Quick Review: Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb

I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:

  1. I was drawn to this because even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, there is a lack of in-depth studies of their experiences and social lives. I realize it is not a sexy topic – everyone thinks they know everything about suburbs – but there are plenty of interesting topics to pursue.
  2. The book is a little unusual in that it seems to be published a good amount of time after the research was done. Heiman undertook the research for her dissertation but the book was not published until 2015. This is not necessarily bad as time can give a researcher an opportunity to truly think about what they have found. At the same time, Heiman interprets some of her findings in light of the housing bubble and economic crisis of the late 2000s even though her research was from an earlier period.
  3. The best part of the analysis in my opinion was the chapter on a battle in the local school district. The New Jersey residents were part of a district that included a number of communities and when the district had to decide how to spread resources and which schools students should attend, the communities fought each other. In particular, the wealthier parts of the district generally did not want their children to have to attend the other schools which either had populations of lower-class or minority residents. Another chapter looked at how a community negotiated a request from a homeowner to place a gate across his driveway, a move interpreted by his neighbors and local leaders as an exclusionary effort. At other points, Heiman noted how residents reacted when she mentioned that she was living in a more affordable but less well regarded nearby suburb. More broadly, the analysis was better when it pointed out inter-suburban differences and how suburbanites negotiated their various statuses.
  4. The overall argument was that these suburbanites are trapped in a destabilizing neoliberal system. While this argument makes sense, I’m not sure it is too much different than critiques of suburbia dating back to the mid-1950s. Some of the same themes are present: conformity, squabbles over local class differences rather than looking at the larger social and economic system, anxiety, an emphasis on children, etc. While there are not enough studies of suburbs, we also need new approaches and arguments. And, there is still a basic question for studies of suburbs to consider: if life is so problematic in suburbs, why do many Americans still seek them out? If they are not dupes and have agency, what are viable alternatives to sprawling suburbs that offer what many Americans say they want?
  5. One topic I would have enjoyed reading more about: experiences inside housing. There is a chapter that takes an unconventional approach to this topic through examining the portions of homes with new carpet that is intended to impress visitors (and that children must not walk on with shoes).

In the end, I’m not sure this text would make my short list of excellent ethnographies of suburban life. At the same time, it has some strong moments and I could imagine using the chapter on school districts in courses.

Predicting the “great senior sell-off” to come

Here is an update on one event that might be coming down the road: the time when the Baby Boomers decide to sell their homes.

Nelson pointed to the affordability issue as well as the fact that about a quarter of Millennials prefer urban housing, such as condos or townhouses, over the detached suburban homes that were the Boomers’ preferred habitat. Younger buyers, he said, will also be looking for starter homes—smaller than the big Colonials and split-levels that line America’s cul-de-sacs. “We can predict the next housing crash,” he said at the time. “That’ll be in about 2020.”

Four years later, Nelson tells CityLab that that he believes the sell-off will still occur—but later, in the mid- to late 2020s. This has to do with people deciding to defer selling their homes, hoping to get a better price later than settling for a lower price now. “Home values in much of the country are still less than those before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009,” he says. Prior to the recession, the typical homeowner would sell a house about every six years. “It was like clockwork,” says Nelson. “This drove a lot of planning and development projections.”…

Nelson predicts that the fringe areas surrounding cities will bring the biggest headaches for Boomers looking to unload their houses. Because Millennials will be looking for small homes when they finally start to buy in larger numbers, the sprawling McMansions of the exurbs won’t be desirable to many of them. “The Boomers in the exurbs are going to be in a real pickle,” says Nelson. “Even in a dynamic market like Washington, D.C. or other booming cities, the market for those homes is going to be soft.”…

But many analysts do agree on one thing: More housing will need to be built for Millennials—and it needs to be scaled to their desires, not their parents’s. “Millennials are likely to prioritize different features in their homes, such as greener materials or in-law suites,” says Molinsky. And according to the Harvard Joint Center’s projections, nearly 90 percent of those looking for homes in 2035 will be under 35 or 70 and over—and both groups tend to buy less square footage.

I suppose we’ll see what happens. I tend to think that Millennials might not be as transformative as some have suggested in regards to where they want to live or in what kinds of houses they inhabit. At the same time, there may be fewer Millennials than Baby Boomers in the market for housing – both due to different sizes of the various cohorts as well as the limited purchasing power of some Millennials  which means it could take some time for those Baby Boomer dwellings to find buyers.

It is also interesting to consider what might happen if these homes, particularly those on the metropolitan fringes, can’t be sold. Would they be demolished? Converted? The community retrofitted? Drop to a low enough price that they become very attractive to certain groups? We have plenty of history as a country of people spreading out but not much experience with any serious contraction.

A need to better understand why more education doesn’t lead to less religiosity among American Christians

A new Pew report looks at the relationship between education and religiosity:

On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the other
hand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.
Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
There is a two part process with this data. First, it has to be collected, analyzed, and reported. On the face, it seems to contradict some long-held ideas within sociology and other fields that increasing levels of education would reduce religiosity. Second, however, is perhaps the tougher task of interpretation. Why is this the case among Christians and not other groups? What about the differences between Christian traditions? How exactly is religion linked to education – does the education reinforce religiosity or are they separate spheres for Christians (among other possibilities)? Data is indeed helpful but proper explanation can often take much longer.

