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?

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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.

White flight spontaneous or planned?

Sociologist Orly Clergé’s 2019 book The New Noir: Race, Identity & Diaspora in Black Suburbia includes the history of Blacks moving to New York and its suburbs. In her study, Clergé talks to both Black residents and white residents of suburban communities. Here is how Clergé responds to the claim by some white residents that their families left neighborhoods spontaneously as Black residents moved in:

Although White flight is discussed as a spontaneous response to Black in-migration, White fight and flight were well thought-out, collective, strategic, and immoral acts against Black people condoned by the state. (101)

White flight is the American phenomena where white residents left urban neighborhoods for the suburbs when Blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities moved in. This is most common in the decades after World War Two when government policy and community changes combined to lead to often rapid turnover in cities. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the population moved from +90% white to a significant Black majority in just a decade or two.

A number of studies explain how white flight happened in particular cities such as in Detroit as detailed by Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis or Atlanta as discussed by Kruse in White Flight. White flight affected all areas of life, ranging from the suburbanization of jobs as Wilson highlights in When Work Disappears and the move of white churches to the suburbs (an area I have done a little work in with a study of Protestant denominations in the Chicago region).

What the quote above highlights is just how prepared white residents were regarding potential changes in their neighborhood. Over the course of at least a few decades, whites deployed a range of techniques that culminated in white flight: restrictive deeds and covenants, blockbusting, redlining, and threats and violence. As each of these techniques was rendered illegal or went against public opinion, white residents moved onto the next option. And white flight was eventually the choice as white residents left en masse. It did not just happen; it was part of well-established patterns of exclusion that would then continue in suburban communities.

Asking tough questions of American athletes

The story of a Danish journalist who covers the NFL and asks certain questions of players hints at cultural differences in approaching both sports and important social issues:

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Back in 2016, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen lived in Burbank, Calif., for a year with his wife and son. It had always been his dream to spend some time in the States, so when his parent company asked him to help its esports arm transition from Twitch streaming to television studio production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity. He had a great house and a pool. He had friendly colleagues at work.

But what he noticed over time is that he’d end up having a version of the same conversation every day, one that never broke beneath the surface. He remembered, for example, being confused about a situation involving how to get the local water authority to turn the water on at his house and wanting to ask someone about it—a step beyond hello and how are you. He felt like there was an immediate recoil…

It shines a light on something that seems to permeate culturally, reverberating from the sporting world that Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen finds himself thinking so much about. Maybe it’s the end result of widespread, rigorous media training, which creates a fast-food experience of well-meaning words pieced nicely together but ultimately containing no substance, an appeal to our innate desire to move on. In some unconscious way, does our lack of exposure to actual humility and openness inform our default setting, which is to simply wince through the tough stuff and avoid it in real life, too?…

The phenomenon is not necessarily unique to the U.S. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen saw, for example, the further any players drifted from Denmark (perhaps to the English Premiere League) the less likely they were to be interested in answering difficult questions or exhibiting any kind of remorse for something negative that had happened. It creates a situation where it feels for Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen like he is doing something wrongwhen he’s merely asking fair questions.

At the least, this story sheds light on how others in the world can view what many Americans would take as normal. The NFL is the NFL. Except when you are viewing it with a different lens. Americans also have the ability to watch many sports around the world through an American lens with an American network and broadcasters providing the commentary and interpretation.

At a deeper level, this asks what we expect to hear from athletes and others regularly in the public eye. Does it generally ring true that Americans just want to stick to sports, rather than consider the actions of athletes and those associated with teams? Probably, even as sports has been an important social scene regarding social change (and resisting it).

Seeing modernization and religious change in one small suburb

One way to approach the significant social changes of recent centuries is to examine broad patterns at a societal level. Another way to understand these changes is to look at what happened in a suburban community outside Boston:

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“What has produced this kind of world is modernization,” Wells said. “The public environment that results from it is modernity. But these words––modernization and modernity––are abstractions to so many people. How could I explain what has happened to my readers in a way that they could get it?”

He found the answer in a small Massachusetts town named Wenham––population 4,875 when Gordon College isn’t in session. Wells opens No Place by explaining how Wenham, settled by Puritans after a 1635 sermon, slid into modernity in stages––telegraphs gave way to radio and television and internet; farmland yielded to suburban homes; horses were replaced with trains and cars and airplanes.

At some point, Wenham crossed a divide along with everyone else, Wells wrote in No Place. “It is as if the ability to make better cars and better airplanes and better medicines and better theories imply an ability to make better selves––to transcend not only our own mortality, which would be no small feat, but also our own corruption, which would be an even larger feat.”

“So many people no longer believe in human nature––something all human being have in common,” he told TGC. Instead, “they believe in the self––the core at the center of each person that is unique to them and unlike any other self. This is really at the root of the extreme relativism of our time where people not only have their own ‘values,’ but also their own take on reality.”

