A novel about urbanizing London and its social networks in Dickens’ Bleak House

As London grew tremendously in the 19th century, Charles Dickens tackled the city as the subject of the novel Bleak House:

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In The Turning Point, the literary scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst studies Dickens’s mid-career reinvention by zooming in on this single year, 1851. It was the year of the Great Exhibition in London. Marvels from around the world—an enormous diamond from India, saxophones from Paris—were displayed in the Crystal Palace, a colossal structure made of glass. (The young socialist polymath William Morris was reportedly so overcome by the exhibit’s crass materialism that he rushed from the glittering halls and vomited in the bushes.) Beyond the Crystal Palace, the world was becoming modern. The train and the telegraph made long distances feel short. Commentators hailed the progress of industry, as Britain’s robust manufacturing sector exported textiles, steam engines, and more. Yet the streets of London teemed with the starving and desperate. Raw sewage caked the banks of the Thames. Prescient British scientists warned that the destruction of tropical rainforests could yield “calamities for future generations.”…

In late November, Dickens began the work that became Bleak House, determined to wrest the chaotic realities of a world in flux into a narrative shape. Earlier industrial or “social-problem” novels by authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli had aimed to document the suffering of workers and poor people; Dickens himself had presented a scorching critique of the Victorian workhouse system in Oliver Twist. With Bleak House, however, he sought to do something different: assimilate the new sensations of urban capitalism—marked by bewilderment, bureaucracy, and the collision of strangers—into a multi-plot novel…

Some authors find it necessary to maintain distance from the society they’re writing about. Dickens felt the opposite. The world he created in Bleak House arose from his enmeshment in the city of London and his familiarity with the streets on which he walked as many as 20 miles a day. From its first word—“LONDON”—Bleak House announces itself as a study of contemporary urban life…

Through images of shared engulfment—fog, mud, disease—Dickens joined together seemingly disparate elements of modern life. He also presented an implicit case for social reform. By tracing the vectors that link various levels of society, such as disease, kinship, and the simple fact of shared residence in London, Dickens encouraged his readers to think of the rich and the poor as, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s summation, “parts of the same story.” Processing the chaos of London through a powerful and idiosyncratic imagination, he depicted a community bound together in a common fate.

The growing cities of Europe in the 1800s did not escape the attention of writers, sociologists, and others. The speed at which cities grew and changed was unprecedented. I would argue that what it all means for human life and society is still being sorted out as we examine and adjust to a highly urban world with huge population centers.

Examining the city in the novel – and in other creative forms – is essential for helping people make sense of new phenomena. It is one thing to produce a factual report about urban change; this number of people moved, here are the conditions in which people live, here is the amount of money flowing in and out, etc. It is another thing to tell the stories of people there and then connect those stories to each other and to the larger whole.

As an urban sociologist, I would be very interested in a literature course that addresses urban novels and literary works.

Can a suburban newspaper call for less driving and two long-term options for minimizing driving in suburbs

The headline to an editorial earlier this week in the suburban Daily Herald said “we need to re-evaluate our relationship with cars”. More from the editorial:

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If drivers have been reluctant to limit their car use and reduce mileage in the past, they now have two headline-making reasons to reconsider: painful prices at the pump and a sobering recent report on climate change.

Meeting both challenges means committing to conservation as individuals — and as a society…

Minimizing driving and maximizing the efficiency of our cars are vital tools in the battles to lower gas bills and protect our planet.

The Daily Herald covers news in the suburbs of Chicago and is based in Arlington Heights, a suburb with a denser downtown roughly 25 miles northwest of Chicago. In other words, they serve an area built on cars and driving. Their headquarters is primarily accessible by cars and is next to a major interstate.

One of the primary features of the American suburbs is that it revolves around driving. Single-family homes with larger lots are made possible by cars. Commuting to other suburbs or large cities is made possible by cars. Fast food is made possible by cars. Big box stores and shopping malls rely on cars. And so on. More broadly, one could argue the American way of life is built around cars.

