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A Nation of Neighborhoods

Imagining Cities, Communities, and Democracy in Postwar America

Despite the pundits who have written its epitaph and the latter-day refugees who have fled its confines for the half-acre suburban estate, the city neighborhood has endured as an idea central to American culture. In A Nation of Neighborhoods, Benjamin Looker presents us with the city neighborhood as both an endless problem and a possibility.

Looker investigates the cultural, social, and political complexities of the idea of “neighborhood” in postwar America and how Americans grappled with vast changes in their urban spaces from World War II to the Reagan era. In the face of urban decline, competing visions of the city neighborhood’s significance and purpose became proxies for broader debates over the meaning and limits of American democracy. By studying the way these contests unfolded across a startling variety of genres—Broadway shows, radio plays, urban ethnographies, real estate documents, and even children’s programming—Looker shows that the neighborhood ideal has functioned as a central symbolic site for advancing and debating theories about American national identity and democratic practice.


A Nation of Neighborhoods is a big book in every sense of the phrase. It’s a major work that brings together urban history, with its deep commitment to understanding the changing form and function of the American city, and American Studies, with its interpretive reading of all kinds of culture. Looker’s sweeping, meticulously researched argument, written in welcoming prose and bringing together everything from ethnic identity movements to Sesame Street, offers a definitive and often surprising look at the idea of neighborhood in the 20th century.”

Carlo Rotella, director, American Studies, Boston College

“Looker nails the seductive and powerful quality of the imagined neighborhood rather than mistakenly trying to settle on a correct empirical definition—the tack many empiricists take. Navigating a terrain that is huge—the book’s complex historical period stretches from the WWII era to 1980—and fraught with sand traps, Looker unearths in rich detail the many ways in which the neighborhood concept has been used, with intriguing results and often brilliant insights. A Nation of Neighborhoods is intellectually sharp and packed with rigorous scholarship and big ideas.”

Robert J. Sampson, author of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

“Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods is an extraordinary scholarly contribution, an original, deeply researched, elegantly written book that helps us look in fresh ways at postwar America. It represents the best of contemporary cultural history—sophisticated in its approaches, carefully bold in both its claims and its reach across the widest range of genres.”

Daniel Horowitz | author of On the Cusp: The Yale College Class of 1960 and a World on the Verge of Change

“Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods transforms neighborhoods from backdrops to the center of the action. Looker’s deeply original analysis ranges formidably across American intellectual history and popular culture, examining literature and the arts, but also mining television, music, photography, plays, and museums. A rich treatment that rewards multiple re-readings, A Nation of Neighborhoods will change how you see the American city—starting with Sesame Street and working all the way through the presidency.”

Amanda I. Seligman, author of Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side

“Academics have long struggled to pinpoint precise definitions of ‘neighborhood,’ but as Looker  demonstrates, outside academe, a surprisingly ‘vast fleet’ of writers, politicians, artists, and activists unhampered by specifics constructed myriad ideal versions of the urban neighborhood from WWII to the 1980s. Looker insightfully demonstrates that cultural workers of all political persuasions fashioned representations of the urban small community because traditional values and experiences, as well as new visions for reshaping society, could be usefully attached to neighborhoods. Thus, the urban neighborhood became ‘a rich symbolic vehicle’ through which to debate often competing visions for the nation and for managing change and social division nearby. Progressing chronologically, each of the eleven chapters examines several related efforts to shape ideal visions of the urban neighborhood, defining and redefining terms such as blight, ghetto, and slum. Deconstructing examples of these ‘elaborate territories of the imagination,’ such as the children’s stories of Ezra Jack Keats and the Sesame Street television program, this author strikingly reveals just how relentlessly diverse ideas of ‘neighborhood’ have been offered as proxy for the meaning of America. Recommended.”


“In this always-informative, insightful, and well-written book, Looker deftly manages his way through the tangle of moves and counter-moves of an enduring national discourse. . . . An important and necessary glimpse into the nation’s moral geography.”

Robert Beauregard | Indiana Magazine of History

“This remarkable book . . , with its combination of a striking variety of sources and a close sensitivity to local detail, offers a groundbreaking new look at the politics and places of twentieth-century American cities. . . . Bursting at the seams with interesting materials . . . Looker deserves high praise for pulling off such an ambitious undertaking with such eloquence and sensitivity.”

Garrett Dash Nelson | Journal of Historical Geography

“Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods brilliantly explores the ‘conflicted yet central role of neighborhood concepts’ in the national imagination. . . . A sweeping analysis of wide-ranging sources. . . . The range of texts serving as examples in the chronologically organized chapters is staggering.”

Robert Fisher | Journal of American History

A Nation of Neighborhoods represents an important addition to studies based on the proposition that ideas matter in the perceptions and actions that take place in urban settings. . . . The book should spark new interest in the exploration of the neighborhood and its place in the symbolic, political, structural, economic, and cultural life of the U.S.”

American Historical Review

A Nation of Neighborhoods deserves wide readership among historians of education, especially those interested in ‘bridging the gap’ between the fields of educational history and (sub)urban history. . . . A compelling portrait of the urban neighborhood as the preeminent site and symbol for articulating and contesting liberal visions of American citizenship, historical memory, and democratic practice. . . . Such a history of contestation is needed in order to complicate the all-too-common rise-and-fall narratives of twentieth-century urban neighborhood institutions.”

Michael Bowman, History of Education Quarterly

Table of Contents


PART I Neighborhood Visions from Popular Front to Populist Memory

1 Microcosms of Democracy: Depicting the City Neighborhood in Wartime America
2 Communities under Glass: The Neighborhood Unit Plan and Postwar Privatization
3 The Specter of Blight: The Neighborhood under Siege
4 Routes of Escape: Cold War Individualism and Community Ties

PART II The Urban Crisis and the Meanings of City Community

5 A Place Apart: The “New Ghetto” and the “Old Neighborhood”
6 Brilliant Corners: Representing the Inner City, from Outside and from Within
7 Peaceable Kingdoms: The Great Society Neighborhood in Stories for Children

PART III Defining Urban Pluralism in the Age of the Neighborhoods Movement

8 Elementary Republics and Little Platoons: The Neighborhood Self- Government Movement
9 “A Theology of Neighborhood”: Post–Vatican II Catholicism, Ethnic Revival, and City Space
10 Neighborhood Feminisms: Refi guring Gender in the Urban Village
11 Local Spaces and White House Races: Urban Communities and Presidential Politics



Urban Communication Foundation: Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Book Award

American Studies Association: John Hope Franklin Publication Prize

Urban History Association: Kenneth Jackson Award

Organization of American Historians: Lawrence W. Levine Prize

State Historical Society of Missouri: Missouri Conference on History Book Award

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