Why Google’s plan to scan every book in the world was halted

Google had plans to scan every book but the project hit some legal bumps along the way and now the company has “a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them”:

Google thought that creating a card catalog was protected by “fair use,” the same doctrine of copyright law that lets a scholar excerpt someone’s else’s work in order to talk about it. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Google’s lawyer, David Drummond, has said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.”…

It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself. “To have people go and research each one of these titles,” Sarnoff said to me, “It’s not just Sisyphean—it’s an impossible task economically.” Most out-of-print books are therefore locked up, if not by copyright then by inconvenience…

What became known as the Google Books Search Amended Settlement Agreement came to 165 pages and more than a dozen appendices. It took two and a half years to hammer out the details. Sarnoff described the negotiations as “four-dimensional chess” between the authors, publishers, libraries, and Google. “Everyone involved,” he said to me, “and I mean everyone—on all sides of this issue—thought that if we were going to get this through, this would be the single most important thing they did in their careers.” Ultimately the deal put Google on the hook for about $125 million, including a one-time $45 million payout to the copyright holders of books it had scanned—something like $60 per book—along with $15.5 million in legal fees to the publishers, $30 million to the authors, and $34.5 million toward creating the Registry….

This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle. “Even if there were reason to think history could repeat itself in this unlikely fashion,” the DOJ wrote, “it would scarcely be sound policy to encourage deliberate copyright violations and additional litigation.”

Out-of-print books with uncertain copyright status scuttle what could be one of the great treasure troves of information? This suggests we still have a ways to go until we have legal structures that can deal with the information-rich and easily accessible online realm. If a deal could eventually be worked out for books, what about older music, art, and other cultural works?

A related thought: having all those books available might indeed change the academic enterprise in several ways. First, we could easily access more sources of data. Second, we could potentially cite many more sources.

Will smart cities necessarily be lonely cities?

This piece thinks about how smart cities might affect social relationships and the prognosis is not good:

By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in so-called “smart cities.” These are metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected. Today, some people have “smart” thermostats, refrigerators, or smoke detectors. Tomorrow, we’ll have smart hospitals, farms, and highways, and it’s likely they’ll all talk to one another. Connected devices will monitor everything from air quality to energy usage and traffic congestion…

We can also expect more part-time work, distance working, and the blurring of our work and personal lives. Some worry that the rise of robots could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers.

But city-dwellers will see incremental changes outside of their workspace, too. Thanks to self-service checkouts and home delivery services, technology is creating less of a need for us to actually interact with those around us. Message bots, like Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa, will soon be able to suggest restaurants, hotels, and other local landmarks. This is already happening in places like Tel Aviv, where everyone over the age of 13 can receive personalized data, such as traffic information, and can access free municipal Wi-Fi in 80 public zones. Populations will be encouraged to make good use of these ever-personalized digital services, since this gives companies our precious data, which will be integral to smart cities…

But it’s doubtful that these interventions will be enough to counteract further encroachment of technology on cities’ infrastructure. Resistance needs to be on a grander scale. One solution may lie in the preservation of public spaces such as parks, community centers, cafes, and shops. “If cities are to remain viable places for people to develop the strong associational and social life fundamental to healthy human existence they must incorporate a range of public spaces and ‘third’ places outside of work and home, in which urban citizens can come together,” writes John Bingham-Hall, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science.

I’ll throw out two counterpoints that might lessen the concern:

  1. While new technology could move us toward more private lives, it doesn’t necessarily have to. We don’t have to end up in a futuristic setting and narrative as depicted in Her. Such claims have been made for centuries with the spread of industrialization and urbanization: new technologies would reduce the humanness of life. Think of the Luddites and their concerns about changes to manufacturing in the early 1800s. Marx was also worried about the alienation being brought about by the forces of industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, we could theoretically end up with more time for social interaction if these new technologies free us up. We’ve heard these promises for decades: people won’t have to work as much or take care of their possessions because it can be done for them. (Put it this way: what does it say about us that even though we have devices to help us reduce our labor, we continue to labor a lot? Are we trying to escape more social interaction?) I would ask: are we blaming the technology too much or should we think harder about how we could utilize what has been invented for our common good?
  2. Early sociologists were concerned about the individual being lost in the big cities of the modern world or noted that city life was a major change from small village life to which many in the world had grown accustomed. (See the work of Simmel, Durkheim, and Tonnies.) Yet, cities continue to attract people and social life continues – even if it has changed in certain ways. Still today, it seems that it might be important that people are around other people regularly (which commonly happens in dense cities), even if they don’t have strong relationships with many people. I would ask: is it really cities that are in danger of being lonely places or would the technology affect everyone in similar ways in coming decades?

Smart cities don’t have to be lonely cities. We could be lonely all over the place or we could make decisions about how to direct technology toward things we might want (such as increased or deeper social connections).

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?