Neighborhoods and the Great American City

Chicago is a big and complicated city. As a newcomer, I read widely to get a better understanding of my new home. The staff at the Unabridged Bookstore, an independent in the Lakeview neighborhood, has organized a section filled with Chicago books, ranging from the coffee table variety to academic monographs. On that shelf with a proclamation of greatness was a copy of Robert J. Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. How could I pass it by?

Great American City

I owe the bookstore staff a big thanks. Great American City is an extraordinarily impressive book. Best read and digested over multiple sittings, the book reflects decades of research. It is about Chicago and much more than Chicago. While looking closely at life in the city’s many neighborhoods, Sampson advances several provocative arguments about communities, inequality, and the ways that people organize, experience, and respond to space. At a more abstract level, the book examines how we think about and make meaning from the social sciences. Quite a bit is packed into 500 plus pages.

Organized into five sections, the book advances on overarching thesis: neighborhoods and place matter (regardless of the claims of globalists and technophiles), and enduring neighborhood effects can help explain much about health, poverty, inequality, politics, and society. To make this argument, Sampson relies on the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a multi-decade and multi-pronged study into Chicago’s neighborhoods. PHDCN’s work and development is probably worthy of a study of its own. Sampson tests and contextualizes PHDCN findings, weaving an integrated analysis of the city.

Sampson, whose training is in criminal justice, is drawn to questions of poverty and inequality. He wants to know why some neighborhoods consistently enforce disadvantage. The statistics prove, too, a depressing co-morbidity of poverty, low birth weight, unemployment, and crime. Even without looking at the data, I would wager that lack of education is in the mix as well. The stability of particular neighborhoods with regard to these social factors, over time and changing conditions, is noticeable. Bad neighborhoods remain bad neighborhoods, even accounting for different immigrant groups or economic shifts. It is true in Chicago and in Stockholm, which Sampson uses as an interesting comparison. Racial inequality is a big factor in this, but something else is also at play. Accordingly, Sampson believes that social context needs to be considered as a variable – ecometrics – on its own.

Sampson tackles the “broken windows” theory of crime and social disorder to make an understanding of ecometrics more clear. Disorder is not just about events and statistics. If it were, fixing broken windows would change patterns of crime. Instead, disorder is also about how society perceives a neighborhood. Deep analysis of how people behave in a neighborhood and how people perceive that neighborhood reveals some important distinctions. Disorder does not necessarily equate with poverty. Disorder, instead, correlates with what Sampson dubs “collective efficacy” – a mix of social cohesion and shared expectations for control. It translates into that sense in a neighborhood that if something bad happens, people will come to help. The PHDCN examines this with some very clever studies, such as looking at the rates that strangers provide CPR in emergencies, and the number of dropped stamped addressed letters that find their way to a mailbox. Neighborhoods with higher levels of social efficacy are safer and are perceived as safer – and they help to explain patterns of crime across Chicago’s neighborhoods. Community based organizations and related non-profits play a very important role in bolstering a neighborhood’s social efficacy. CBOs are very important to social efficacy. In contrast, analysis reveals that churches and religious organization have a limited effect. However, that impact varies by neighborhood, race, and role.

The book rounds out its arguments though innovative mapping of the city, examining where individuals move, who knows whom, and why. Mobility is far from random and instead follows predictable paths. People often move between like neighborhoods. The patterns, studies indicate, are similar for elites and for the poor. This argument mirrors my own observations about neighborhoods and where people choose to live and how they live. There are clearly defined clusters of spaces, behaviors, choices and demographics that define who we are, how we live, and where we live. Marketers know this very well. When thinking about choice and social advancement, therefore, we should be mindful of social context. Space and location matter.

The Great American City has received glowing reviews. Like many of those who have read the book, I believe that we will be thinking about it for quite some time – and I will never look at Chicago’s neighborhoods quite the same.

David Potash

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