The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

Comparing the overall diversity of cities versus neighborhood diversity within cities

Nate Silver looks at how large cities can be diverse overall but still have high levels of residential segregation:

This is what the final metric, the integration-segregation index, gets at. It’s defined by the relationship between citywide and neighborhood diversity scores. If we graph the 100 most populous cities on a scatterplot, they look like this:


The integration-segregation index is determined by how far above or below a city is from the regression line. Cities below the line are especially segregated. Chicago, which has a -19 score, is the most segregated city in the country. It’s followed by Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington and Baltimore.

Cities above the red line have positive scores, which mean they’re comparatively well-integrated. Sacramento’s score is a +10, for instance.

But here’s the awful thing about that red line. It grades cities on a curve. It does so because there aren’t a lot of American cities that meet the ideal of being both diverse and integrated. There are more Baltimores than Sacramentos.

Furthermore, most of the exceptions are cities like Sacramento that have large Hispanic or Asian populations. Cities with substantial black populations tend to be highly segregated. Of the top 100 U.S. cities by population, 35 are at least one-quarter black, and only 6 of those cities have positive integration scores.

So perhaps the Chicago School was correct: it is really neighborhoods that matter, even within cities with millions of people. This is what an interesting recent map of Detroit showed where there are clearly clusters of the city that have traditional neighborhoods while other parts are more vacant urban prairies. The sociological literature on poor neighborhoods that emerged starting in the 1970s gets at a similar concept: there are unique conditions and processes at work in such neighborhoods. And, Silver’s analysis confirms sociological research on residential segregation that for decades (perhaps highlights most memorably in American Apartheid) has argued that black-white residential segregation is in a league of its own.

Based on this kind of analysis, should sociologists only use city-wide or region-wide measures of segregation in conjunction with measures or methods that account for neighborhoods?

Sociologists looking at the “seamy underside” of cities

A number of media reviews of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book highlight his look at the “seamy underside” of New York City:

A finishing school for young minority hookers. A Harlem drug dealer determined to crack the rich white downtown market. A socialite turned madam. A tortured academic struggling to navigate vicious subcultures.

All in all, this might have made a pretty good novel. Instead it’s “Floating City,” the latest nonfiction look at the urban underbelly by self-described “rogue sociologist” Sudhir Venkatesh…

Much of what the author finds out about the seamy underside of urban life has already been discovered by predecessors as various as Emile Zola, Nathan Heard and Tom Wolfe (to say nothing of the producers of “The Wire”).

This reminded me that this is not a new approach for urban sociologists. The classic 1920s text The City from Robert Park and others in the Chicago School looks at some of the seamier sides of Chicago including boarding houses and slums. Numerous other sociologists have explored similar topics including looks at bars, drug use, and criminal activity in cities. This sort of approach works to challenge more cultured American society who can’t understand what motivates urban dwellers involved in these activities, satisfy curiosity.

While this research might help expose the plight of some urban residents, it might have another effect: limit the number of sociologists looking at elites. I remember hearing sociologist Michael Lindsay speak about this a few years ago after carrying out his research with elites. Who is closely studying elites who have both influence and resources?

The Chicago School model of urban growth doesn’t quite fit…but neither do other models

Sociologist Andy Beveridge adds to the ongoing debate within urban sociology over the applicability of the Chicago School’s model of growth:

Ultimately, Beveridge’s interesting analysis found that the basic Chicago School pattern held for the early part of the 20th century and even into the heyday of American post-war suburbanization. But more recently, the process and pattern of urban development has diverged in ways that confound this classic model…

The pattern of urban growth and decline has become more complicated in the past couple of decades as urban centers, including Chicago, have come back. “When one looks at the actual spatial patterning of growth,” Beveridge notes, “one can find evidence that supports exponents of the Chicago, Los Angeles and New York schools of urban studies in various ways.” Many cities have vigorously growing downtowns, as the New York model would suggest, but outlying areas that are developing without any obvious pattern, as in the Los Angeles model.

