Patterns in political yard signs

A new book by three political scientists look at how Americans have deployed and reacted to yard signs in recent election cycles:

We just started being puzzled about it. We did things like code the amount of traffic on a given street, and we thought maybe people on a street with high traffic would be more likely to put up signs. But you find out that those people wanted to let other people know where they stand- that it wasn’t just about catching the eye of passing traffic [to try to get out the vote for a candidate]. We found out that there’s a combination of expressive and communicative motives…

One of the things that was really clear from our studies is that signs are really important to people who display them. They’re emotionally invested in these dynamics and are more likely than people who don’t put up signs to say that it’s a good thing, or a reasonable thing, for neighborhoods to be doing.

I also think this is why we hear about these stories of theft and vandalism-people going to extremes around signs. At least seemingly, in news reports, it can accelerate fast, from people putting up signs to some kind of an altercation, a police report, a fight on the street. I think it’s because people view it as a real affront when someone messes with their expression of self…

You really notice, when you’re walking around, those places where signs are battling one another. But when we did spatial analysis to look at the clustering of signs systematically, in a way that would cut through those strong anecdotal impressions, we found that, really, there wasn’t much evidence of the intermingling of signs-the famous Sign Wars, where there’s a Biden sign at one house and a Trump sign next to it. Really, it was more about like-minded clustering: pockets of Biden supporters signaling to one another, pockets of Trump supporters signaling to one another. More solidarity than outright conflict.

I appreciate the systematic approach for a phenomenon that lends itself to anecdotes. This is how social science can be really helpful: many people have experiences with or have seen yard signs but unless researchers approach the issue in a rigorous way, it is hard to know what exactly is going on.

For example, I regularly walk in two different places in my suburb and I have been keeping an eye on yard signs. At least in the areas I walk, the signs are primarily in favor of one party in the national election while local election signs are more varied. Furthermore, the number of people who have signs is still pretty limited even in a heated political climate. But, just based on my walks, I do not know if what I am seeing match my suburb as a whole let alone communities across the United States. And unless I interact in some way with the people with (and without) yard signs, I have little idea of what is motivating them.

I wonder how the behavior of putting out political yard signs relates to other political behavior. If a political yard sign is expressive, how much does this carry over to other parts of life? Are these the people who are most active in local political activity? Are they the most partisan? Are they the ones always bringing up politics at family gatherings or among friends?

I would also be curious to how this relates to social class and particular neighborhoods. Lawns, in some places, are sacred: they should be green, free of weeds and leaves. Property values are important in many places. Political signs might mess up particular aesthetics or introduce the idea of conflict when suburbanites just want to leave each other alone.

Three Soc 101 concepts illustrated on Big Brother

Many television shows could (and have) been mined for sociological content. Big Brother is no different. Here are three concepts:

https://www.cbs.com/shows/big_brother/
  1. Houseguests talk about having “a social game.” This roughly means having good interactions with everyone. A more sociological term for this might be looking to accrue social capital. With so many players at the beginning, this might be hard: simply making connections, talking to a variety of people, discussing strategy, contribute positively to house life. But, this social capital can pay off as the numbers dwindle, people show their different capabilities, and the competition heats up. It could also be described as the ability to manipulate or coerce people without others hating you, particularly when it comes down to the jury selecting the winner among the final two.
  2. Connected to the importance of social capital are the numerous social networks that develop quickly and can carry players to the end. The social networks can be larger or smaller (ranging from two people up to 6 or more), some people are in multiple networks (more central) while others may be in just one or none (less central), and the ties within networks can be very strong or relatively weak. At some point in a season, the overlapping or competing networks come into conflict and houseguests have to make decisions about which network commitments to honor – or reject.
  3. There are plenty of instances where race, class, and gender and other social markers matter. A typical season has a mix of people. Relationships and alliances/networks can be built along certain lines. Competitions can highlight differences between people. The everyday interactions – or lack of interaction between certain people – can lead to harmony or tension. Some people may be more open about their backgrounds outside the house, others are quieter. With viewers selecting America’s Favorite Houseguest, there is also an opportunity to appeal to the public.

