Familiar road trip highways, Part One: going into travel autopilot

On a recent weekend, I made two separate day trips. Each sojourn required driving on highways in and out of the Chicago region that I have traveled on, either as passenger or driver, at least dozens of times. Because of its location and its transportation infrastructure, the Chicago area has numerous highways plus a good number of interesting locations within several hours.

One feature of such drives is the ability to go into a kind of travel autopilot. These roads are familiar. You know the sights. In the Midwestern landscape, there may be relatively variation in scenery.

To me, this eases the drive. Yes, hours may pass but you have done this before and you can get it through it again. On these routes, I have encountered clear skies, dark, rain, snow, and light traffic and heavy traffic. The drive is still roughly the same.

This may seem boring to some. What is the point of such a drive? Why not just go a lot faster and get there as soon as possible?

However, the familiar roads and scenery can open up room for other activities. Enjoying music is easier when the roads are familiar. So is good conversation or listening to an audiobook or doing some contemplating. Because what is going on outside the vehicle is not much of a distraction, many of the things that people celebrate about road trips are possible.

Tomorrow, what can happen when you are on a slightly different highway near what you thought were familiar locations.

Use better social science categories than “generations”

Millennials, Boomers, the Silent Generation, Gen Y, etc. are all categories that people generally think describe real phenomena. But, are they useful categories for describing patterns within American society?

Photo by Sarah Chai on Pexels.com

This supposition requires leaps of faith. For one thing, there is no empirical basis for claiming that differences within a generation are smaller than differences between generations. (Do you have less in common with your parents than with people you have never met who happen to have been born a few years before or after you?) The theory also seems to require that a person born in 1965, the first year of Generation X, must have different values, tastes, and life experiences from a person born in 1964, the last year of the baby-boom generation (1946-64). And that someone born in the last birth year of Gen X, 1980, has more in common with someone born in 1965 or 1970 than with someone born in 1981 or 1990.

Everyone realizes that precision dating of this kind is silly, but although we know that chronological boundaries can blur a bit, we still imagine generational differences to be bright-line distinctions. People talk as though there were a unique DNA for Gen X—what in the nineteenth century was called a generational “entelechy”—even though the difference between a baby boomer and a Gen X-er is about as meaningful as the difference between a Leo and a Virgo…

In any case, “explaining” people by asking them what they think and then repeating their answers is not sociology. Contemporary college students did not invent new ways of thinking about identity and community. Those were already rooted in the institutional culture of higher education. From Day One, college students are instructed about the importance of diversity, inclusion, honesty, collaboration—all the virtuous things that the authors of “Gen Z, Explained” attribute to the new generation. Students can say (and some do say) to their teachers and their institutions, “You’re not living up to those values.” But the values are shared values…

In other words, if you are basing your characterization of a generation on what people say when they are young, you are doing astrology. You are ascribing to birth dates what is really the result of changing conditions.

As this piece notes, popular discourse often treats generations as monolithic blocks. Everyone in a particular generation has similar experiences, outlooks, values. Is this actually true? Or, are other social forces at work including changing conditions, lifecourse changes, social markers like race, class, and gender, and more?

I remember seeing earlier this year an open letter from social scientists to Pew Research asking them to discontinue using generation categories. This is one way that change could occur: researchers working in this area can replace less helpful categories with more helpful ones. This could be scientific progress: as our understanding of social phenomena develops, we can better conceptualize and operationalize these. With sustained effort and keeping up with changes in society, we could see a shift in how we talk about differences between people born at different times.

Yet, this also takes a lot of work. The generations labels are popular. They are a convenient shorthand. People in the United States are used to understanding themselves and others with these categories. Sociological categories are not always easy to bring to the public nor do they always find acceptance.

At the least, perhaps we can hope for fewer articles and opinions that broadly smear whole generations. Making hasty or less than accurate generalizations is not helpful.

Can a “great novel” be set in the Chicago suburbs?