The second set of maps (below) get at this, comparing Chicago in the decades 1910-20 and 1990-2000. In the first part of the twentieth century, decline was correlated with decline in adjacent downtown areas, shown here in grey. Similarly, growth was correlated with growth in more outlying suburbs, shown here in black. In the earlier period growth radiated outwards — a close approximate of the Chicago school concentric zone model. But in the more recent map, growth and decline followed less clear patterns. Some growth concentrated downtown, while other areas outside the city continued to boom, in ways predicted more accurately by the New York and Los Angeles models. The islands of grey and black–which indicate geographic correlations of decline and growth, respectively–are far less systematic. As Beveridge writes, the 1990-2000 map shows very little patterning. There were “areas of clustered high growth (both within the city and in the suburbs), as well as decline near growth, growth near decline, and decline near decline.”

Interesting research. It sounds like the issue is not necessarily the models of growth but how widely they are applied within a metropolitan region. Assuming the same processes are taking place over several hundred square miles is making too much of a leap. We might then need to look at smaller areas or types of areas as well as micro processes.

This reminds me that when teaching urban sociology this past spring and reading as a class about the Chicago School, New York School, and Los Angeles School, students wanted to discuss why sociologists seem to want one theory to explain all cities. This isn’t necessarily the case; we know cities are different, particularly when you get outside of an American or Western context. At the same time, we are interested in trying to better understand the underlying processes surrounding city change. Plus, Chicago, New York, and LA have had organized (sometimes more strongly, sometimes more loosely) groups based in important schools pushing theories (and we don’t have such schools in places like Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, etc.).

Sociologist Charles Tilly honored in Elmhurst, IL

It is not often that you see renowned sociologists acknowledged by their high schools in the Chicago suburbs: the late Charles Tilly is being honored by York High School in Elmhurst.

York High School finally has its first group of hall of famers—or as they are referred to in District 205, Dukes of Distinction.

This well-deserved group was culled from nominations submitted by Elmhurst community members, District 205 staff, alumni and others early this year. These eight honorees have distinguished themselves through significant and extraordinary accomplishments, service and an outstanding contribution to society…

Dr. Charles Tilly, Class of 1946

Dr. Tilly was a a comparative and historical sociologist, analyst of social movements, and a social theorist, political sociologist and methodological innovator. Dr. Tilly authored 51 books and over 600 articles, as well as directing over 200 doctoral dissertations. He was a member of numerous scientific academies and a lecturer at universities all over the world. He was called “an intellectual global powerhouse,” whose contributions led to the development of seven subfields in sociology. Dr. Tilly died in 2008.

Perhaps I’m alone in this but I would be intrigued to hear how well-known sociologists made it from high school to an academic career in sociology. Is there anything about Lombard and Elmhurst that pushed Tilly toward sociology? I recently saw another suggestion that the lives of adults tend to mirror their lives in high school, which is highly reductionistic and depressing, but perhaps future sociologists were different?

Also, given the history of sociology in Chicago, how many other sociologists are from the Chicago suburbs? How about a per capita look at which major US regions produce the most sociologists?

Building “a live test case” city in China

Curbed describes a proposed pop-up city in China that could be used to test a number of planning ideas:

With the amount of architectural phenomena China’s churning out these days, it can be tough for decent renderings to garner any sort wow factor. The market is just glutted with all manner of wackadoo designs, from car-free “Great Cities” to the world’s next tallest building to alien/pinecone towers. Still, these renderings for an urban oasis in Changsha, Hunan, to be built from scratch by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) stand out. An “experiment in future city planning,” this lakeside city lets the architects play with neighborhood structure, flood prevention systems, and urban agriculture, all the while housing 180,000 residents—that’s 100,000 more people than accounted for in China’s other planned pop-up city. KPF’s press release calls the Meixi Lake project “a live test case”—always a reassuring phrase when talking about urban architecture—designed to integrate nature into densely populated cityscapes. The city—described as “actually happening” by a spokesperson—will be organized by neighborhood pods, each housing about 10,000 people, with a school, shopping center, and other public spaces in each town-like structure. The plan, proposed five years ago, is intriguing, though the verdict’s still out on whether it has enough pie-in-the-sky details to be make it into the selective club of most outlandish cities of the future.