I do see two longer-term and possible suburban options that could minimize driving:

-Denser suburban developments, downtowns, and communities. In the Chicago area, downtown densification has been a trend for a while as communities seek downtown residents who can then patronize local business. “Surban” communities are of interest. New Urbanists promote residences within walking distances of regular needs.

-More working from home. COVID-19 has accelerated this but technology does make it possible for some workers.

In both cases, suburbanites might not be able to give up cars all together but a household might be able to go from two to one car with less driving. That would reduce pollution, traffic, and parking needs.

However, both of these shifts are significant ones. Denser suburban areas are not necessarily ones with single-family homes on big lots. Denser areas put people in closer proximity to each other. Working from home might be technologically feasible but might not be desirable by corporations and organizations or by communities who relied on commuters and workers. These might be options more available in some communities or some residents rather than to all suburbanites.

Religion, work, and Silicon Valley

A new sociology book looks at how a number of Silicon Valley leaders embraced religion as they also created a unique work culture:

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Author and sociologist Carolyn Chen calls this philosophy “techtopia,” where “people find their highest fulfillment in the utopian workplace.”…

Chen’s research subjects are almost all men, and most are white or Asian. Eighty percent had moved from places outside Silicon Valley, marooned there without the support structures of family, friends or community. Chen describes them as “far from home, alone, young, impressionable.” Work is their only outlet to fill in the “meaning” gap…

While Silicon Valley may be the epicenter of experimental self-improvement (just check out how many tech workers fast or microdose psychedelics to achieve greater clarity or productivity), the “work as religion” philosophy has spread across the country. According to Chen, almost every Fortune 500 company has some kind of religiosity baked into its corporate structure — from inspiring mission statements to charismatic leaders — and many companies have actively gone “spiritual” to drive up the bottom line.

For the past 40 years, the workplace has successfully unseated religious institutions as a primary meaning maker, right after family, according to a recent Pew survey. High-income employees work longer hours than ever and are less likely to consider themselves religious, writes Chen. People who don’t have any religion — “religious nones” — have tripled in the past quarter century. At the same time, corporations have changed their strategies, using new incentive structures like gain sharing and stock options to bring people into the corporate “family.”

Going back to the early days of sociology, is the Silicon Valley marriage of religion and work more like:

  1. Marx’s suggestion that religion is a tool used by the capitalists – who own the means and modes of production – to distract workers from the reality that they are being exploited.
  2. Weber’s idea that religious ideas could transform economic systems; is this less about religion being connected to work and more about religion fundamentally changing work?
  3. Durkheim’s argument that people will no longer need religion as humans embrace a brotherhood of people and progress.

There might be some merit to all of these. If humans are meaning-making creatures, they will continue to make meaning – and ultimate meaning – in the midst of their day-to-day realities. Yet, since we are right in the middle of this transformation, it is not certain that it will necessarily continue. Do American workers like the idea that work is the primary meaning-maker?

The popularity of the Beatles, informational cascades, and culture developed by champions and conditions

Explaining the rise and fame of the Beatles is complicated but there may still be new arguments to be made:

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So how did the Beatles make it? Obviously, they had talent that was going unrecognized. But they had something else: early champions. They had a fanatically committed manager in 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in the music publishing arm of EMI who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a recording contract. When “Love Me Do” was released in late 1962 with little support and low expectations from their label, a different kind of champion — fans back in Liverpool — helped build up a wave of support for the song.

I take this example from a paper by Cass Sunstein that is awaiting publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a celebrated Harvard Law professor who studies, among many other things, how informational cascades work…

In his paper, Sunstein cites a study done by Matthew J. Salganik and others that illustrates the immense power of social influence. The researchers recruited about 14,000 people to a website where they could listen to and download 48 songs. Some of the people were divided into subgroups where they could see how often other people in their subgroup downloaded each song. Sunstein summarizes the results: “Almost any song could end up popular or not, depending on whether or not the first visitors liked it.” If people saw the early champions downloading a song, they were more likely to download it, too…

These findings support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the view that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating other people. If we see someone wanting something, then that can plant a desire in us to want it, too. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote…

If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key. The better questions for the rest of us may be: Who am I an early champion for? Who are the obscure talents I can help lift up? How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

This could be the start of a joke: “How many famous researchers does it take to explain the rise of a set of adolescent celebrities from Liverpool?”

