“How [residential] segregation destroys black wealth”

A recent New York Times editorial highlights the ongoing effects of residential segregation:

Despite being better qualified financially, black and Latino testers were shown fewer homes than their white peers, were often denied information about special incentives that would have made the purchase easier, and were required to produce loan pre-approval letters and other documents when whites were not.

Moreover, real estate agents enforced residential and school segregation by steering home buyers into neighborhoods based on race. Whites were encouraged to live where the schools were mainly white; African-Americans where schools were disproportionately black; and Latinos where schools were disproportionately Latino…

This history of discrimination has taken an enormous toll on black wealth, as is shown in research by Douglas Massey and Jonathan Tannen at Princeton University’s Office of Population Research. In 1970, two years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, for example, the average well-off black American lived in a neighborhood where potential home wealth, as measured by property values, stood at about only $50,000 — as opposed to $105,000 for affluent whites and $56,000 for poor whites.

By 2010, affluent African-Americans had passed poor whites in potential home wealth but had fallen further behind affluent whites. There is more than money at stake, Mr. Massey and Mr. Tannen write, because home values “translate directly into access to higher quality education given that public schools in the United States are financed by real estate taxes.”

From de jure to de facto segregation. The resources of the past went to white suburbia and the deck is still often stacked against black and Latino urban residents. And the wealth differences are large and this has consequences for subsequent generations.

This editorial appears to be motivated by a recent housing discrimination complaint. This reminds me of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the authors argue that although the United States has the laws on the books that would even out housing opportunities, we often lack the political will to enforce them. This book was published over twenty years ago and there appears to be truth to it still today…

NYT crossword: “I merely bought myself a McMansion, and now I’m ___!”

I don’t know how often McMansions appear in crossword puzzles but here is a recent example from the New York Times:

The crossword clue for today new york times crossword puzzle is I merely bought myself a McMansion, and now I’m ___! , and the right or the best answer for I merely bought myself a McMansion, and now I’m ___! is :


Could also work with “I just walked into the University of Michigan football stadium, and now I’m ___!”

See the full solved puzzle here. And clue here is playing off the theme of staying in jail:

THEME: hoosegow —  fill in the blank clues that treat literally some figurative terms for being in prison. All clues begin “I merely…” and end “… and now I’m ___!,” the idea being that the speaker is talking as if he’s been put in prison for doing something, when the prison term is actually just a literal description of what the speaker was doing.

If intended this way, this would fit how many McMansion critics might feel about having to live in such a house…

The New York Times is not so good at identifying gentrifying neighborhoods

A new study compares what neighborhoods were pegged as gentrifying by the New York Times and academics based on census data. There was a discrepancy:

The study, by sociologist Michael Barton of Louisiana State University, examines the differences between neighborhoods that the Times has identified as “gentrified” or “gentrifying” in the past three decades, and those identified by Census data and major academic studies. He finds a wide – and concerning – gap between the neighborhoods that social scientists call “gentrified” and those to which the Times affixes that label

To get at this, Barton’s study used a LexisNexis database search to discover which New York City neighborhoods the Times identified as “gentrified” between 1980 and 2009. He then compared these neighborhoods to those identified as “gentrified” according to measures used in two classic quantitative studies. The first study, published in 2003 by Raphael Bostic and Richard Martin, identified gentrified neighborhoods based on median incomes. Their method sees gentrified neighborhoods as those that saw their median incomes grow from less than 50 percent of the metro median to more than 50 percent of it. The second strategy, based on a 2005 study by Lance Freeman, identifies gentrifying neighborhoods based on a broader set of changes in income, education and housing. For Freeman, gentrified neighborhoods are those that started with median income levels below those for the city as a whole but then where educational levels and housing prices rose to be greater than the city’s. Barton’s study focuses on gentrification in New York City neighborhoods and is based on data for the 188 neighborhood areas identified by the Department of City Planning.

The bottom line: Barton found considerable differences between the neighborhoods the Times identified as gentrified and those identified by the quantitative studies…

What jumps out here are the large swathes of the city in which significant neighborhood change goes ignored by the Times. The Grey Lady was much more likely to peg gentrification in “hip” neighborhoods in Manhattan and adjacent parts of Brooklyn (like Williamsburg) than in the Bronx and Queens, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. Generally speaking, the gentrifying neighborhoods discussed in the Times lined up more neatly with the more restrictive method used by Bostic and Martin than it did with Freeman.  Still, as Barton writes, “the association of both census-based strategies with the New York Times were moderate at best.”

I was recently looking at some classic “growth machine” literature (Urban Fortunes by Logan and Molotch) and here is an explanation they might suggest: newspapers generally are interested in promoting urban growth. This is because they are interested in building their subscriber base which puts more eyeballs on advertisements which means they can charge more. So, if “hip” neighborhoods are identified by the Times and more people in these young, educated places buy the newspaper that claims they are participating in something hip, the Times comes out ahead. Yet, chasing these younger demographics and the latest monied scene may not match up with accurate reporting on neighborhood change.

