Cities are peculiar things. They are, by definition, a public space, and yet the way that we experience them feels quite private. The writers of the following 10 works of nonfiction grapple with this dissonance as they explore the meeting place between public and private in modern cities.
Oh, and by the way? All 10 are authored by people of color. Which might not be of note if the New York Times’ summer reading list didn’t recently make headlines — not for its literary quality but for its “100 percent peak whiteness.” Turns out, it’s not hard to find high-quality books by people of color. Even on a niche topic like cities.
Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit by June Manning Thomas
What happens when urban planning isn’t enough? Thomas explores how planners made extraordinary efforts to stem decline in Detroit in the years following World War II through an acclaimed master plan and transformative redevelopment projects. It was the heyday of urban renewal, so top planners had the ear of city officials. But none of it worked: Detroit still slumped into decades of disinvestment that, to this day, is evident. What went wrong? Thomas argues that planners’ erasure of low-income people and African-American people doomed their efforts, and exacerbated the white flight that decentralized the city. She makes a case for how planning can integrate equity alongside economic revitalization.
Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
One of the most celebrated Egyptian writers explores the impact of revolution and evolution on the city of Cairo. Written three years after a mass uprising ousted a dictator, and after numerous attempts at building a new government, Soueif grounds her inevitably political story in personal detail. She writes lucidly about how she watched Cairo transform while growing up in a family of intellectuals and activists — historic architecture left neglected, parking lots creeping over green space and water-greedy golf courses leeching public resources. But especially as the narrative gears toward the revolution in Tahrir Square, Soueif zeroes in on a more fundamental kind of change: how citizens view power. This is a story about how people carve out new ways to assert their authority over the spaces they live in.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou
This is Angelou’s gorgeous account of her life in Accra, Ghana, in the early 1960s. A continuation of the autobiography she began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou tells how she came to Accra to enroll her son in the University of Ghana in 1962. But after he is killed in a car accident, Angelou remains. Electrified by pan-Africanism, she joins an expatriate community of “Revolutionist Returnees.” She works at the university, writes newspaper articles and learns to speak Fanti. Angelou is perceptive about the implications of living in a city where her skin color is ordinary, even as her home country is roiled in civil rights battles. With an empathic eye that straddles the line between insider and outsider, Angelou’s shimmering story brings us to the capital of a country that had only been independent for a handful of years. How do you build roots in a city that is both young and ancient, both foreign and familiar?
The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige
Boggs is a longtime social justice advocate and philosopher who has had her heels dug into just about every major American revolution of the last 75 years, from labor to women’s rights to environmentalism. She will celebrate her 100th birthday in June. This is the book where she synthesizes it all. She asks us to welcome change in our cities as an invitation to wholly re-imagine our ideas of community and citizenship. We can do better, she argues, and alternative models for how we humans can organize ourselves are already happening. This is a rousing call for a mass model of leadership, reflection and critical thinking that seeks a way to make the wisest civic choices. Pair this book with the PBS film American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
I almost hesitate to include this one because it has already become ubiquitous — and deservedly so. This Pulitzer Prize-winning account brings emotional depth and journalistic detail to a phenomenon that transformed the cities of the Midwest, Northeast and West. Wilkerson has written the definitive history of how and why six million black Southerners relocated in search of a better life between 1915 and 1970, and what they found when they got there — both the relief of beginning anew and codes of silent discrimination. It took 10 years and a thousand interviews to bring together a work of this scope, including the three characters we follow in three different decades. The result is a book that brings heart and imaginative sweep to the most significant demographic upheaval of our time. It is no use to try to understand American cities of today without understanding this harrowing history.
San Juan: Memoir of a City by Edgardo Rodriguez Juliá; translated by Peter Grandbois
Juliá guides readers through Puerto Rico’s capital city, a place of haunting history, thriving culture and surprising juxtapositions. It is also where the author, who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, grew up. His intimate knowledge of San Juan is evident as he traces its geography: the modernist condominiums that painstakingly distinguish themselves from traditional Hispanic architecture, the working-class Calle de Diego, the Ocean Park bakery that tries and fails to adopt a European air. The sum is a city that doesn’t quite fit into the First World or the Third World. With a precise eye for urban design and a disarmingly conversational tone, Juliá wrangles with how we shape our city and how our city shapes us.
Collected Essays by James Baldwin
Baldwin doesn’t meander around before ticking off a casual point. He begins from a strong stance, and digs deeper from there. Urbanophiles will be most interested in “Notes of a Native Son,” which centers the theme of entrapment and escape from American cities in the 1940s. Brimming with emotion without devolving into romanticism, it is as resonant as ever today. So is “A Report From Occupied Territory,” which reflects on the relationship between black communities and police forces. And “Journey to Atlanta” is about a Harlem gospel choir recruited to entertain at presidential rallies in 1948; Baldwin sees it as a manifestation of how black people are used as props in the democratic process, rather than respected as citizens. Pair your reading of Baldwin’s luminous essays with a healthy dose of his speeches and interviews.
Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
Not East, not West: This city that was once the heart of an empire is elusive. But Pamuk, a native son and Nobel laureate, is better suited than anyone to bring this “confused” city to life. In Istanbul, efficient blocks of flats are built where Ottoman mansions once towered, an attempt to bring an ancient city into the future. It is home to 13 million people — larger than any city in Europe, and with influence rising accordingly. “But we live in an age defined by mass migration and creative immigrants,” Pamuk writes, “and so I am sometimes hard-pressed to explain why I’ve stayed not only in the same place, but the same building. … I sometimes think myself unlucky to have been born in an aging and impoverished city buried under the ashes of a ruined empire. But a voice inside me always insists this was really a piece of luck.”
One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
This is Wainaina’s vivid tale of coming of age in middle-class Nakuru, Kenya, and it therefore offers a painfully uncommon portrait of Africa. Wainaina deftly weighs how music, politics, play, school, family and work slip in and out of the foreground of our lived experience. Social transformation is acknowledged in the matter-of-fact way of a child: “Many Nakuru people like Lena Moi (Primary School), because it used to be the white school in Nakuru. There are no whites left. There is one Japanese student.” Voices ring throughout the dialogue-heavy pages, as the polyglot characters slip in and out of a number of languages. Writing in the present tense, Wainaina also evokes how memories of the cities that made us hold their charge.
Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City by Annette Miae Kim
This just-published work flips our usual understanding of public space — large communal swaths of green in the middle of a cityscape — and focuses on its most humble incarnation: the sidewalk. Sidewalk design isn’t going to win any prizes. In fact, it is scarcely noticed. But more than ever, Kim suggests, in places of rising urban density, this is where people meet, loiter, exchange information, sell wares and stage neighborhood festivals. Sidewalks are also a kind of urban nervous system, wiring connective paths from one corner of the city to another. But this sort of public space also bumps up against property rights. Who ultimately has power over this public-private space? The beautifully designed Sidewalk City examines how this tension is negotiated day to day in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. “I came to realize that the sidewalk space of the city is the city to most people,” Kim writes.
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.