A new book from author Jonathan Franzen chronicles of lives of a family in the Chicago suburbs:

Q: Your novels are often set in the Midwest, but why set a trilogy in suburban Chicago?

A: I wanted it near a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. I wanted it big because my recollection of the early 1970s is strongest ‘73 onward. I was in suburban St. Louis and the stuff that was happening in suburban St. Louis was probably happening a year or two earlier in Chicago. For that reason, the book begins in late 1971. I could be more assured of getting the cultural references and spirit right. But also, gosh, the Midwest just recurs in my work, right? I was born in suburban Chicago, I knew Chicago starting from the mid-70s on. Both of my brothers moved to Chicago, and with a novel, it’s nice to feel like you know the streets in a place. It’s that extra research you don’t have to do.

This leads to two related questions:

  1. Can a great cultural work be set in the American suburbs of the postwar era? Can the space that is often criticized for sprawl, conformity, exclusion, and dullness serve as a compelling setting?
  2. Are the suburbs of a city like Chicago, set in the Midwest, a kind of shorthand for central or normal America?

Of course, the simpler answer may be what is above: Franzen is familiar with the Chicago suburbs and its ways of life. But, the questions above still stand: are there great cultural works set in the suburbs? In a country where a majority of the residents live in the suburbs, I would suggest those experiences have not necessarily translated into critically acclaimed or very popular cultural works.

See this earlier post on different kinds of cultural works involving the suburbs.

A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

More young adults pooling resources to purchase homes

Limited in pursuing the American Dream of homeownership by college debt, economic conditions, and high housing prices? More young adults are buying homes with other people:

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

For millennials, many of whom are getting married later in life, swimming in student-loan debt and facing soaring home prices, homeownership can feel more like a fantasy than an achievable goal. So, some first-time home buyers are taking a more creative route to make it happen—by pooling their finances with partners, friends or roommates.

Since 2014, when millennials became the largest share of home buyers in the U.S., the number of home and condo sales across the country by co-buyers has soared. The number of co-buyers with different last names increased by 771% between 2014 and 2021, according to data from real-estate analytics firm Attom Data Solution.

The pandemic added fuel to that trend, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. Among all age groups during the early pandemic months—April to June 2020—11% of buyers purchased as an unmarried couple and 3% as “other” (essentially, roommates). Those numbers were up from 9% and 2%, respectively, in the previous year.

This is an interesting situation: Americans continue to want to purchase homes. However, this is not within the reach of many unless they have ways to draw on additional resources.

I do wonder how this is connected to broader changes in households and the formation of families. How does this all work with more Americans living alone, changes in marriage rates, and extended emerging adulthood?

I have heard many warnings over the years about co-signing loans, even among family. Some of these arrangements could present complications in the long run:

Legal experts advise buyers to consult a real-estate attorney to help write a co-ownership agreement that covers every possible scenario, from job loss to marriage to personal fallouts. For example, who will hire the handyman if there is a plumbing issue? Who is in charge of collecting and making the mortgage payments? If one co-owner moves away, will the other co-owners have an option to buy them out or will there be a forced sale of the home?

While this is still a small minority of homeowners, it is worth paying attention to with high housing prices and economic anxiety.

Approving a controversial suburban mosque proposal – with conditions

Religious groups can face obstacles when they want to use land and/or buildings for religious purposes. The case of one Muslim group and property in Naperville that I have followed in research and on this blog winds closer to the end but approval might come with a number of conditions:

The city’s planning and zoning commission reviewed the plan over the course of 15 hearings and heard from about 500 speakers. On Wednesday, the panel voted 6-1 in favor of the project.

The proposal now heads to the city council for final approval, although that likely won’t happen until November, according to Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche…

The vote came after three hours of closing statements, and after city staff detailed 12 conditions for the ICN to accept. Eleven were accepted by ICN attorney Len Monson and the wording of a 12th was adjusted before being accepted.