This finding may also highlight some significant differences in gentrification patterns. A quick influx of young, creative class whites may mark one neighborhood but income growth (and other positive factors) may be related to a slower process and/or featuring non-whites, non creative class types in other neighborhoods. It is not as if all neighborhoods in major cities with less-than-average incomes have an equal probability of gentrifying as there are numerous factors at work.


The New York Times has compared many places to Brooklyn

The New York Times has been fond of comparing Brooklyn to all sorts of places including Oakland, Beijing, New Orleans, The Hudson Valley, and Everywhere. What might be the effect of doing this?

Beyond beards and Girls (or why NYT trend pieces are problematic), I always wonder how the residents these cities feel about being deemed a Brooklyn-like place. I also wonder what it’s going to do to their property prices.

There are two reasons: First, studies show that a prestigious sounding name adds value to a neighborhood. For example, researchers found that buyers were willing to pay a 4.2 percent premium for the term “country.” The Brooklyn dream branding has become a certain kind of prestige to young professionals looking for housing. They loosely know what real estate being “Brooklyn” means: cool neighbors, artisanal food shops, Zagat-rated restaurants and bars. It’s the stylish land of Blue Bottle coffee and No.6 clogs. The sell is: It has places you want to be and people you want to be around.

This narrative is problematic because it is unfairly discounting vast parts of the borough that’s not being gentrified in this specific way, which is why so many Brooklynites hate Brooklyn trend pieces. But it’s also just another way of saying it has a specific set of amenities that are appealing to a certain group—Brooklyn has become a euphemism for a kind of urbanism that millennials like.

Interesting that both reasons above deal with the hip, cool side of Brooklyn that appeals to young people. They imply that Brooklyn has become a trendy brand, even if many of its residents don’t see these benefits. Being a trendy brand also likely means that the frequent comparisons will stop at some point as Brooklyn (1) becomes less cool and (2) other neighborhoods, perhaps in New York City and perhaps elsewhere, become the places to be.

At the same time, I wonder why the Times has to make such comparisons at all. Is it because it helps their readers understand unfamiliar and foreign places? Or is it because New Yorkers think they have the best places (New York exceptionalism) so they impose their vision on other contexts?

A hard look at Washington, DC’s economic boom

In light of the recent fiscal cliff showdown, Annie Lowery at the New York Times writes a long profile on “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You“:

Billions in federal spending, largely a result of two foreign wars, were pouring into the local economy by the early 2000s. Then came the housing bubble. But after it burst, a remarkable inversion occurred: as the country withered, Washington bloomed. Since 2007, the regional economy has expanded about three times as much as the overall country’s. By some measures, the Washington area has become the richest region in the country. It is now home to the three highest-income counties in the United States, and seven out of the Top 10.

The growth has arrived in something like concentric circles. Increased government spending has bumped up the region’s human capital, drawing other businesses, from technology to medicine to hospitality. Restaurants and bars and yoga studios have cropped up to feed and clothe and stretch all those workers, and people like [developer] Jim Abdo have been there to provide the population — which grew by 650,000 between 2000 and 2010 — with two-bedrooms with Wolf ranges.

Despite its recent success, however, the article suggests that “Peak Washington” is already here, that there is nowhere to go but down:

And yet there is a sense that the capital is headed for a slowdown. Among the Pentagon’s plans to cut nearly $500 billion over the next decade could be reductions not only in materiel but also to all manner of support staff. The homeland-security budgets look certain to see significant reductions, too. One recent estimate noted that more than two million jobs would be at stake if the sequester comes into effect.

Lowery suggests that a tempering of expectations in metro DC would, on balance, be a good thing:

There’s something unsavory about having a capital city doing outrageously well while the rest of the country is limping along — especially when its economy is premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it.

To the extent that DC’s economy is indeed “premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it,” I agree.  Nevertheless, Lowery cites plenty of evidence that “creative” (as opposed to “capturing”) work is being done in metro DC (“Google has opened an outpost….LivingSocial owns a huge, hiply decorated space….Audi, Intelsat, Hilton Worldwide and dozens of other firms have opened up offices or moved their headquarters to the region”).  Presumably, every urban area “captures” some of its wealth and “creates” some.  How much “capture” is too much, thus making a whole region “unsavory”?

Along these lines, I’m also intrigued by the quote from Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (D), who observes that “Maryland got the life sciences [centered around the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD], and Virginia got the death sciences [centered around the Pentagon in Arlington, VA]….Of course, NoVa [Northern Virginia], given the two wars, it’s done even better than suburban Maryland.”  Does this suggest that DC’s Maryland suburbs are less “unsavory” than DC’s Virginia suburbs?  Or does it only matter that the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon both spend tax revenue, making them equally offending because they “capture” the country’s wealth?

