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How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America

Author(s):Abbott, Carl
Reviewer(s):Smith, Fred H.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Carl Abbott, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. x + 347 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8263-3312-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Fred H. Smith, Department of Economics, Davidson College.

?The West? is a term that evokes a wide range of images ? the splendor of the Pacific coast, majestic National Parks, sweeping plains joined to endless skies, and the stark beauty of desert terrain. Yet, many Americans fail to remember one of the region?s greatest resources when they think of ?the West?: They forget its cities. In How Cities Won the West Carl Abbott makes the case that to understand the West one must understand its cities.

Abbott organizes the book around three central themes. He asserts that he intends to ?… emphasize the ubiquity of the city-building imagination and city building impulse in shaping western North America,? to draw attention to the ?cumulative rebalancing of western North America,? and to establish that western cities have transitioned from being ?imitators? of eastern culture to being innovators in their own right (p. 8-10). To facilitate the exploration of these themes, the book is split into two sections. After two introductory chapters and a ?transition? chapter, the book contains eight chapters dedicated to the history of western cities before 1940. A second ?transition? chapter separates the pre-war chapters from the final seven chapters, which cover the post World War II period and offer concluding remarks.

In the first section, Abbott classifies cities according to their location and/or their reason for coming into existence. Chapter two discusses the cities of the Mississippi River region, chapter three focuses on the cities of the Pacific Rim, and chapter four concentrates on ?inland empires? (cities like Salt Lake City and Denver). Chapters five through nine focus on central themes such as access to water, industrialization, and tourism.

The second section of the book focuses on the growth and transformation of western cities in the post World War II era. These chapters focus on themes such as the importance of the military industrial complex, the significance of race and ethnicity, globalization, and urban spatial structure.

Taken as a whole, Abbott?s book is successful in convincing the reader that to understand the West one must understand the region?s cities. At its best, chapters two and three –?Across the Wide Mississippi? and ?The First Pacific Century? ? provide the reader with an excellent introduction to the cities of the Mississippi River region and the Pacific Rim. Chapter thirteen, ?Reshaping the Metropolis,? the book?s most effective, does an outstanding job of describing the urban spatial structure of the modern western city to an uninformed reader. Western cities are not the sprawling, low-density monstrosities that many residents of the East Coast might imagine them to be. While western cities are sprawling, they are sprawling because they are massive, not because they are low density. In fact, ten of the twelve most densely populated U.S. cities are in the West (p. 230).

Abbott?s book also succeeds because it is written in a lively, engaging style that grabs the reader?s attention ? even when a chapter may lose its focus. Indeed, it is unclear how some of the chapters fit into the book?s thesis. Chapter eleven, ?Progress and Prejudice,? is interesting and well written, but it leaves one wondering what in the chapter is unique to western cities. It would have been useful to contrast the experiences of San Jose, Salt Lake City, and the other western cities with the experiences of cities from the South, the East, or the Midwest.

While I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone looking for a better understanding of urbanization in the West, I would caution a prospective reader about Abbott?s book on three counts. First, the book is not always focused on economic history. To be fair, the book does not sell itself as an economic history of the urban West. However, for a reader who is interested in economic history there are chapters that may not be of great interest. Moreover, topics that would be of particular interest to an economic historian may not be covered in the desired depth. An economic historian would surely point to the rise of the automobile and the importance of water as two of the key issues that must be fully explored in order to understand western cities.

Chapter nine addresses the importance of water and water rights in the development of the West. Abbott writes, ?The San Francisco and Los Angeles stories epitomize the physical appropriation of the empty West by the urban West? (p.155). Yet, given the incredible challenges that western cities face in maintaining adequate water supplies, it seems that this chapter deserves more than the eleven pages Abbott has written. Specifically, I would like to have seen an in depth discussion of Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Chapter thirteen does a very good job of addressing issues pertaining to urban spatial structure and the way that the automobile has affected the development of western cities. While the treatment of the topic is very good, it comes as a surprise that the auto?s importance in shaping the urban West doesn?t come until the thirteenth chapter. Hasn?t the car fundamentally altered the urban landscape in the West in a way that has affected nearly every facet of western urban life? And, if that is the case, doesn?t the automobile deserve more prominent place in the book?

A second word of caution I would offer a prospective reader: The book promises to address a fourth theme, but it does so only tangentially. In the first ?transition? chapter Abbott brings up the topic of urban rivalry. Effectively, he poses the following question: Why does one city thrive while another shrinks and disappears from our consciousness? This is a question that is of great interest to urban economists and economic historians. For some cities the answer to this question may be obvious: Geography. Yet, in reading Abbott?s book one isn?t always left with a clear answer about why some cities (Phoenix, Denver) have truly thrived. This is partly due to the book?s structure. It focuses on themes as opposed to dedicating each chapter to a city or a collection of cities. While this may make the book more readable, it also makes it more difficult to figure (for example) why Denver has emerged as one of the West?s great cities.

The final word of caution I would offer a prospective reader has to do with the author?s writing style. Abbott does write in an entertaining, lively style, and the book is an easy read. However, the individual chapters often lack a clear introduction or conclusion that allow the reader to easily identify how the chapter fits into the text?s larger themes. In a few places, notably chapters eight, eleven, twelve, and fifteen, I found that it was necessary for me to re-read large chunks of material in order to see how the chapter contributed to my understanding of ?how cities won the West.?

Abbott?s goals are truly ambitious and his book doesn?t succeed in every one of its aims. It doesn?t, for example, leave the reader with a clear sense of why certain cities in the West have succeeded when others have not. However, given the scope of the topic, Abbott?s contribution to our understanding of the urban West is truly impressive. In the end, the book caries through on its central promises: It makes it clear how western cities have evolved to be different than their eastern counterparts, it very effectively traces out the ?rebalancing of western North America,? and it certainly makes it very clear how important cities have been in shaping the West.

Fred Smith is an associate professor of economics at Davidson College. His most recent paper (with Bill Collins of Vanderbilt University) is ?A Neighborhood-Level View of Riots, Property Values, and Population Loss: Cleveland 1950-1980? in Explorations in Economic History.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII