

Under the Rudolph Giuliani mayoral administration, New York City in the 1990s became an arena for concerted attacks on affirmative action and immigration policy, street violence against homeless people, aggressive policing techniques, feminist-bashing and public campaigns against political correctness and multiculturalism. Just as the bourgeois order was perceived as under threat by the revanchists of 1890s Paris, in 1990s New York a particular, exclusionary vision of ‘civil society’ was being reinstated with a vengeance – an attempt to banish those not part of that vision from the city altogether. Having witnessed the Tompkins Square Park class struggles of 1988-9, the author argued that gentrification was the leading edge of a state strategy of revenge – an attempt to retake the city from the working class. The New Urban Frontier, just like pretty much all Neil Smith’s work, was and remains hugely influential, inspiring inquiries into revanchism all over the world. It is tremendously gripping and urgent scholarship – I remember reading it as an undergraduate not long after it was published and rising from my seat in excitement! I loved the elegance of the prose (Neil was a wonderfully talented writer), admired the fierce quarrying of raw and secondary material, and felt deeply the author’s seething anger at what was happening to the poorest residents of the city where he lived. The arguments in the book always inspire debate and critical engagement among my students, which is usually a marker of stellar scholarship and original, potent ideas. As much as I will always miss my friend and mentor, I know that I can always dip into this book for inspiration and insights.

Loic Wacquant (2008) Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Polity Press).

Loic Wacquant is one of the most exciting writers and speakers I have encountered in my time as an academic. About 10 years ago I was surprised and annoyed to see that urban geographers were largely unaware of his work, so I’ve tried to bring his rich body of scholarship on urban marginality to a geographical audience, drawing upon it extensively and extending his analyses where necessary. The conceptual logic of Wacquant’s writings (which draw theoretical inspiration above all from his mentor and teacher Pierre Bourdieu) is always instructive, precise, and conveyed with an urgency and analytic intensity I find refreshing. His writings also exhibit that rare combination of intellectual firepower and political commitment (just look at his book Prisons of Poverty for more of that!).
The comparative perspective on the rise of advanced marginality is arguably the most important and original contribution of Urban Outcasts (and a perspective that has been sadly ignored in many reviews and symposia on the book). Based on fieldwork conducted in the South Side of Chicago and in La Courneuve in Paris, Wacquant offers a sustained critique of French urban policy toward its marginal neighborhoods – policy that has for some years now has been guided by the myth that the cites (housing projects) in the working-class banlieues (suburbs) of its largest cities are very similar, if not identical, to African-American ghettos in the United States. Wacquant’s fine-grained comparative analysis explains how surface similarities in lived experience, in both working-class French banlieues and U.S. ghettos, mask deep differences in their scale, structure, and function. The population residing within the French urban periphery is characterized by remarkable ethnic heterogeneity, as opposed to the strictly enforced ethnic homogeneity of the American ghetto. In no cite or banlieue in France is there evidence of a set of parallel institutions forming to serve the basic needs of the excluded population – by contrast with what is common to ghettos throughout history, these are areas where the tentacles of the state, while shorter than in previous decades, still stretch into and attempt to assist the lives of those at the bottom of the class structure. Furthermore, residents in the housing projects of the French urban periphery have regular contact with and dependency on (through employment and consumption practices) residents of adjacent neighborhoods or those in the central city, which is not the case for those residing in the U.S. ghetto. Finding similar patterns elsewhere in Europe, and dramatising his point, Wacquant concludes that working-class territories of European cities are best conceptualized as “anti-ghettos.” The very crucial point he is making is that to designate as ghettos the European marginal neighborhoods where class, not ‘race’, is the main organizing principle of social life, leads to both analytical and public policy errors, and creates damaging myths and stigma where facts and sensitivity are required.
Urban Outcasts, as well as offering a masterclass in comparative urbanism, is full of concepts to interpret the present urban condition that are tremendously helpful to researchers, among them territorial stigmatisation: the way in which people are discredited and devalued because of the urban places with which they are associated. Bursting with ideas and infectious energy (as the author always is in person), I find this book a treasure trove, and a wonderful deployment of Bourdieu’s teachings in the city. So many myths fly around about poor neighbourhoods and the people who are relegated to them – Urban Outcasts shatters them with theoretical jousting, ethnographic observation, conceptual clarity, and rousing prose.

John Western (1996) Outcast Cape Town (2nd edition) (University of California Press).

This book has a special place in my library for many reasons. The first is a 1st year undergraduate lecture delivered by David M. Smith in 1995. South Africa was close to David’s heart as he had spent several years at Wits in the 1970s analysing urban inequality under apartheid, and in the process of teaching us about it he included short extracts from Outcast Cape Town, first published in 1981. I was utterly captivated, so much so that I walked very fast to the Queen Mary library after the lecture to borrow the book before anyone else got it (who does that as an undergraduate?!). I read it from cover to cover, totally absorbed by an elaborate historical and social dissection of Cape Town – and what apartheid did to that city – written by a thoughtful, humane and eloquent scholar. The second reason is for the power of the interview method, and my own practical struggles with it during my PhD research in Toronto in 2000-1. During those struggles I emailed John Western to ask him for guidance, and he took the trouble to arrange an evening phone call, during which we spoke for over 90 absorbing minutes about qualitative methods. I have never forgotten that act of kindness, and how much I learned from that conversation. The third reason is my own 2004 visit to District Six, a multi-ethnic and by all accounts vibrant part of central Cape Town that was in 1966 classified for “white persons only” (under the demonic Group Areas Act) and subsequently razed to the ground, with many thousands of families displaced to the Cape Flats. Although Western’s main focus was the neighbourhood of Mowbray (also subject to Group Areas travesties), he had written briefly about District Six in the book and later supervised the work of Deborah Hart, who wrote a hauntingly beautiful essay on District Six in the journal Urban Geography in 1988. My visit to District Six was all the more informative and poignant because of these writings. I mentioned both Western and Hart to staff in the District Six Museum (which is a beautiful memorial to the neighbourhood that was), and was then treated to a 2 hour walk around the still-vacant land from someone who was a young man when his family were displaced. It was a profound moment in my life, and an invaluable experience for a scholar with interests in urban displacement and forced eviction.

