Next steps to knowing a suburb

The six steps I discussed yesterday for knowing a suburb would provide a good starting point for any resident, outsider, or student. Here are the next steps to take in the same domains that would provide explanations of how things came to be rather than just a description of what is:

  1. A community’s website often includes a lot of interesting information. It may not be easy to find – after all, the website’s front page is intended to put the community’s best image forward – but there are minutes of local governmental bodies, announcements about projects, information on local officials, and more. I would go to the City Council (or equivalent) minutes or videos to start. They are often dull documents with records of the bills the community paid and other basic work that the average resident doesn’t care about. Yet, you can see the important matters that the Council discussed. What made it to their discussions (usually moving their way up through other local government bodies) and how did they decide? Attending such meetings can also help though reviewing documents and videos can probably be done more quickly.
  2. A zoning map provides a single view of how the land in a community is apportioned. But, how did the map develop? This is where finding the minutes of the Zoning Board or Plan Commission is useful. The City Council minutes show what projects were eventually approved but the Zoning or Plan Boards will reveal all the proposals that came forward (the ones that are voted down rarely make it to the full City Council). Again, many of the requests may be fairly dull – requesting a variance for a larger sign or building a residential garage a half foot over the allowed line – but discussions about the larger projects can be very consequential.
  3. Suburbs often have an “official” local history or two published by a local historian or group. Dig deeper than this through several avenues. Search through newspaper archives (a local or regional paper); some of these are now available online while others might be present in local libraries or museums. Go to local history museums, see what is on display and how they describe the formation of the community, and ask to look at the archives. (At these facilities, there may be a difference between the deeper archives and what the public is able to regularly look at in vertical files or published sources. Finally, the local library may be the most accessible option: they often have local history material including local government publications. In either a local museum or library, look for a comprehensive plan document: this is a formal moment when the community crystallized how they wanted to use land.
  4. Talking to any long-time residents may be helpful but talking to particular residents can provide more detailed information. In particular, talk with local officials and business leaders. These are the people intimately involved with the inside operation of the community, the movers and shakers. They can often articulate the vision that leaders have of who the community is and where it should go. Some of them may be harder to talk to while others are more approachable; look for venues such as community meetings of various kinds where they are available. Don’t be afraid to talk to these leaders: they either would like your vote or business and many like to talk about the community. (Talking to leaders of other community institutions can be spotty. For example, leaders of major non-profits or churches may have a sense of what their organization is up to but not necessarily have insights into the community as a whole or have much influence over the broader community.)
  5. Walking around helps provide insights into street-level social life but spending extended time in certain spaces can be very fruitful. Such spaces could include business districts, parks, central coffee shops or restaurants, community centers, main streets, and local festivals. Not all suburbs will have such spaces; indeed, many car-dependent suburbs lack public gathering spaces. However, the advantage of extended time in these spaces allows for observations over time (throughout a day and across months and seasons) as well as an opportunity to observe and enter into social interactions with those in such spaces.
  6. Census data can provide a quick snapshot of the community now but can also provide more detailed information. Here are three options: (1) look at the data over time to see how a community has changed; (2) focus on particular geographies such as a census tract, block group, or zip code; (3) dig into certain aspects of the data further (such as race and ethnicity, income and education, characteristics of the homes); and (4) compare across different parts of the suburb or nearby suburbs to get a sense how this community differs internally and with other nearby areas. There are also a number of non-Census websites that use the data in interactive ways. For example, use a detailed racial dot map to see where different racial and ethnic residents live.

All of these options are fairly accessible to the average person as long as they know where the resources are located and have some extra time beyond what the first steps (the earlier post) require.

First steps toward knowing a suburb

Residents of the suburbs can take a few easy steps to start learning about a community and what really is going on behind the scenes. Here are six easy steps:

  1. Check out the community’s website. How does the community present itself? What words are used and what photos are displayed? There is often a wealth of information available but also a lot of stuff that may not tell you much. At the least, the website will give you an idea of how the local government wishes outsiders to see them.
  2. Look at the zoning map of the community – this is often on the website and also can be viewed at the city/town hall. This provides an overview of how the community allots its land. The colors used should quickly tell you what takes up a majority of land – typically housing – but can also reveal where other pockets of activity are located (whether commercial districts, industrial parks, institutional land, or other options).
  3. Read some local history in books, local museums or historical societies, and websites. Local histories are often pretty positive about a community – many suburbs don’t want to talk about darker moments – but they can provide an overview of a community’s broad trajectory.
  4. Talk to some long-time residents about their experiences. While such conversations can highlight idiosyncratic individuals, residents can give a sense of the feel of a community as well as highlight important communal moments.
  5. Walk around. This is highly underrated and often appears quite difficult since so many suburbs are auto dependent. Walking gives you an opportunity to slowly see what is happening at the street level. If walking doesn’t work, try biking. If neither are a good option, driving around repeatedly can still be helpful since so much of the suburban landscape is designed to be seen from the road.
  6. Look at Census data for the community. Use the QuickFacts feature to see latest estimates from the American Community Survey and dicennial data. You can quickly see demographic and economic data for the whole community.

