The Census as national process yet works better with local census takers

Among other interesting tidbits about how data was collected for the 2020 census, here is why it is helpful for census takers to be from the community in which they collect data:

Photo by Sunyu Kim on Pexels.com

As it turns out, the mass mobilization of out-of-state enumerators is not just uncommon, but generally seen as a violation of the spirit of the census. “One of the foundational concepts of a successful door-knocking operation is that census takers will be knowledgeable about the community in which they’re working,” Lowenthal explained. “This is both so they can do a good job, because they’ll have to understand local culture and hopefully the language, but also so that the people who have to open their doors and talk to them have some confidence in them.”

Going door to door is a difficult task. Some connection to the community could help convince people to cooperate. And when cooperation equals higher response rates and more accurate data, local knowledge is good.

As the piece goes on to note, this does not mean that outside census takers could not help. Having more people going to every address could help boost response rates even if the census takers were from a different part of the country.

I wonder how much local knowledge influences the response rates from proxies, other people who can provide basic demographic information when people at the address do not respond:

According to Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House census oversight subcommittee, 22 percent of cases completed by census takers in 2010 were done so using data taken from proxies. And of those cases, roughly a quarter were deemed useless by the Census Bureau. As a result, millions of people get missed while others get counted twice. These inaccuracies tend to be more frequent in urban centers and tribal areas, but also, as I eventually learned, in rural sections of the country.

It is one thing to have the imprimatur of the Census when talking with a proxy; it would seem to be a bonus to also be a local.

More broadly, this is a reminder of how an important data collection process depends in part on local workers. With a little bit of inside knowledge and awareness, the Census can get better data and then that information can effectively serve many.

Questions a sociologist asks when seeing changes in the housing stock in their community

I try to pay attention to housing changes in the suburban community in which I live. Here are some questions I ask as I observe both existing and new homes:

  1. What existed here before this current residence?
  2. What motivated the property owners to tear down the existing home and build these homes (and in these particular styles)?
  3. How do existing and new homes interact with their surroundings?
  4. What does the inside of the home look and feel like? The outside provides some clues but interiors can be quite different from house to house.
  5. What happened at the community level (decisions, regulations, proposals, discussions, etc.) for these homes to exist in this form?
  6. In the long run, will these changes be viewed positively in the community or negatively?
  7. Who are the people who live in these homes (who is this housing for)? Are they the same or different kinds of people who are in the community?

We can measure features of old and new homes and look at the aggregate data. For example, we could try to look at the “average” home largely based on standardized traits. These figures are helpful but they also leave out other important traits of homes: what is their character? How are they experienced by the owners and the neighborhood and how do they shape social actors? How do they contribute to community life? What do they say about the priorities of the occupants and the community?

In sum, homes are not just part of the housing stock. Each house has the potential to shape and be shaped by people who interact with its material and symbolic presence. And when the housing changes, it can alter existing understandings.

Communities and character in one slide

In putting together material for the upcoming semester, I found myself summarizing my work on studying the character of particular suburbs. Here is the slide that explains the process:

CommunitiesCharacterSlide

A quick explanation of the (simplified) process depicted on the slide:

  1. Every community or neighborhood has characteristics and circumstances at its founding. These starting traits can prove influential down the road.
  2. Once started, the community continues through inertia. People live their lives.
  3. There are points in time – which I call “character moments” in a 2013 article – where the inertia of communities are disrupted. This often comes in the form of external forces that place pressure on a community. For example, my 2013 article looked at what happened when three suburbs felt suburbanization pressure in the Chicago region after World War II. This led to internal discussions in each suburb about how they wanted to respond and what they viewed as their future. One of the suburbs, Naperville, decided to lean into the growth: they annexed a lot of land, developed guidelines for growth, and experienced multiple decades of explosive growth (read more in my 2016 article on the difficulties explaining these changes in Naperville).
  4. Different decisions in communities will lead to different future paths.
  5. Then, the inertia, external forces, and internal discussions and decisions repeat as circumstances arise. These key decisions build on each other over time which leads communities to be different places and feel different. This is an iterative process and communities can change course.

The ways this plays out in unique communities can differ greatly even as the process looks similar.

(To read more of what helped me think about this starting in graduate school as I looked to enact my interests in urban sociology and the sociology of culture, see this 2000 article titled “History Repeats Itself, But How? City Character, Urban Tradition, and the Accomplishment of Place.”)