I have not read the book being discussed – No Place for Truth – but this is a common academic approach: use an interesting case to illustrate broader processes. In this case, it sounds like Wenham, Massachusetts can help show how modernity played out in a community roughly twenty-five miles from Boston.

At the same time, I am more interested in the suburban connections here. Again, while I have not read book discussed above, I have been studying religion and place in recent years and there may be some patterns across communities. Here is my attempt to connect the case of Wenham to suburbs and religious change.

Wenham is a small and wealthy community. Founded in the mid-1600s, the community has just under 5,000 residents with population growth of over 30% three decades in a row after World War Two. The median household income is over $90,000 and the community is over 97% white. (All figures from the 2010 Census.)

When a large number of Americans moved to the suburbs during the twentieth century, these new suburban residents were often said to be conservative. This could apply to politics as well as religion. Religiosity soared after World War Two. Many new churches were founded in suburbs while others already present grew substantially.

But, even in small suburbs where religion was important, modernism prevailed. The focus on self became part of the American suburban dream. Even with a suburban focus on providing the best for the nuclear family, suburban residents could focus more on themselves free of the stronger community ties that could be found in either small towns or urban neighborhoods from which the new suburbanites came. And success in the suburbs came to be defined as personal or individual success: a nice house, a good income, leisure time, having all the necessities befitting a suburbanite.

This all had an impact on religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging. A shift to the self changes beliefs about transcendent beings and doctrines, affects how people live their everyday lives, and weakens attachments to religious institutions.

Thus, the argument goes, modernism and religious change came to America and its communities. Life changed everywhere, even in exclusive suburban communities.

Changing political party control at the county level: DuPage County in 2020, the 1930s, and 1856

Voters in DuPage County appear to have supported Democrats more than Republicans at every level in the 2020 election:

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DuPage County, once known as one of the most solidly Republican areas in the country, appears to have given Democrats control of the County Board for the first time since the 1930s. Two more Democrats are leading their races for countywide office, and could be joined by another when the final votes are tallied.

DuPage voters also backed Democrats in every federal race from president to U.S. representative, as well as every state senator and nine of 13 state representatives.

It’s a stunning turn of fortune two decades in the making, observers say, the result of shifting demographics, shrewd campaigning and the divisive reign of President Donald Trump.

The article above tells of recent changes in DuPage County with new residents and a desire for a new party in charge.

But, as the article also notes, this is not the first time such a shift has happened in DuPage County. I do not know much about what happened in the 1930s – I assume the Great Depression and the New Deal were involved – but I have read more about what happened in the 1850s.

In the early decades of DuPage County, which was officially founded in 1839, local political leaders were Democrats. For example, Joseph Naper, founder of Naperville, served in several political positions as a Democrat. Local historian Leone Schmidt details this state of affairs in her 1989 book When the Democrats Ruled DuPage.

This Democrat hold on DuPage politics lasted about two decades. Schmidt concludes her book with the changes that came with the first Republican party candidates in the 1856 elections.

Historian Stephen J. Buck further describes the shift in a 2019 article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society:

In “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men: The Origins of the Republican Party in DuPage County, Illinois,” Stephen Buck synthesizes many of the widely accepted explanations for the Republican Party’s emergence in the 1850s, including the powerful ideal of free-soil in the trans-Mississippi West; opposition to the political clout of the “Slave Power” nationally; and genuine moral commitments to the abolition of Slavery. DuPage County, in Buck’s retelling, serves as a sort of case study in the steady growth of free-soil principles in northern Illinois beginning in the 1840s. Buck finds that by the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, the sectional crisis was so encompassing that it deeply inscribed party identification, even in elections to town and county offices.

This work builds on Buck’s 1992 dissertation where he goes into detail regarding the changes. The issue of slavery and free soil was important in DuPage County and when the Republican Party started in 1854, it quickly attracted support in northern Illinois. In the 1856 elections, Republicans convincingly beat Democrats in local races. And this trend continued in subsequent elections.

Comparing the current shift toward the Democrat party in DuPage County to past shifts, this one seems to be longer in the making. It takes time for suburban populations to change dramatically as different communities attract different residents and national and state politics and forces interact with local conditions. Yet, DuPage residents of the future may well look to the elections of 2016 and 2020 where DuPage turned to the hands of Democrats.

Changes in “countrypolitan,” exurban counties more than just political

The analysis of the 2020 election includes many analyses of suburban voters. But, there is more at stake here than just voting patterns as this look at Union County, North Carolina suggests:

Google Maps – Union County, North Carolina

Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.

Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County…

The reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20…

“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”

The temptation in such stories about suburban voters is to look at counties and communities and just see political change. And it sounds like Union County has had its share comparing before the Civil Rights Era, after, and today.

The basic explanation for this recent change is new residents. The population has grown and new residents, not as familiar with the ways of Union County, have moved in. What was once a small population with low density is now much larger and in bigger cities and towns.

