Can Chicago art convince suburban residents that they have a responsibility to help fight violence in the city?

Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones argues that the Chicago art scene can help convince people in the suburbs that they should help fight violence in the city:

But there’s another common theme gaining steam this winter. Many of these artistic responses to violence are trying to impress upon people that geography does not inoculate a city — a region, a nation — from responsibility. Because the killings have, for the most part, been confined to certain neighborhoods, it has been possible for the rest of Chicago to live, work and go about its business mostly untouched. There is this crisis, a crisis of which Chicagoans increasingly are aware, yet still it often is not seen. Were this violence evenly spread throughout the city’s ZIP codes, then there certainly would not be business as usual. Of that there can be no question.

So in works like “Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology,” staged by Collaboraction on Milwaukee Avenue and full of compelling insights, the point is made that the killings have been taking place very close to the actual artistic venue. Indeed, in art exhibits and performance lobbies across Chicago, you can often see so many maps and charts, it feels like you are in a police incident room. It’s not far from here, these pieces keep reminding us. You could ride a bike there in 20 minutes. If you’re driving home, you’re probably going farther. This is a crucial element of raising awareness.

Many of these works, such as “It Shoudda Been Me,” created for the eta Creative Arts Foundation by the University of Chicago’s Dr. Doriane Miller, one of the first in Chicago to understand that fictionalizing violent scenarios makes it easier for those who live them to talk about them, have been created to tour. Officials from the Chicago Park District were at Collaboraction on Monday, checking out the piece as possible programming for neighborhood parks. Clearly, there is a need for such programming in the neighborhoods where this level of violence is a daily reality. Especially this summer, when nerves will on edge all over Chicago, the amount of that programming will need to increase. It’s one way to keep kids off the streets.

But I kept wondering about the places beyond the boundaries of the Chicago Park District, beyond the hipster neighborhoods like Wicker Park. What about Wheaton or Winnetka? Are the stories behind the violence in Chicago understood there in the way that the city’s stunning cultural assets are understood?

This is a fascinating argument: can art bridge the gap between city violence and suburbanites who have the luxury of watching the problems of Chicago from a distance? Jones hints at the broad gulf between suburbs and city and even between the wealthier areas of Chicago and the areas experiencing more violence and difficulty. Urban sociologists have been discussing these for decades. The Chicago School classic The Gold Coast and the Slum noted the cultural gaps between the wealthy and poor on the near north side in the 1920s even though the two groups lived in close proximity. Work in the last 50 years has emphasized how suburban growth has contributed to the problems of the inner city by removing social capital, resources (in the form of jobs, money spent on highways rather than mass transit, tax revenues, etc.), and middle-class norms and values. People in the suburbs may lament the violence in Chicago but how willing are they to act against it or contribute to actions that might help or sacrifice some of their own life?

The trick seems to be to get the suburbanites not just to experience the art or the true stories of violence. Rather, Jones wants the suburbanites to act in response to what they see in art or the news. This is a much tougher nut to crack.

William Julius Wilson on what has changed in the 25 years since “The Truly Disadvantaged” was published

William Julius Wilson offers some thoughts on what has changed since his book The Truly Disadvantaged was published in 1987:

It doesn’t do any good to offer some people a job if their values don’t lead them to take it. That concerns Wilson, too. At the conference, he and other policy experts explored the importance of “neighborhood effects” that can undermine values and incentives to, for example, pack up and move to where jobs might be more available.

Wilson credited welfare reform and the robust economy of the 1990s with reducing underclass poverty, but noted that poverty has rebounded since 2000. The dip in the 1990s might prove to be only a “blip” in the long-term decline of concentrated poverty communities, he said.

Black prison incarceration also has increased, putting even more of a chill on black incomes, family life and marriageable men.

“Quite frankly I think that (President Barack) Obama’s programs have prevented poverty, including concentrated poverty, from rapidly rising, considering the terrible economy,” Wilson said. He included Obama’s stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which earmarked $80 billion for low-income Americans. It included such emergency benefits as an extension of unemployment benefits, a temporary increase in the earned income tax credit and additional funds for food stamps. It also offered $4 billion in job-training and workforce enhancement programs and $2 billion for neighborhood stabilization efforts, Wilson noted.

Based on what Clarence Page reports here, perhaps not a whole lot has changed? It doesn’t seem that poverty or inner-city neighborhoods have really been a major priority of any major political candidate

Quick Review: Waiting for Superman

I recently watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, a film that received a lot of media attention after it was released late last year. It does try to take on an important on-going problem: how to improve American schools? This is an issue that one can hear average citizens, politicians, college professors and others discuss frequently. Here are my quick thoughts about this film’s take on the issue:

1. The framing of the issue in the opening and conclusion of the film is quite effective. Toward the beginning, we meet several students who want to go to the better schools (often a magnet or charter school) in their school districts. But since they are not alone and these schools are attractive to many families, the students have to go through a lottery. At the end, we see the results of the lottery. This is the question that is raised: should a child’s educational opportunities be left to chance in a lottery? Get into one of these elite schools and life will likely be good; not get in, and children can be doomed to terrible schools that are termed “drop-out factories.”

