What can you tell about a person from their neighborhood?

When I read the news that The College Board is expanding its use of an “Adversity Score” with the SAT (including measures of “the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood”), I immediately thought of a basic sociological question that is part of the discussion of the new methods: just how much does a neighborhood or location shape a person?

A few pieces of evidence:

1. A particular location shapes access to numerous resources from jobs to certain neighbors to local services and amenities to schools to certain political structures. Hence, residential segregation has significant influence on life chances.

2. Marketers seem to make a lot of zip codes. For example, Esri has a tool that divides American locations into certain slices:

Just head to the website, type in your zip code, and you’ll be greeted with a breakdown of your zip code’s demographic characteristics based on Esri’s “Tapestry” technology, which consists of 67 unique market segment classifications.

More:

But more than that, the database is a fascinating glimpse into how marketers see the world, and how data profiles can link populations in distant cities—or not. Though cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, might be compared culturally, their marketing profiles are fairly distinct. And while the majority of consumers in Beverly Hills share a profile with those on Philadelphia’s Main Line, for example, they don’t match up with the profile for residents of similarly expensive zip codes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

3. Wealthy people seem to use their zip code as a marker for who they are. Getting to help determine who can live in the community or neighborhood is a desirable goal in many places.

At the same time, not everyone in a particular community or location has the same experience. Yet, locations are very formative for people even as they exercise some agency in responding to local conditions or making choices to move elsewhere.

Separating the ills of suburbia from the ills of the United States

The critiques of the American suburbs are common and persistent. But, how many of them are unique to the suburbs as opposed to multiple American settings or American society as a whole? A thought experiment with a number of the ills of suburbia:

  1. Consumerism. Present everywhere with displays of wealth such as expensive housing, cars, and technological goods alongside just having a lot of stuff. Certain suburban symbols may catch attention – such as McMansions and SUVs – but these are present all over the place. Excessive or wasteful consumption is not solely an American problem.
  2. Sprawl. This may seem like a uniquely suburban problem. Yet, numerous American cities have varying levels of density and lots of single-family home neighborhoods (even if these homes are closer together).
  3. Driving. Suburbs may be more dependent or designed around automobiles but so are most American cities and urban neighborhoods. And  rural areas would be very different without widespread access to cars.
  4. Conformity. Mass culture is everywhere, even if cities are often regarded as having more diversity and cultural experiences. This is related to consumerism as many Americans are thoroughly immersed (just see the figures on how much media Americans consume a day).
  5. Inequality. Across categories of race, class, and gender, American communities of all kinds experience problems. They may manifest differently in each context but addressing inequality in the suburbs would not solve the problem in the entire country.
  6. Lack of true community. Social ties seem to be more tenuous across the United States as a whole and the influence of and trust in institutions of all kinds has declined. Americans are famously individualistic, whether in suburbs or other settings.

Another way to think about it: did these problems begin in suburbs or are they amplified or exacerbated by suburbs? Imagine the United States where only 30% of American lived in suburbs: might driving and sprawl still be an issue? Would the problems of inequality be alleviated?

Five forces behind the American affordable housing problem

Affordable housing is not an easy issue to address and one overview provides five factors at play:

Baby boomers—those aged 55 or older—are living longer and more independently than previous generations. They’re also more likely than previous generations to be divorced and living alone. This means less housing stock has been freed up by elderly people dying or moving into assisted-living facilities. In some cases, boomer homeowners are looking to trade down and compete for entry-level homes with other generations, putting upward pressure on prices on homes in the lowest price tier…

While subsequent administrations have swung the agency’s priorities between promoting homeownership programs and assisting poor renters by offering housing subsidies, the federal government consistently subsidizes middle- and upper-middle-class homeowners rather than low-income renters, seniors, and the disabled…

Restrictive zoning codes are often an effective tool in the fight against new construction and, frequently, densification, helping to suppress housing supply even as demand rises. Whether by limiting the height of new buildings or deciding that large apartment buildings need a minimum number of parking spots, these restrictions make construction more difficult and more expensive. California cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are known for impeding new construction through these methods, which has led to the state’s severe housing shortage

The “affordability” of housing isn’t all about the housing itself: As rising rents and home prices push low- and middle-income households farther from major urban centers—where the greatest number of jobs and the most robust public transit systems tend to be—lower housing costs in suburbs and exurbs get offset by increased spending on transportation.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As an academic, I am sympathetic with arguments such as this that try to explain a social problem with more complexity and nuance. Short answer for a typical academic answer to a social issue: it’s complicated. As a person who wants affordable housing to be addressed, I want solutions sooner rather than later.
  2. One advantage of the complexity/nuanced argument is to highlight that whole systems are at play. Making serious headway with one or two factor may not move the needle. All the issues need to be addressed and everyone needs to keep in mind their connected nature. To put it differently, this requires large-scale societal change, not just piece-meal approaches. There are a variety of social levels and actors involved and they should aim to work toward common goals. It is often hard to think in this structural or system way but necessary when tackling large problems.
  3. I wonder how helpful it would be to cite successful models or places, even if they are relatively small communities. Even if systems need to be addressed, it can be hard to tackle everything at once without some hope that the goal can be reached. Are there cities/municipalities/states/regions that have some answers that can be adopted elsewhere

Two data points in transportation change: NYC subway ridership peaks in 1946, US non-commuter rail traffic drops after 1945

That the automobile came to dominate American social life and physical spaces after World War II is clear in multiple ways but two recent points of data I saw helped drive this point home.

