At 1:27 on the morning of August 4, 2005, Herbert Manes fatally
stabbed Robert Monroe, known as Shorty, in a dispute over five
dollars. It was a horrific yet mundane incident for the poor,
heavily African American neighborhood of North Philadelphia-one of
seven homicides to occur in the city that day and yet not make the
major newspapers. For Michael B. Katz, an urban historian and a
juror on the murder trial, the story of Manes and Shorty
exemplified the marginalization, social isolation, and indifference
that plague American cities.
Introduced by the gripping narrative of this murder and its
circumstances, Why Don't American Cities Burn? charts the
emergence of the urban forms that underlie such events. Katz traces
the collision of urban transformation with the rightward-moving
social politics of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century
America. He shows how the bifurcation of black social structures
produced a new African American inequality and traces the shift
from images of a pathological black "underclass" to praise of the
entrepreneurial poor who take advantage of new technologies of
poverty work to find the beginning of the path to the middle class.
He explores the reasons American cities since the early 1970s have
remained relatively free of collective violence while black men in
bleak inner-city neighborhoods have turned their rage inward on one
another rather than on the agents and symbols of a culture and
political economy that exclude them.
The book ends with a meditation on how the political left and right
have come to believe that urban transformation is inevitably one of
failure and decline abetted by the response of government to
deindustrialization, poverty, and race. How, Katz asks, can we
construct a new narrative that acknowledges the dark side of urban
history even as it demonstrates the capacity of government to
address the problems of cities and their residents? How can we
create a politics of modest hope?
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