Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effectby Robert J. Sampson
For over fifty years numerous public intellectuals and social theorists have insisted that community is dead. Some would have us believe that we act solely as individuals choosing our own fates regardless of our surroundings, while other theories place us at the mercy of global forces beyond our control. These two perspectives dominate contemporary views of society,… See more details below
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For over fifty years numerous public intellectuals and social theorists have insisted that community is dead. Some would have us believe that we act solely as individuals choosing our own fates regardless of our surroundings, while other theories place us at the mercy of global forces beyond our control. These two perspectives dominate contemporary views of society, but by rejecting the importance of place they are both deeply flawed. Based on one of the most ambitious studies in the history of social science, Great American City argues that communities still matter because life is decisively shaped by where you live. To demonstrate the powerfully enduring impact of place, Robert J. Sampson presents here the fruits of over a decade’s research in Chicago combined with his own unique personal observations about life in the city, from Cabrini Green to Trump Tower and Millennium Park to the Robert Taylor Homes. He discovers that neighborhoods influence a remarkably wide variety of social phenomena, including crime, health, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, leadership networks, and immigration. Even national crises cannot halt the impact of place, Sampson finds, as he analyzes the consequences of the Great Recession and its aftermath, bringing his magisterial study up to the fall of 2010. Following in the influential tradition of the Chicago School of urban studies but updated for the twenty-first century, Great American City is at once a landmark research project, a commanding argument for a new theory of social life, and the story of an iconic city.
Douglas S. Massey
“Great American City takes us from the grand theories conjured by its commanding title, down to the iconic street corner to see what it really means when windows are broken. This is a book of big, challenging, provocative, and inspiring ideas, as well as of meticulous, rigorous, and exhaustive data. Sampson has truly shown his shoulders big enough to be counted among Chicago’s most venerated social observers, as well as the most astute theorists of place.”
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GREAT AMERICAN CITY
Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect
By ROBERT J. SAMPSON
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Imagine a world where distance has died, where globalization and high-tech wonders have rendered place irrelevant, where the Internet, Blackberries, and planes are the coin of a global realm, not local difference. From the North End of Boston to the North Beach of San Francisco, imagine cities where neighborhood difference is an anachronism, a victim of "placelessness."
On the surface this thought experiment matches common experience. Who doesn't know a teenager wired to everything but her neighborhood? It seems everyone nowadays is traversing the urban metropolis while chatting away on a cell phone, plugged into an iPod, or perhaps even "tweeting." As for the idyllic urban village said to characterize communities of yesteryear, few of us have the time or energy for dinner with our neighbors anymore. Americans are notoriously individualistic and roam widely, so what then is the relevance of place? Globalization is everywhere triumphant according to the dominant narrative, rendering us "elsewhere" rather than placed. Thus according to the social theorist Anthony Giddens, we need not imagine at all, for the very essence of high modernity and contemporary conditions can be captured in the idea of place as "phantasmagoric." Neither does the public intellectual Thomas Friedman need a thought experiment, because for him the world is already "flat," or at the very least, flattening.
These influential thinkers and this common wisdom about the effects of technology are right at some fundamental level. Universal forces create places that are similar no matter where we go. The strip malls that line cities and suburbs across the country come quickly to my mind, uniformly ugly in the same way no matter where they alight. Even cities as a whole are thought by many to be interchangeable; if we can be anywhere, then nowhere in particular stands out. And even if we cannot literally be anywhere, we can be elsewhere aided by profound advances in technology.
Setting aside the suspicion that only the privileged elite enjoy a global playing field, there are also good empirical reasons to take seriously the questioning of place and concepts like neighborhood or community. Social-network theorists have shown us that urbanites create nonspatial communities that cross-cut geographic ones. Metropolitan dwellers might not know their neighbors on an intimate basis, but they are likely to build viable sets of social relations spread across the city, state, country, and increasingly the world. In an influential paper in the late 1970s, Barry Wellman referred to this as "community liberated," or what might be thought of as community beyond propinquity. Perhaps place is phantasmagorical and community lost.