But, is this all that has changed: new people moved in and they came with some new political views? I suspect there is more going on here that both contributes to the political change and also exists outside of it. Here are a few possible factors at play:

  1. The suburbs and the spread of metropolitan areas are not just about increasing populations and higher population densities. The suburbs come with a particular way of life. People who seek out such locations want single-family homes, middle-class opportunities and peace for their family, responsive local government, and the ability to live in a place they chose with people who look more like them. This is different than a more rural or working-class character in communities. This desire for the American suburbs does not easily line up with either political party on all the issues but it certainly is a different way of life.
  2. The decline of agriculture, particularly family-owned farms and opportunities, could be at play here. As farming becomes more difficult or less desirable for subsequent generations, the land can be sold off and be turned into subdivisions. This is a significant change in land use as well as who lives there: farmers and those connected to agriculture versus middle-class suburbanites.
  3. Connected to #2, the economic landscape has changed tremendously in the last half-century or so, moving away not just from agriculture but also manufacturing and moving more toward retail, services, and a knowledge economy. Union County and many other locations in the United States are still trying to adapt to these large shifts that affect employment, tax bases, and local businesses.
  4. Numerous local institutions have likely had to adjust in light of growing populations. Schools need more space for kids. Local governments need to provide more services (and they might now have larger tax bases to draw on) and local officials are addressing new issues. Established churches now compete with new congregations. In sum, the civic and social institutions that may have existed for decades in roughly the same form now need to adapt. This can present challenges in any community.

In sum, this is not just about politics. A shift toward a suburban lifestyle in Union County has many consequences and politics may just be one of them.

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.

The US needs the Census in order to keep up with societal change

Even amid COVID-19, data collection for the 2020 Census continues. Recent Census data helps provide a reminder of why we need the Census:

The new data shows that, by 2019, the white population share declined nearly nine more percentage points, to 60.1%. The Latino or Hispanic and Asian American population shares showed the most marked gains, at 18.5% and nearly 6%, respectively. While these groups fluctuated over the past 40 years, either upward (for Latinos or Hispanics and Asian Americans) or downward (for whites), the Black share of the population remained relatively constant.

The declining white population share is pervasive across the nation. Since 2010, the white population share declined in all 50 states (though not Washington, D.C.) (download table A), and in 358 of the nation’s 364 metropolitan areas and 3,012 of its 3,141 counties. Moreover, as of 2019, 27 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas have minority-white populations, including the major metropolises of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami—as well as Dallas, Atlanta, and Orlando, Fla., which reached this status by 2010 (download Table B).

Most noteworthy is the increased diversity in the younger portion of the population. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the nation’s population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Among this group, Latino or Hispanic and Black residents together comprise nearly 40% of the population. Given the greater projected growth of all nonwhite racial minority groups compared to whites—along with their younger age structure—the racial diversity of the nation that was already forecasted to flow upward from the younger to older age groups looks to be accelerating…

The unanticipated decline in the country’s white population means that other racial and ethnic groups are responsible for generating overall growth. Nationally, the U.S. grew by 19.5 million people between 2010 and 2019—a growth rate of 6.3%. While the white population declined by a fraction of a percent, Latino or Hispanic, Asian American, and Black populations grew by rates of 20%, 29%, and 8.5%, respectively. The relatively small population of residents identifying as two or more races grew by a healthy 30%, and the smaller Native American population grew by 7.6%.

This is important data to have regardless of what people make of this data. Having an organization that collects and reports important data is valuable to residents, scholars, and policy makers. With good data, people can now examine and use the patterns and trends.

At the same time, it is interesting to see how the Census is trying to market participation in the 2020 Census:

Census2020RationaleforPublic

The emphasis here is more on what residents might get out of the process – federal funds, political representation – with a final reminder of the government mandate since 1790.

Together, this suggests having good data is critical for understanding and responding to social change. Without such data, we are left with triangulated data or anecdotes that do not inspire confidence. The United States is a large country with many interest groups. While other organizations might be able to collect similar data, having it done by the government offers some advantages (though the Census process has long been politicized).

Living through history or sociological processes

With rapid changes in the world, it can be easy to see how this might be a notable historical moment that people in the future will look back on.

But, I cannot help think of the sociological processes that we are seeing at play right now. Pandemics and diseases have come before yet not in the era of such globalization, Internet and smartphones, and particular political, economic, and social conditions. There will be history about this all but here are just a few of the sociological processes we are truly seeing in action:

-Globalization. The travel and interconnectedness that is normal now has particular implications for diseases as well as the consequences.

-The shift toward the Internet and smartphones enables new methods for work as well as the possibility of information and knowledge to go all sorts of directions.

-Political and economic consequences of social actions. As just one example, social distancing can help combat the pandemic but it threatens many taken-for-granted interactions and settings. Small talk and being around other people should not be taken for granted; they are part of the social order.

-Health is a social issue, from its definition to how it plays out in individual lives and societies.

And this is just a start. There is already a lot of opinions out there about how the pandemic will change society once the disease disappears. We will have to wait and see. Sure, this will all be history at some point but for now there are a lot of sociological material to think through.