Treating suburban communities as another consumer good to choose among, Part One

A recent New York Times article made the case for why prospective suburbanites might choose to live in specific desirable communities in the region. Many suburbs have particular characters and ways they differentiate themselves from other suburbs.

family doing shopping in the grocery store

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Yet, this is an consumeristic approach to suburban communities. Does the typical suburbanite look at all the possible options and then select one that meets specific criteria? I doubt it. Here are a few of the factors that likely come into play:

1. Resources. How much money do they have for housing? This is a key sorting mechanism.

2. Information from social networks. What do people they know say about a community?

3. Quality of local schools and other local amenities and features (parks, crime, noise, density, family-friendly aspects, etc.).

4. Distance to work/commuting distance. The average commute is just under half an hour so staying within a particular radius and avoiding traffic congestion for held or potential jobs matters.

5. The status of the community. Which ones are known favorably (and not)? If you were moving to the New York City region and knew little about the suburban options, which communities would emerge?

6. Proximity to family if present in the area. Why move to Montclair if family members all live in New Canaan?

Even with all of these factors, it may take time of living in a suburb before a resident gets a sense of what is unique, different, and/or desirable.

Tomorrow, I will consider what this approach of searching for the best suburb could lead to.

Addressing race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois

In late 2015, Solidarity Cabinet at Wheaton College asked me to give an evening talk alongside one of my colleagues, David Malone, then Associate Professor of Library Science and head of Special Collections at Wheaton College (and now Dean of University & Seminary Library at Calvin College). We gave talks about the history of race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois. Afterward, we discussed how even though these had been independent projects, the data and patterns we had uncovered across the two communities appeared to overlap.

In late 2019, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society published our article titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.”

RaceTownandGown2019FirstPage

The synopsis from the journal’s website:

Our final article traces the trajectory of racial attitudes and policies in an affluent Chicago suburb. In “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race,” Brian J. Miller and David B. Malone summarize the evolution of Wheaton College and the larger community of Wheaton, Illinois on matters of race. Before the Civil War both college and town were well-known for abolitionism and relatively enlightened racial views. By the late nineteenth century, however, that earlier openness to African American uplift was waning fast. At the college, the reform ferment of the antebellum era gave way to evangelical fundamentalism, steering the college in more conservative directions. Meanwhile, as the town of Wheaton suburbanized after World War II, the new affluence it residents enjoyed corresponded with a more conservative approach to racial integration at the heart of the postwar Civil Rights Movement. The history of racial tolerance that had defined both college and town at their founding, while remaining a point of pride to be remembered, seemed only that, a distant memory. Miller and Malone, however, point to this history to make an important point–that structural economic and social change, coupled with new ideas, profoundly influence institutional and cultural change over time. Wheaton College and the larger suburb of which it is a part can, and no doubt will, continue to evolve, perhaps in surprising directions.

In certain ways, these communities exemplify broader trends in American society: how white evangelicals and white and wealthy suburbs address race. What is more unique in these two particular cases is that at certain points in their history, they were welcoming toward Blacks and minorities, particularly compared to some of their counterparts. Then, a combination of internal decisions and larger societal pressures which then shaped subsequent actions and experiences led to them being less welcoming. The character of places and communities is malleable even as a certain inertia takes hold over time. As as we note (and the editor notes in the paragraph above), communities and institutions can change again.

 

Less restaurant and retail business, lower local sales tax revenue

The ongoing effects of COVID-19 on business activity, particularly restaurants, will impact communities:

Restaurant dining room closures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are wreaking havoc on the industry’s bottom line and upending the lives of many working in the service industry. Those losses also will be felt by communities that rely on restaurant sales taxes and special food and beverage taxes to help fund municipal services. Some suburbs will feel the effects much more than others because of how heavily they rely on such taxes.

Sales taxes at restaurants and bars contributed more than $2 million a week to 83 suburbs, a Daily Herald analysis of 2019 tax records on the Illinois Department of Revenue’s website shows.

In a dozen suburbs, sales taxes from restaurants and bars represented more than 20% of all their sales tax revenue last year…

“It’s not just restaurants and bars, though,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, pointing out many sources of sales tax have had sharp drops. “Everybody in the retail sector has been negatively impacted, aside from groceries.”

