Neglected Book

Katznelson, Ira /Peterson, Paul E., City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States/City Limits (1981).

I am taking a minor liberty and suggesting two, companion, books in the category of scholarship that should be more widely read. These two classics of political science appeared in the same year, 1981, and laid down in provocative arguments why American cities had seemed to languish for nearly half a decade. Katznelson gave pithy voice to a contention that reframed the already tired American exceptionalist debates: in the U.S., class politics have consistently separated issues of work (labor) and community (residence), creating “urban trenches” in which political movements become overdetermined and isolated, dividing unions from housing advocates, civil rights groups, and antipoverty fights. Peterson added the necessary corollary: political conflict in American cities is only weakly related to that of the nation-state as a whole, because urban politics is ultimately about property and taxes. Nevertheless, cities are “limited” because they lie at the weakest juncture of both the capitalist marketplace and the U.S. federal system of governance. Though both books were written in the dry prose of political science—and are unlikely to be widely read on that account—they offer still-relevant structural analyses in an academic world too awed by cultural history. They offer up the very real constraints and limits that structures place on human politics and human choices.

Recommended by Robert Self, University of Michigan

Robert Self is currently Assistant Professor of History and a fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. His first book, American Babylon, to be published by Princeton University Press in 2003, deals with race, class, and the geographies of urban political culture in Oakland, California in the civil rights and black power eras.