The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

White flight starting in the 1910s, not after World War II

Two economists look at white flight as it occurred decades before the post-World War II era:

Economists Allison Shertzer and Randall P. Walsh at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed data from 10 large U.S. cities in the Northeast and the Midwest from 1900 to 1930 to isolate the role of white flight that occurred in that period—before the Federal Housing Authority, which instituted many of the discriminatory housing policies, was born. They found that the exodus of white people from a particular neighborhood following the arrival of black residents led to a 34 percent increase in segregation during the 1910s; In the 1920s, it resulted in a striking 50 percent increase…

They isolated demographic data for 10 U.S. cities—New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Baltimore in the Northeast, and Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis in the Midwest—all of which had seen large influxes in black residents as a result of the Great Migration. They then designed a strategy to quantify the contribution of white flight to racial segregation…

One important thing to note: when white people left their neighborhoods in response to black arrivals in this period, they didn’t go to the suburbs—because suburbs didn’t really exist until the second half of the 20th century. They went to neighborhoods pretty similar to the ones they left—at least in terms of tax bases and public spending. That means that the measurements of white flight here “may thus provide a better gauge of racial distaste than those using postwar data,” the authors write in the paper.

When I’m asked about suburbanization, I often note that is start in the early 1900s, was derailed by the Great Depression, and then really took off after World War II. Many of the processes of post-war suburbia – including mass consumption, the construction of major roads and highways, more mass produced homes, the dominance of the automobile for daily life and planning, and changing racial and ethnic demographics in numerous urban neighborhoods – were already underway decades before. Perhaps it is convenient to blame the post-war era – and there were specific policy changes that happened then like federal funding for highways and changes to the mortgage industry to make homes accessible for more Americans – but these disliked features of 1950s suburbia have deeper roots.

DuPage County Forest Preserve continues aggressive land acquisition

The Daily Herald reports that the DuPage County Forest Preserve continues to purchase more land:

Five years after voters approved a $68 million tax increase so the DuPage County Forest Preserve could buy more land, officials report they have acquired 43 properties and more than 473 acres so far.

The biggest purchase came three years ago of 94 acres for $12.3 million to protect a unique wetland near Bartlett, Kevin Stough, director of land preservation, said in a recent report to forest preserve commissioners…

“The timing has worked for us, since land prices started dropping in 2007 and have gone down more steeply in recent years,” he said. “So that’s something where we have been very fortunate.”

In total, the district has purchased 143 acres of floodplains, 124 acres of wetland and the remaining 206 acres are primarily forested areas, all accessible to the public. And Stough said the forest preserve still has money left to purchase more land.

I’ve noted before that the DuPage County Forest Preserve has been quite aggressive over the decades. This is how much land the Forest Preserve controls:

The District owns or manages over 25,000 acres of land at over 60 forest preserves, about 12 percent of the total land in DuPage County. As a result, every home and business in DuPage County is no more than ten minutes from a forest preserve.

Within these 25,000 acres are 60 forest preserves, 600 acres of lakes, 47 miles of rivers and streams, and over 145 miles of trails. Some forest preserves are jointly owned, and some are the site of nature centers or amenities operated by other agencies.

That is a lot of preserved land within a county that experienced a lot of population pressure after World War II and today has little open land for development.

I would love to see figures about what DuPage County residents think of the Forest Preserve. The Forest Preserve suggests its land is quite popular:

Each year, 3.4 million visitors enjoy the county’s 60 forest preserves. Additionally, over 100,000 visitors participate annually in educational and cultural programs at the Forest Preserve District’s five education centers.

How do County residents see the trade-off between paying higher taxes versus having the Forest Preserve land to enjoy? Is there anyone who thinks that putting this much land off-limits to development raises housing prices? How important is open space to County residents versus other concerns?


