Essay on Sociology of Urban Life


Essay on Sociology of Urban Life

Historically cities were constructed on natural transportations ways. On the east coast they were founded in natural harbors, the industrial cities of the Midwest are on the Mississippi-Ohio River or Great Lake system; western cities are located on the transportation pathways to connect the east to west (Petersen, 1981). The built environs and natural resources determine the economics of a locality; without resources there are no jobs. Industry was initially based on the harvesting of natural resources. With the Industrial Revolution economies were grounded in manufacturing, but were still greatly limited by conventional transportation methods.

The Highway Act more than any other development changed the landscape of cities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Suburbs proliferated, middle-class and working-class families were able to purchase homes; those mortgages were only for newly constructed homes in the suburbs, with no money for the restoration of the city. The loans were only made available to whites, leaving the poor and people of color, in particular blacks, to become the new homogenous inner city.

Then came the formation of the exurb. This was the first time in American history that growth did not follow the Concentric Circle Model, but it did follow the pattern of development begun by the first European settlers. Exurbs were fashioned on the new major transport veins, typically at an intersection with another highway or thoroughfare.

Even exurbs did not change the character of land use; all of the preceding development followed the status quo. Unaffected were economic disparity, race relations, transportation, housing, and education; nor did the methods of dealing with problems change.

Sprawl and density still were and are the problems of land use with a constant tension between the two. Either result has produced the same experience for disenfranchised residents of the city. Whether it is sprawl happy Los Angeles or Houston, those forced into density—Manhattan, or those who choose such a consequence—Portland, residents are clustered together according to class and racial/ethnic lines.

Petersen (1981) tells us that the factor of production that cities control is land, but at the same time they are bound by it. Take Portland; initially forest lined the banks of the Willamette River. There was a choice; the city could have been in the hills, on the other side of the Willamette or further up or downstream. Most decisions were dictated to them, authored by the terrain and technology. They settled at a point where the water was deep enough to port, and the timber was to the west so the west bank was developed. Once the developed creativity in production came in. Where should the bridges be constructed, length of the city blocks, will the streets be rectilinear or curvilinear, or how will the area be zoned: height, use, density. But within that creativity still existed constraints: climate, soil, terrain, and proximity to national/world economies to name a few (Petersen, 1981).

After food and shelter the first necessity of a new settlement is transit. Prior to World War II most cities had an extensive trolley system. The culture was not car-centric and sprawl was greatly limited because of existing transport infrastructures. After the Highway Act and successful lobbying on behalf of rubber and petroleum interests the streetcar system was dismantled, replaced by our current bus network. Currently approximately 50% of America's built environment is designed for automobile travel.

In the 1990s Robert Cervero observed that edge cities were being built with too little density for public-transit to be viable, but dense enough for there to be traffic congestion. Mall developers had been doing this in the suburbs, in order to restrict public access transit was restricted “organiz[ing] bus routes to reinforce market segmentation and racial segregation by class and race.” Further limiting the built environment edge city construction is based on the scale of automobile traffic with no sympathy for pedestrian traffic (Hayden). Giving evermore credence to architect Douglas Kelbaugh saying, “Suburbia may be paved with good intentions, but mainly it is paved.”

As shopping malls brought the death to downtown shopping districts, so too death knocks on the door of the shopping mall, knocking is the big-box store. With municipal governments hiding behind “the market,” there was no intervention on behalf of community businesses against malls or big-boxes. Here city land use policies created seas of parking lots, traffic congestion with no hope of mass-transit alleviation, and a market with no competition for the (trans)national corporations. Most infuriating to this process is that it has not been the effects of “the market,” rather federal subsidies are the sustenance rearing these centers of commerce, while locals are left without manna in the wilderness. Currently downtowns are being subsidized as citadels while the surrounding ghettos are being cordoned off restricting access to the rest of the city a la Escape from New York (Davis, 1990).

Issues of land use make their greatest impact in politics when they also involve matters of race. Sugrue (1996) recounts for us the land use affairs in Detroit and how they affected the local residents. A great schism existed between whites and blacks, density was increasing in the city post-World War II, but black residents were cordoned off in their own neighborhoods. These were areas of grit and grime, associated with crime and immorality, which became more severe the greater the density. As blacks broke the cordon they were met with harassment and violence. Whites feared for the character of their neighborhood, fearing that blacks would bring with them dinginess and seediness. The case was that the blacks moving in typically had greater income levels and were moving to escape all of the factors that whites dreaded.