With more Americans eating out in general, the ability of restaurants to draw visitors from other communities, and connections between eating and other recreational and cultural activities, eateries can be important sources of revenue.

Communities can aspire to have a diverse tax base where they draw tax revenues from a variety of sources, including sales taxes and property taxes. At the same time, some communities develop niches where they focus on one business sector or they have a historic strength. Diversification may be difficult to achieve and depend on a variety of forces including actions by local officials and leaders, the demographics of the community, historic patterns, and actions by business owners and larger economic forces. In other words, the character of a community’s tax base develops over time, can change, and at least in part depends on outside actions and forces beyond a community’s control.

It will also be interesting to see where the budget issues that municipalities face fall among the other economic concerns. Sales tax revenues are part of the picture but so might be property values if businesses need to close and there are not other businesses to take their place. If the federal government and states are also facing big hits to revenue, what might happen to municipal budgets?

Bringing the City Council meeting to a (participatory) stage

I have read through decades of City Council and other local commission minutes for research projects. Thus, I was intrigued to find out a playwright had taken real City Council experiences and put them together into a participatory performance:

Inside a hushed theater, a voice on the loudspeaker instantly lets the audience know this isn’t your typical performance.

“By joining us tonight” a soft female voice says, “you’ll be standing in for someone who was actually part of a local government meeting somewhere in the U.S. in the last three years.”

The show, for the most part, doesn’t use actors. Instead, theater goers are asked to volunteer to play the role of city council members, the mayor, and regular citizens at a city council meeting. The performance is staged just as if it were a real meeting, with real people participating in a play that reflects the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes nail-biting tediousness of participatory democracy…

“How do you take someone whose way of speaking or obvious demographic might be very different from yours and respectfully put it in the room?” Landsman asks. “How do you give voice to someone else’s language? For me it’s like walking a mile in their shoes – verbally.”

I would love to see this and to participate. The play takes something mundane to most people and provides an opportunity to see how things work and different people approach their community.

Here is why this has the potential to matter: Americans say that they like local government but their involvement is often limited (as exhibited by low turnout rates for local voting). And much of the time in local government boards, committees, and groups may involve arcane discussions of local ordinances, approval of paying bills, and odd local political or interpersonal disputes. Yet, these meetings help shape the character of communities. Even if there is a sizable public discussion about a development project or an annexation or a significant change, it is in the local government meeting that the vote actually takes place. These discussions and decisions can make a difference and set a community down a particular path for decades.

I would guess those who see this play do not immediately show up at all the local meetings eager to observe. However, at the least, it could help reveal some of the local processes that have the potential to impact all of our lives and communities.

The development of a changing and global northern Virginia

Alongside the rise of Washington, D.C. as an American center, the suburbs of northern Virginia have expanded and evolved:

One such non-DC-centered book was published in 2013 by the scholar Andrew Friedman. “Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia” stands out as a serious application of academic history and landscape studies about the Dulles Corridor. It just may be the first 21st-century attempt to mold a critical perspective on Northern Virginia…

The book is built on Friedman’s understanding that “there is no American place that’s not also a global place.” He establishes a dichotomy between the “Overt Capital” of Washington, where the Capitol dome represents the public sphere, and the “Covert Capital” of the Dulles Corridor, where the CIA and Pentagon manage their operations in relative privacy. As Friedman examines how foreign policy and foreign interventions shaped the domestic landscape, he locates the cross-border flows of material and people that have made our region what it is today…

For Friedman, the history of the Dulles Corridor begins with the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s, followed a decade later by the CIA headquarters. These buildings took advantage of car-oriented development to gain a new kind of hiddenness, obscured behind forests and parking lots. A drive through Langley can reveal nothing about what takes place behind the agency’s doors.

Friedman sees the seven years since his book was published as the beginning of a “third generation” in the development of the Dulles Corridor. It’s no longer characterized by leisurely semi-rural landscapes nor by McMansions, but by “lifestyle centers” and “placemaking,” as in the Mosaic District or The Boro. These centers, Friedman says, are in danger of becoming “fortified cells… reinventing the ‘urban’ into subdivisions, compartmentalized, buy-in-based.” Rather than creating an inclusive environment, he worries that lifestyle centers will only create a new form of “landscapes of denial.”