Anti-urban hymn? “God, who stretched the spangled heavens”

Yesterday’s service featured #580 in the 1982 Episcopal hymnal, “God, who stretched the spangled heavens.” Beyond being a mid-20th century hymn (and they have some interesting quirks themselves), the second verse was very interesting:

Proudly rise our modern cities,
stately buildings, row on row;
yet their windows, blank, unfeeling,
stare on canyoned streets below,
where the lonely drift unnoticed
in the city’s ebb and flow,
lost to purpose and to meaning,
scarcely caring where they go.

It almost seems like this should be immediately followed by “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

This hymn tries to balance two images in this verse (and supported elsewhere in the song): on one hand, we have “stately buildings,” impressive demonstrations of modern capacities and on the other hand, these great cities are full of people “lost to purpose and to meaning.” On the whole, this is not a favorable view of city life, even if it is trying to be descriptive and demonstrate the issues modernists face. Are there any hymns that talk about vibrant urban neighborhoods?

I resolve to be on the watch for anti-urban messages in other hymns. I wonder if there is a large gap in hymn content in this area between more mainline denominations who retained a little more presence in the big cities during the post-World War II suburban boom and also tend to hold to political views that suggest engagement with the city while religious conservatives have more individualized songs and desire escape from the dirty, evil cities.


Trying to hold a county fair in suburban DuPage County

DuPage County now has over 915,000 people and has little open land left for development. Amidst rapid suburbanization after World War II, there has always been a DuPage County Fair. Now, there is public debate about whether it makes sense to continue having this event:

The DuPage County Board should examine the long-term viability of its county fair and how distribution of state funding for the event is handled, a consultant has recommended.

And if the fair continues, the county should consider a new location, even if it means sharing a site with another county, the consultant recommends…

The fair, held each July on county-owned land in Wheaton east of DuPage’s government center, is run by a nonprofit association that relies heavily on funding that is funneled from the state Department of Agriculture through the Fair and Exposition Authority. Transferring that responsibility to the County Board would remove a layer of government by in effect eliminating the need for the seven-member fair authority, and that would “relieve the county of any associated risk,” the firm said.

Crowe Horwath pointed to decreased funding from the state and declining fair attendance as reasons why the county should consider whether the fair makes sense at all in the long run. The fair received an average of $300,000 a year in 2005-07. The figure in 2011 was about $198,000. The firm also noted that the fairgrounds are valuable property for which a better use might be found. The fair leases the land for $1,375 a year.

It is not surprising that this discussion has arisen in an era of fiscal issues at multiple levels of government.

The best argument I could imagine for the fair is that it is a reminder of what DuPage County once was. For the first 100 years of its history, DuPage County was primarily farmland and small towns that were within the orbit of Chicago. Produce from the farms could be shipped by rail or road to Chicago, destined for eastern markets through the Great Lakes, or to the southwest, eventually bound for the Mississippi River and points due south. One farm in the county even became the focus of a television show during the early 1950s:

In the spring of 1953, the Illinois Depart­ment of Agriculture began a search for a farm and a farm family who would become the stars of a new television show on the National Broadcasting Company. One of the thirty-five farms on the itinerary was the Harbecke Farm on Gary Avenue, rural Cloverdale in Bloom­ingdale Township, operated by Harbecke’s daughter and son-in-law, Bertha and Wilbert Landmeier. Tracing their roots to pioneer German farm families, the young couple had moved to the Harbecke Farm to operate a dairy farm. They had recently installed dairy equip­ment which carried the milk in refrigerated tubes from the milking machine to cooling tanks on the milk truck, which transported the commodity to an Addison dairy. The farm also had a hay drier which was another piece of modern machinery not found on every farm in  1953. These advantages, plus the fact that the location was considered one of the best be­tween Chicago and the Fox River for beaming the television waves, made the selection of the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm ideal for the show.

Thus, “Out on the Farm” began the first of a two-year run from the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm in the summer of 1953.  During the second season the first outdoor network colorcast originating from Chicago was the pickup from the Landmeier Farm. At the end of the 1954 season, the show was over, as Cloverdale and all of DuPage County were due for rapid change.