Sudhir Venkatesh helps make sociology appear “less stodgy” yet generates controversy

A profile of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh in the New York Times suggests he has “succeeded against long odds in making sociology seem less stodgy.” Here is how the article suggests he has done this and the controversy that has developed:

[B]y writing in magazines, being featured in the book “Freakonomics,” and even appearing on late-night television, he has succeeded in bringing that research out of the academy and into the public realm…

And at Columbia, where he briefly led the university’s largest social science research center, he was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated…

Beyond the content of the book, its basic style raised eyebrows. “Gang Leader” includes the kind of satisfying narrative arcs and dramatic characters (like the street hustler who reveals that he not only went to college, but also studied sociology) that have more in common with Hollywood films than with most dry academic discourse…

Camille Z. Charles, a sociologist who runs the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was even more disturbed by the “thrill” he described at being around drug dealers — like his fantasy that one meeting he attended would involve “half-naked women sitting poolside and rubbing the bosses with sunscreen.” In an essay in the journal Sociological Forum, Professor Venkatesh responded to such criticism by saying he “hoped that my readership would understand urban poverty as they followed my own self-discovery of these conditions — specifically, as I discovered my own stereotypes to be faulty. In a memoir, one has to admit one’s own failings.”

Such situations have always interested me. In this genre of situation, a sociologist does things that many sociologists could only dream of: reach a broad public audience with their work. Despite all the talk about public sociology in recent years, how many sociologists have truly accomplished this? Yet, those who are able to do this tend to run into arguments like those outlined in the article: they are accused of taking liberties with their narratives and making it more appealing for the public and they are accused of not respecting their subjects by opening up the stories to public interest and entertainment.

Of course, such arguments happen with lesser known works as well. I’m reminded of a very public exchange between several ethnographers, Loic Wacquant, Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Katherine Newman, in the early 2000s about how ethnography about marginalized groups should be undertaken. And there are plenty of conversations in the field about writing and how it can be done better or worse. Because of its broadness of topics and a variety of research methods, sociology as a discipline tends to have these kinds of lively debates.

To sum up, when the New York Times discusses debates among sociologists, does this display how science really works (scholars trying to come to a consensus with a dose of personalities) or does it suggest that sociologists can’t agree and this torpedoes attempts at public sociology?

(A later note: how many sociologists really disagree with what Venkatesh did in Gang Leader for a Day? Anywhere even close to a majority? I wonder if this article is highlighting some vocal/well-placed dissenters.)

Sociological study: NYT obituaries have more celebrity deaths over the decades

Here is a unique place to look for American’s obsession with celebrities: examine the “Notable Deaths” section of the New York Times since 1900.

Sociology researchers at the University of South Carolina analyzed obituaries in the New York Times from the same 20 randomly selected days in 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975 and 2000. From this sample, they ranked how much attention was given to the deaths of people in certain occupations in each year. They found that obituaries of entertainers and athletes marched steadily to the top in rank — from seventh in 1900, to fifth in 1925, to third in 1950 and first in 1975 and 2000; in 2000, celeb athletes and entertainers accounted for 28 percent of obituaries in the newspaper, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, the researchers said the number of obituaries for public figures in manufacturing and business halved over the century. Similarly, religious obituaries fell from fourth place in mid-century to last in rank, and the researchers said they did not find a single notable death article for a religious figure in their sample for the year 2000.

“Most striking are the simultaneous increases in celebrity obituaries and declines in religious obituaries,” lead researcher Patrick Nolan said in a statement from the University of South Carolina. “They document the increasing secularization and hedonism of American culture at a time when personal income was rising and public concern was shifting away from the basic issues of survival,” added Nolan, who details the research in the journal Sociation Today.

So have celebrities replaced some of religion?

It would also be interesting to see whether the New York Times did this consciously and if so, how exactly this conversation went. Did readers actually suggest they wanted to see more celebrity news in the deaths section?

The New York Times on a McMansion travel trailer

The comparisons have been made in the pages of the New York Times before but here is another example: the travel trailer compared to McMansion.

Yet the passing of the Opera hasn’t prevented other trailer companies from trying to break out of the box. Here are five other head-turning trailers…

JAYCO SEISMIC The innovation here is room. A virtual McMansion on wheels, the Seismic has its own garage at the rear, though that space — from 80 to 112 square feet, depending on the model — can be used instead as a spare bedroom or a workshop. The back wall can be swung down to do double duty as a patio.

Seismic prices range from $71,000 to $130,000.

A so-called fifth-wheel trailer, the Seismic is pulled by a pickup using a hitch similar to those used on semitrailers.

