Wait, is that an Ace Hardware in a Walgreens or CVS building?

I recently saw a commercial for Ace Hardware touting that they sell Benjamin Moore paint. But, the image of the their building stopped me from paying attention to paint:

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This does not look like any Ace Hardware building I have seen before. Instead, it looks like it used to be either a Walgreens or CVS. The building structure says chain drugstore: dual automatic doors at the front, the angled entryway, the high windows on the sides. The few glimpses of the inside in the commercial look similar to a drugstore (even if it is hard to imagine paint at the front of a Walgreens.)

Did Ace take over a former drug store building and then use it in the commercial? Or, is this a backlot creation? I found a Florida Ace commercial that features the same structure in the beginning.

Brands have a whole set of items that go with them: a logo, a jingle, a slogan, colors, and buildings. The buildings might get less attention – they are not in radio commercials, they do not often feature in print ads, and videos may or may not included interior and exterior shots – but they matter for the brand and the experience. I imagine many American consumers could drive by empty malls, strip malls, and shopping areas and identify the stores that used to be in the building without any signs or lettering present. Many of them have a similar look across the United States, even if they occasionally try to “fit in” with local styles, meet local guidelines, or embody more uniqueness.

Asking Americans where they live to determine what exactly a suburb is

A recent project asked over 55,000 Americans where they live and the researchers used this to classify what counts as a suburb:

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Kolko and his colleagues got a survey sample of 55,000 households to sound off about whether their neighborhoods were urban, rural or suburban. That let them build a model looking at which factors predict how respondents will answer.

Unsurprisingly, many people defined their neighborhoods in part by their population density. But a whole host of other factors also made the prediction more accurate. For example, areas with higher median incomes were more likely to be called suburban. Areas with older homes were more likely to be called urban. Areas with lots of senior citizens were more frequently called rural.

The researchers—Kolko, Shawn Bucholtz of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Emily Molfino of the U.S. Census Bureau—have released data online showing how their model classifies every neighborhood in the U.S., as well as an academic working paper detailing their methods and findings.

It’s a question that matters quite a bit because, by the researchers’ survey, more than half of American households identify as suburban: 52%, versus 21% rural and 27% urban.

A few thoughts based on this summary:

  1. This suggests defining places requires more than just political or geographic boundaries: how people perceive communities and neighborhoods matters. There is a cultural, meaning-making dimension to where people live that is often not picked up in these kinds of definitions.
  2. The next step after #1 is this: if residents of some places may technically live in a big city but they perceive it to be more suburban, they may act differently. Or, if they think of their suburban area as urban, they could lead different lives and favor different policies.
  3. I wonder how this overlaps with previous survey data suggesting Americans prefer small towns which could fit into suburban or rural settings. Here, the feel of a small town might be more important than the actual designation.
  4. The overall proportions of Americans living in different settings are not that different than what the Census Bureau calculates. What then makes this useful information is the ability to provide micro-level data about specific neighborhoods and communities.
  5. Without looking at the working paper, my guess is some of the discrepancies between this model and the Census definition is on the edges of areas: the fringes of big cities where residents could be suburban or urban and on the edges of suburbia where areas could be suburban or rural. These areas straddling municipal boundaries as well as lifestyles could be in flux for a long time.
  6. All of this points to an ongoing recognition of “complex suburbia.”

The US needs the Census in order to keep up with societal change

Even amid COVID-19, data collection for the 2020 Census continues. Recent Census data helps provide a reminder of why we need the Census:

The new data shows that, by 2019, the white population share declined nearly nine more percentage points, to 60.1%. The Latino or Hispanic and Asian American population shares showed the most marked gains, at 18.5% and nearly 6%, respectively. While these groups fluctuated over the past 40 years, either upward (for Latinos or Hispanics and Asian Americans) or downward (for whites), the Black share of the population remained relatively constant.

The declining white population share is pervasive across the nation. Since 2010, the white population share declined in all 50 states (though not Washington, D.C.) (download table A), and in 358 of the nation’s 364 metropolitan areas and 3,012 of its 3,141 counties. Moreover, as of 2019, 27 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas have minority-white populations, including the major metropolises of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami—as well as Dallas, Atlanta, and Orlando, Fla., which reached this status by 2010 (download Table B).

