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.

Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

Quick Review: Evicted

I recently read Matthew Desmond’s much discussed work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Here are my thoughts on the ethnographic work.

  1. The book is certainly readable as he tells the stories of a number of tenants and landlords in the Milwaukee area. The plight of the tenants is striking and the landlords are also an interesting group (particularly Sherrena who wanted to tell her story). Of course, such readability may not impress some sociologists who prefer more scientific prose (and who complain about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman) but this should reach a broader public. The narratives have some summary data and causal explanations sprinkled in but the emphasis is on the stories.
  2. One of the more impressive features of this work is the quantitative data that it also draws on. This information is buried in the footnotes but Desmond also developed several quantitative datasets that helped (1) suggest his stories are not unusual and (2) provide the broader patterns for an issue that is not studied much in sociology.
  3. The biggest takeaway for me: the number of evictions that take place on a regular basis.
  4. The subject area – evictions – certainly needs more attention. I’ve read my share of work on affordable housing in the last decade but rarely did I see this issue mentioned. As Desmond notes, big cities have a sizable population of people who consistently have to move around due to evictions. Even if there were more housing units – and big cities are often tens of thousands of units short of affordable units – evictions make it difficult to establish roots and settle kids into schools. The final chapter – where Desmond discusses the broader issue and possible solutions – leads off nicely with this idea of a good physical home as the centerpiece of a thriving society.
  5. That said, how common is this issue in suburban areas? As poverty moves to the suburbs as do increasing numbers of minorities, I would expect that evictions are not limited just to larger cities.
  6. One area that gets less attention in this ethnography that may also prove worthwhile to explore further is the legal apparatus. Desmond follows one of the eviction squads and provides some insights into the court process but it would be interesting to hear more from judges (who from the book seem to work against the tenants – though they may just be following the law) as well as local officials (how do public officials respond to these situations).
  7. A second area is thinking about the intersections of race and class. Desmond hints at the influence of race: comparing the experiences of blacks on the North Side of Milwaukee versus whites on the South Side, comments from black and white tenants about the possibilities for living in the other’s neighborhoods, briefly discussing the race of landlords. However, there is a lot more here to unpack, especially given Desmond’s other work on race. Take the two main landlords in the book: one is white, the other black. The first has a more stand-offish approach (working through intermediaries) while the second is more directly involved with tenants. Both are in it for the money and seem to be doing well. How much does their race matter?

An enjoyable read and a work I could imagine using with undergraduates who often have little to no experience with housing issues. I look forward to looking at Desmond’s journal articles that also build on this ethnographic and quantitative data.

Quick Review: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

Thomas Dyja has a provocative argument in The Third Coast: while New York and LA are widely viewed as America’s cultural centers, Chicago of the mid-1900s contributed more than people think to American culture. My quick review of the book:

  1. The fact that the book is built on impressionistic vignettes is book its greatest strength and weakness. Dyja tells a number of interesting stories about cultural figures in Chicago from author Nelson Algren to Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy to University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins to puppeteer and TV show creator Burr Tillstrom to magazine creator Hugh Hefner. The characters he profiles have highs and lows but they are all marked by a sort of middle America creativity based on hard work, connecting with audiences, and not being flashy.
  2. Yet, stringing together a set of characters doesn’t help him make his larger argument that Chicago was influential. We get pieces of evidence – an important contribution to television here, the importance of Chess records, a clear contribution to architecture there – but no comparative element. By his lack of attention, Dyja suggests Chicago didn’t contribute much – art is one such area with a lack of a vibrant modern art scene (though what TripAdvisor ratings say is the world’s #1 museum does not get much space). Just how much did these actions in Chicago change the broader American culture? What was going on in New York and LA at those times? The data is anecdotal and difficult to judge.
  3. A few of the more interesting pieces of the book: he suggests Chicago contributed more to the Civil Rights Movement than many people remember (particularly due to the Emmett Till case); Chicago music, particularly through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, was particularly influential elsewhere; Mayor Richard J. Daley was on one hand supportive of the arts but only in a functional sense and the arts scene slowly died away into the early 1960s as creative type went elsewhere.