Outcast Cape Town is often classified as a landmark study in humanistic geography, but it is much more than that. Whilst it was one of the first books in geography to showcase the power and significance of qualitative encounters, this is by no means at the expense of attention to economic, political and social structures (impossible to ignore, given the geographical context). The cogent argument running through the book us that in remaking the city, apartheid also remade the people who live in it – an empirical demonstration of Ed Soja’s famous “socio-spatial dialectic” (Soja supervised Western’s PhD research which led to this book). The writing is engaging, vivid, and free of academic obfuscation or pretention. The inhuman forced removals of people on the basis of the colour of their skins were documented with poignant clarity, especially when seen through the eyes of people the author interviewed, such as this one:
‘‘A lot of people died after they left Mowbray. It was heartbreaking for the old people. My husband was poorly, and he used to just sit and look out the window. Then before he died he said, ‘You must dress me and take me to Mowbray. My Mum and Dad are looking for me, and they can’t find me in Mowbray.’ Yes, a lot of people died of broken hearts.’’ (p. 219)

Analysing such distressing data, Western remarked that it ‘‘seems coolly insensitive to ask whether there is any evidence of this impression being statistically valid’’ – words that reveal a consummate qualitative researcher, as indeed do his subsequent books on Barbadians in London and on long-term residents of Strasbourg. I recommend the 2nd edition of Outcast Cape Town as it is book-ended by a new Prologue and Epilogue reporting on Western’s revisit to Cape Town in the mid-1990s, where he was even able to track down some of the interviewees from the 1970s, and then offer some initial impressions of post-apartheid society. I remember thinking when I first read Outcast Cape Town in 1995 that “When I grow up, I want to do what this man does, and write like him!” I still feel the same way today.

Sharon Zukin (1989) Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Paperback Edition) (Rutgers University Press).

About a decade ago I recall a friend of mine telling me about an estate agent showing him a “loft apartment” somewhere in Manchester. He said the place was staggeringly overpriced “as you have to sleep in the living room and they forgot to plaster the walls.” Likewise, I’ve never understood the attraction of “loft living” in the warehouses of formerly industrial districts, and for a long time such developments in UK cities were flagpoles of obnoxious New Labour gentrification strategies disguised as positive and necessary “regeneration”. This book is a wonderful dissection of the phenomenon in its birthplace – SoHo in New York City. Zukin explained how derelict manufacturing spaces in SoHo attracted artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and thereafter provided a cultural impetus for the commercial redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. Arguably the most important concept introduced in this book, and central to Zukin’s admirably thorough and inclusive explanation of gentrification, is what she called the Artistic Mode of Production (AMP), quite simply an attempt by large-scale investors in the built environment to ride out and to control a precarious investment climate, using the culture industries as a tool for attracting capital. Zukin demonstrated that the precarious economic conditions of the time were highly conducive to “a seemingly modest redevelopment strategy based on the arts and on historic preservation” (p.176). In short, large-scale investors were forced to redirect their attentions towards a strategy of cultural consumption if profits were to be extracted from the built environment. Zukin showed how capital incorporated culture to open up devalorized industrial land markets to more market forces – what she memorably called an “historic compromise” between culture and capital in the urban core.

In her discussion of consumer demand for lofts, Zukin’s historical-materialist analysis was laser-like in its precision:
“[P]erhaps there is an aesthetic component to the demand factor – a zeitgeist that finds expression in the old factory spaces and thus identifying in some existential way with an archaic past or an artistic style of life. If this is true, then the question of timing becomes crucial. Sweatshops existed for many years, and no-one had suggested that moving into a sweatshop was chic. …So if people found lofts attractive in the 1970s, some changes in values must have ‘come together’ in the 1960s. There must have been an ‘aesthetic conjuncture.’ On the one hand, artists’ living habits become a cultural model for the middle class. On the other hand, old factories became a means of expression for a ‘post-industrial’ civilization. A heightened sense of art and history, space and time, was dramatized by the taste-setting mass media.” (p.14-5)

Once this ‘dramatization’ occurred, loft residence quickly moved away from its bohemian, marginal, artist ‘live-work’ roots into a commodity, a way of life for the wealthy urban professional (and now, in SoHo, celebrities). The creation of a loft identity has since been astonishingly successful – ‘New York-style’ lofts are now marketed and sold in cities all over the world; the market leader in the UK is, tellingly, the Manhattan Loft Corporation.

Loft Living is a model piece of urban scholarship – exhaustively researched, inclusive of numerous influences and approaches from the political-economic to cultural studies, and alert to the ways in which the state, the market and the desires of investors in and consumers of urban space work together to produce a distinctive urban form. There is also a spirit of social critique running through the book, as evidenced by phrases such as “only people who do not know the steam and sweat of a real factory can find industrial space romantic or interesting.” (p.59) For those frustrated by the ludicrous stalemate in gentrification debates about what forces are more important in driving the process, this book combines culture and capital in a way that has never been equalled.


The original URL was: https://urbangeographyjournal.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/tom-slaters-top-10-urban-studies-books/.

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