Most noteworthy is the increased diversity in the younger portion of the population. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the nation’s population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Among this group, Latino or Hispanic and Black residents together comprise nearly 40% of the population. Given the greater projected growth of all nonwhite racial minority groups compared to whites—along with their younger age structure—the racial diversity of the nation that was already forecasted to flow upward from the younger to older age groups looks to be accelerating…

The unanticipated decline in the country’s white population means that other racial and ethnic groups are responsible for generating overall growth. Nationally, the U.S. grew by 19.5 million people between 2010 and 2019—a growth rate of 6.3%. While the white population declined by a fraction of a percent, Latino or Hispanic, Asian American, and Black populations grew by rates of 20%, 29%, and 8.5%, respectively. The relatively small population of residents identifying as two or more races grew by a healthy 30%, and the smaller Native American population grew by 7.6%.

This is important data to have regardless of what people make of this data. Having an organization that collects and reports important data is valuable to residents, scholars, and policy makers. With good data, people can now examine and use the patterns and trends.

At the same time, it is interesting to see how the Census is trying to market participation in the 2020 Census:

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The emphasis here is more on what residents might get out of the process – federal funds, political representation – with a final reminder of the government mandate since 1790.

Together, this suggests having good data is critical for understanding and responding to social change. Without such data, we are left with triangulated data or anecdotes that do not inspire confidence. The United States is a large country with many interest groups. While other organizations might be able to collect similar data, having it done by the government offers some advantages (though the Census process has long been politicized).

Seinfeld on the suburbs (and city)

I have watched a few episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I recently saw the opening episode of Season 4 where Jerry Seinfeld talks with Sarah Jessica Parker that included Seinfeld discussing the suburbs:

I grew up in the suburbs, didn’t like it — always wanted to live in the city. Now, I want to live in the suburbs.

This could be the story of many Americans. Jerry Seinfeld was born in 1954, the era of a postwar population boom and mass suburbia. Millions grew up in new and expanding suburbs organized around single-family homes and driving. At some point, Seinfeld was drawn to the city where I’m guessing comedy and entertainment possibilities beckoned. His iconic television show Seinfeld revolved around quirky New York characters doing city things. Yet, whether he was in the suburbs or cities, he wanted to be elsewhere.

Seinfeld’s line in the episode is enhanced both three features of the episode: the 1976 Ford Squire station wagon Parker owns and loves, the discussion Parker and Seinfeld have about their growing up in the suburbs (with Parker just outside the suburban Baby Boomers but sounding like she had some similar experiences), and they drive out of Manhattan to the suburbs.

This could simply be the case of the grass is always greener on the other side. Seinfeld and Parker seem caught up in some nostalgia about simpler times. Or, it might hint at a larger conundrum in American life for many residents: is the suburban or urban life preferable? The big city offers cultural opportunities, jobs, unique communities, and often an urban identity. The suburbs offer private space, perceived safety and opportunities for kids, the American Dream.

There may even be places that offer some of both. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and numerous other major cities offer urban residential neighborhoods that have single-family homes where urbanites can escape to private dwellings and still be close to the urban excitement. Or, there are some suburbs, often inner-ring suburbs, with denser residences and downtowns, that feel more lively than the stereotypical suburban bedroom community.

This also gets to the crux of Seinfeld as a show. While it was massively popular and helped lead to a run of popular television shows on network television in the 1990s, Seinfeld’s quote above makes me wonder: is it a critique of cities or is it a celebration of them? Just as the characters turn out in the series to now be nice people, how does New York City fare in the end? The individual characters are not happy or content people; is this because of their personalities (the types that would never be happy anywhere) or is it provoked by the setting? Jerry lives in the city but the city always presents problems, from people who get in their way to unusual settings.

Even though these might just be television shows and personal memories, how these are later interpreted – positive sentiments regarding the suburbs or city? – can later influence whether Americans pursue a suburban or urban future.

Do we know that 500,000 people have fled NYC since the start of COVID-19?

On the heels of much discussion of residents leaving New York City, San Francisco, and other major cities because of COVID-19, the Daily Mail suggests 500,000 people have left New York City:

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Parts of Manhattan, famously the ‘city that never sleeps’, have begun to resemble a ghost town since 500,000 mostly wealthy and middle-class residents fled when Covid-19 struck in March.

The number is also part of the headline.

But, how do we know this number is accurate? If there was ever a figure that required some serious triangulation, this could be it. Most of the news stories I have seen on people fleeing cities rely on real estate agents and movers who have close contact with people going from one place to another. Those articles rarely mention figures, settling for vaguer pronouncements about trends or patterns. Better data could come from sources like utility companies (presumably there would be a drop in the consumption of electricity and water), the post office (how many people have changed addresses), and more systematic analyses of real estate records.

