Posts Tagged ‘cities’

For most of the twentieth century, Americans took a certain social geography for granted: the well-off lived in the suburbs, encircling poor city centers. When I wrote a book on “The Urban Experience” forty years ago, most Americans viewed that experience with trepidation. The image of city life as bleak, dilapidated, and dangerous became entrenched. Moving to the suburbs, which the American middle class had been doing for generations, turned into “flight.” But those scary years were unusual. Historically, cities have been wealthier, safer, and more welcoming than their surroundings.

Now the wheel has turned again. The city is glamorous again; filmmakers are having trouble finding stereotypically grimy alleys in Manhattan. Today’s political fights are not about stemming urban decay but about stemming urban upscaling. What happened?

See my column on this question at the Boston Review: here.

Update (Dec. 4, 2017):

From an NBER Working Paper, titled “Urban Revival in America, 2000 to 2010“: “This paper documents and explains the striking rise in the proclivity of college-educated individuals to reside near city centers… We find that changing preferences of young college graduates for… amenities like restaurants, bars, gyms, and personal services account for more than 50 percent of their growth near city centers.”

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A Street Divided

The sharpest contrast in American communities is that between black and white neighborhoods. There is no greater spatial distinction in our cities. Everyone is aware of it. Would-be homebuyers shop accordingly; parents pick schools accordingly; employers hire accordingly; drivers plan routes accordingly–that is, when homebuyers, parents, employers, and drivers have some choice in the matter.

This great segregation of black and white, scholars had thought, was produced in the twentieth century. New research reveals a more complex story, as described in my latest column for the Boston Reviewhere.

Updates (11/14/16; 1/8/18):

A 2016 article by John Logan and Benjamin Bellman:

“Although some scholars treat racial residential segregation in northern cities as a twentieth-century phenomenon, recent research on New York and Chicago has shown that black-white segregation was already high and rising by 1880. We draw on data from the Philadelphia Social History Project and other new sources to study trends in this city as far back as 1850 and extending to 1900, a time when DuBois had completed his epic study of The Philadelphia Negro. Segregation of “free negroes” in Philadelphia was high even before the Civil War but did not increase as the total and black populations grew through 1900. Geocoded information from the full-count data from the 1880 Census makes it possible to map the spatial configuration of black residents in fine detail. At the scale of the street segment, segregation in that year was extraordinarily high, reflecting a micropattern in which many blacks lived in alleys and short streets. Although there was considerable class variation in the black community, higher-status black households lived in areas that were little different in racial and class composition than lower-status households.”

A 2017 article by John Logan, and this time with , expands the analysis of segregation that uses new, more precise ways of analyzing location, and which shows the ways that 19th century southern cities were segregated, alley by alley:

“In southern cities the authors find qualitatively distinct configurations that include not only black ‘neighborhoods’ as usually imagined but also backyard housing, alley housing, and side streets that were predominantly black. These configurations represent the sort of symbolic boundaries recognized by urban ethnographers. By mapping residential configurations and interpreting them in light of historical accounts, the authors intend to capture meanings that are too often missed by quantitative studies of segregation [using cruder measures].”


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Long Story of the “Long Tail”

A recent article in Wired reported on the estimated 100,000 workers around the globe who risk their sanity culling the perverse, grotesque, horrific stuff that some people post on social media – child sexual abuse, close-ups of accident victims, self-mutilation, and the like. That there are circles of people who post such content and yet larger circles who presumably enjoy looking at and trading such content reminds us of the down-slide on the Internet’s “long tail.”

The “long tail” notion, argued in the early 2000s by then-Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, is that the internet allows businesses to make money even on products valued by an extremely tiny proportion of consumers. Sellers aggregate enough of those rare customers to make marketing to them profitable. Netflix, Anderson wrote, is a good example: “It doesn’t matter if the several thousand people who rent Doctor Who episodes each month are in one city or spread, one per town, across the country … What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist, anywhere.” The same logic applies to producers and audiences of perverse contents.

At the same time, the Internet sustains niches for what most would consider positive activities, such as hobbyists trading tips, seekers of relatively rare sorts of mates finding one another (as in Jdate and FarmersOnly dating), fans of rarely-recorded world music discovering tracks, and sufferers from “orphan” diseases finding support and advice.

This “long tail” phenomenon – the good, the bad, and the very ugly – seems to be creating a new society. Except that we have been there before.