Here is a short description of the transformation from farmland to urban county:

The DuPage County Fair is the only county fair in Illinois located in a completely urban setting. Historical research showed that when the first DuPage County Fair was held in 1955, the county was 85% farmland. By 2000, the last farm vanished as DuPage County was absorbed into Chicago’s urban sprawl.

Today, the only farms DuPage County residents are likely to know about are Forest Preserve properties such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago or St. John’s Farm in Warrenville.

In the end, it sounds like it will be difficult to reserve valuable land for a week of nostalgia and history every year.

When Chicago’s highways were new

In a flashback, the Chicago Tribune takes a look at the effects of the major highways that first opened in the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s:

Expressway construction changed the cityscape more than anything since the Great Fire of 1871. The fire gave builders a clean canvas. But the expressways had to be threaded through labyrinths of factories and bungalows. Those in the way were sacrificed: While expressways were still on the drawing board, they were expected to cost 9,000 families their homes, probably an underestimate…

Those concrete and asphalt ribbons provided a one-way ticket out of town. Even before the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway reached there, a developer was chopping up west suburban farmland for a development named in its honor. The Tribune noted Arthur McIntosh deliberately put Congress Highlands’ southern boundary on “a Du Page County feeder to the expressway.”…

Local movers and shakers had long envisioned freeing traffic from congested city streets. Yet some ordinary residents couldn’t believe it even when the bulldozers began to roll. “One man forced us to get an eviction order from the court because he said he had been reading about superhighways for years and thought the whole thing was a dream,” said Chicago’s housing co-coordinator in 1949…

Only the Southwest Expressway (today’s Stevenson) didn’t displace Chicagoans, being built atop an abandoned waterway, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The Dan Ryan not only dramatically reduced the population in its route, but by paralleling a line of public housing, it reinforced segregated neighborhoods on the South Side. The Kennedy was rerouted around the backside of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, when Chicago’s Polish community complained the original plan would have placed it at the church’s front door.

This article illustrates the major changes that happened in many major American cities when highways that linked downtown areas to the future suburbs. But, the article hints that this wasn’t necessarily easy to do: people were displaced, neighborhoods were changed, political corruption occurred, and people battled about exactly where the highways should go. Today, they seem natural. In the 1950s, they were a big change.

This piece also seems to support the political economy view of urban growth and development. Highways didn’t just happen because people were clamoring to get to the suburbs for the cheaper land and houses. Rather, the fate of these highways were decided by wealthy businessmen and developers as well as politicians who saw opportunities. If people needed to be displaced, so be it. If highways could be used to separate the Black Belt from Bridgeport, so be it. If the jobs building the highways could be peddled into votes and connections, so be it. The example here of the DuPage developer is classic: now suburban land close to the highway was valuable.

Perhaps stories like these resonate more in Chicago since transportation plays such a big part in the city’s history and current makeup. Between being a railroad hub, having two busy airports, a port that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi (still a fairly large port though no longer as important), and a number of major interstates that run through or near the city, the effects of transportation changes matter.

Aurora now second largest city in Illinois

The population growth in the Chicago suburbs has shifted from Naperville (in the 1980s and 1990s) to communities further west and south. In particular, Aurora grew during the 2000s and is now Illinois’ second largest city:

[T]he Alperins are among the nearly 55,000 new residents since 2000 who helped Aurora boost its population to 197,899 and officially eclipse Rockford as Illinois’ second-largest city, according to the recently released 2010 U.S. census figures.

Aurora’s 54,909 jump was the largest among Illinois cities. Its percentage increase of 38.4 percent was just behind top-ranked Joliet, which grew at a 38.8 percent pace to 147,433 and beat out Naperville as Illinois’ fourth-largest community.

The growth comes as Aurora makes strides resurrecting what had become a struggling downtown and boasts of statistics that show the city’s major crime rate is at its lowest in more than three decades. The physical size of the city also has grown to accommodate more people. Aurora has three times as many square miles as it had four decades ago.

