Agglomeration, working from home, and the character of places

Why do certain industries cluster together in one location? Social scientists have answers:

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Economists believe agglomeration — like the clustering of tech in the Bay Area — has historically been the result of two main forces. The first is what they call “human capital spillovers” — a fancy way of saying that people get smarter and more creative when they’re around other smart and creative people. Think informal conversations, or “serendipitous interactions,” over coffee in the break room or beers at the bar. These interactions, the theory says, are crucial to generating great ideas, and they encourage the incubation and development of brainiac clusters. The other force is the power of “matching” opportunities. When lots of tech firms, workers and investors clustered in Silicon Valley, there were lots more opportunities for productive marriages between them. As a result, companies that wanted to recruit, grow or get acquired often gravitated to places like the Bay Area.

However, remote work could actually improve certain matching possibilities. Companies can hire smart people anywhere in the world when they drop the requirement that they physically be in a central office. Not only that, they can pay them less. Moreover, killing the office can significantly lower costs for companies, which no longer have to pay for expensive real estate.

So, in this theory, the future of work and the economic geography of America really hinges on whether companies can create those “human capital spillovers” through computer screens or in offices in cheaper locations.

This is a phenomenon with a pretty broad reach as cities could be viewed as clusters of firms and organizations. What has been interesting to me in this field in recent years is how places like this come to develop and what it means for the character of the place.

Take Silicon Valley as an example. This is the home of the tech industry and, as the article notes, the big firms have committed to physically being there with large headquarters (including Google, Apple, and Facebook). These headquarters and office parks are themselves interesting and often a post-World War Two phenomena as highways and suburbanization brought many companies out of downtowns to more sprawling campuses. At the same time, the impact of all of this on the communities nearby is also important. What happens when the interests of the big tech company and the community collide (see a recent example of a Facebook mixed-use proposal)? What did these communities used to be like and what are they?

This is bigger than just the idea of employees working from home. This potential shift away from clustering would affect places themselves and how they are experienced. If thousands of workers are no longer in Silicon Valley, what does this do to those communities and the communities in which more workers are now at home? Silicon Valley became something unique with this tech activity but it could be a very different kind of place in several decades if there is new activity and new residents.

The same could be said for many other communities. What is New York City if Wall Street and the finance industry clusters elsewhere or disperses across the globe? What happens to Los Angeles if Hollywood disperses? And so on. The character of places depends in part on these clusters, their size, and their history. If the agglomerations shift, so will the character of communities.

Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

Photo by Mizzu Cho on Pexels.com

That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

New-York or New York?

Mix arguments over immigration and hyphens and you have a historical debate over whether the name of New York City should be hyphenated:

Photo by Matias Di Meglio on Pexels.com

What Curran either didn’t know, or wanted to erase, was the fact that up until the late 1890s, cities like “New-York” and “New-Jersey” were usually hyphenated to be consistent with other phrases that had both a noun and an adjective. In 1804, when the “New-York Historical Society” was founded, therefore, hyphenation was de rigueur. The practice of hyphenating New York was adhered to in books and newspapers, and adopted by other states. Even the New York Times featured a masthead written as The NewYork Times until the late 1890s.

It was only when the pejorative phrasing of “hyphenated Americans” came into vogue in the 1890s, emboldened by Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen speech, that the pressure for the hyphen’s erasure came to pass.

Writing in 1924, several years after Roosevelt’s speech, Curran accused New York society of being overly judgmental, noting that “it is Ellis Island that catches the devil whenever a decision comes along that does not suit somebody. Of course, we are now in the midst of the open season for attacks on Ellis Island. We have usurped the place of the sea serpent and hay fever. We are ready to be roasted.” For the next twelve years he served as commissioner of immigration, Curran became more staunchly anti-immigrant, and his hatred was fueled by the anti–hyphenated Americanism espoused by people like Roosevelt and, later, Woodrow Wilson.

Curran was outraged that his beloved city would appear hyphenated, and he continually insisted that Morris call a meeting to pass a law that barred the use of a hyphen in New York. Meanwhile, curators, historians, and librarians banded together with antidiscrimination and immigrants’ rights defenders to defend a hyphenated New-York. Curran could not win this time, they insisted. The curators and librarians at the Historical Society bravely stood by the hyphen in their name, confirming that they had been founded in 1804, that the hyphen was in the original configuration of New-York, and that, no, this hyphen would not be erased. Hyphenated Americans and activists throughout New York City worried that this erasure would signal that they would not be welcome in the one city that was supposed to be a bastion of openness in America…

In the end, much to his chagrin, Curran lost this contest. No law was ever passed outlawing the hyphen, and it remains to this day, etched in stone on the building of the New-York Historical Society, a homage to the journey of the city and the hyphenated individuals who fought the good fight to keep the hyphen—and its many meanings—alive.