A further point about the supposed figure: even if it is accurate, it does not reveal much about long-term trends. Again, the stories on this phenomenon have hinted that some of those people who left will never return while some do want to get back. We will not know until some time has gone by after the COVID-19 pandemic slows down or disappears. Particularly for those with resources, will they sell their New York property or will they sit on it for a while to give themselves options or in order to make sure they get a decent return on it? This may be a shocking figure now but it could turn out in a year or two to mean very little if many of those same people return to the city.

In other words, I would wait to see if this number is trustworthy and if so, what exactly it means in the future. As sociologist Joel Best cautions around numbers that seem shocking, it helps to ask good questions about where the data comes from, how accurate it is, and what it means.

Seeking insurance for black swan events

Lloyd’s of London is interested in black swan insurance that would help protect against losses from unusual events:

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Commercial insurance market Lloyd’s has said insurers worldwide will pay out more than $100 billion in coronavirus-related claims this year.

But many firms are frustrated that their business interruption policies do not cover the pandemic and some in Europe and the United States are in dispute with insurers.

The Black Swan cover could be used to ensure payments after catastrophes such as a cyber attack or solar storm destroying critical infrastructure, as well as for pandemics, Lloyd’s said in a report published on Wednesday.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines black swan events this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (xxii)

What phenomena fall into this category? According to Taleb:

Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. (xxii)

It seems like a conundrum: how exactly to provide insurance monies for events that are unknown and unpredictable? One of the important features of the insurance industry is being able to estimate risk and possibly payouts. A black swan event makes this very difficult if not impossible. At the same time, we know black swan events are possible – even if we do not know which ones might occur or what new phenomena might arise – so having money available to address the situation seems wise.

It would be interesting to see how this plays in the court of public opinion. When crisis hits, I would guess many people want governments and large corporations to be able to respond quickly and dispatch needed monies. Yet, having a large slush fund or unlimited monies to address potential situations could strike some as problematic.

Building Faith by Brenneman and Miller coming soon

Sociologist Bob Brenneman and I are a few weeks away from the release of our book Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. Here is the description of the book from the Oxford University Press website:

BrennemanMillerBuildingFaith

The social sciences have mostly ignored the role of physical buildings in shaping the social fabric of communities and groups. Although the emerging field of the sociology of architecture has started to pay attention to physical structures, Brenneman and Miller are the first to combine the light of sociological theory and the empirical method in order to understand the impact of physical structures on religious groups that build, transform, and maintain them. Religious buildings not only reflect the groups that build them or use them; these physical structures actually shape and change those who gather and worship there.

Religious buildings are all around us. From Wall Street to Main Street, from sublime and historic cathedrals to humble converted storefronts, these buildings shape the global religious landscape, Building Faith explores the social impact of religious buildings in places as diverse as a Chicago suburb and a Guatemalan indigenous Mayan village, all the while asking the questions, “How does space shape community?” and “How do communities shape the spaces that speak for them?”

This project began with fruitful lunch conversation which led to the publishing of a co-authored 2017 article in Sociology of Religion titled “When Bricks Matter: Four Sociological Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings.”  A book proposal, research on several different fronts, and many revisions led up to the book which examines how religious buildings shape and are shaped by those who gather there as well as others around the building.

What looking at COVID-19 risk by county across the United States can tell us

A new analysis by the Census Bureau looks at the risk for COVID-19 by county:

CountyLevelCOVID19RiskLevels

See how the Census Bureau calculated the risk here.

Several thoughts on the map:

1. There are some patterns. Many counties in the Northeast, Midwest, and Mountain West having lower levels of risk (outside of urban counties). In contrast, the Sun Belt and the West Coast are at higher risk.

2. Doing this at the county level makes some sense: people might travel within a county for work, errands, and other activity. At the same time, there could be significant disparities across communities within counties that a map like this covers up. For example, it looks like DuPage County is somewhere in the middle and some suburbs there have higher rates of cases than others.

3. The differences across geographies also speak to the difficulties of enacting policies across different areas. On the risk map, some states have more consistent patterns while others have a mix (ranging from more equal numbers of counties at different levels or a few heavily populated counties versus everyone else). National policies have to address places with different experiences and different futures.

4. This data cannot tell us how many people cross county lines within a region or state. There are clusters of counties with similar risk levels but this may not speak much to travel as to similar populations.