Or, perhaps this simply illustrates Marx’s idea that (paraphrased) “people make choices in circumstances not of their choosing.” The Beatles did their thing but operated within a particular system and time.

More broadly, explaining significant cultural and social change can be complicated. Creativity often builds on the work of people that came before (as the Beatles did). Artists may be creative but not find an opening in the existing system or not be recognized in their time. Even “successful” change can take a long time to develop and be adopted. The Beatles has many things going for them including champions, changes in technology, the rise of teenagers, an ability to put together music and lyrics, etc…but, as noted above, they did not control the whole process nor survive the subsequent pressures.

Benefiting from racial covenants several generations later

One white Chicago resident describes how racial covenants contributed to his ability to purchase a home in the city:

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I think that pride in accomplishment is healthy, but there’s another sense to my pride in homeownership that is, or was, harmful. It’s painful to admit this, but I think I had an unconscious sense that by navigating all the hurdles to home ownership, I proved myself to be “deserving.” That I am, perhaps, more clever, harder-working, more reliable, and somehow more “worthy” of owning my own home than others who haven’t accomplished that.

And to be clear, I knew that my ability to buy a house was, in part, the result of privilege, related to historical and ongoing racism. I have known for years, in an abstract, intellectual way, that my family had pathways to middle-class stability that were not available to others. That inequity was intentional, and racist. My family is white, and I know my grandparents benefited from subsidized mortgages and education benefits that were part of the GI Bill of Rights, which was structured in a way to exclude African Americans and other non-whites. I knew racial discrimination affected who gets jobs, compensation, or who gets mortgage loans.

But recently, when I became aware of an ongoing project by my WBEZ colleague Natalie Moore, my feelings about my house, and particularly that pride in homeownership, became more complicated. Natalie has been researching racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago, and inviting WBEZ listeners to research their own home, to see if it was ever subject to racially restrictive covenants. Racial deeds and covenants have been getting a lot of attention recently, as more Americans are coming to understand this dimension of American racism. These deeds and covenants, which in most cases restricted white sellers to sell only to white buyers, enforced segregation, excluding millions of African Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. That exclusion limited their ability to access home ownership and the attendant opportunity to build wealth…

When I was seeking to purchase my house in McKinley Park, Linda and my father helped me with a gift that allowed me to afford the downpayment. It was a gift they may not have been able to make without the inheritance from Linda’s parents, which in turn began with her grandfather’s development that excluded Black people and Jews. The gift I received wasn’t enormous, but without it, I would have had to save for at least another year and may have missed the opportunity to buy into my neighborhood at a low cost, as prices are rising.

The Matthew Effect in action: homeownership and wealth begets more homeownership and wealth. More broadly, if you have wealth it can be invested to create more wealth while it can be difficult to start on a path to wealth with little or none to start with.

Even as Americans connect homeownership to responsible homeowners and hard work, those are not the only factors involved. Others include access to capital both for a down payment and for a mortgage and access to particular residential units and communities (whether through formal or informal reactions). And because homes can be expensive and institutions and communities can change slowly, it takes time to acknowledge, address, and change past patterns.

Illinois residents can now remove racial covenants from their deeds but this does not mean there is not more to do to address residential segregation and access to housing.

The shrinking lifespan of popular worship music

Earlier in the week, I read about the likelihood that Adele’s new album will fade more quickly from the public consciousness because music today does not last as long. This may also be the case for popular worship songs sung in churches:

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Worship songs don’t last as long as they used to. The average lifespan of a widely sung worship song is about a third of what it was 30 years ago, according to a study that will be published in the magazine Worship Leader in January.

For the study, Mike Tapper, a religion professor at Southern Wesleyan University, brought together two data analysts and two worship ministers to look at decades of records from Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). The licensing organization provides copyright coverage for about 160,000 churches in North America and receives rotating reports on the worship music that is sung in those churches, tracking about 10,000 congregations at a time.

