Viewing the suburbs from The Floating City

Sudhir Venkatesh’s The Floating City examines some of the underground economy in New York City but also contains several interesting brief perspectives on the suburbs.

1. As he is introducing one of the main characters early in the book, Venkatesh recalls an earlier conversation at the University of Chicago (p.16):

“How funny would it be if I did a study comparing J.B.’s film business to Shine’s drug business? my mind drifted to a conversation I’d had with a faculty member at the University of Chicago right at the beginning of my academic career. “I want to study the suburbs,” I’d said. He looked at me as if he’d seen a bug. “They’re white and middle class,” he’d said. “What’s there to study?”

2. Later in the book, Venkatesh describes why he studies what he does. In doing so, he compares portrayals of urban and suburban life (p.144):

“As my tone may hint, this is a pet peeve. for the last decade, I’ve been fighting the stereotypes of the poor that began to pervade American society after the publication of the infamous Moynihan Report in 1965, which argued that the history of slavery and generations of single-parent matriarchal families had created a “tangle of pathology” that made it difficult for many inner-city blacks to enter the social mainstream. The truth in this analysis took a backseat to the blaming, it seemed to me. White families had high divorce and addiction rates too, but their entry into the job market wasn’t blocked by patronizing assumptions about their tangle of pathology. Suburbs also bred family dysfunction, not to mention some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug addiction, domestic abuse, and other forms of delinquency, but you didn’t hear people talk about the tangle of suburban pathology. Poverty has been growing faster in the suburbs than in the inner city since 2000, but a dozen years later the cliche of the urban poor remains intact. my argument, based on the experience of my years in the Chicago ghetto, is that the poor are actually more resilient and economically creative because the have much bigger obstacles to overcome – just as a small house built by hand can be much more impressive than a mansion built by experts.”

Both points strike me as having some truth: sociologists tend to see the suburbs as dull and middle-class even as interesting things are taking place both in urban and suburban neighborhoods. And Venkatesh has done much, along with others, to give us realistic rather than stereotyped depictions of poor urban life at the turn of the 21st century.

Yet, I think these two passages contradict each other. The first suggests there isn’t much worth studying in suburbs. Cities are global centers and urban sociology has a long history of examining urban neighborhoods The second passage suggests suburban life has its own issues and more of the “urban” issues – like poverty or increasing presence of gangs or higher proportions of immigrant residents – are now present there. The second suggests sociologists need to be studying both cities and suburbs while leaving behind the urban elitism of the first. Since a majority of Americans live in suburbs and there are dynamic things happening in many metropolitan areas, where are the ethnographers and urban sociologists in training some of the same techniques and analytical lenses on the suburbs?

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