Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reviewed: Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City

Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon (forthcoming in paperback) will be appealing to legal historians interested in urban history, property, race, and poverty. The book goes beyond traditional histories of urban decline, making effective use of digital mapping techniques. The University of Pennsylvania Press did a beautiful job producing it, including more than seventy-five full color maps.

Mapping Decline was reviewed by Dan Trudeau, Macalester College, for Urban Geography. Trudeau writes:

In Mapping Decline, Colin Gordon chronicles the historic causes and contemporary consequences of the urban crisis in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Students of U.S. urban history will already be familiar with St. Louis’ story. It follows the archetypal narrative of decline in the postwar era: government programs for urban renewal fail to revitalize the central city while public subsidies for development at the urban fringe enable centrifugal forces that strip the urban core of investment, population, and tax revenue. Underlying this transformation is the dual process of White flight to the suburbs and the containment of Blacks in the urban core. Mapping Decline thus follows the path worn by Hirsch (1998) and Sugrue (2005) in their respective examinations of urban crisis in Chicago and Detroit. While Gordon’s explanation is not new, he adds a visual dimension to the narrative by including an extensive battery of maps and figures. Furthermore, Mapping Decline contributes to the empirical urban literature by tracing the trajectory of St. Louis’ decline to the end of
the 20th century.

This political history of St. Louis’ urban crisis unfolds over five chapters, which are organized thematically....Chapter 2 describes the private efforts and public policies that have isolated Blacks in particular neighborhoods of St. Louis that are bereft of private investment. To support this point, this chapter features an especially rich set of maps that show the geographies of restrictive deed covenants, race restrictive practices of realtor associations, redlining designations of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, slum clearance, construction of public housing, and patterns of disinvestment by the mortgage lending industry.
The reviewer finds the book's maps "cartographically disappointing," and finds "Sugrue’s (2005) Origins of the Urban Crisis...a more detailed examination of how changes at global and regional levels affected U.S. cities during the postwar era," but concludes that

Gordon has nevertheless prepared an engaging text that should be accessible to a broad audience....Mapping Decline distinguishes itself from other historical accounts of the urban crisis by showing how the deleterious effects of local, state, and federal government policies continue to thwart the recovery of the central city. Toward this end, Gordon presents a convincing case for why the decline of St. Louis is not by any means inevitable. Mapping Decline thus provides an impassioned call to arms to rescue St. Louis and other cities like it.
The rest is here.