Providing a fully designed and furnished home

The CEO of Restoration Hardware recently discussed providing customers with homes that are completely designed and furnished:

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I would ask everybody in this call, if you get a second tonight, go on Zillow, go on Redfin, go on, pick your website for real estate. Go look at 100 homes tonight in a price range that you think we might play at. And tell me how many have great architecture, tell me how many have great interior design and how many have great landscape architecture. If it’s 1% — if it’s more than 1%, like you must live in a really great area. But even in the great areas, it’s so low. How many friends’ houses do you go to that you say, “Wow, this is beautiful architecture. This is great interior design. This is great landscape architecture”? Almost never. Almost never. It’s like a completed — completely uncharted world.

When you really look at the big homebuilders, they’re kind of stamping out some — it’s not a McMansion anymore. Call it whatever you want. But it’s a stamp out, right? And it’s a nice organized development, but there’s no one providing completely turnkey homes. Like Eri says to me a lot, like they don’t sell you a car without an interior. You don’t go buy a beautiful Mercedes or whatever brand you like, and it comes without an interior and you got to figure it out yourself.

I don’t know how many people on this phone have tried to do their own interior design or furnished their house. It’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for me, and I do it for a living. I have a house in the Napa Valley that I finished remodeling like 3.5 years ago. It’s not furnished yet. It’s that hard. It’s a pain in the ass. And so we know how hard it is. We know we’re good at it….

And I sit here and I go, well, why can’t we — we’re really good at architecture, really good at interior design, really good at landscape architecture. I know we can design and build things and furnishing that people will like. And I think there’s — if you think about people with money, okay, and you think about just what’s the most valuable asset, time, right? By far, the most valuable asset. Everybody on this phone can figure out — if you lose your money, you can figure out how to make more money. If you lose your time, you just can’t get it back, right? So we think a lot about businesses that deliver time value will become more valuable.

Four things stand out to me here:

  1. It is interesting to consider this in light of the increasing emphasis on staging properties. With staging, the design is more temporary but it gives potential buyers a vision for what the property could be. The option discussed above is more long-term.
  2. Generally, Americans act as though homes should be empty boxes filled in by owners to fit their tastes. When people buy homes, they customize them (within the confines of what is possible with the home) to what they desire and what they can afford. What if it could also work the other way around: a fully designed home shapes the owner as they come to grow into it?
  3. This highlights the mass produced nature of many American homes, whether they are McMansions are not. Particularly after World War Two, larger homebuilders started constructing more homes and buyers purchased them more like factory items. Straddling this gap from mass produced home to more customized home is not easy.
  4. I think he is right that there is a market for such homes. Yet, I imagine the market is fairly small given the price that would be involved. It is one thing to stage a home and then take those items back out; it is another to have a fully immersive design process and keep everything. For a business, I wonder what is the lower price point of homes that this makes sense for businesses (particularly if this is meant of more of a luxury product that is supposed to remain exclusive).

 

The McMansions and their wealthy owners who do not need house numbers

As one writer walked every street of zip code of 22207 to look at house numbers, they noticed something about some of the larger homes:

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Some exorbitant McMansions featured no address numbers at all, only very pointed security-company signs. (The cars parked at those homes often sport diplomatic plates.) Many of the richest houses in Arlington—for example, the mansions overlooking the Potomac near Chain Bridge—were not visible from the street at all, and so the only address numbers ascertainable were on mailboxes or security gates at the foot of long, winding driveways.

One of the purposes of McMansions, particularly according to critics, is to broadcast the status and money of the owners. Through the garish architecture and an imposing facade, McMansion owners show what they have.

So, if a homeowner does not have a street address visible, does this mean their home is not a McMansion? Perhaps the home still shows off even if it more difficult to connect the home to its particular owners.

The story might be a little different here. Might these be less of McMansion owners – those who want to project their success – and more of people with real money and status who want to stay quiet about their success? One of the advantages of being elite and/or having resources in insulating yourself from the public. This may be why it is harder for sociologists, journalists, and others to get access to the elite as they can better control access to themselves. Not having easily visible house numbers is just a start.

Coming back to the McMansion status of such homes. I wonder if this could turn into a minor addendum to defining McMansions: how does the visibility of the home to the street affect whether it is a McMansion? Let’s say the McMansion is shielded from the road by trees and a gate; does this render the home less offensive since it is not broadcasting its architecture so much?