So an extra-large trailer is akin to a McMansion. Also, there are some hints here of another characteristic of McMansions that in the past has been used to tie trailers or RVs to McMansions: luxury or excessive consumption. Who exactly needs a Jayco Seismic trailer? Clearly, this trailer is only available to a certain (wealthy) crowd. However, it is unclear from this article whether there are more “refined” or “sophisticated” trailers that could still be large without getting labeled a McMansion.

New York Times review of SimCity Social

Here is evidence that the world is a changed place: the New York Times has a short review of the new SimCity Social game for Facebook.

SimCity Social brings the original city-building video game to Facebook, though fans will be hard-pressed to find any of the depth and complexity of that popular PC series. Players place businesses, factories, houses and various attractions, as their expansionist ambitions are kept in check by an energy meter that slowly refills.

The game allows friends to establish sister cities or rival cities, which enables some entertaining cross-border acts of charity or benign sabotage. SimCity Social is a cute and capable social city builder. It’s also a shameless attempt to capitalize on the success of Zynga’s wildly popular CityVille, slapping a powerful name on a game that could never live up to SimCity’s legacy.

As a long-time SimCity fan, I’m tempted to try out this new version. However, several things will stop me:

1. I don’t want a watered down version. I’d rather use my computer and XBox 360 to play full, more stunning versions of games.

2. I’m not sure even a full-scale social version would add to the gameplay.

3. Does this app bug all of your friends like Farmville and the like? If so, I’m staying far away.

4. It sounds like this version may have become more “gamified” rather than being the free-flowing game I’m used to. Here is another review that explains some of the game:

So it’s technically Facebook, but when you’re playing it, it feels like a place (OR A CITY) of its own. I started playing it last Friday and I can’t stop. I am on Level 17, my population is at healthy 6,000, and SimCitySocialCheat.com is the website I aspire to be managing editor of. There’s something about the colorful utopia that I can not not stop thinking about.

Maybe it’s the constant yearning of completing tasks to get more energy bolts, thus being able build more houses and increase population and, in doing so, unlock the next level and new attractions.

Perhaps it’s the constant praise the game lauds on you for doing something so dumb and pointless, like planting a tree in a high-populated area. The the real world just doesn’t offer that,  unless you send a tree to Israel. (Then you get a fancy certificate back in return.)

And my friends are redeeming themselves there. You find an inner-circle of people that you can trust and rely on—not for moral support, but for land permits, teamwork badges, and Dunkin’ Donut energy bonuses: Jordanville runs on Dunkin’.

SimCity has always had some incentive to grow as you get to build different kinds of things. This often worked like it does for real cities: as a city grow, it can support monuments, cultural attractions, and more complicated transportation options. However, it sounds like this new version takes it to another level.


The real first time the New York Times used the term “McMansion”

I recently ran across an article that made this claim about when the term McMansion was first used in the New York Times:

Primarily due to plunging home values, the net worth of the median family in America from 2007 to 2009 fell to the level it was at in the early ’90s –- a time when Mark Zuckerberg was being driven to play dates and several years before the word “McMansions” appeared in the New York Times for the first time in a piece Benjamin Cheever wrote about “almost” buying one a few miles away from Zuckerberg’s Westchester County hometown.

This claim is based on the Wikipedia entry on McMansions:

The stunt word “McMansion” seems to have been coined sometime in the early 1980s. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1990 and the New York Times in 1998.

Having done some research on this topic, this sounded off so I decided to check it out. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, the first result for McMansion in the New York Times is from February 7, 1993. In an article titled “Builder’s Motto: ‘Move On, Clean House,’” here is how McMansion is used:

Last year the Toulsons won the Regal award from the Home Builders Association of Delaware for the best house with more than 2,500 square feet. But it has been for sale since July and remains unsold, as do dozens of others of extravagant homes, both old and new, that dot what is know locally as “Chateau Country.”

Once almost exclusively the domain of the heirs to the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company chemical fortune, much of the rolling countryside has gone under the bulldozer in recent years. Several large parcels, formerly held by the du Ponts or senior managers of the company, have been sold as subdivisions, albeit with homes priced from $800,000 to more than $1 million.

Developers, some of whose immigrant grandfathers did construction work for du Ponts, moved into the old du Pont mansions with the lovely French names while they put up $850,000 homes often called “McMansions.” Mr. Toulson himself and his father before him worked at “the Company.”

This appears to have some of the basic meanings of how the term McMansion is used today: big and expensive homes built on former undeveloped land in a Chateau style (an interesting fit for the Delaware countryside).

Lesson: the Wikipedia page is not the most accurate source for this particular issue. Interestingly, while the NYT first used the term McMansion in 1993 and not 1998, the term wasn’t used much at all before 2000. According to Lexis-Nexis, the NYT only used the term 23 times before 2000. But, as my research suggested, usage really picked up in the 2000s as the NYT used it over 600 times.