He also describes that the majority of whites thought that Jim Crow laws were a successful solution to blacks and whites inhabiting the same city. Whites also saw the ghetto as being the fault of its denizen, never was there thought to the actions taken by slumlords and city officials.

So passionate were the white Detroiters about the topic of land use that they frequently resorted to violence to deter black homeowners. City hall was complicit in the violence, there are accounts of vandalism, harassment, and intimidation with police squad cars parked in front of the residence.

As pioneers had freedom to create and manipulate the geography of their land, so Detroiters did also. Imposing a racial geography upon the city landscape, with sectors of blackness, and quarters of whiteness (Sugrue, 1996). So convinced, so passionate of this geography that it warranted their barbarity to preserve this.

One use of land by cities is through the creation of tourist bubbles. They are intended to have a return of investment. Cities put monies, hopefully federal, into revitalizing an area, attempting to gentrify the locale, potentially displacing its residents. The idea is that there will be an increase in tourism and alien money flowing in (Newman, 2002).

These endeavors don't make economic sense to me. As previously stated cities earn their money through property taxes. Well in the case of tourist bubbles, as I understand it, a good deal of the finances goes into hotels or convention centers, the financing being federal capital, but they are also given tax breaks. On the front end millions of dollars are given to these hotels—which are national chains—and on the back end they are given millions of dollars in tax breaks; how is that efficient for the city?

All of this is happening while locals are being displaced by urban renewal, priced out by the gentrification nearby, and regional businesses are losing out to national chains that were courted by city officials.

The new bubble is supposed to bring capital into the city; does this money make up for the tax breaks, the closing local businesses, the increase in rents and mortgages, and the federal monies that could have gone directly to local businesses and concerns? As usual the rich are satisfied eating the fatted calf, while the poor are told to be grateful for their crumbs. Unfortunately, as Newman (2002) narrates black regimes maintain the progrowth priorities of prior regimes, begging the question: does anyone care for the have-nots in society?

In conclusion Rusk (2000) in “Growth Management: The Core Regional Issue” illustrates the interrelated nature of urban political issues and land use:

…A common challenge: defending their city's viability by controlling sprawl through regional growth management.

Don Hutchinson, president of the greater Baltimore Committee [said,] “if regionalism isn't dealing with land-use, fiscal disparities, housing, and education, then regionalism isn't dealing with the issues that count.”

…The most effective education reform for improving poor children's school performance would actually be housing reform….

Transportation decisions are land-development decisions.

5 “There is a dialectic, a contradiction, between urbanization and the city—between urbanization and urbanism.” Urbanization is the displacing and conquest of a region, performed by urbanizers who are place-less people, alien to that environment; the effect of capitalism that Marx forewarned about; globalization meeting the municipal and how the former affects its environs, citizens, economy, and politics. Urbanism is the growth of a city from within; the exercising of political capital by the citizenry—urbanists; growth and development mindful of the inhabitants, for the inhabitants benefit, socially, politically, and economically.

Though it may be easy to vilify urbanization and sanctify urbanism Merrifield (2002) instructs that they are not a dichotomy, rather a gamut, perhaps similar to the sprawl/density spectrum. It need not be resolved, rather utilized, captured; the contradictions exercised, and one must remain in the tension. The edge that categorizes great cosmopoleis is the strain between urbanism and urbanization; it is what makes them intimidating, frightening, vibrant, appealing.

In the 1980s leveraged buy-outs (LBOs) ran rampant, epitomizing urbanization, with capital leveraged by debt. Foreign entities came into cities to turn a quick buck and disappeared as fast as they arrived. Urban Development Action Grants (UDAGs) were another form of finance that funded urbanization, nicknamed the greatest hotel building venture (Merrifield, 2002). Both of these are examples of distant capital; the former engineered by financiers and the latter a misguided program by the federal government. In neither case were the citizens of the cities consulted as to where the money should be spent.