I detect some skepticism here. But, I’m interested in this phrase of a city acting as “a live test case.” Experimenting with cities? While the sociologists of the Chicago School suggested Chicago was a laboratory, I don’t think this is what they had in mind. I suspect this language couldn’t be used openly in the United States even though certain development plans and projects have acted as experiments of sorts over the decades. For example, public housing went through an experiment of sorts starting with the construction of high-rises in the 1950s and 1960s. However, these high-rises (famously marked by the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis) were torn down in recent decades after being marked as untenable. When talking about cities as live test cases, does that mean the development will be evaluated years down the road and if it worked, it will continue but it will be changed if it didn’t work? Could portions of test cities be torn down and then make way for new cities?

The sociological tree of William Julius Wilson

As part of a larger article looking at the legacy of William Julius Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged and his study of neighborhood effects, there is an interesting graphic: Wilson’s “web of influence.” Here who is on the list (listed here in clockwise order from the top):

-Robert Sampson – Harvard

-Sandra Smith – UC Berkeley

-Sudhir Venkatesh – Columbia

-Stefanie DeLuca – Johns Hopkins

-Christopher Jencks – Harvard

-Lawrence Katz – Harvard

-Patrick Sharkey – NYU

-Douglas Massey – Princeton

-Loic Wacquant – UC Berkeley

-Mary Patillo – Northwestern

This reminded me of NFL coaching trees: see the Bill Walsh, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Parcells trees here (and there could be other trees based on Paul Brown, Bill Belichick, and others). Why don’t we do more of this within the field of sociology? We know there are influential thinkers and graduate school mentors who influence broader ranges of students and academics than others. Indeed, quickly looking at this list shows these people tend to be clustered in higher ranking departments which attract more capable researchers as well as graduate students.

A classic example of this in sociology is the Chicago School: decades of American sociology were heavily influenced by a group of sociologists at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s who trained a number of notable graduate students and helped shape the field (urban sociology in particular). Such social networks or trees or “bloodlines” don’t have to be deterministic; new scholars don’t just parrot what they heard before but there are key ideas and methodologies that these networks share while also analyzing new social realms.

There would be multiple ways to measure this. We could start with grad school training: who was trained at what institution and with which advisers and dissertation committee members. Another way to look at this would be to examine who is citing whom and who is utilizing theories and concepts developed by others. A third way could explore who is actually collaborating on works with each other. While all of this would take some time, I wonder if such trees would really help explain more of the underlying structure of sociology as a discipline in the United States.

Tying subways to the concentric rings of the Chicago School

Joel recently noted an academic study that suggests subway systems converge on a similar form. Whet Moser of Chicago argues that understanding subway patterns requires considering how cities grow and the concentric rings model of the Chicago School of urban sociology.

This is where I get skeptical that subways converging towards a “common mathematical space may hint at universal principles of human self-organization.” The subway systems the authors study were built within a relatively narrow band: 1863 (London) to 1995 (Shanghai). But they’re all also very old cities. Shanghai has a dense central business district, dating back to its long history as a port town; Moscow’s rings radiate out from the Kremlin and Red Square, following old fortifications; Beijing grew out from a model of urbanism that way predates Burgess and Park:

Many researchers reached consensus on urban morphology of the Old Beijing from physical composition. It is agreed that the Old Beijing was laid out exactly according to the concept of the Chinese utopia capital city in the book Kao Gong Ji, Notes on Works, written more than 2,000 years ago. The ideal city form is ‘a walled square city of nine by nine li (4.5 kilometers) with nine north/south main streets and east/west main avenues, three gates on each side, the ancestral temple on the left and an altar on the right of the palace, municipal administration buildings in front of the palace and a marketplace behind it’ (Fu, 1998; Liu, 1986).

So: who cares? If it’s just a neat little mathematical model, what’s its relevance? It’s relevant when the model becomes prescriptive, as the authors of “World Subway Networks” write:

In the case of Beijing, Seoul and Shanghai, it seems that their relative ‘youth’ is why they have not yet reached their long time limit.