There is more that could be said here and in more depth. Indeed, a quick search of Google Scholar suggests a number of academics have studied the show. Yet, television shows are accessible to many and applying sociological concepts can be a good exercise for building up a sociological perspective. Even if the world does not operate like “Big Brother,” this does not mean that aspects of the show do not mirror social realities.

Is the definition of suburbs really in doubt or are the suburbs simply multi-dimensional?

One writer suggests the definition of suburbs is unclear because the federal government does not offer an official definition:

The term has practically been rendered a semantic argument. Some have a location-based definition: that it’s a smaller community on the outskirts of a larger city, while others define it visually, by cul-de-sacs upon cul-de-sacs of similarly developed homes. Both could be correct, since there’s no existing federal definition for suburbia.

Existing HUD definitions of American areas include “urban” and “rural,” but there is no such “suburban” category.

A 2013 Harvard University study found that there is “no consensus to what exactly constitutes a suburb.” It added that suburbs have been defined over the years by any number of metrics from physical proximity to cities, to modes of transportation, to general appearance…

The Census Bureau and HUD are currently working toward building out proper definitions and statistical areas based on 2020 census data. 

As a scholar who studies suburbs, I find this conversation a little odd. Here is why.

The Census Bureau has tracked the suburban population for decades. For example, the 2002 publication “Demographic Trends in the 20th Century” clearly shows the growth of suburban populations.

https://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/censr-4.pdf

As this table suggests, within metropolitan areas there are central cities and suburbs. The area outside central cities and with enough connections to the city and metropolitan region (as delineated by counties) counts toward the suburban population.

On the other hand, the definition of suburbs is multi-faceted and incorporates location relative to a big city and density. But, it also includes the feel and experience of an area. This is where the boundaries are more blurred; you could have neighborhoods in big cities that are full of single-family homes and lots of driving or pockets of more dense rural areas with connections to big cities. There are also a variety of suburban communities ranging from bedroom suburbs to industrial suburbs to ethnoburbs to working-class communities to edge cities and more. The kinds of suburbs might differ but there are common features of suburban life that Americans like.

Across the multiple measures noted in this story, they coalesce around a similar range of Americans living in the suburbs, whether the Census Bureau is measuring or people are self-reporting: roughly 50-55% of Americans live in suburbs.

Complex suburbia might be hard to fully encompass and it has changed over time. However, it hangs together enough to differentiate from big cities and rural areas. A new definition from the Census might help establish geographic and conceptual boundaries but these are always in flux as communities and metropolitan areas change.

Constructing a New Urbanist movie town outside of Atlanta

Going up around a one-stop movie filming and production facility outside of Atlanta is a New Urbanist community named Trilith.

Google Maps

When the British film studio company Pinewood opened a production facility outside Atlanta in 2014, it framed the venture as a one-stop-shop alternative to the mature but spatially fragmented system in Hollywood. With a high-tech media center, soundstages, offices, prop houses, and set builders all colocated, Pinewood Atlanta was a turnkey space for filming. An early relationship with Marvel Studios led to a steady stream of big-budget superhero movies such as Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War, and Pinewood Atlanta quickly became a contender in the film business.

But some of its local investors wanted it to be more than just a production facility. They wanted the entire business to have a place at the studios, with development of new shows happening where they’d eventually be filmed, and local workers able to easily commute to jobs on the site, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. So they decided to build a town…

Pinewood recently left the project, amiably, and the studio and town are now fully in the hands of local founders, who have accelerated Trilith’s development, which broke ground two years ago. Planned with New Urbanist design principles, Trilith is a dense, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use village, with a commercial town center, more than half of its area dedicated to green space and forest, and room for an eventual population of 5,000. About 500 people are currently living in the town, which is planned to have a total of 1,400 townhomes, apartments, cohousing units, and 500-square-foot “microhomes.” Housing is available to rent or buy, and Trilith’s developers say it’s luring residents from within the film industry as well as people from other walks of life…

