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Posts Tagged ‘neighborhoods’

Of Places Past

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (see links below) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.

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Back – it seems long ago but really fewer than six years – when Barack Obama was elected president, much of the nation hoped that we were in for a new, “post-racial” age. Defeated GOP candidate John McCain himself spoke in those terms in his concession speech: “ This is an historic election . . . we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation . . . . America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of [an earlier] time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.” Some whites feared that Obama would try to benefit his race, but (to the chagrin of many in the black community) he steered in almost the opposite direction, a post-racial one.

Yet the new color-blind age was not to be. For one, the financial disaster Obama inherited disproportionately damaged African Americans, widening economic gaps that had been narrowing. For another, the politics of racial resentment was too tempting a tool not to be used. Ironically, Obama’s elections themselves were only tilted a bit by racial attitudes; those who voted by race, pro or con, were already voting Democrat and Republican accordingly (see here).

But we remain far from the post-racial dream. This post is another look-see at the status of race relations, presenting a few recent studies that show how, though the progress Senator McCain noted has certainly been made, race still matters — a lot. And then I return to the politics.

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Place Matters More

As Bay Area residents have known for a while and as readers of The New York Times just read and NPR listeners just heard, much of downtown San Francisco real estate is being snapped up by young, hip, affluent workers in the information technology industry. The Facebook-Apple-Google-Etc. folk are willing to commute long distances to their desks in Silicon Valley – albeit in special, wired, comfort buses. Some tech firms have moved into or expanded office space in the City, most notably Twitter, in part for clear business reasons, but in large measure, it seems, because their employees live nearby. The effects on housing are evident. (A San Francisco blogger several months ago listed the reasons “all my friends are moving to Oakland.” Included were “Divis [Divisadero Street] is clogged with Google buses” and “The [Oakland] landlords aren’t looking for ways to kick you out. You won’t have to have six roommates. You won’t get outbid for a room by some dot-com f***face.”)

Tech workers await bus in S.F. (source)

Tech workers await bus in S.F. (source)

That thousands of well-heeled buyers and renters are choosing inner-city San Francisco — as many others are choosing inner-city New York or Chicago — illustrates a trend that has been going on for quite a while and that has been accentuated by the Great Recession: affluent Americans moving and segregating themselves to pursue the lifestyles they associate with particular places.

In a previous post, I pointed out the widening differences between metropolitan areas by social class and the increasing segregation, since at least the 1960s, between urban neighborhoods by residents’ income. Here I review a few new studies on a byproduct of these trends, separation by cultural taste. One take-away is that America’s widening economic inequality is being more deeply inscribed on the residential landscape. Another is that in age of jet travel, instantaneous communications, and 3-D downloads, an age just a bit short of Star-Trek beaming, where Americans live seems to matter to them more, not less.

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Gentrified Memories

Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic Monthly’s polymath book editor, recently critiqued two books on gentrification in New York’s Greenwich Village for their romanticism and perhaps for bits of hypocrisy.

Many of the writerly class (guilty as charged) pine for a neighborhood that has just the right  “authentic” working-class flavor: mom-and-pop grocery stores (but organic veggies, please); cheap apartments (no roaches, thank you); old-timers gossiping on front stoops (but no thuggish teens), and so on. It should also have just enough amenities – say, good coffee, a book store, a few art galleries, and a couple of clubs – to make it fun. Richard Lloyd, who studied gentrification in Chicago, notes the attraction to “grit as glamor.”

Schwartz suggests that this balance of working-class grit and a cleaned-up bohemia was attained only in a few places – the Village most famously – and for just a brief moment before the neighborhoods tipped over into “inauthentic” yuppiedom. (In the Village, that moment came around 1960, just about when Bob Dylan showed up.) Schwartz is impatient with those who, in slamming gentrification, imagine that those thrilling moments could be preserved in “amber.”

The question of what ought to be preserved in amber — that is, what memories define the “authentic” moment of a neighborhood — is central to struggles over the future of many neighborhoods in major American cities.

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