With all the emphasis on new forms of alienation from traditional forms of community, it may come as a surprise to learn that intellectual and public concern with the decline of community is longstanding and finds vigor in every historical period. Today's manifestations might be unique but not the perceived problem. In the most abstract version the theme of declining community and yearning for renewal finds its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Eden became sin city and salvation still awaits. Karl Marx was secular but the promise of community after the overthrow of capitalism was unmistakable and launched societal revolutions. The entire discipline of sociology, in fact, was founded on the upheavals of the late nineteenth century widely thought to have frayed the social fabric of "Gemeinschaft" (community). The presumed decline of traditional forms of personal association in small towns besieged by the advance of widespread urbanization and industrialization became the central problematic for other noted scholars such as Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber. Louis Wirth later expanded these concerns by arguing that large population size, density, and ethnic heterogeneity were socially disintegrative features that characterized rapidly changing cities. Wirth famously asserted in 1938 that these defining elements of urbanism made social relations "anonymous" (like Internet surfing? blog comments?) and "superficial" (like texting? Facebook?), with estrangement undermining family life and ultimately the bonds of solidarity thought to reflect community. One can read Wirth today, insert technology as the villain, and get a familiar result.
This classic thesis of decline—aptly described as "community lost"—thus posits the idea that the social ties of modern urbanites have become impersonal, transitory, and segmented, hastening the eclipse of local community and feeding processes of what became known as "social disorganization." A well-known book in the middle of the twentieth century adroitly captured the collective urging of the times: The Quest for Community.
The beat went on and never stopped. The contemporary manifestation of community lost is exposed by the intense attention focused on the notion of Americans "bowling alone" and "hunkering down." Robert Putnam's thesis of a decades-long decline in voluntary associations, trust, and informal neighborly exchange captured the imagination not just of social scientists but the public at large. The concept of community lost has also been frequently invoked in scholarly debates across a range of fields, including "social capital," civil society, social movements, and in the public intellectual world of communitarians. As if to underscore these concerns, a widely reported and earnestly discussed finding in 2006 argued that the core discussion networks of Americans decreased by a third from the mid-1980s to the present, with notable declines for voluntary associations and neighborhood contacts. More recently came a warning of the "downside of diversity," with evidence pointing to increasing immigration and ethnic heterogeneity as a potential source of mistrust in one's neighbors.
An interesting irony is that the placelessness and globalization critique finds an affinity with the longstanding narrative of community lost in the idea that personal ties to the local community have withered away. The difference is that the globetrotting modernist says good riddance (community liberated!), whereas "communitarianism" can be seen as a sort of resistance movement to counter the bowling-alone scenario of decline and inspire a renewal of community. Either way, the implication many public intellectuals and scholarly pundits alike have taken away is that places—especially as instantiated in neighborhoods and community—are dead, impotent, declining, chaotic, irrelevant, or some combination thereof.
Chicago is the great American city.
Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago.
Enter contemporary and, yes, global Chicago. Logic demands that if neighborhoods do not matter and placelessness reigns, then the city is more or less a random swirl. Anyone (or anything) could be here just as easily as there. Identities and inequalities by place should be rapidly interchangeable, the durable inequality of a community rare, and neighborhood effects on both individuals and higher-level social processes should be weak or nonexistent. The effects of spatial proximity should also be weak. And so goes much contemporary scholarship.
By contrast, the guiding thesis of this book is that differentiation by neighborhood is not only everywhere to be seen, but that it is has durable properties—with cultural and social mechanisms of reproduction—and with effects that span a wide variety of social phenomena. Whether it be crime, poverty, child health, protest, leadership networks, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, mobility
Excerpted from GREAT AMERICAN CITY by ROBERT J. SAMPSON. Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Robert J. Sampson is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and coauthor of Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points through Life and Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70.
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