Start in an obvious place: New York City. On one hand, the use of mass transit in New York City is unparalleled in the biggest American cities. On the other hand, subway ridership peaked in 1946:

1946: Subway ridership peaks

Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.

To a less obvious place: Toledo, Ohio. In the late 1940s, the city proudly constructs a new train station amid a growing population and optimism about the future. And then train traffic fell off dramatically across the country:

In the 20 years following Toledo Tomorrow, non-commuter rail travel in the U.S. collapsed, falling 84 percent nationwide, thanks in large part to the airports and the ribbons of limited-access high-speed roads Bel Geddes had foretold. Five years after the new railroad station opened in Toledo, the New York Central put it up for sale. Eight years later, the Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station in New York City would be demolished; five years after that, the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads combined to form Penn Central, then the largest merger in American history. It would become the largest bankruptcy in American history two years later.

There is little doubt that the car is a nearly essential part of American culture today but it was not always this way nor is it guaranteed to be in the future. Reversing or countering a major trend is always difficult, particularly when its tentacles are everywhere and embedded in infrastructure and culture. To truly move to other forms of transportation would require not just fewer cars and vehicles on roads but a massive reconfiguring of American society.

Downsizing, Marie Kondo, and all the stuff Americans own

Many older Americans want to downsize (and cash out on their homes), Marie Kondo’s approach is popular, but where will all that stuff owned by older homeowners go?

Auctioneers and appraisers, junk haulers and moving companies all seem to be echoing the same thing: The market is flooded with baby boomer rejects. And they cite a number of reasons our kids are turning down the possessions we so generously offer to them. They rent rather than own, live in smaller spaces, collect more digital than physical items and tend to put their money toward experiences rather than things…

Her kids also rejected three sets of formal dinnerware, including Haviland China; vast collections of Lladro figurines and Department 56 Christmas villages; as well as 3,000 Beanie Babies and boxes of soccer awards she and her husband, who both coached for many years, earned with their children.

The only offer she got on any of her treasures? One son wants her Hallmark Frosty Friends ornaments she’s collected over 37 years “because he knows how much they are worth.”

Two scenarios could develop:

1. There will be a growing market in stuff that older Americans no longer want. Perhaps many millennials or Gen Z do not want stuff from their parents but some other American will want it. It does not just have to go to resale shops; enterprising individuals and firms could shop all these items online to find buyers interested in particular niches. Perhaps this could even expand to international markets and be shipped in bulk around the globe.

2. Much of the stuff will simply be thrown away, particularly items that are more sentimental in nature. Some lucky owners will find people to take or buy their unneeded items but much of the rest will simply find its way into landfills. Decades of consumption will end in the garbage can.

I have not seen any estimates either way of how much money all of these goods could generate or how much waste could be involved (or a combination of both).

Also, consider the implications of such a change: younger generations do not take material objects from their parents and grandparents, creating a bit of a gap in a material timeline. Perhaps the shifting of wealth from generation to generation more often takes the form of helping to pay for housing or student loans rather than tangible goods. How does this change memories and collective understandings of the past?

 

Now is the time to see who really cares about their lawn (and social appearances)

This is the time of year in our area to see which residents really care about maintaining their lawn. There are three main features of the lawn to look at to make this determination:

1. Is the lawn regularly cut to keep up with the rapid growth? At this time of year, the grass grows quite quickly with plenty of rain and warmer temperatures. This likely requires mowing more than once a week in order to keep the grass at a pleasing-to-the-eyes height.

2. Are there no dandelions visible? This hints as the groundkeeper’s efforts regarding weeds. Green grass is all that should be seen as people pass by. The shame of an uneven lawn might be outweighed by having a yard full of dandelions surrounded by perfectly green (and yellow-free) yards.

3. Is the grass uniform and lush? Even with all of the rain and sunshine, different kinds of grass (and other kinds of ground cover) plus patchy spots in the yard could indicate the homeowner is less invested in the lawn.

Two bonus features about the landscaping (often connected to lawn maintenance) to look at during this time of year:

1. If the residence has blooming flowers. This requires either foresight – planting perennial flowers – or time each year to put in new flowers.

2. If fresh mulch has been applied to beds on the property. This may be accompanied by a particular smell or a visible pile (or dirt mark) on the driveway or side yard.

As I have argued before, all of these markers are signs of both residential social norms and class-related behavior.

Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.