Michael B. Katz


On his book Why Don't American Cities Burn?

Cover Interview of February 06, 2012

The wide angle

The book’s Prologue tells a story of murder and marginalization in the badlands of Philadelphia, a place where an explosive collision between urban transformation and rightward moving social politics has trapped residents in a devastated urban landscape with few sources of help. Two men found themselves locked in a mortal struggle over $5.00, and in the end one died. I was a juror for the murder trial that resulted.

This sad and awful story illustrated the interpersonal violence that had replaced the collective protests of the 1960s and early 1970s. The transformation of urban violence from collective to interpersonal, however, constitutes only one of the major issues addressed by this book.  The first substantive chapter asks: What is an American city? It shows how economic, demographic, and spatial changes resulted in unique urban forms. It uses the idea of a “new domestic landscape” to illustrate dramatic change in the spatial ecology of suburbs. And it points to the variety of new metaphors deployed with only partial success to capture the new meaning of urban, city, and suburb.

The book also addresses the vexed question of African American progress.  Looking back at the last half century, have the life prospects of African-Americans worsened, improved, or remained about the same? Powerful arguments have been advanced in favor of each position. The book contends that this is the wrong question.

Instead, I ask: In what ways have African American social structure changed? The second chapter points to two major trends. The first is differentiation, the division of African American social structure through the accumulation of many small and not so-small distinctions. The distance between Barack Obama and the men fighting to the death in North Philadelphia illustrates the outcome. The other trend is the emergence of a gender gap: on most measures of education, income, and occupation black women increasingly outpace black men.

Poverty is the subject of the fourth and final substantive chapter. (The third is the title chapter.)  Have changes in ideas about poverty and strategies for its alleviation accompanied the transformation of American cities? I found a remarkable shift that I refer to as the transition from “underclass” to “entrepreneur.” In the 1980s, “underclass” was the term applied most often to inner-city minority populations. A term which referred more to behavior than to economic condition, underclass provided the latest iteration of the oldest trope about poor people: their division into the deserving and undeserving poor.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century underclass had become yesterday’s idea. Instead, from Bangladesh to New York, writers celebrated the entrepreneurial energy of poor people waiting for the spark of opportunity to transform their lives. Poverty entrepreneurs jettisoned the underclass idea and developed new techniques of poverty work based on market-based principles. The four most prominent were rebuilding markets in inner cities (the poor as consumers); microfinance (the poor as entrepreneurs); asset building (the poor as savers); and conditional cash transfers (the poor as rational actors). How effective were these new technologies? The jury remains out on each of them. Whether singly or together they can seriously dent poverty remains uncertain or, less charitably, doubtful. But they do represent a break with past ideas about poverty. The displacement of pathological stereotypes of the poor with images of competent entrepreneurs accumulating assets marks a new stage in poverty discourse and policy.

In the epilogue I raise a question which grows out of both the earlier chapters and my work as a teacher of urban studies. Both the political left and right tell a similar depressing story about the history of American cities after World War II. The facts are largely accurate and beyond dispute—many of them are in this book—but are they the whole story?

As it stands, the narrative of urban history is depressing, and it leaves students unsatisfied. They wonder whether making a difference is possible.  This question leads me to believe we need a new urban narrative, one still true to the “facts” but wider in its frame and more inclusive. I see bits and pieces that can be used to build it. But constructing the new frame remains an unfinished task. It is, I suggest, the underlying task of progressive politics as well as of urban history.