2. While the documentary hits on some possible reasons behind the problems of American schools (No Child Left Behind, bad neighborhoods, tracking), the main emphasis here is on two things:

2a. Teachers are a problem. The idea pushed by the documentary is that the bad teachers need to be replaced and unions resist this process. Michelle Rhee, the attention-getting superintendent of the Washington, D.C. schools is followed as she tries to make a deal with the union involving merit pay for the good teachers. Interestingly, we don’t really see evidence from districts where teachers are not as unionized – does this help improve student performance?

2b. Parents deserve choices in schools. This involves magnet or charter schools within districts plus other operations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP schools.

2c. I wish they had put these two ideas together more: so how do teachers operate within these “better” school settings? How are teachers trained and encouraged within these settings? What exactly about these schools boosts student performance – is it just the teachers?

2d. I also wonder how all of this might be scalable. Later, the documentary talks about raising expectations for children and Bill Gates talks on-camera about having the right “culture” in the schools. How might this fit into the idea about American schools being more of a competition-based system versus a country like Finland that pursues more equal outcomes across the spectrum of students?

3. Even though most of the documentary is about inner-city schools, it also follows one “average” suburban girl and the suggestion is made that even suburban schools are not doing that well. This is backed up with data showing that American students are the most confident among a group of OECD nations but their scores are behind those of many nations. Additionally, it is suggested that these suburban schools are not preparing students well for college where a good number find that they need to take remedial courses. Since many Americans likely are influenced by school district performance as they look to move, what exactly is going on in these suburban schools that needs to be fixed? Outside of the exemplar schools held up in the movie (magnets or charters, KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone), are there any good schools? Is the whole system so broken that no school can really succeed?

Overall, I was a little surprised by the message and who I have seen support it: improve the pool of teachers (and fight the unions!) and offer parents and communities more choices of schools that are more effective in providing educations. Considering what I often see blamed as the problems of schools, No Child Left Behind or funding disparities, this is a change of pace.

At the same time, I wonder about whether these two solutions are really the answer. Are they band-aids to the issue or would they really solve educational problems in America? I keep coming back to the idea of residential segregation, the concept describing how races and social classes live apart from each other. Life chances are better for people growing up in wealthier, more educated settings but of course, these people can buy their way into such settings and avoid others. Would school districts near me, say in Naperville, a suburb that takes great pride in its schools, really go for the idea of charter or magnet schools? Do they even really need them?

At the very least, this documentary raises some interesting issues and a different perspective on a problem for which many wish to find a solution.

(This film was well-received by critics: it is 89% fresh at RottenTomatoes, 99 fresh out of 112 total reviews.)

What influences how residents feel about their communities: social ties

New research to be published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that how people feel about their particular community is not influenced by the community itself:

Prior to this research, many sociologists believed that certain community traits influenced how attached residents felt. That list of suspected factors included cultural heritage, levels of acquaintanceship, the pace of economic development, population density and habits of the predominant ethnic group.

Instead, the BYU researchers found that none of these dimensions of a locale produce a higher sense of attachment – or at least they don’t anymore.

“I take our findings to be part of the bad news of modernity,” said lead study author Jeremy Flaherty, who is completing a Ph.D. at BYU. “How people interpret their local community has probably changed substantially over the generations.”

While the researchers found that no characteristics of the community played a role, they did find that feelings of attachment develop if a person develops social ties where they live – and that usually takes time.

So it is not really about the community but rather the relationships one builds and the social standing one has in a community. This would fit with a lot of research in the last decade or so about community life in places where many would suspect there is not much community life. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh has written several books that show there is a strong community structure in poor neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. While outsiders would look at each community and see chaos or disorder, Venkatesh found a well-established social structure where people were still tied to each other.

I will be interested to read then how if it is really about social relationships, some people do come to have such attachments to particular places. Do they not find such social relationships elsewhere? Do these relationships then taint or influence their view of every community thereafter?

If this is the case, perhaps the “Best Places to Live” lists should include some new measures of things like friendliness, openness, and social ties within a community. Does the average new person who moves to the community become part of new social networks in a relatively short amount of time? Do neighbors know each other beyond just saying hello? And if people knew that some places were friendlier or more open than others, would that be a draw to majority of Americans or a detriment?