Parker says the town was inspired by Seaside, a New Urbanist community in Florida famous for its use as the setting of The Truman Show. Trilith was designed by the Atlanta-based planning firm Lew Oliver, with homes designed and built by companies such as 1023 Construction and Brightwater Homes. Parker says the design was intended to appeal to young creatives, with an emphasis on wellness and access to the outdoors, but with the kinds of amenities people want in a town. The first of the town’s restaurants recently opened, and 11 more are in the works. A 60,000-square-foot fitness studio was recently completed, and a K-12 school is already open.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the film industry and the town continues. On one hand, it could create a regular level of business and residents. On the other hand, not everyone in the community will be involved and interests could collide. Will this be like other suburbs and communities that rely heavily on one industry or sector (with both the advantages and disadvantages that come with this)?
  2. Later portions of the article discuss the diversity of residents in the community. Seaside looks good on film but has been more of a wealthy community than one that lives up to its New Urbanist principles of having mixed-income housing and residents. Will the desirability of such a community drive up housing costs? Will the connection to the film industry make it more difficult to others to move in?
  3. Does this provide a new model for numerous industries? For example, prior to COVID-19 big tech firms had constructed large, all-encompassing headquarters intended in part to help keep workers close. Or, large office buildings in central areas help consolidate workers and multiple sectors. But, perhaps this New Urbanist vision provides an alternative: more space in the suburbs, film facilities, other opportunities in the town outside of film.

Trying to trace the quote: “There Are Only Three Great Cities in the U.S…All the Rest Are Cleveland”

In the Internet/social media age, it can be difficult to know the origin of quotes. Here is an attempt to investigate the provenance of a quote about archetypal American cities:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain employed this joke; it is not recorded in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. 1 Also, it is not listed on Barbara Schmidt’s valuable TwainQuotes.com website. The comedian Russell Brand did improbably attach a version to Twain in his 2014 book “Revolution”. 2

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1975 issue of a periodical called “Best Sellers” which was composed of book reviews. A reviewer named Edward Gannon printed an instance and attributed the words to an unnamed Frenchman…

The small collection of cities deemed worthy by quipsters has varied; the group has included: New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, and Santa Fe. Tennessee Williams died in 1983, and one year afterwards the joke was attributed to him…

In conclusion, this quip was difficult to trace because the phrasing and the list of cities was highly variable. The attributions were anonymous in the two earliest close matches. It was conceivable that Tennessee Williams used the joke, but based on current evidence it was unlikely that he coined it. The linkage to Twain was spurious. Future researchers may discover more.

See an earlier post about this quote. There, I discuss how urban sociology uses cities as models and both the advantages and limitations to doing so.

What is particularly interesting about this investigation is how the cities in the quote can differ. There are two main ways a speaker of the quote can tweak the meaning:

-Playing with the first list of three unique American cities. There are plenty of locations that could claim they fit the bill. Perhaps it has to do with size, history, unusual places to visit, an exemplary cultural scene, geography, and more. Boosters might place their own city in this grouping.

-Deciding which city should go at the end. Cleveland makes some sense in that it can stand in for many Northeastern or Midwestern cities with its location on a major waterway, a central downtown surrounded by sprawling suburbs, and a history of segregation and manufacturing jobs gone away. Yet, does it best represent all cities? For example, numerous scholars and boosters have noted Chicago’s status as the all-American city. Or, in an era of growing Sun Belt populations, perhaps a booming southern city like Dallas might be apropos.

In other words, this quote of unknown origins can be continually updated by different users to reflect their particular take on the state of American cities or society.

Opening a 56-story Chicago office building during COVID-19

The new Bank of America office building, 816 feet tall and 56-stories along the Chicago River, is ready for business. But, COVID-19 is around…

From film at https://110northwacker.com/

The lead tenant, Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, expected to have more than 2,600 people working on its 17 floors of the 56-story tower. But fewer than 200 work there now, according to company spokeswoman Diane Wagner…

By drastically reducing the number of columns that come to the ground, this structural tour de force allows the tower’s caissons to reach bedrock without hitting the remaining caissons of the old Morton Salt building. It also opens up the riverwalk, which would have felt constricted had it been hidden behind a row of columns.

