Seeing modernization and religious change in one small suburb

One way to approach the significant social changes of recent centuries is to examine broad patterns at a societal level. Another way to understand these changes is to look at what happened in a suburban community outside Boston:

Photo by Rudolf Kirchner on Pexels.com

“What has produced this kind of world is modernization,” Wells said. “The public environment that results from it is modernity. But these words––modernization and modernity––are abstractions to so many people. How could I explain what has happened to my readers in a way that they could get it?”

He found the answer in a small Massachusetts town named Wenham––population 4,875 when Gordon College isn’t in session. Wells opens No Place by explaining how Wenham, settled by Puritans after a 1635 sermon, slid into modernity in stages––telegraphs gave way to radio and television and internet; farmland yielded to suburban homes; horses were replaced with trains and cars and airplanes.

At some point, Wenham crossed a divide along with everyone else, Wells wrote in No Place. “It is as if the ability to make better cars and better airplanes and better medicines and better theories imply an ability to make better selves––to transcend not only our own mortality, which would be no small feat, but also our own corruption, which would be an even larger feat.”

“So many people no longer believe in human nature––something all human being have in common,” he told TGC. Instead, “they believe in the self––the core at the center of each person that is unique to them and unlike any other self. This is really at the root of the extreme relativism of our time where people not only have their own ‘values,’ but also their own take on reality.”

I have not read the book being discussed – No Place for Truth – but this is a common academic approach: use an interesting case to illustrate broader processes. In this case, it sounds like Wenham, Massachusetts can help show how modernity played out in a community roughly twenty-five miles from Boston.

At the same time, I am more interested in the suburban connections here. Again, while I have not read book discussed above, I have been studying religion and place in recent years and there may be some patterns across communities. Here is my attempt to connect the case of Wenham to suburbs and religious change.

Wenham is a small and wealthy community. Founded in the mid-1600s, the community has just under 5,000 residents with population growth of over 30% three decades in a row after World War Two. The median household income is over $90,000 and the community is over 97% white. (All figures from the 2010 Census.)

When a large number of Americans moved to the suburbs during the twentieth century, these new suburban residents were often said to be conservative. This could apply to politics as well as religion. Religiosity soared after World War Two. Many new churches were founded in suburbs while others already present grew substantially.

But, even in small suburbs where religion was important, modernism prevailed. The focus on self became part of the American suburban dream. Even with a suburban focus on providing the best for the nuclear family, suburban residents could focus more on themselves free of the stronger community ties that could be found in either small towns or urban neighborhoods from which the new suburbanites came. And success in the suburbs came to be defined as personal or individual success: a nice house, a good income, leisure time, having all the necessities befitting a suburbanite.

This all had an impact on religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging. A shift to the self changes beliefs about transcendent beings and doctrines, affects how people live their everyday lives, and weakens attachments to religious institutions.

Thus, the argument goes, modernism and religious change came to America and its communities. Life changed everywhere, even in exclusive suburban communities.

Keeping Boston buildings secured on wood pilings, fill

Parts of Boston rest on wood pilings on fill that reclaimed land from waterways. This has led to a lot of repairs:

Much of modern-day Boston was underwater when European settlers first arrived on the Shawmut Peninsula. From the late-1700s to the late-1800s, the city aggressively expanded, filling parts of Massachusetts Bay with soil, sand and gravel. Today, the city has about 5,250 acres of filled land, said Mr. Simonelli.

To build on the unstable surface, builders drove tree trunks into the fill until they hit firmer ground, then placed foundation stones on top of these wooden piles. This technique was used until the 1920s, when foundation-building technology changed, Mr. Simonelli said.

Wooden piles can remain intact for hundreds of years if covered by groundwater, as they were when first installed. As the city grew, construction of tunnels, sewers, basements and subways caused the groundwater level to drop in many areas, which exposed the tops of the pilings. Air causes the wood to rot, said Giuliana Zelada-Tumialan of the engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. As the rotted wood crumbles, the foundation stones sink, and so do the structures they support…

Repair means an expensive process called “underpinning”—cutting off the rotten wood at the top of the piles and replacing it with steel. It usually involves hand-digging a series of pits in the basement floor, a laborious process that can cost more than $200,000, and another $100,000 to repair the brick damaged by settling, said Mr. Kempel of Pegasus Luxury Homes, who has bought, renovated and sold a number of Boston houses. That cost doesn’t include any repairs or renovations that would be required if that basement unit was living space, as many are in row houses.

This is a hidden dimension of many urban buildings. What exactly do they stand on? How solid is the land underneath large structures? What happens if the foundations underneath are threatened? I remember looking as a kid at diagrams of what was underground in New York City or Chicago and wondering how it all worked with subways, gas, water, and electric lines, and other items.

