Urban Studies Chicago
Nicholas Kryczka
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0064


Located at the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan and in the northeast corner of the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago has been, since its founding in the early nineteenth century, the commercial, industrial, cultural, and transport hub of the American Midwest. In the context of the modern scientific study of urban space, urban culture, and public policy, Chicago has played an outsized part in the production of knowledge about city life. Urbanists have long framed Chicago as a quintessence of modernity, a place where the features and dynamics of distinct eras of urbanization unfolded in exaggerated form. Scholars of the nineteenth century have stressed its origins as a “shock city,” willed into existence by the hype of speculators, the dispossession of Indians, and feats of infrastructure. Those with eyes on the decades straddling the turn of the twentieth century have marveled at Chicago’s encapsulation of the extremes of industrial capitalism: its centrifugally sprawling and spewing landscape of factories and feedlots; its pitched battles between labor and capital; its utopian visions of a “City Beautiful”; its dense patchwork of immigrant working-class neighborhoods; and its self-conscious community of ambitious reformers and academics, whose studies of the city sealed its fate as urban hyper-exemplar. In the twentieth century, no city seemed better able to capture the unique paradoxes of the African American encounter with urban modernity. Chicago was at once the proving ground for multiple modern technologies of racial segregation and subordination, and a national mecca of black culture and commerce. It set unenviable records for the social miseries of the postindustrial ghetto, and served as an early and enduring incubator for black political talent. While “Chicago politics” remains a metonym for bossism, corruption, and bitter ethnic rivalries, the city’s political machinery has always been more dynamic than the caricature, whether in its iteration as a midcentury liberal “growth machine” or as a late-century “global city” technocracy. Chicago has served as a sharpening stone for multiple theoretical approaches to American politics. Indeed, entire fields of modern sociology, political science, social work, criminology, literature, architecture, comedy, political organizing, and education reform have relied on Chicago taking a role as laboratory, muse, or foil. As the author Richard Wright famously observed, “Chicago is the known city; perhaps more is known about it, how it is run, how it kills, how it loves, steals, helps, gives, cheats, and crushes than any other city in the world.” The titles assembled here provide continuing support for Wright’s claim.

Overviews and General Histories

Attempts at synthesis are always partial and tentative, as cross-century comparisons of Pierce 1937 and Spinney 2000 will reveal. But comprehensive works like Grossman, et al. 2004; Pacyga 2011; and Mayer and Wade 1969 should anchor any Chicagoist’s reference desk. While none of these works are free of bias or emphasis, other overviews of Chicago, varying according to the author’s conceptual framework, make more overt claims about which moments in the city’s history are the most significant. For Cronon 1991, it is the mid-19th-century creative destruction of the regional environment. For Miller 1996, it is the epic confrontation between the city’s ambitious elites and its mobilized working class at the end of the nineteenth century. For Diamond 2017, it is the dozens of mid-20th-century corrupt bargains that paved the way for a uniquely neoliberalized order by century’s end.

  • Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991.

    Seminal environmental history of 19th-century Chicago, tracing the role of capitalist processes of speculation, commodification, and industrialization at Chicago in shaping the physical destiny of a vast Midwestern hinterland.

  • Diamond, Andrew. Chicago on the Make: Power and Inequality in a Modern City. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520961715

    Presents an urban political chronicle of late-20th-century Chicago as a hyper-example of neoliberalization, attributing the city’s triumph as a global city to earlier midcentury efforts to repress dissent, naturalize markets, and demobilize a segregated polity.

  • Grossman, James R., Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, eds. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    An exhaustive and indispensable reference text, available in hard copy and digital form, with thousands of individual entries and thematic essays by hundreds of experts, along with collections of maps and primary sources.

  • Mayer, Harold M., and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

    Vivid pictorial history of the city’s physical infrastructure and built environment, combining profiles of real estate players, textured descriptions of landforms and waterways, and a rich collection of maps and photographs to illustrate the dynamics of the city’s spatial development.

  • Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

    Dramatic narrative of Chicago’s spatial and cultural dialectic in the nineteenth century, emphasizing the prominent figures, epic achievements, and great conflicts that propelled Chicago to its place as a symbol of modern industrial America.

  • Pacyga, Dominic. Chicago: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

    The most recent and comprehensive narrative synthesis of the city’s past by a seasoned expert, braiding political and social history into a readable and reliable reference.

  • Pierce, Bessie Louise. A History of Chicago. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937.

    Pioneering three-volume chronicle of Chicago, published at its first centennial, covering the era of the founding through the world’s fair of 1893.

  • Spinney, Robert J. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

    An introductory-level textbook overview of Chicago’s history, from the 1600s to the 1990s.

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