Among the conditions agreed to were the ICN’s responsibility for traffic management during the facility’s busiest times, no construction after the second phase of the project until 248th Avenue is expanded, a school pickup plan for the second phase, splitting the cost with the city for a traffic signal at 248th Avenue and Honey Locust Drive, and no outdoor amplification of sound.

Several points of my research may be relevant here:

  1. Compared to other religious groups, Muslim groups do seem to encounter a lot of opposition when they make proposals.
  2. This proposal is also for a property surrounded by residences. My research suggests such a location near single-family homes can lead to more opposition from neighbors.
  3. Conditions or negotiations between communities and religious groups do happen.
  4. The conditions described above sound like they address some of the concerns raised by neighbors (and community members generally in my research): traffic and the residential/single-family home character of the area.

This particular proposal has received a lot of public comment and if it is approved by the City Council, it would be interesting to follow the neighborhood and community relations between Naperville residentsand ICN at this location and in Naperville more broadly

Autonomous railroads and the importance of shipping goods by train

An exploration of autonomous trains in the United States includes this graphic about how cargo is moved in the country:

At this point, railroad shipping is very important: roughly one-third of cargo goes via train. This only follows trucks. And I wonder how this data works when cargo goes much of the way via train but then needs to make it “the last mile” from the railyard to specific locations.

So how much might autonomous railroads help? Here is some suggestive data:

A European Union-funded study published in 2020 found that moving to newer systems for managing trains could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. An internal study by Wabtec indicates in the U.S. the increase could be even higher, up to 50%. An increase of that magnitude in the ton-miles carried by America’s rail network would be the equivalent of moving approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.

Combine this with autonomous trucks (which, according to this piece, may take longer than moving to autonomous trains) and drones and perhaps more future goods could be moved even more quickly.

The relative concept of “the big city”

The United States has big cities of various sizes. For example, the Wikipedia list of the largest cities in the United States ranges from New York City to #326 on the list, Roanoke, Virginia, at just over 100,000 residents. By important measures, whether population size, density, or land size, some places are definitely bigger than others.

Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

But, a trip this week to Springfield, Illinois reminded me that these absolute measures obscure how different big cities function within their own regions or geographic areas. Take Illinois. The biggest city by far is Chicago and the majority of Illinois residents live within that metropolitan region. Yet, within Illinois there are numerous smaller big cities that anchor sizable areas as well as the big city of St. Louis just over the Mississippi River. If you are in Quincy, Illinois, with roughly 40,000 residents, Springfield at over 114,000 residents might be the big city over an hour away. Chicago is even further away both geographically, five hours by car or train, and culturally. Regional political, economic, cultural, infrastructure, and health systems revolve around these smaller big cities which then have links to the less common truly big cities.

This even happens within the Chicago area. Yes, the truly big city is close and can even be seen from different high points 25-30 miles away. But, in daily activity, many suburbanites do not travel to the big city. They may travel to a different suburb for work as jobs can be concentrated in suburban job centers,e they attend religious services or lessons for their kids in yet other suburbs, and they look for restaurants in entertainment in even more suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is dominant, even thought a world-leading global city is nearby.

Put these different experiences together and “the big city” can mean different things in different contexts. Is it the regional center an hour away, the truly large city with a major international airport several hours away, the sizable suburb nearby that offers some different options, the tourist magnet that many people visit, or the big city as it is depicted on television and movie screens?

Using capitalist means, such as TV shows and consumer goods, to critique capitalism

Capitalism is the economic system of the United States and many other parts of the world. Can actors use capitalist means to critique capitalism? Two recent examples.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

First, television shows, films, and cultural products more broadly often contain critiques of capitalist systems and outcomes. For example, one writer highlights how this happens with the popular series Squid Games:

One of the key things wealth can buy is the ability to make decisions and change your circumstances. Money gives you options and choices. For everyone else in the vicinity of Just Getting By (or worse), choice is often little more than an illusion. Most of us fall into the latter category and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Netflix Korean series “Squid Game” has become such a global phenomenon since premiering last month, with its brutal critique of capitalist imperatives and the traps therein…

Because is it really a choice — such a slippery word — when you’re this desperate? Is it really a choice when the systems we live by are put in place by the rich and powerful to deliberately create that desperation? Put another way: Scarcity in modern life is as manufactured as the life-or-death scenarios in “Squid Game.”