While it might be easy to dismiss this as a language debate from long ago, this excerpt highlights how language is not just about grammar or particular words: all of it is tied to how people see and understand the world. It sounds like the hyphen in place names followed conventions for the day of separating adjectives and nouns that went together. As hyphens later helped demarcate identity, they generated controversy.

Would New York be a different place today if it were New-York? Perhaps it might work like this. The hyphen implies a more hybrid identity than the solid “New York” together. Would this point people back to the original roots of the city, not as an American place but a British territory and before that a Dutch city? All of this could help put together contradictory ideas including American individualism and capitalism, colonialism, slavery, and pluralism. Add to that the immigrant history of New York from a variety of countries at numerous time points and perhaps the hyphenated version would help highlight the bricolage that is the city of five boroughs, numerous neighborhoods, and uncountable different experiences. “New-York” is still being shaped, “New York” already exists.

What is the acceptable amount of neighborhood or community change for current residents?

A look at possible ways to provide more housing in Los Angeles runs into a problem common to many communities in the United States: how much change is allowed?

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Pexels.com

What’s missing? The low-rise, multifamily housing that the city banned in the 1970s and ’80s. Which is why Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer, held a competition, “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” to solicit new blueprints for so-called “missing middle” housing. “There’s a narrative in L.A., as in many cities, that neighborhoods are changing too fast; but in reality, L.A. is changing less rapidly than at any point in its history,” Hawthorne told me. A former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times (and for this magazine), he plans to use these designs to win hearts and minds in the community forums where upzoning goes to die.

The winning entrants, announced on Monday, are a reminder that multifamily housing does not need to look much different than single-family housing. Instead, these models weave apartments right into the neighborhood, with understated architecture and clever use of space. In theory, these modest plans ought to take the “neighborhood character” argument against housing growth off the table.

Then again, the whole dialectic of NIMBY vs. YIMBY, Hawthorne contends, doesn’t accurately describe the situation on the ground. “When we actually talk to communities and neighborhoods, we find most people are in the middle. A lot of recent scholarship has clarified historic issues”—such as single-family zoning’s legacy of racial exclusion—”pandemic and wildfire have clarified others. Most people are ready to say our approach of land use and zoning in low-rise neighborhoods is not a sustainable pattern for the 21st century.” They just need help visualizing what change looks like.

There are multiple layers of issues present in these three paragraphs. Here are a few of the issues as I see them:

  1. There is a continuum of change within a neighborhood ranging from frozen in time for decades to immediate massive change in a relatively short amount of time (perhaps in urban renewal style after World War Two). All communities change to some degree but this is affected by time, demographics, and other factors. I wonder how effective it is, as above, to note the relative lack of change to people in a neighborhood who might perceive it differently. I cannot quantify it but I would guess there are plenty of people who move into a location and expect it not to change (or only change in ways that they approve).
  2. The change in character, often equated with adding anything different to single-family homes of the same kind, is hard to combat. Perhaps more people see the need for more housing but how many want it on their block or immediate area as opposed to somewhere else in the city?
  3. I agree that design can help ameliorate these issues. It might be worthwhile to build one of these options with no one’s knowledge and then see who notices. There are ways to construct affordable or even subsidized housing in ways that do raise the attention of nearby residents who might otherwise oppose any efforts to have cheaper housing.
  4. How much would local politicians push for these changes as opposed to representing the existing residential interests? This could matter less if local politicians are at-large representatives but this would also raise the ire of particular neighborhoods.
  5. Neighborhoods with more resources – higher-income residents , people with more connections to politicians and community groups – may be able to slow down or delay possible change more than others. And if the new housing might bring in people not like them, the race/class/”others” issues could be more at play than any actual debate about housing options.

How much change in a neighborhood or character change is desirable? It could vary from community to community and depend on numerous factors.

Residential segregation – by political party

Residential segregation by race is a large issue and voting patterns in recent elections generally show Democrats winning in cities and close suburbs and Republicans winning in outer suburbs and rural areas. Put these two ideas together and you have residential segregation by political party.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/17/upshot/partisan-segregation-maps.html

As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect. That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans are effectively segregated from each other, to varying degrees by place, according to the Harvard researchers Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos. And at least over the past decade, they believe this partisan segregation has been growing more pronounced…

For each individual voter, tied to an address, the researchers looked at their thousand nearest voters, weighting those next door more heavily than those a mile away. Drawn this way, about 25 million voters — urban Democrats especially — live in residential circles where at most only one in 10 encounters is likely to be with someone from the opposite party. Democrats in parts of Columbus, Ohio, and Oklahoma City live this way. So do Republicans in the reddest parts of Birmingham, Ala., and Gillette, Wyo…

These studies together suggest that as places become more politically homogeneous, people there are more likely to conform and to publicly signal their partisanship. Maybe no one says, “I want to move here because of all these Biden yard signs.” But perhaps one neighbor is swayed by the people who put them up, and another neighbor concludes, “This isn’t the place for me.”

