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Neat Lawns, Nice Neighborhoods

The myth of urban multiculturalism

September-October 2006

This may make me a less than completely loyal Harvard alumnus, but I can’t help thinking of Geyser University Professor William Julius Wilson as the epitome of a faculty member at the University of Chicago, the institution from which Harvard lured him away in 1996. Wilson has the almost Germanic high-academic seriousness that Chicago is famous for—he works steadily, formally, and deliberately on massive, carefully designed projects with substantial staffs of graduate assistants. And he partakes deeply of the grand tradition of the department he formerly headed at Chicago, sociology: using the city as a laboratory, a site for deep investigation of the way people in societies behave. His books have generally used Chicago research to make larger points.

William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub, Ph.D. ’66, There Goes the Neighborhood (Random House, $23.95)

There Goes the Neighborhood will do nothing to dispel this impression, because it is based on years of research on four Chicago neighborhoods, and is coauthored with one of Wilson’s former colleagues in the Chicago sociology department, Richard Taub, now chairman of the committee on comparative human development there. (I should confess here that I know both Wilson and Taub.) All big American cities, but perhaps especially Chicago, undergo changes in the composition and condition of neighborhoods that are disturbingly rapid, especially by the general standard of demography, where things move at a molasses pace. The most obvious example is the wholesale shift of many urban neighborhoods from white to black in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and the concomitant dramatic white exodus to the suburbs, but, as Wilson and Taub remind us, such changes are ongoing. Chicago today is on the receiving end of a substantial migration from Mexico that is affecting many neighborhoods [see “Latinos Nix Violence,” page 15], and even neighborhoods that years ago became African-American are continuing to change—on a class rather than race dimension—as better-off families try to protect the middle-class character of their communities.

The natural response to all this churn is to want to reduce it. Why can’t urban neighborhoods be more stable? Why can’t they have steadily high levels of civic engagement? Why can’t they become peacefully integrated? Wilson and Taub seem to have undertaken their study in search of answers to these questions, and their findings are jarring. The most stable and socially functional urban neighborhoods, they say, are ethnic enclaves; in these pages, they treat settled neighborhood integration as an unattainable dream. Indeed, in neighborhoods that work, it is often precisely the effort to prevent integration, by class or race—to keep the outsiders from moving in—that spurs people to form the kinds of networks of social institutions that observers of contemporary American society seem to long for.

William Julius Wilson
Jon Chase / Harvard News Office

Wilson and Taub focus on four neighborhoods, to which, by sociological custom, they give pseudonyms: Beltway, Dover, Archer Park, and Groveland. Economically they range from working-poor to lower-middle-class; ethnically, Beltway is a white enclave, Dover a white neighborhood turning Latino, Archer Park a crowded Mexican immigrant community, and Groveland, the most appealing-sounding of the four, a settled redoubt of the black middle class. Although it doesn’t appear that Wilson and Taub have personally interviewed residents of these neighborhoods, their research assistants have done an enormous amount of legwork; this makes possible lively, interesting portraits of all four areas that convey a much richer sense of life there than you’d get just from statistics and survey results.

But it’s not the world as liberals would like it to be. Beltway is nakedly organized around keeping blacks and Latinos out, and as a result has the sort of richly textured “civil society” that’s supposed to have vanished from American society. Dover’s civic life is much thinner because it is multiethnic, but its two groups are able to make common cause, and to form active local organizations, around the mission of keeping blacks out of the neighborhood and keeping neighborhood children from being sent to majority-black schools elsewhere. Wilson and Taub nevertheless predict that over time, Dover’s whites will leave and it will become all-Latino. Archer Park’s residents are focused on moving one more step up the ladder, which would entail leaving the neighborhood, so they are civically deficient (they, too, by the way, are deeply prejudiced against blacks); Wilson and Taub treat the efforts of nonprofit organizations from outside the neighborhood to seed a community life in Archer Park as almost ridiculous. Groveland comes across in these pages as an urban paradise, but that’s substantially because its residents, all of whom are black and many of whom have safe public-sector jobs, are protected from having to interact with white society, which (understandably, given the findings from the other neighborhoods) they deeply mistrust.

Although there is a good deal of variation among the neighborhoods, what unites them is an intense focus on the ordinary and the local. Nobody in this book seems motivated to any extent by the soaring ideals of a good society; instead, they are obsessively concerned with protecting themselves from the ever-present threat of social disorganization and on maintaining order and decency block by block. Graffiti and gangs reappear constantly as the enemy, and neat lawns and respect for elders as the loftiest goal. Ethnic and class cohesion are the obvious proxies for how to keep away the bad and preserve the good—the subjects of There Goes the Neighborhood may be living out the effects of vast national and international changes in government policy and economics, but that’s not what they talk about to Wilson and Taub’s researchers.

As a conceptual framework for this book, Wilson and Taub use Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, a classic short work of political theory published in 1970 by the economist Albert O. Hirschman, LL.D. ’02, then Harvard’s Littauer professor of political economy. To my mind, Hirschman’s schema—in response to difficulties, one can either leave (that’s exit), protest and try to change things (that’s voice), or grin and bear it (that’s loyalty)—doesn’t make for a perfect fit with the subject of neighborhood change in Chicago. Hirschman was writing during the Vietnam War, and he mainly had in mind the way people behave as employees of large, errant bureaucracies. For residents of urban neighborhoods, the idea of “exit” certainly applies, alas, but Hirschman’s “voice” is not exactly the same thing as forming block clubs and other community organizations, and his “loyalty” entails a kind of uncomplaining submission to circumstances that Wilson and Taub’s subjects don’t much exhibit. Indeed, it seems clear that in blue-collar Chicago, “voice” and “loyalty” converge: for people in city neighborhoods to stay put, they evidently have to share an ethos of protest against people unlike themselves.

Wilson and Taub end by noting, with a sigh, that “strong neighborhoods and community identity are a double-edged sword” because they so often entail a rejection of liberal multicultural ideals—and they don’t really propose a scheme for preserving blue-collar urban neighborhoods. Instead they suggest that these neighborhoods band together politically to demand ambitious new federalefforts to improve conditions in the poorest urban neighborhoods, the ones whose residents the people in this book are preoccupied with keeping away from their own neighborhoods. For those who have followed Wilson’s work over the years, this turn toward the ghettos, sudden as it may be in this book, should not come as a surprise: he has a burning, abiding passion to improve the parlous conditions in the worst-off urban neighborhoods. What does seem to have changed, though, is his previous conviction that in American society, class will come to trump ethnicity. Wilson’s first book, published in 1978, was called The Declining Significance of Race. It’s hard to imagine the coauthor of There Goes the Neighborhood writing something under that title.

Nicholas Lemann ’76 is dean of and Luce professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (see “The Press Professor,” September-October 2005, page 78). He is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of several books, including The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America and the newly published Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.