Looking at the top songs at those churches from 1988 to 2020, the researchers were able to identify a common life cycle for popular worship music, Tapper told CT. A song typically appears on the charts, rises, peaks, and then fades away as worship teams drop it from their Sunday morning set lists.

But the average arc of a worship song’s popularity has dramatically shortened, from 10 to 12 years to a mere 3 or 4. The researchers don’t know why.

Along with the possible reasons listed in the article for this change (social media, pressure to incorporate new music faster. remote church), this might also go along with an increased speed of social change more broadly. There are more cultural works accessible to more people at a quicker speed. Any cultural work may struggle today to stand out and endure in such a flood of possibilities. I could imagine it would be fruitful to bring a sociological of culture lens to the same data and research question to get at what factors have led to these changes.

Additionally, this hints at the cultural speed at which congregations feel they may have to operate. Is religious faith and practice timeless or must it keep up with the times? American evangelicals are distinctive in part because of their interest in engaging with culture while attempting to retain what they see as traditional and important beliefs. How does the speed of new music affect this tension?

The collective joy of millions who came out to celebrate the Cubs’ World Series win five years ago went where?

In wining a game that started November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs secured their first World Series in over 100 years. Two days later – five years and one day ago – the city of Chicago hosted a parade and rally for the winners. According to estimates, millions turned out. Between the end of Game 7 and the Chicago celebration that Friday, Cubs fans felt relief, sadness, and joy.

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Where did all that collective joy and energy go? I recently noted a few things that have happened since that victory and celebration that make it seem like a lifetime ago:

-Just a few days later, the 2016 elections occurred with a result that surprised many. This was part of a particularly contentious period in American politics. What are athletic victories and losses in such an environment?

-COVID-19 came several years later. While this had an effect on sports, it predominated life for an extended period. Looking back through the COVID era can obscure even relatively recent events.

-The Cubs themselves became more like all other teams. After winning, fans and observers had high expectations for more victories. While they did make the playoffs in subsequent years, they did not win an additional World Series and the team traded the remaining core of the team away in the summer of 2021.

Are championships won by local sports teams transformative for communities? I continue to argue no. Those millions who marched and the many others who enjoyed the victory had a good time. It remains a good memory. It can counter long-held sports anguish. But, it does not necessarily translate into changed communities. Did the Cubs win and then fortunes of neighborhoods and organizations improved (beyond the Cubs)? Did people and communities have more courage and trust to tackle issues of common interest? Did the Cubs become a symbol of what can be accomplished with principles or patterns that could be applied elsewhere? Or, did they have a good season, reverse a long-held curse, and life went on?

Is the world worse off now or do we just know more about what happens every day?

The bad news seems to keep rolling in. A pandemic. The earthquake in Haiti. Afghanistan. Tropical storms. Tyranny. And so on. This raises a question I have asked myself many times in recent years: is the world actually worse off or do we just know more about global affairs and smaller events?

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Here are just some of the ways this question could be answered:

-In some macro trends, this is a great time to be alive. I’m thinking of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature or Hans Rosling’s Factfulness where they argue that by multiple measures, whether the percent of deaths by warfare or indicators of public health, we are better off.

-The scale of both mass media and social media means we can know more about the world and daily occurrences than ever before. With relatively little effort, we can see the bad in the world on a small and grand scale every minute (and find commentary on it). We are flooded with information.

-The world has changed so rapidly in the last few centuries that we collectively are still trying to catch up to the new challenges and/or the new ways that challenges manifest themselves. For example, pandemics are not new in human history but the way people respond to them in the particular conditions of 2020 and 2021 is.

-We now see the world differently or expect different things compared to people of the past. The social changes of recent centuries mean more individualism and agency, the rise of the self and the diminishing of some traditional forms of authority, and expectations about standards of living.

-Certain groups might lean in to the distressing news. For example, American evangelicals for decades have played up the connection between the apocalypse and current events. Or, political actors might use negative news to criticize others or promote particular policies.

-Humans can feel losses more than equal wins. It is hard to know whether we take in more positive or negative news overall but we might feel the negative news more.

-There really is more bad than good happening in the world.

Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

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That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

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.