To some, the arrangement may appear unstable. But new section of riverwalk, with its long, curving benches and still-to-be-planted greenery, is among the strongest contributions the tower makes to the public realm. It will not become a windblown cavern, the architects assure…

With COVID-19 still a significant threat, the developers have put several safeguards in place, including walk-through temperature scanning in the lobby, antimicrobial cladding on the building’s entry doors and upgraded air filtration systems. Tenants can swipe their smartphones on high-tech turnstiles that call an elevator. There’s also none of the welcoming seating that animated other downtown office building lobbies before the pandemic struck.

It sounds like the pandemic has effects on two major features of the building:

  1. The interior will not be functioning as it was designed for a while. This building has a lot of office space; will it ever be fully filled after COVID-19 passes and businesses reckon with shifts to working from home? We have not heard much about what it is like to work in such conditions – a relatively empty building – nor do we know how building owners and developers plan to use office space if they cannot attract firms.
  2. The excerpt above describes how the building interacts with the surrounding environment. It sounds good. But, how does it look and/or function when the typical street life of the Loop is not present? Can aesthetics overcome a lack of social interaction? When will the building fully participate in regular urban life?

Since this is not the only large downtown building under construction in Chicago, let alone in large American cities, it will be fascinating to see what comes of these structures. Will they be regarded as the last of the big central office buildings in a decentralized work landscape or will they be brave attempts to do business as normal or do they represent a new wave of exciting buildings that mark a post COVID-19 era?

From quaint suburban neighborhood to sprawl imposed on the land in ten minutes

A recent suburban drive showed me the variety in the built suburban landscape – all within ten minutes. Here is the first residential neighborhood I drove through, right near a downtown:

Tree-lined streets, older homes, walkable, pleasant sidewalks for pedestrians, a two lane road.

But, as I continued down this road, I soon found myself in a different suburban landscape:

Green space on one side, houses on the other side within subdivisions, fewer trees, a wider arterial road with a higher speed limit, power lines on one side.

The local context matters in this case: the first picture is near the downtown of a suburb where the land was first settled in the 1830s and the community was incorporated several decades later. In contrast, the second picture is land more in between suburbs where homes and subdivisions were constructed later. They are good illustrations of the different waves of suburban settlement as discussed by Dolores Hayden in Building Suburbia.

Though these are very different settings, they are now all grouped together as “suburbs.” They may even exist within the same suburban municipality; some suburbs are all sprawl, some are all denser areas, many have a combination of both. The interests of the homeowners in one setting may not match those in the other.

America is #1, self-storage space edition

Americans need extra space for all of their stuff and the self-storage industry has the solution:

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

It was in Texas that self-storage originated, in the 1960s. The industry has flourished since then, and the United States now has 2.5 billion rentable square feet, at least 90 percent of such space in the world; over the same period, the average size of an American single-family home nearly doubled, and the average number of occupants fell by a quarter. This suggests that self-storage was not an inevitable convenience but something else, perhaps an indicator of national psychopathology…

Millennials, it is often reported, are uninterested in their boomer parents’ abundant accumulated possessions. Might this hurt the storage industry? They also have the highest storage use of any generation, with one fifth of households. (Millennials, and city dwellers, are also likeliest to choose the inscrutable survey response of having “personally experienced” “living in their units.”) Another idly theorized threat to the storage industry is the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The idea seems dubious: consumer storage use recently reached 10 percent of U.S. households, and if anything threatens the business, it would be the pandemic, which appears to have spawned vacancies and depressed rents. It is plausible, however, that a number of Americans attempted a Kondo purge—getting rid of possessions that failed to spark joy, often thanking them for their service before relinquishing them—but wound up storing those things. Since Kondo’s sensibility derives from both Zen’s ideal of nonattachment and Shinto’s respect for the animate dignity of the “inanimate” world, it would be an acute irony for these objects to become imprisoned, like the diverse species of Japanese undead, in a state of irresolution.

Even as Americans have the largest new houses on average in the world and may purchase these homes to store their stuff, many need even more space. There are multiple reasons for this: an emphasis on consumerism; difficulty in parting with objects; lots of land for self-storage as well as relatively low costs for storage; disposable income. Kicking the acquisition cycle can be hard to do.

Two additional thoughts: some argue Americans consume to show off or display their status. But, using self-storage is truly a private act. If items are stored there, they cannot be at your home or in your yard or on hand to use.