Translation: since the subways were started after 1971, they haven’t fully converged on that ideal “core and branch” shape and ratio…

In short, Beijing is stuck in Park and Burgess’s concentric zones, and wants to move towards Harris and Ullman’s multiple-nuclei model. At the very least, it’s neat to see these comparatively dated theories of urbanization at the forefront of 21st century development. But the Beijing subway system may be following a multiple-nuclei model…

In other words, urban sociologists started to figure out that the concentric rings model doesn’t seem to fit all cities (though it still seems to overlay nicely on Chicago, it doesn’t fit other places like Beijing or newer Sunbelt cities in the United States). First came the multiple nuclei model in the 1940s and then a whole new paradigm, the political economy approach, started to emerge in the 1960s. The political economy prescriptive relies less on prescriptive models and instead focus on a different mechanism: whereas the Chicago School emphasizes competition for land and cities growing as people seek out cheaper land, the political economy model focuses on the profit motives of developers, politicians, and business leaders.

So if we looked at subway growth and locations in the political economy perspective, we could examine why lines and stops were built in certain places. Using two other forms of mass transportation as examples, we know that a good number of railroad and streetcar owners in the mid to late 1800s built lines to their new real estate developments. In other words, these lines were not built to service existing residents but rather to spur new development. I bet you could find some scholars who would argue that subways may sometimes be built to wealthier neighborhoods rather than poorer neighborhoods because there is more money to be made in these connections.

Applying evolutionary biology to the city

Biologist David Sloan Wilson has taken an interest in better understanding Binghamtom, New York. His lens: evolutionary biology.

Differences in prosociality, Wilson thought, should produce measurable outcomes — if not in reproductive success, perhaps in happiness, crime rates, neighbourhood tidiness or even the degree of community feeling expressed in the density of holiday decorations. “I really wanted to see a map of altruism,” he says. “I saw it in my mind.” And with a frisson of excitement, he realized that his models and experiments offered clues about how to intervene, how to structure real-world groups to favour prosociality. “Now is the implementation phase.” Evolutionary theory, Wilson decided, will improve life in Binghamton…

Binghamton is hard to love. Established in the early nineteenth century, it has long relied on big industry for its identity and prosperity — early on through the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company and then through IBM, which was founded in the area. But the manufacturers mostly decamped in the 1990s, and since then the city has taken on an aimless, shabby air. Dollar stores and coin-operated laundries fill the gaps between dilapidated Victorian houses and massive brick-and-stone churches. A Gallup poll in March 2011 listed Binghamton as one of the five US cities least liked by its residents. “It is a town that knows it is badly in need of a revival,” says Wilson. Even its motto, ‘Restoring the pride’, speaks of a city clinging to its past and ashamed of its present…

So Wilson decided to see whether he could raise up the prosocial valleys by creating conditions in which cooperation becomes a winning strategy — in effect, hacking the process of cultural evolution. He set about this largely by instituting friendly competitions between groups. His first idea was a park-design project, in which neighbourhoods were invited to compete for park-improvement funds by creating the best plan.

But Wilson soon found out that field experiments in real cities can take on lives of their own: different neighbourhoods couldn’t get their acts together on the same schedule, so the competition aspect largely disappeared. Instead, he is now working on turning multiple park ideas into reality. The dog park is one. Another is Sunflower Park, the most advanced project to date, but still a sad, mainly empty lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Children don’t spend a lot of time playing here. Undaunted, Wilson is raising funds and laying plans for a relaxing community space flush with trees and amenities. “In a year,” he says, “we will serve you a hot dog from the pavilion.”

The rest of the article describes how Wilson acts more like a social scientist, taking surveys, making observations, interacting with residents, trying to understand local religious congregations. Some of this discussion is amusing as it rehashes debates about how close researchers should get to research subjects – social scientists would describe it as participant observation.

This reminds me of some of the work of early sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and the Chicago School who based at least some of their ideas on biological principles. Spencer viewed society as being like an organism and the Chicago School viewed competition for space as a primary driver of urban development and action. But evolutionary thinking has generally faded away in sociology (outside of sociobiology). Could sociologists, and urban sociologists, again view evolutionary principles as a boon for the field or simply a distraction from the better work that is going on in the field? Wilson is also interested in the topics of altruism and prosociality, topics that have attracted the attention of more sociologists in recent years. It would be interesting to hear what happens when Wilson comes to some conclusions about social and city life and then presents them to social scientists.