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Nicholas Lemann, noted author and Professor of Journalism at Columbia, has an essay in the latest New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s brutal murder in the Kew Gardens section of New York City. Young readers will recognize the name, if they recognize it all, as a case they heard about in Psychology 1 illustrating how people can be indifferent to others in need. The March 27, 1964, headline in the New York Times said it all: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector. The next day’s installment was headlined: Apathy Is Puzzle in Queens Killing: Behavioral Specialists Hard Put to Explain Witnesses’ Failure to Call Police–Interpretations Vary–Some Say Tendency Not to Get Involved Is Typical Others Call it Uncommon.

As Lemann recounts the oft-recounted story, two new books on it having just appeared, he describes a case of journalistic – and perhaps, academic – malpractice. The best estimate, per Lemann, is that only a handful of people were actually aware that she was being attacked and about half of those tried to do something. (The assailant was at first chased away by neighbors yelling at the initial attack. He came back later and trapped Genovese in a stairwell out of all but perhaps one witness’s sight and in earshot of only a few.) In the end, maybe several people could be fairly charged with apathy – or fear – although the debate about that still rages (e.g., see here and here). (Update: And a 2015 film by Genovese’s brother, “The Witness,” further undermines the classic story.)

Whatever the facts, the story, magnified by noted New York Times writer and later editor A. M. Rosenthal, set off decades of philosophizing about the human condition, black humor about New York City, and hundreds of psychology experiments – a form of academic headline-chasing – probably starting with this one four years after the murder. Since then, research on “bystander intervention,” asking when people do or do not intervene to help a stranger in need, boomed into an even bigger research field on “pro-social behavior,” asking why anybody ever helps anybody at all.

The story has lasted amazingly long. Kitty Genovese’s name appeared in the New York Times – and in social science journals – more often in the 2000s than in any previous decade. Except for a brief surge in 1975, her name has appeared in American books at a steady rate for the last roughly 45 years (nGram analysis).

Lemann does a great job of exploring the case, the coverage, and its cultural resonance. Here, I want to comment about the Kitty Genovese story’s role in accentuating and embellishing the late-twentieth-century image of the nightmare city.


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Art and the Machined World

Much of early twentieth-century art in the West was commentary on the massive technological developments of the late 19th century. Where, 100 years later, is the comparable twenty-first-century artistic response to the technological developments of the late 20th century? Stella

American artists a few generations ago, especially painters and photographers, portrayed the massive structures, machined objects, and rationalized, sharp edges of the industrial world. (They were, of course, responding to other things, as well, such as new techniques and European challengers like Picasso.) Many took the rapidly growing cities, New York most of all, as emblematic of the coming future, so urban scenes often serve to represent the modern, mechanical world. What in art is similar today?

Warning to readers: Follow this post at your own risk; I am not an art historian. But, heck, it’s my personal blog. (BTW, I use illustrations here from stamps, so as, hopefully, not to infringe reproduction rights.)


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City Crime; Country Crime

A recent report announced that the huge financial company UBS will be moving back from a suburb of New York into Manhattan, “because it has come to realize it is more difficult to recruit talented people in their 20s to work in the suburbs.” What a (literal) turnaround!

For about a generation, roughly from  the 1970s through the 1990s, the equation, big city equals violent crime, was a taken-for-granted part of how we understood urban life. Movie-makers needed only to zoom in on a block of New York or Chicago to give audiences a dose of stomach-churning anxiety; comedians delivered dark jokes about getting mugged in cities, especially in Manhattan; suburban teens reported fearing the central cities a short drive away. It was a big reason that major corporations moved out of Manhattan.

by Sam Rohn via Mikel Joshua

Yet, today, the image of the big city (and of Manhattan in particular) seems different, infused with romance, allure, excitement, luxury, a place of aspirations – think Sex and the City — rather than fear and avoidance. This is actually a back-to-the-‘50s sensibility about the big city.

In an earlier (and since updated) post, I discussed how violent crime in the United States dropped suddenly and continuously from about 1990 through 2010 and showed how the drop was the last stage of a down-up-down cycle starting after World War II. One aspect of recent drop is the way it has changed the geography of violence. The connection between big city and big crime has weakened greatly; big cities are not as dramatically the places of danger. We may be moving toward an older pattern: that cities are the safer places to live.


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