The Unruly City

Looking over past blog posts, I realize that I’ve reviewed a number of books about cities.* That’s because cities fascinate me: physically and culturally. I love exploring the infrastructures, neighborhoods, markets, hidden corners and distinctive styles of a new city. And I love books where the city itself is a central part of the story.

In The Unruly City, historian Michael Rapport considers how three cities—Paris, London and New York—became sites of social struggle in the period of the American and French Revolutions. He looks not simply at the events that occurred in each city, but how the cities as physical and social entities helped shape those events and were in turn transformed by revolutionary action.

Rapport looks at moments of revolution, familiar and unfamiliar, through the lens of neighborhoods, buildings, physical icons, and demographics. He creates a richly textured picture of eighteenth century urban life, and how it varied between the three cities. He demonstrates how the demographic composition and physical location of a neighborhood, like the Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris, combined to place it in the revolutionary vanguard. He examines the transformation of public places—the Common in New York, Saint George’s Field in London, the Palais-Royal in Paris—into popular gathering places for the disaffected from all social classes. He places the institutions of revolt in their meeting places—coffee houses, taverns, and, in the case of Paris, repurposed religious buildings—and explains the impact of meeting place on organization. He traces the shift of the locations of activism for London radicalism and the American and French Revolutions from established meeting halls and courts to the the places frequented by artisans and craftsmen.

In Rapport’s hands, the cities become players in the story, not simply backdrops for the turmoil of the Age of Revolutions.

*City: A Guidebook For The Urban Age remains one of my favorites. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m pulling it off the shelf to read in bits as a break from Very Serious Scholarly Books about women warriors–books for which I am eternally grateful. But sometimes I need to fluff up my brain.

Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


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