On one hand, this like the development of Sunbelt suburbs after World War Two. With defense spending, the spread of highways, and sprawling suburbs, this could describe any number of regions from D.C. to southern California. Over time, communities developed and became part of a global system: new immigration flows starting in the late 1960s brought new people, multiple generations of people lived in the new communities, and suburbs began to differentiate themselves. On the other hand, few places have the CIA and Pentagon – defense spending in suburbs could run the gamut from aircraft plants to military bases to government offices. And individual communities and regions have their own particular histories that affect local development character.

More broadly, looking at regional development – not just at cities – is a worthwhile endeavor. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., cannot be separated from their suburbs and vice versa. Considering the variation within a region versus connections between particular parts of the region and other parts of the United States is fun. Tyson’s Corner, cited above would be a good example: is it more like edge cities or northern Virginia. And what lessons could northern Virginia provide for the rest of the country about what to do or not to do?

Living in a community named after someone should prompt some curiosity about that founder

Upon seeing news earlier this year about the death of Carol Stream, the daughter of a Wheaton-born developer who founded a suburb in the 1950s named after his daughter, I remembered that I live in a town named after someone (the Wheaton brothers, Jesse and Warren). I have also studied another town named after a person, Naperville, studied another community that started with a person’s name (Turner Junction which became West Chicago), and have some knowledge of an adjacent suburb named after another person, Warrenville.

If people live in a community named after a person, how much should community members know about that person? More broadly, I would guess many Americans have limited knowledge of the early days of their community. The founding could be decades, possibly centuries, earlier. Americans tend to look to the future, not the past. American communities do not always have local museums, plaques, or other markers that talk about the early days. Yet, a community with a specific name attached to it offers an opportunity to connect to a particular person who likely had some time in the area before and after the community got its start. (An aside: communities named after distant people who may have never visited, may not provide as compelling a story.)

On the flip side, other communities might appear to have mundane names. In the Chicago area, it seems like a variety of suburban communities that put together two words from a list: Oak, Forest, Village, Park, River, Hills, etc. These might also some research: what has behind the name choice?

At the beginning of a community, the founders choose a name. Even though that name may seem less relevant decades later, community members can do a little digging and connect the name to particular people, if applicable, or concepts. All of this could help create a great sense of shared history and community.

(See earlier related posts: Learning About a Suburb.)

Looking deeper at Wheaton, Illinois in Walmart’s “United Towns” ad

During the Super Bowl, Walmart ran an ad titled “United Towns.” From roughly 0:10-0:12, there is a a shot of Wheaton, Illinois looking south on Main Street. Here is the view:

WheatonWalmart2020

Four things of note from this short appearance of Wheaton in a national ad:

  1. As a number of Wheaton residents noted online, there is no Walmart in Wheaton. This is true but it obscures the larger story. One, how many Wheaton residents shop at Walmart (there are two within several miles of the town’s borders) as opposed to other big box stores (such as the Target in Wheaton or the several within a few miles)? Or, how many Walmart employees live in Wheaton? Two, there may be reasons Wheaton has no Walmart: it might not have wanted one. The busy stretch along Roosevelt Road is carefully controlled by the city – no big box stores. The largest shopping area, Danada, does not have any big box stores (though it now has three sizable grocery stores). Wheaton had one of the first Target stores in the area but it is located right on the edge of town and a proposed Home Depot across the street did not get approval and is now just past Wheaton’s northern border.
  2. The image captures a feature of Wheaton life: the passing of trains through the downtown and the community. Without the train line, there is no Wheaton (at least the one officially founded in the 1850s). The train may be a fact of life in Wheaton and numerous other American communities but it is not necessarily a welcome one since these trains can delay traffic.
  3. The ad on the whole promotes the ideas of small towns and community life. There are lots of shots of houses and older downtown buildings. But, is Walmart both a rural/small town as well as a suburban phenomenon? Without suburban stores – meaning Walmart locations along main roads, within sprawl, and dependent on driving – Walmart is not the company it is today. Like many Americans, Walmart might promote the ideal of small towns but not really live in that world.
  4. Connected to #3, the shot of a cute or quaint suburban downtown is an interesting contrast to the effect of Walmart in the American economy plus the larger changes in which they participated. Wheaton’s downtown is in okay shape but imagine what it could be without big box stores. More broadly, downtowns across the country pursued different options to counter the changes in retail and shopping in the postwar era (starting with shopping malls and strip malls and later extending to big box stores).