Ultimately, it is hard to know whether these contributions from Chicago really mattered or not. The one that gets the most attention – architecture through former members of the Bauhaus and then the International Style – probably really was a major contribution for both American and global cities. But even there, the focus of this book is on the people and not necessarily on their buildings or how normal Chicagoans experienced those structures or how the changes fit within the large social-political-economic scene in Chicago.

The perils of analyzing big real estate data

Two leaders of Zillow recently wrote Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate which is a sort of Freakanomics look at all the real estate data they have. While it is an interesting book, it also illustrates the difficulties of analyzing big data:

1. The key to the book is all the data Zillow has harnessed to track real estate prices and make predictions on current and future prices. They don’t say much about their models. This could be for two good reasons: this is aimed at a mass market and the models are their trade secrets. Yet, I wanted to hear more about all the fascinating data – at least in an appendix?

2. Problems of aggregation: the data is analyzed usually at a metro area or national level. There are hints at smaller markets – a chapter on NYC for example and another looking at some unusual markets like Las Vegas – but there are not different chapters on cheaper/starter homes or luxury homes. An unanswered questino: is real estate within or across markets more similar? Put another way, are the features of the Chicago market so unique and patterned or are cheaper homes in the Chicago region more like similar homes in Atlanta or Los Angeles compared to more expensive homes across markets?

3. Most provocative argument: in Chapter 24, the authors suggest that pushing homeownership for lower-income Americans is a bad idea as it can often trap them in properties that don’t appreciate. This was a big problem in the 2000s: Presidents Clinton and Bush pushed homeownership but after housing values dropped in the late 2000s, poorer neighborhoods were hit hard, leaving many homeowners to default or seriously underwater. Unfortunately, unless demand picks up in these neighborhoods (and gentrification is pretty rare), these homes are not good investments.

4. The individual chapters often discuss small effects that may be significant but don’t have large substantive effects. For example, there is a section on male vs. female real estate agents. The effects for each gender are small: at most, a few percentage points difference in selling price as well as slight variations in speed of sale. (Women are better in both categories: higher prices, faster sales.)

5. The authors are pretty good at repeatedly pointing out that correlation does not mean causation. Yet, they don’t catch all of these moments and at other times present patterns in such a way that distort the axes. For example, here is a chart from page 202:


These two things may be correlated (as one goes up so does the other and vice versa) but why fix the axes so you are comparing half percentages to five percentage increments?

6. Continuing #4, I supposed a buyer and seller would want to use all the tricks they can but the tips here mean that those in the real estate market are supposed to string along all of these small effects to maximize what they get. On the final page, they write: “These are small actions that add up to a big difference.” Maybe. With margins of error on the effects, some buyers and sellers aren’t going to get the effects outlined here: some will benefit more but some will benefit less.

7. The moral of the whole story? Use data to your advantage even as it is not a guarantee:

In the new realm of real estate, everyone faces a rather stark choice. The operative question now is: Do you wield the power of data to your advantage? Or do you ignore the data, to your peril?

The same is true of the housing market writ large. Certainly, many macro-level dynamics are out of any one person’s control. And yet, we’re better equipped than ever before to choose wisely in the present – to make the kinds of measured judgments that can prevent another coast-to-coast bubble and calamitous burst. (p.252)

In the end, this book is aimed at the mass market where a buyer or seller could hope to string together a number of these small advantages. Yet, there are no guarantees and the effects are often small. Having more data may be good for markets and may make participants feel more knowledgeable (or perhaps more overwhelmed) but not everyone can take advantage of this information.

Quick Review: Suburbia (the board game)

I study suburbs so it was appropriate that I received the board game Suburbia for Christmas. Here is my review of the game after three playings:

1. The game is built around constructing five different kinds of land: residential zones, commercial zones, industrial zones, civic zones, and lakes. You purchase hex pieces and your suburb grows as each zone gives you different abilities such as a growing income, a growing reputation (which increases your population), and more money. Because it is hex based, it is kind of like a cross between Catan and Carcassone where the hexes allow you do things but you have choices of what you build.