The focus of this article is on pretty expensive real estate in Boston, particularly residences. With this kind of money involved, property owners – who the article notes may not even know about the potential problems and/or bypass inspections – can afford to fix their foundations. What happens when this affects public buildings or property owners with fewer resources? Perhaps this has to do with the value of fill land; given its proximity to the water and the city center, such land might be more valuable on the whole across cities. But, I could also imagine where a sizable city would have to put together a significant effort to help out a range of property owners.

 

The city of Boston to research, act on data regarding economic inequality

The city of Boston is taking steps to do its own research regarding troubling inequality within its borders:

And that’s why it’s so interesting that the city is planning to gather and maintain longitudinal data deep into the future that may help explain what’s going on and what policy levers can change the situation. The new cross-agency project, housed in the Mayor’s Office, is called the Economic Mobility Lab, and it has gotten initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation…

You can see the germ of this idea in the Resilient Strategy that the city released a couple of months ago. Deep in the report, it says that “The City will build upon ongoing efforts by utilizing new and existing data sources to advance resilience and racial equity across the city.” The existing data simply won’t tell the story, and so the city will need to find those new sources and incorporate them—and study the results. For years.

Jason Ewas, the executive director of the Economic Mobility Lab, tells me, “We’re going to put a stake in the ground and say that we’re going to study in general how people are moving up and down, or staying the same, and see if we can see why.” This is an explicit vision of tracking and improving economic mobility.

It’s not that the city will stop experimenting with programs or improving what it’s doing in the meantime. “We’re going to do [that] while researching,” Ewas tells me.

To me, the most interesting part of this is that the city is doing the research itself. Boston has numerous research institutions that could do such research but the city wants to take this on themselves. Will they find things that academic researchers would not uncover (either because of their perspectives or because of the data and actors they would have access to)? Or, will the city be unable to separate out their research arm from their political concerns?

Of course, perhaps these questions do not matter if Boston is able to successfully combat economic inequality. Many cities face these issues as they both try to keep up with the higher end of the globalized economy and serve residents who are far removed from the global elite.

Fighting your own city’s Olympics bid

One of the founders of the grassroots No Boston Olympics group discusses what made their movement successful to scuttle the city’s 2024 bid:

I think the most important talking point we had was around the taxpayer guarantee. The International Olympic Committee requires host cities to sign a contract saying taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns. And the boosters behind Boston 2024 made all sorts of promises about how the public would be protected. But they weren’t able to produce anything substantive that showed that, and they were still asking for the blank check. So it was hard for the public to trust the boosters and ensure there wouldn’t be costs to pay in the case of overruns, as there have been in all of the recent Olympics. [Editors’ note: According to a study from University of Oxford, no Olympics since 1960 have come in under budget; they average a cost overrun of 156 percent.]

We had a broad coalition of people who came to us for any number of reasons. Some people were concerned about the taxpayer guarantee, others didn’t want disruption to their life for the three weeks, others were concerned about militarization of police and restriction on rights that occurs when hosting mega-events. At our victory party, there were people in socialist alternative t-shirts sharing a beer with people in t-shirts with the Don’t Tread On Me flag representing the Tea Party right. We had been able to form an incredibly broad coalition, and that’s something I think doesn’t happen enough.

One of the great takeaways here is that we are lucky to live in a democracy where we can have a robust Olympics debate. No Boston Olympics was outspent 1,500-to-1 by the boosters; we spent less than $10,000. But we had the facts on our side and a press willing to tell both sides of the story. I think we are lucky that’s the case. The day after the bid was pulled, I received a phone call from the primary backer of the bid [businessman John Fish] and his words to me were, “Democracy worked.” That was a pretty profound and gracious thing for him to say….

There is a misconception that the IOC cares that the transit system works well when they are choosing the city to award the games to. In 1996, they awarded the games to Atlanta over Toronto and Melbourne, both of which have far superior transit systems than Atlanta. Boston 2024 never had a plan for investing new or additional resources in transportation. All that they produced in their two-plus years of existence was a wish list of projects they would like to see happen. But if they happened, they would come at the expense of other projects already in the planning process, because they weren’t advocating for new resources or revenue to grow the pie. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life and never owned a car, so there is no bigger supporter of investment in transit that I am, but this bid was never going to do that.

Residents of few major American cities would want to be on the hook for something so large, the Olympics or something more mundane like a major infrastructure project. At the same time, the Olympics only needs one city willing to host (just like NFL owners only need one city like Las Vegas to make terrible deals for the city) and just a few who agree in order to work out a more favorable deal. Perhaps this gets at a basic question plaguing many cities: why do major projects always seem to have major cost overruns?

