Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

In an interview, historian Thomas Sugrue discusses what the suburbs are today:

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That said, while in the aggregate, suburbs are more diverse, the distribution of nonwhites isn’t random. Metropolitan America is not a place of free housing choice. It’s still very much shaped by deep patterns of racial inequality and a maldistribution of resources. A lot of the nonwhite newcomers to suburbia live in what I call “secondhand suburbs” — places that have become increasingly unfashionable for whites, often older suburbs closer to central cities, with declining business districts and decaying housing stock.

And just as the distribution of minority groups across suburbia is not random, the distribution of whites across suburbia has really significant political implications. We’re seeing a suburban political divide quite different from the one that played out after World War II, when well-to-do, middle-class and even some working-class whites living in suburbia found common ground by looking through their rearview mirrors with horror at the cities they were fleeing. By the early 2000s, you have growing divisions among white suburbanites. The whitest suburban places are often at the suburban-exurban fringes — places where middle-class whites who are attempting to flee the growing racial diversity of cities and nearby suburbs are moving. By contrast, many of the older suburbs, particularly those with late 19th-, early 20th-century charming housing and excellent schools, have been attracting well-to-do and highly educated whites…

But suburbs didn’t freeze in time circa 1950 or 1960; they continued to evolve and transform. And those transformations were largely overlooked by political commentators, journalists, social scientists, novelists and pop culture. You saw, for example, beginning in the 1960s and expanding in the ’70s and ’80s, the emergence of clusters of multifamily housing — apartments, townhouses and condominiums — in suburban places. And as the housing market opened, a lot of new immigrants chose suburban places as points of settlement because suburbs offered access to jobs. In the post-WWII period up to the present day, most American job growth has been in suburban places — office parks, industrial parks, shopping malls, stores, restaurants, the construction industry, all sorts of service jobs. And those changes are crucial to understanding the remapping of metropolitan America. They capture a more complex reality than the post-WWII image of the suburbs….

One of the consequences of that are the fierce battles over even modest or token efforts to bring diversity to predominantly white suburban school districts, and really significant opposition to the construction of multifamily housing. And it’s not even couched in the rhetoric of class. It’s not, “I don’t want multifamily housing in my neighborhood because I don’t want lower-class people living here.” Instead, it’s, “This is going to change the character of the neighborhood,” or “It’s going to jeopardize my property values,” or “It’s going to bring congestion.”

A few quick thoughts:

  1. For a definitive history of white flight as it played out in Detroit (and contributed to the current landscape), read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
  2. See earlier posts on complex suburbia, the various visions Americans today have of suburbs., and suburban NIMBY arguments.
  3. This reminds me that the image of 1950s suburbia is so pervasive as part of the American Dream and yet it has only some connections to current realities. Why does this image live on? It was incredibly powerful (postwar success, baby boomers, tremendous growth and sprawl), repeated and critiqued endlessly (numerous cultural products on both sides for decades), and some would like to continue or recreate what happened then. History rarely works this way; even if it were possible to recreate similar conditions, people are now different and society has changed.
  4. There is a lot more here for academics and others to explore about desirable and undesirable suburbs. Now that suburbs are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and class, the sorting within suburbs is a powerful force. Do wealthier people primarily select places through personal networks? How do residents of a metropolitan region come to know about and regard other communities (and how do communities try to “subtly” signal what they are)?

During COVID-19, wealthier people now less mobile than poorer people

Researchers found changes in mobility patterns among Americans of different income levels during COVID-19:

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Writing in the journal PNAS, researchers from several California universities describe how they used anonymized cell phone location data and census info to show a dramatic reversal in how mobile Americans have been this year. Before Covid-19 struck, rich Americans moved about more than poor Americans—they can always afford to travel. But between January and April, that flipped. Rich folk are now far more likely to stay completely at home than poor folk: The study found that 25 percent more high earners stayed completely at home during the pandemic, compared to the number of them who had stayed home before. That increase was only 10 percent among low earners. And that has major implications for how we as a nation can fight the pandemic.

“In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a clear mobility response across the board,” says University of California, Davis environmental economist Joakim Weill, lead author on the paper. “In the US, everyone started to stay at home more. But we also found that there is a clear differential between wealthier communities and poor communities, where individuals in wealthier neighborhoods tended to stay at home much more than people in poorer neighborhoods.”…

Close to half of the wealthiest Americans stayed completely at home on weekdays in April, compared to less than 40 percent of low-earners. The poor traveled farther distances on average: In the same month, people who live in lower-income areas traveled between 5 and 6 kilometers, while the rich traveled closer to 4. The rich nearly halved their visits to recreational and retail areas in April, while the poor cut their visits by only a quarter—perhaps because their jobs required them to return to work there.

To be clear, the researchers can’t definitively say why the data shows this dramatic discrepancy, but they can begin to speculate. For one, essential workers often earn lower incomes, like clerks at grocery stores and pharmacies. Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that among Americans 25 and older with less than a high school diploma, just 5 percent teleworked in June. On the other hand, 54 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree were able to work remotely.

Social class is connected to mobility, health, and a whole lot of factors in social life. The anonymized cell phone data also seems to align with other patterns: those who can leaving certain big cities as well as differences in COVID-19 cases across communities and racial and ethnic groups.

