The Existential Problem of Urban Studies

The Existential Problem of Urban Studies

When I became director of the undergraduate Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983, I was surprised to find that it lacked a multidisciplinary course that aimed to provide a coherent interpretation of contemporary urban America. What accounted for deindustrialized, segregated, financially strapped, often violent cities with their failed public institutions and surrounding white suburbs? I wanted to give the students a single book that explained it all. No such book existed. In the circumstances, I felt compelled to undertake the task of synthesis myself in a single, introductory-level course.

I called the course “Urban Crisis: American Cities Since World War II,” and first taught it in 1984. The years since have witnessed extraordinary changes in cities, so great, in fact, that the first part of the title, “urban crisis,” probably is an anachronism. But maybe not. There is a continuity that has made it possible to retain the intellectual framework of the course while updating the reading list to include, for instance, the surge in immigration and the recent decline in crime. But I had a problem in teaching the course. It tells a story of deindustrialization, population decline, racial segregation, failed public housing, and so on—all of it true and inescapable. And it leaves students depressed; indeed, it leaves me depressed. Wonderful young people, eager to help change the world, confront a tale of powerful structural forces abetted by ambitious politicians, by every level of government, by racism, greedy real estate and corporate interests, and academic researchers impotent to suggest realistic avenues for change. Is this the vision that I want to leave with our students?

The answer, of course, is no. So I have searched for rays of hope, examples of progressive change, and found many. Useful, even energizing, as they are, they do not add up to a coherent response to the narrative of failure that dominates writing about recent urban history. In this, my experience teaching the course parallels a wider dilemma confronting urban studies as a field. This dilemma, in turn, encapsulates the failure of the American Left to reclaim the narrative of recent American history.

Writers on both the political Left and Right tell essentially the same story about the history of American cities since the Second World War. Although their explanations of trends and the morals they draw differ, they agree that recent urban history is an account of failure. There are innumerable examples. From the Left, consider Colin Gordon’s extraordinary 2008 book, Mapping Urban Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. “A half century of urban renewal and redevelopment programs,” Gordon observes, “not only failed to stem the decline of central St. Louis but pointedly avoided the very neighborhoods in which that decline was most palpable. . . . Most American cities emerged from the heyday of urb...

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