Magnificent Metropolises: 7 Great Cities’ Grand Ambitions

Magnificent Metropolises: 7 Great Cities’ Grand Ambitions

Once again, Chicago is living up to its nickname as the City of Broad Shoulders. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is announcing an ambitious funding proposal to give his city a facelift. The New York Times reports the $7 billion—yes, with a ‘b’—would be allocated to expand transit, water system, schools, community colleges, and parks, essentially renovating the entire city. It’s a big bet, and not a sure one, as these books about large-scale urban development and redevelopment show.

Chicago: The Second City’s Second Chance
Mayor Emanuel’s plan won’t be Chicago’s first big makeover. Daniel Burnham’s 1909 “Plan of Chicago” was (and is) arguably the most influential text on urban development ever produced, and turned Chicago’s waterfront from crude shipping ports to gorgeous green space (with the cunning use of landfill). Carl Smith’s concise narrative “The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City” describes Chicago’s rise from frontier village to America’s Second City, and Burnham’s indefatigable belief that cities can and must be remade for the better.

Beijing: The New Chinese Empire
China’s rapid urbanization has left some of its history, well, in the past. Beijing’s oldest enclaves are vanishing in the face of its relentless modernization, as Michael Meyer’s “The Last Days of Old Beijing” intimately illustrates. “Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn’t eradicate, the market economy has,” Meyer writes.

Baltimore: Built on Bigotry
In some circumstances, “progress” is fueled more by what cities don’t want than by what they do. In “Not in My Neighborhood How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” former Baltimore Sun reporter Antero Pietila offers a lively, informative portrayal chronicling links between racism, real estate practices, and urban politics. The author offers his city as a prism through which to view the racism and class warfare that has influenced development in all American cities.

Detroit: Renaissance in Waiting
Detroit has been the poster child for urban decay in our modern age—job loss, real estate foreclosure, crime, and abandonment have rocked the once-thriving industrial capital. But John Gallagher is looking forward in his book “Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City,” presenting a host of emerging innovations that may offer potential solutions for reviving Detroit’s shrinking economy. His TED talk on the issue is also pretty progressive stuff.

Berlin: Salvaging a Post-War Capital
After being bombed beyond recognition, Berlin was faced with the onerous task of rebuilding from scratch even as Germany was struggling to reimagine its national identity. Like a phoenix from the ashes, Berlin’s dramatic resurgence, as Brian Ladd chronicles in “The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape,” hinged on a culture shift and an ambitious architectural vision.

Karachi: Coping with Rapid Cosmopolitanism
Once a colonial port town of 350,000 residents, Karachi, Pakistan is now a sprawling metropolis of more than 13 million permanent residents. Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, cites Karachi as an example of what he’s coined an “instant city”—the result of rapid urbanization. In “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi,” Inskeep profiles the racial divisions, military unrest, and social innovations that have manifested in a city struggling to understand the size of its own bootstraps.

New York City: Endless Reinvention
As any New York resident will attest, it’s often comical to watch the interminable building up and tearing down that seems to be happening across the city. Change is endemic to the Big Apple, as David M. Scobey points out in “Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape.” The book tells the story of the dreams that inspired New York City’s icons—Central Park, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge— and the impossible feats of engineering required to complete them in a city that rose from marshland.


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