Lots of confounding variables to examine across a lot of locales. But, the underlying patterns are fascinating to consider: do geographic communities, even in an era of reduced neighborly contact and participation in local institutions, influence people’s political belief and behavior? With more focus in recent years on how online and social media behavior influences politics, this connection to geography has the opportunity to reinvigorate conversation about the power of local communities.

I would be interested to see how this plays out among local governments of communities with similar traits. Take a suburb closer to a big city that leans Democrat and a suburb further out that leans Republicans. Are the local decisions made that different? Do local elections look different?

Or, how often are there tipping points across communities and neighborhoods where a majority of voters are of one party or another? The patterns now show some stability but these have changed in the past and could change again in the future. What happens when they do change and does the character of the community change?

The spatial impacts of Amazon

A review of a new book about Amazon highlights the geographic impact of the influential company:

Photo by Sergei Akulich on Pexels.com

In some of MacGillis’s stories, the connection to Amazon is so tenuous as to be almost indiscernible; the characters’ problems seem to arise more from larger forces, such as globalization, gentrification, and the opioid crisis, than from any one corporation’s influence. A young man from small-town Ohio—alienated by his experience in D.C., where he starts college—returns home and enters Democratic politics. After scoring a local success, he runs for Congress, determined that the party not write off his opioid-ravaged, Trump-supporting region, but he fails to drum up more than a couple of union endorsements. A gospel singer who became a cultural force in Seattle during the ’80s watches as her neighbors are pushed out of the city’s historically Black Central District one by one.

Local energies may have been sapped for many reasons, yet in the coastal cities that MacGillis visits, Amazon’s disproportionate ability to further enrich and empower already thriving places and workers is glaring. Familiar though they are, evocations of the six-figure salaries and amenities available to young Amazon programmers—a café catering to their dogs, meeting space in a giant replica of a bird’s nest—acquire new salience set against Torrez’s experience. And the sense of entitlement on display in the company’s search for a second headquarters site is breathtaking. Local officials across hard-knock America prostrate themselves for a chance to host it. In the end, Amazon chooses the suburbs of the nation’s capital—already one of the wealthiest areas in the country—and walks away having amassed a great deal of useful regional data provided by eager bidders who probably never stood a chance.

In the less glamorous pockets of the country—the rural areas and small cities where MacGillis has spent so much time as a reporter—Amazon’s role in making economic hardship more entrenched is no less stark. In El Paso, Texas, Amazon has aggressively marketed itself to the city government as a go-to source for office supplies—which has pushed local purveyors to open up online storefronts on Amazon; a large cut of their sales goes to the corporation. In York, Pennsylvania, the headquarters of the once-fashionable Bon-Ton department store has been made extinct by Amazon and the broader retail consolidation it represents. The crisis of unemployment that has ensued is one that Amazon exploits, finding able bodies for its warehouses in nearby towns.

On his home turf of Baltimore, MacGillis explores most intimately the ebbing of human fulfillment that has accompanied Amazon’s promise of high-speed customer service. He profiles Bill Bodani Jr., who spent most of his working life at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point complex, outside the city. In the early 2000s, a serious injury forced him to retire in his mid-50s, around the time that foreign competition and other factors pushed the company into bankruptcy. Eventually, the Sparrows Point plant shut down and Bodani’s monthly pension payment was cut from $3,000 to $1,600. Now 69 years old and back at work as a forklift driver in a 22-acre Amazon warehouse, he returns every day to the exact same piece of land. The peninsula has been rebranded—it’s called Tradepoint Atlantic now—and has become what MacGillis calls an “all-purpose logistics hub” that houses, among other facilities, an Amazon fulfillment center.

While Amazon is not the only major corporation that could claim to have a a large impact on so many places in the United States (think Walmart, McDonald’s, and a few others), it’s particular reach and impact might just be unique. With an ability to reach millions of customers in their homes, tech workers in a lot of locations, and fulfillment centers spread across the country, Amazon reaches across multiple sectors and job segments.

This means that its impact on particular places could be quite disparate. Take the Chicago region as an example. Like many places, Chicago wanted Amazon HQ#2. This would add to both office workers in downtown Chicago as well as many more in fulfillment centers around the region. Yet, Amazon’s locations received more money from some poorer suburbs.

Each of these Amazon locations, high-tech or not, has the potential to shape the character of communities. Consider the fate of places like Elwood, Illinois that rely on warehouses and distribution centers. Is an Amazon fulfillment center a good trade-off in the long run? Does the chase for a new headquarters or some higher-quality jobs in corporate offices encourage communities to offer tax breaks and more? What kind of local citizen is Amazon – does it participate in and contribute to local activities, do its buildings and its footprint positively contribute to civic life?

Amazon my be global but it is local for many communities. How it interacts with these numerous local contexts may help decide its long-term fate.

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.