Second, if only 10 percent of Americans are using self-storage, there is more money to be made! Imagine a country where tiny houses become more normal but people cannot part with all of their goods and need to store them somewhere. Or, as noted above, Baby Boomers cannot interest their family in all they have accumulated and resale stores and markets are flooded with too many items. Or, some fancy self-storage system where drones find and deliver goods when owners want them.

“Dream Hoarders” in exclusive locations

The 2018 book Dream Hoarders connects the actions of the top 20% in income to where they live and how they control who lives near them. Excerpts from the book:

https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/

The physical segregation of the upper middle class noted in chapter 2 is, for the most part, not the result of the free workings of the housing market. This inverse ghettoization is a product of a complex web of local rules and regulations regarding the use of land. The rise of “exclusionary zoning,” designed to protect the home values, schools, and neighborhoods of the affluent, has badly distorted the American property market. As Lee Anne Fennell points out, these rules have become “a central organizing feature in American metropolitan life.” (102)

Zoning ordinances, which began life as explicitly racist tools, have become important mechanisms for incorporating class divisions into urban physical geographies. This is not a partisan point. If anything, zoning is more exclusionary in liberal cities. (103)

So, those of us with high earnings are able to convert our income into wealth through the housing market, with assistance from the tax code. We then become highly defensive – almost paranoid – about the value of our property and turn to local policies, especially exclusionary zoning ordinances, to fend off any encroachment by lower-income citizens and even the slightest risk to the desirability of our neighborhoods. These exclusionary processes rarely require us to confront public criticism or judgment. They take place quietly and politely in municipal offices and usually simply require us to defend the status quo. (106)

There are numerous connections in this section to earlier posts. Here are a few:

One of the reasons Americans love suburbs is that suburban life allowed for excluding people they do not want to live near.

There is bipartisan white suburban support for homes rather than apartments.

-Housing rarely comes up in national political conversations. It may get a few minutes at debates or occasionally come up in trying to appeal to some voters.

-Tackling this at the state (example of California) or local level is difficult (example of Naperville, Illinois and suburban New Jersey).

In sum, it is hard to understand the life of wealthier Americans without also addressing how this wealth and the opportunities that come with it are closely connected to particular locations.

Population density as a factor in deciding suburban votes

An AP story highlights how “Democrats march deeper into suburbia” and discusses the role of density:

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

For decades, an area’s population per square mile has been a reliable indicator of its political tilt. Denser areas vote Democratic, less dense areas vote Republican. The correlation between density and voting has been getting stronger, as people began to sort themselves by ethnicity, education, personality, income and lifestyle.

The pattern is so reliable it can quantified, averaged and applied to most American cities. At around 800 households per square mile, the blue of Democratic areas starts to bleed into red Republican neighborhoods.

A purple ring — call it the flip zone — emerges through the suburbs…

In Dallas, the purple ring through the suburbs was 18.7 miles in 2016 out from city hall, at an average of 714 households per square mile. The border runs close to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, where the Dallas Cowboys play. Arlington is a so-called boomburb that morphed through new construction from a suburb to a city of 400,000.

A few thoughts on the potential role of density. First, an additional graphic (see below) works with the last paragraph cited above to draw concentric circles a city. This, however, suggests density is linear as one moves further out from the city. In general, this may be true but it would be interesting to see how pockets of higher density suburbs at different distances from the city affect these patterns.

https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-phoenix-suburbs-health-care-reform-76dea954e5f5dc13b3ad65fd29ac678c

Second, Is it density that predicts these outcomes or factors related to density? A third chart in the story looks at the population demographics at different densities and shows differences. Does the density come first or the population changes? The analysis here suggests a relationship or correlation but it is not clear whether this analysis accounts for other possible factors.

In the larger picture, what do Americans think about having these “flip zones” or middle suburbs be the current political battleground? For example, one current argument about getting rid of the electoral college suggests certain parts of the country should not a disproportionate sway over other more populous parts of the country. Right now, these middle suburbanites, particularly in swing states, have the influence and both parties want their votes. Are the interests of these suburban voters the interests of the entire country?