In the show’s view, we are powerless to band together, to refuse to play along or create a different reality. When pushed to the brink, we become selfish or scared or just beaten down. And ultimately, we turn on one another. Another clear thematic through-line: It is men who run and enforce these games, and it is men who watch them from afar as spectators numb to (or thrilled by) the suffering at hand…

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the real-world embodiment of the show’s exploitative VIPs — tweeted congratulations to Netflix’s head honchos before adding: “And I can’t wait to watch the show”? Nothing bizarre or surreal about that, nope, nope, nope. Is this the part where I also mention that Netflix and Amazon are among the studios playing hardball with the union for TV and film crews in the U.S. on issues like livable wages, reasonable work hours and meal breaks? Everything is fine, pay no mind to all the contradictions we live with every day!

So wealthy studios, streaming services, and individuals put together and promote a series critiquing capitalism and there is plenty of money to be made off of this.

Second, consumers are regularly asked to purchase items or experiences that funnel money to worthwhile charities and causes. This could be celebrity-backed lines that donate a portion of the price to charity, religious organizations or civic groups selling items, or companies donating money through purchases. All of this assumes that purchases will be made and that consumers will want to purchase products or experiences that give back as opposed to ones just sold for profit. Consuming is the way to give, as opposed to just giving without the need for consumption.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that anything can be made into a commodity. This includes items needed for daily survival to luxury goods to experiences to things that once were “sacred.” If anything can be bought and sold, including objects that critique the very system under which they are bought and sold, is there hope of a different reality?

Consumerism is also a powerful force. Whether consuming TV shows – binge-watching a critique of capitalism? – or consumer goods, the consumer is in a particular position of taking things in. I like the distinction I have heard from multiple sources over the last decade or so: there is a difference between being a consumer and a citizen. The first primarily takes while the second contains the ideas of duties, responsibilities, and obligations alongside personal or collective benefits.

The consequences of losing the physical dimensions of religious and spiritual rituals

A psychologist encouraging people to adopt religious rituals – though not necessarily the religion associated with them – highlights the physical dimension of these rituals:

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

One thing that does worry me is a move toward doing these things online. We had to do it remotely because of covid-19. But these rituals are designed to happen and work best in the presence of other individuals. When we’re together, our heart rate synchronizes our breath. These mechanisms are leveraging our minds and bodies. Why do people kneel in church? There’s research showing that if you show people information on a screen above them, they place more emphasis and believe more on the higher screen because they’re looking up at it. Physiologically, we interpret something higher verticality as more authoritative. If you’re sitting on your computer or watching on your phone, I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of the power and majesty of certain rituals because we’re doing them remotely. That’s not how they were designed to work.

It is hard to overstate the communal factor of physical rituals. As sociologist Randall Collins describes in Interaction Ritual Chains, the bodily presence of others enhances the individual and collective experience.

This train of thought is also part of the reason sociologist Robert Brenneman and I wrote Building Faith. A recent trend is that people interested in religion or spirituality do it on their own and in secular settings. But, this is not what numerous religious traditions have highlighted for thousands of years. They have buildings that are intended to enhance the experience of the transcendent as well as enhance fellowship among believers. They may structure this space in different ways – whether to emphasize the preached Word, music, prayer, viewing other attendees, etc. – but they generally agree that buildings shape religious faith. Move those beliefs and practices to other spaces or to no spaces and it is something different.

Could people eventually have a faith or set of spiritual beliefs and practices and no common rituals whatsoever? Remove the physical structures and a group of people around them doing something similar and it is easier to imagine.