There are several reasons that the community has grown including a growing Hispanic population and open land in a growing region of the Chicago suburbs. But the city has also dramatically expanded in size:

Aurora, meanwhile, now covers 46 square miles compared with 35 in 1990 and 15 in 1970. It sprawls through four counties, six school districts and seven townships. But like Naperville in the last decade, the city could eventually be boxed in by neighbors, Greene said. And there’s also no guarantee that brisk growth from the 1990s through part of the 2000s will repeat when the economy improves.

The explanation for why Aurora is growing is very similar to what led to Naperville’s growth between 1960 and 2000: it is located near highways, it has a number of businesses, and there is plenty of room to expand and the city has annexed a lot of land. But as Naperville discovered, the growth only goes on for so long: eventually, the land runs out and then Aurora will become a different kind of place. As the end of the article notes, the long-term course of the city will likely include denser development near the center of the city.

At the same time, Naperville and Aurora’s growth are not quite the same: Naperville has long had a wealthier profile compared to Aurora’s status as an industrial satellite city (named as such in this 1915 work).  During the 1980s and 1990s, Naperville’s growth was quite unusual: Naperville was classified as the only boomburb outside of the South or West during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Naperville is quite well-off for a large community, has a history of high-tech companies dating back to the mid-1960s, has very low crime and poverty rates, and has a vibrant and popular downtown.

It will be interesting to watch in the coming years how Aurora, Joliet, Plainfield, and other suburbs in the southwest suburbs continue to grow.

Might the 30-year mortgage disappear?

An article suggests that the 30 year mortgage might “fade away.” As both Republicans and Democrats think about eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it is unclear whether a purely private mortgage industry would retain features like a 30-year payment period:

Life without Fannie and Freddie is the rare goal shared by the Obama administration and House Republicans, although it will not happen soon. Congress must agree on a plan, which could take years, and then the market must be weaned slowly from dependence on the companies and the financial backing they provide.The reasons by now are well understood. Fannie and Freddie, created to increase the availability of mortgage loans, misused the government’s support to enrich shareholders and executives by backing millions of shoddy loans. Taxpayers so far have spent more than $135 billion on the cleanup.

The much more divisive question is whether the government should preserve the benefits that the companies provide to middle-class borrowers, including lower interest rates, lenient terms and the ability to get a mortgage even when banks are not making other kinds of loans…

Hanging in the balance are the basic features of a mortgage loan: the interest rate and repayment period.

Fannie and Freddie allow people to borrow at lower rates because investors are so eager to pump money into the two companies that they accept relatively modest returns. The key to that success is the guarantee that investors will be repaid even if borrowers default — a promise ultimately backed by taxpayers.

A long line of studies has found that the benefit to borrowers is relatively modest, less than one percentage point. But that was before the flood. Fannie, Freddie and other federal programs now support roughly 90 percent of new mortgage loans because lenders cannot raise money for mortgages that do not carry government guarantees.

The issue of a 30-year mortgage would be up for debate within a broader restructuring of an important industry. Both organizations, Fannie Mae founded in 1938 and Freddie Mac created in 1970,  were intended to help Americans become homeowners. Fannie Mae, along with several other government programs, particularly helped to boost homeownership rates after World War II. During this postwar housing boom, government programs helped lower down payments and lengthened the years in a mortgage. If I remember correctly, mortgages prior to this postwar period were 15 or 20 years at most, required much larger down payments, and were available from mortgage lenders or savings and loans associations.

Where this article needs to go next is to ask whether this means fewer Americans will have access to mortgages and homeownership. If the industry is indeed restructured in the coming years, will the homeownership rate continue to drop? If politicians from both sides of the aisle are interested eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, does this mean the federal government is pulling away from more explicit endorsements of homeownership? It is intriguing to note that all of this might take place because of a large economic crisis (though both of these programs have had their critics for decades) while Fannie Mae was instituted in response to an earlier crisis.