Through these steps, someone should get a sense of what community members think separates their suburb from all the others. In other words, what is the character of this suburb? One step that almost made the list: read a local or regional newspaper. However, these don’t exist in many communities now and even if they do, the news reported is highly selective.

In a soon to come post, I’ll provide follow-up steps to the six listed above.

100 years of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poem

One hundred years ago, Carl Sandburg published a famous poem about Chicago:

For its issue of March 1914, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine accepted Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and seven of his other poems about the city…

And a city — in the first five lines of the work of an obscure socialist poet in a 2-year-old magazine founded by a Chicago Tribune art critic — had found its enduring descriptors…

“The poem was absolutely revolutionary when it first came out,” says Bill Savage, who teaches the poem as a distinguished senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University…

“They have a kind of omnipresence that makes it a little bit difficult for us to think and feel our way back to how original and daring this was,” Polito says. “You show something like ‘Citizen Kane’ to a group of young students. The techniques of that film have been imitated so many times, they don’t see what was startling about it. That’s a little bit true here. It’s a little bit hard for us a hundred years later to recapture. It’s almost as if it’s a combination of the Book of Genesis and the national anthem for Chicago. It’s the founding myth and the celebratory lyric.”

Reading this, it strikes me that this poem is really well-known in the Chicago area because residents feel like like it embraces all the contradictions that they enjoy (or at least acknowledge) about the city. But, is this poem well-known elsewhere? The article suggests academics elsewhere often didn’t think highly of Sandburg’s work. Is their a poetic equivalent for New York (perhaps the recent Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit “Empire State” might be a modern version?) or Los Angeles? If so, perhaps I wouldn’t know as I’ve only really heard of Sandburg’s poem…

Old New York law says each community must have a historian

Strange laws that are still on the books are occasionally rediscovered and make headlines. For example, here is an interesting 93 year old law from New York:

Back in 1919, the New York state legislature mandated that every “city, town, or village” must have an official historian. It’s a regulation that’s unique among the 50 states, and basically unenforceable. Towns are not required to pay these record-keepers, who are appointed by a town mayor or manager. Municipalities that fail to find a volunteer are sent a strongly worded letter, but little else can be done.

But this law could tell us a lot about American culture and our quest to preserve and understand our own history:

The phenomenon of local historians came of age in the early days of the Industrial age. As Americans began populating “the frontier,” they struggled to define themselves and their role in the places they called home. “In the late 19th century, you see a local history rush,” says James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association.

This fascination with ourselves was fueled by commercial firms that drafted early town histories, books that resemble the Who’s Who franchise of today. For a couple of dollars, anyone could contribute a piece about their own place in the history of their town, be it the story of their family, their house, or their autobiography.

It was around this time that city historians also became part-time urban boosters. “Cities began using history as an economic asset,” Grossman says. Many early historians were “people who had relationships with commercial interests, trying to promote city growth.”

A couple of reasons are given here: Americans wanted to understand themselves and there was money to be made in this business of local history. This second reason would fit right in with the growth machine model of urban growth: local boosters, leaders, and businesspeople promote development in order to make more money.

One might wonder how much this boosterism affects the actual reporting and interpretation of history. I suspect it influences things quite a bit. This doesn’t necessarily mean a local historian gets the facts wrong but it is more about how the story is told and what parts of local history are revealed. I have read a lot of local history for research projects and several features of local histories stood out across communities:

1. The local histories are often most interested in big and exciting facts and less about day to day life in the community or how these big changes occurred. We might call this the “peak view” of history – you only see the highest or noteworthy points.

2. Tied to the first observation, these histories tend to report only positives about the community. The histories leave out some of the most formative elements about a community if it doesn’t paint the community in a positive light. For example, I’ve uncovered information about racial prejudice in action in some suburban communities but based on the “official” histories, you would never know there was even any tension.

3. It is suggested later in the article that local historians need some training before they are set loose to collect and tell local history. From what I have seen, many local historians got the job because they wanted it, not because they necessarily had qualifications. This person might have had a particular interest in the community and so had done a lot of research or perhaps they knew a lot of people in the community. This has changed somewhat in recent decades with the rise of museums and degrees regarding operating museums as there are now often “official” keepers of a community’s history.