2. Like in real suburbs, zoning definitely matters. You have to keep certain properties away from each other. For example, industrial zones usually decrease the reputation of adjacent residential or civic zones. One residential zone, housing projects, have to be the most removed as they decrease your reputation if placed near residential, commercial, or civic zones. Because of these different zoning rules, you tend to have clusters of different properties. The one thing that can help break up the clusters? Lakes.

3. It is interesting that you have to reduce your income and reputation each time you cross a certain population size. As the game goes along, you have to find ways to keep your income and reputation up because as you grow, these go down. As the game suggests, quality of life is hard to maintain as your suburb grows larger. Thus, having a growing population is a kind of penalty even though you need the biggest population to win.

4. Getting a Casino and a PR Firm can really help you win – if you can afford them. They don’t come along until later in the game but they stop you from losing reputation/population (Casino) and income (PR Firm) when you cross each population threshold. These would be harder to obtain in a four player game but in a two player game where one player had both, they made for an easy win.

5. One nice twist of the game is that the players look at four common goals and then each player has an individual goal (unknown to the other players). Winning each goal (and ties do not count) leads to a population bonus so your planning and zoning is affected by these different goals. This helps vary the gameplay quite a bit.

6. One oddity: each player is building a borough and all of the boroughs constitute suburbia. The terminology for the level below suburbs as a whole likely reflects regional terminology. But, why not use municipality? Community? Just call each player’s board a separate suburb? Players actions can affect those of others so it makes some sense that each board is not a suburb but I found the word choice interesting.

As a suburban scholar, I think this game does a nice job simulating some of the broad aspects of suburban life. As noted above, zoning matters but a winning outcome also likely requires a mix of zones as a community needs population, income, and reputation to get ahead. Finding the right balance can differ from game to game given the goals.

Quick Review: Cubed

The book Cubedtackles what has become a ubiquitous space in today’s America: the white-collar office. Here are some thoughts about the book:

1. While the book might appear at first glance to be about office spaces, it is largely about the development and evolution of white-collar workers in the United States. This shift from farming and manufacturing in the late 1800s to office and clerical work was a profound shift in American society that affected everything from women in the workplace to educational aspirations to what it means to be middle class to what urban downtowns look like. It isn’t just about cubicles or desk chairs; it is about a shift toward knowledge workers increasingly laboring for big corporate America. It may seem normal now, but it is a remarkable shift over roughly 100 years.

2. While this shouldn’t be surprising given the field of architecture and design, it is still remarkable how much of office design was about trendy ideas and theories than on-the-ground information about what makes offices work. Thus, a history of American offices includes Taylorism, Le Corbusier, and Peter Drucker. Have a new idea about the intersection of work spaces and human interaction? If it is popular enough, it is likely going to going to be translated into office designs. Unfortunately, some of this theorizing comes at the expense of workers who were guinea pigs.

3. The book does well to include plenty of sociology, particularly picking up after World War II as sociologists like C. Wright Mills noticed the big shifts in society. At the same time, it strikes me that there isn’t enough well-known sociology about office life and American businesses more broadly. This may change in the near future with more economic and organizational sociology but it seems like a missed opportunity in the past from a field that focused on other topics.

4. This is the sort of book that would benefit from more pictures and architectural plans. There are some scattered throughout the book but I could easily imagine a coffee table companion book with rich photos and designs of iconic office arrangements. It can be hard at times to visualize the major patterns.

All in all, the book is a nice overview of American offices in the last 100+ years. There are numerous places where this book could have ballooned to many more pages but it doesn’t feel like the author is painting with too broad of strokes. Indeed, if we want to understand America in 2014, perhaps we should look less to Washington, glittering skylines, and the entertainment industry but rather examine what millions of Americans experience regularly in their offices.