As the article goes on to note, the fact that anyone can contract COVID-19 is not the same as saying everyone has the same likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Those with resources have more options in how to respond to crises plus more options when it comes to treatment. These differences are generally present regarding health but a large pandemic reveals some of the underlying patterns that deserve attention.

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

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The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

Naperville named best place in the US to raise a family

Niche’s 2020 rankings put Naperville at the top of the list of best places to raise a family. Here is how they rated the large suburb:

NicheNapervilleJul2020

This is not an unusual plaudit for Naperville; a variety of publications have rated Naperville highly over the last two decades (previous posts here, here, and here). The community is wealthy, has a lot of amenities, and grew tremendously in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

Still, it is interesting to see what Niche says is better or worse about Naperville. Schools excellent. Housing good – not the cheapest suburb in the Chicago area but Midwestern and Southern home values are cheaper compared to coastal locations. Lots of good things for families. Good nightlife. Good diversity (perhaps for suburbs but not so much among America’s bigger communities).  Crime and safety is the lowest – though still a B- – even as Naperville is one of the safest big communities in the country!

Across rankings of communities, Naperville tends to do well. Whether it can maintain this reputation remains to be seen as city leaders and residents consider possible changes in future decades to a suburb that has little land remaining for single-family homes or low-density housing.

Building Faith, COVID-19, and staying away from religious buildings

When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:

One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.

All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.

Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.

The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within

Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.

Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.

 

Census cutting short time going door to door

The Census Bureau will not be able to go door to door as long as planned and this could affect the quality of the data at the end:

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Attempts by the bureau’s workers to conduct in-person interviews for the census will end on Sept. 30 — not Oct. 31, the end date it indicated in April would be necessary to count every person living in the U.S. given major setbacks from the coronavirus pandemic. Three Census Bureau employees, who were informed of the plans during separate internal meetings Thursday, confirmed the new end date with NPR. All of the employees spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs…

Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson warns that with less time, the bureau would likely have to reduce the number of attempts door knockers would make to try to gather information in person. The agency may also have to rely more heavily on statistical methods to impute the data about people living in households they can’t reach.

“The end result would be [overrepresentation] for the White non-Hispanic population and greater undercounts for all other populations including the traditionally hard-to-count,” Thompson wrote in written testimony for a Wednesday hearing on the census before the House Oversight and Reform Committee…

Moving up the end date from Oct. 31 for door knocking is likely to throw the census, already upended by months of delays, deeper into turmoil as hundreds of thousands of the bureau’s door knockers try to figure out how to conduct in-person interviews as many states grapple with growing coronavirus outbreaks in the middle of hurricane season.

Beyond the political football that the Census can be, Census data is important for researchers, residents, and political leaders. Not being able to go through the full data process and having to impute more data means that more of the final counts will need to be estimated. Since the decennial Census tries to get data from every household in the United States, it has some of the most comprehensive data. Lower counts, less time, COVID-19, political wrangling – may this not disturb useful and important data results.

Community disparities in COVID-19 cases mean districts and schools will need to respond differently

Given disparities in who is more at risk for COVID-19 (higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos, differences across suburban communities), school districts and possibly even schools within districts might need different plans to address the situation. In the Chicago suburbs, many districts have already announced plans for the start of school.

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Yet, what the plans are and in which communities is interesting to observe. Approaches can vary quite a bit with some opting for all remote learning to start, others going with a hybrid model (alternating attendance), and a few considering more in-person instruction. Wealthier communities that go for remote options may have more flexibility: parents and families can provide for childcare or have adults who can work from home and technology is plentiful. Furthermore, some communities appear to have a lower risk of COVID-19 compared to other places where people work in different kinds of jobs and households are larger. And larger school districts that encompass pockets of residents from different social classes and racial and ethnic groups could have very different situations within their schools. To some degree, this is nothing new: outcomes can vary for students within schools and districts. At the same time, COVID-19 (and other crises) help expose inequalities already present and may exacerbate them further.

That said, it might difficult to develop one-size-fits-all options even at the district level, let alone among county education boards or state education boards, unless there is a lot of homogeneity. The residential segregation common in the United States which then affects who attends what schools as well as  COVID-19 cases means addressing learning and safety together could require flexibility across schools.

Reminder of Chicago’s vital position in the American railway network

I recently saw a map on Reddit that displayed four maps of railway networks: Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia.RailwayNetworksJul2320

There is a lot that could be said with these maps. When I looked at the North America map, one thing jumped out at me: the centrality of Chicago to the passenger network (and to railroads more broadly). Not surprisingly, given the density of population and major population centers, there are more passenger trains between Washington, D.C. and Boston. The rest of the country is relatively sparse except for the convergence of lines in and out of Chicago. This is partly the result of geography – Chicago’s position at the base of the Great Lakes helps – but also the result of decisions to route traffic and develop infrastructure in and around Chicago and not elsewhere (like in St. Louis or Memphis or Cincinnati or other options). And a lot of rail traffic and freight runs through the region as well.

If a more robust passenger rail system develops in the United States, this map suggests Chicago will be in the thick of it. This would present an opportunity for a city that is already a transportation center with busy airports, crowded roads, and potentially more rail traffic and visitors. It is a little surprising that Chicago and Illinois leaders do not talk more about potential railroad options – consider the decades-long focus on a potential third airport, plans for highways that do not get off the ground, or the slow speed at which railroad congestion is addressed – as this could only add to what Chicago already has.

The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)