Could we reach a point where no major city wants the Olympics? It is interesting to consider what might happen then: move to a permanent site, whether an existing city (and they do exist with all the facilities within a region – see Los Angeles) or a new location created just for this (I imagine some authoritarian leaders or business magnates might be interested)? Downsize their expectations? Scuttle the whole project?

Spotted in Boston: a prominent silver unicorn

Atop the Old State House in Boston is an unusual site in a modern city: a unicorn.

BostonOldStateHouseUnicorn

Here is a wider shot:

BostonOldStateHouse

Both the lion and unicorn were recently restored and put back in their positions:

The unveiling of the two statues Sunday morning attracted Bostonians, tourists, and members of the press. Shannon Felton, of the British Consulate General, and Greg Soutiea, a participant in the 2013 Boston Marathon, had the honor of revealing the newly refurbished statues to the public…

Over the course of a few hours, the statues were removed from their wooden crates and hoisted to the top of the Old State House. This marks the end of a six year long project to restore the statues to their original glory. The unicorn, newly plated in a palladium cover, looks completely different from its tarnished appearance when it was removed in September.

According to the Wikipedia page for the building, the unicorn has an interesting history:

Today’s brick Old State House was built in 1712–13…A notable feature was the pair of seven-foot tall wooden figures depicting a lion and unicorn, symbols of the British monarchy…

In 1882, replicas of the lion and unicorn statues were placed atop the East side of the building, after the originals that had been burned in 1776.

Read more about the unicorn present on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.

I wonder if there is any other American city that has such a prominent unicorn…

Early American urban planning at the Boston Common

Several weeks ago we visited the Boston Common which has this plaque located at its eastern corner:

BostonCommonPlaque

Established in 1634, the Boston Common provided common space for grazing and later served as a military camp, site for public hangings, place for public assemblies and speeches, and a major urban park. But, it is hard to imagine central Boston without this large open space. What would it be otherwise – more space for office buildings and residences? To have it set aside at an early date and originally toward the edge of the city just like Central Park looks quite prescient today. Having the city grow up “organically” around it also helped compared to new cities and major developments where parks may be planned but have a difficult time developing a welcoming atmosphere. (Perhaps this is where Jane Jacobs’ ideas about parks needing more than just existence to be successful could be useful.)

Although this area isn’t really nature (too much ongoing human interference), it still is a welcome respite from the activity all around it. Indeed, urban parks like these really do help make cities all that they are even if they might be “negative space” in their lack of buildings.

Bill Gates could buy every home in Boston and still have $1 billion left

Redfin suggests Bill Gates could purchase all the homes in Boston but not Seattle :

If Bill Gates took every dollar of his net worth (most of which comes from Cascade Investment, his investment firm, as well as Microsoft), he could afford to buy every home in Boston — and still be worth more than a billion dollars, according to a new report from the online real estate site Redfin.

For the report, Redfin calculated the combined cost of every single-family home, condo and townhouse in a city by looking at home sales between April 1, 2013, and April 1, 2014. These sales were used as a representative sample of all homes in a city. The combined costs were then lined up next to the net worth of billionaires on this Forbes list. (You can find more about the methodology here.)

So for Seattle, Redfin calculated that 241,450 homes in the city are worth a combined $111.5 billion dollars. Bill Gates could afford each of the 114,212 homes they included in the Boston calculation (total cost: $76.6 billion), but he couldn’t buy every home in Seattle. The Walton family that founded Wal-Mart could afford every home in Seattle, but only if they teamed up. They could also afford every home in a lot of other cities, including Miami, Dallas and Washington.

Using the combined home prices on this list, some billionaires could settle for purchasing a few smaller cities rather than picking up one of the pricier options. Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly spend more than $30 million last year buying up homes near his Palo Alto house, could take his Facebook money ($28.2 billion) and buy every home in nearby Berkeley ($25.9 billion, according to Redfin). Or he could decide to buy up a few Zucker-bergs (sorry) across the country, purchasing Corvallis, Ore. ($9 billion), Punta Gorda, Fla. ($10.1 billion) and Oak Park, Ill. ($7.6 billion) with $1.5 billion left over.

See the full list of billionaires and cities they could buy here. The primary purpose Redfin gives for putting this together?

Given that the average American struggles to afford a home, we wanted to illustrate just how many homes the wealthiest among us could buy.

Certainly a stark comparison between the buying power of the typical American versus the wealthiest. So is Redfin pushing hard here to criticize the .01%? It doesn’t appear that way. There is no indication how the differences between Gates, the Waltons, and others might be evened out to provide homeownership opportunities for more Americans. Or, is this more about page-clicks and driving traffic to their website? This is a relatively easy way to leverage their data capabilities and capitalize on recent talk about inequality.

