Cities hold an ambiguous image in the minds of scholars of political and social history. On the one hand, cities are considered engines of freedom—as the phrase “city air makes one free” indicates. Through the medieval period, the industrial revolution, and up through today, urban areas continue to draw immigrants and new workers seeking new economic opportunities and the chance to build a better future. Contrasted with the rural opportunities of serfdom, isolation, or boredom, cities—in this light—do indeed seem like places of relative liberty and greater economic opportunity. Moreover, cities are intellectual reservoirs for freedom as key events in the development of modern democracy can be interpreted as “urban social movements,” as attested by the Boston Tea Party and Paris Commune.
However, cities are also the spaces where rich and poor stand in starkest contrast. In addition to creating jobs and sharing ideas, cities have also spawned segregated neighborhoods, hyper-violent enclaves, and spaces of deep exploitation. Some scholars argue that the patterns of urban growth development (especially under capitalism) are inextricably linked with inequality.
Today, inequality is back on the political stage. This course will explore inequality through a variety of perspectives by examining causes and debates from the fields of economics, sociology, geography, and urban studies. What makes this course unique is its focus on the linkage between inequality and the process of urban growth and development in both the historical and contemporary contexts.