Determining whether “Boston Strong” has run its course requires more than a few interviews

The “Boston Strong” motto has been ever-present again this week – and one journalist suggests some Boston residents want to move on.

Inventory manager Make Nash, a resident of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, is among those who have heard enough of the rallying cry.“Forget ‘Boston Strong.’ Be strong!” he says…

Freelance journalist R. Brock Olson disputed the idea that a hashtag slogan can hold the capacity to heal in a post titled “We are not #BostonStrong” on his “View From Boston” blog this week, which was republished on Salon on Friday.

“The #BostonStrong meme betrays our insecurities. If we were strong, we would not need to remind ourselves,” he wrote.

Two instances of people who want to move on from the slogan. At the least, the article might suggest there is disagreement about how long the term should be used. Yet, the article provides little evidence either way that these are sentiments held by a lot of residents or just a few.

This is a good example of the difference in approach by journalists and sociologists. While there may be some signs of discussion in Boston – and it is hard to know this without being there – sociologists would tend to want more evidence. How about a survey in the metropolitan region about the term “Boston Strong”? Couldn’t such a question be included in a survey about how residents feel about the bombings, whether they feel safer today, and whether there is still a sense of solidarity in the region? Or, if a survey with a representative sample of the region isn’t preferred, how about more interviews rather than a few for or against the motto?

The human eyes and hours needed to review CCTV footage to find terrorists

A common tool in fighting urban terrorism today is the closed-circuit camera system. However, it still takes a tremendous amount of personnel and time to go through all of the available tape. Here is a summary of what was required to put together the narrative of the 2005 bombing in London:

Six days after the attack, police start linking these events together. “By 13 July, the police had strong evidence that Khan, Tanweer, Hussain and Lindsay were the bombers and that they had died in the attacks.” But it was no small feat: Police collected 80,000 CCTV tapes, amounting to hundreds of thousands of hours of footage. The London police brought on some 400 extra officers to help with the grunt of it.

“The scale is enormous,” the narrative concluded.

As Alexis Madrigal writes at The Atlantic, although we have the technology to capture and record every inch of a city in real time, the process very much depends on a human eye to analyze. “Right now, there is no video software that can do this type of analysis,” he writes, “not even in a first-pass way.”

Even so, given the history here, it seems likely that given enough time, the perpetrators of the bombing will be found on camera. Whether the police can connect the thread among all the disparate sources of information is another matter.

In other words, you can collect big data but it still requires humans to make sense of it all. I imagine there is a big opportunity here for someone to create reliable recognition software but this may be a task where humans are simply better.

Wired says the data in Boston is being crowdsourced but the investigation will not:

It is unclear whether law enforcement had overhead cameras mounted in helicopters or other aircraft over the Marathon. (Boston-area cops don’t have spy drones — yet.) But the era of readily-accessible commercial imaging tools provides a twist on the exponential growth of surveillance tech used by law enforcement and homeland security. The data on your phone can become an adjunct to police during the highest-profile investigations.

That isn’t an unfettered benefit to police. The military has found that its explosion of imagery data has stressed its ability to process it, to the point where its futurists are hunting for algorithms that can pre-select images a human analyst sees. Davis requested that any spectator providing media showing the attacks indicate the time they collected the data so police “don’t need to go through the electronic signature.”

Lots of work to do.

Onion: “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game of ‘Big City'”

The Onion says this about Boston:

Boston residents once again hustled and bustled their way into the nation’s hearts this week as they continued playing their adorable little game of “Big City,” a live-action role-playing adventure in which Bostonians buzz about their daily routines in a delightful hubbub of excitement as if they lived in a major American metropolis.

Inhabitants of real cities across the nation smiled in affectionate amusement as Bostonians put on their big-city clothes, swiped their Charlie cards for a ride on one of the MBTA’s trolley-like subway cars—charmingly called the “T”—and rushed downtown for “important” business meetings at the John Hancock Building, the South Boston Innovation District, and other pretend centers of global industry and commerce…

According to enchanted onlookers who live in actual metropolitan areas, Boston residents are particularly endearing when they get all dressed up for a night at the theater; eat a big, fancy dinner at the Prudential Center’s top-floor restaurant; and read The Boston Globe, whose reporters get to play a game of Big-City Journalist each and every day…

Sources went on to call the city’s darling nickname, “The Hub,” a great, hilarious touch, as though Boston were an actual locus of anything vital whatsoever.

I don’t know if Boston residents have an inferiority complex. But, the article also mentions a Chicago resident suggesting they also play “Big City.” This reference to Chicago might have a grain of truth in it; Chicago leaders and residents occasionally worry about whether the city is keeping up and is still a global city. Presumably, the only people who don’t have to play “Big City” are residents of New York City and Los Angeles – and this is perhaps how residents of the two largest US cities see it.