In the case of Baltimore, Southeast Community Organization (SECO) was the substantive urbanism booster. They lobbied and politicked to have a say in what would become of Canton. They had a long hard fight ahead of them, out-manned and out-financed; they held firm and had a say in the direction of the waterfront. One of the ironies for SECO and other urbanist organizations is that their task would most likely be impossible if it were not for the “first-generation genrtrifiers,” without their political and social capital the urbanizers would have their way with the district (Merrifield, 2002). It is perhaps through this instance that the span of urbanism/urbanization is clearest.

Another irony from Canton was the city's reaction to impact fees requested by SECO (Merrifield, 2002). An impact fee is a tool for urbanists to control and/or filter development. Those willing to pay such a fee are they who hold a greater stake than profit; they who walk away do so because the fee affects their bottom line, which is how it filters. The control comes from the accumulated capital that could be used to redevelop the city, potentially bidding against urbanizers, but at the least being able to develop along side of them so that the landscape of the city is not entirely urbanized. The irony lies in the city's denial of such a fee, their reason is that it would hurt development—the urbanizing sort—and the city would lose revenue with which to implement its services to the people. How city official missed the point that the fee would put money back into the municipal coffers and provide a service to the denizens by aiding urbanist development I do not know?

The potential usefulness of the impact fee lies in Logan and Molotch's (1987) principle of use value versus exchange value; again a spectrum not a dichotomy. Use value, exemplifying urbanism, means the value a parcel has to the community, be it a park, school, community center, a particular businesses missing from the area. Exchange value, typifying urbanization, is concerned with gains, the financial value of a tract and how to maximize profits. With exchange value, the best-case scenario economically is zero-sum; in use value there is the potential to create a positive-sum situation. Exchange value commodifies place, where as use value shows that when space becomes place there is intrinsic value.

A negative effect of urbanization is the inability for the masses to coalesce along class lines (Rogers, 2004). Perhaps the span of urbanization to urbanism in political and economic terms is analogous to gesellschaft and gemeinschaft. Globalization has taught the world to acknowledge our differences as a way of understanding other cultures. Absent gemeinschaft citizens are autonomous and missing a communal force adhering them together. Locally this produces fissions amongst the people.

In Detroit deindustrialization to its production sector, with a background of segregation and discrimination, was tempestuous (Sugrue, 1996). Were these our first glimpses at urbanization? Could a more place-centered urbanism, blind to capital, have created gemeinschaft?

John Friedmann's (1986) article “The World City Hypothesis” explains that cities that used to serve as regional metropoleis such as New York and London under globalization have reached a novel stratum: world city. The primary cities are solidified, barring the American cities, they have served as megalopolises for several centuries, but potentially up for grabs are the ranks of secondary, certainly the tertiary and quaternary cities. This is why modern American cities are so obsessed with urbanizing their landscapes (Strom, 2002); now, literally, the world can be their oyster. The top ten banks, according to assets, netted $9,616,000,000 in 1998 (Sassen, 2000) there is a plethora of money exchanging hands in the globalized economy.

With many municipal governments near or in bankruptcy it is no wonder that city officials are desperate to attain a slice of the pie (Kantor & Savitch, 1993). Their first and foremost goal is raising capital for the benefit of its citizens, but the pie has become so vast and complex that in the process of urbanization the constituents are being forgotten. Cities are neglecting the very ones they are intended to serve. Our forgetful city leaders may also be overlooking the future. Between 1950 and 1990 the “population [in the US] grew 88%, urbanized land expanded 255% (Rusk, 2000).”

It is no surprise that government representatives have bought this bill of goods, they had to do something. Over less than forty years American society is all but deindustrialized (Savitch & Kantor, 2002), nearly two centuries of a way of life all but forgotten. There was a choice to be made; unfortunately it seems our appointees, caught in a rip current, elected to swim with the current rather than crosswise. Yet not all elected officials have been caught in the current, Portland has shown itself to be adept at employing urbanism: “it has been a leader in historic preservation, it was one of the first cities to reconnect its downtown with its riverfront, Portland never built a circumferential freeway (Siegel, 1999).” Though Portland does not have a blemish-free past or present, the city and its representatives have shown that they are capable of making their choices based on gemeinschaft, by listening to their constituents, seeing past the present frenzy and making decisions with an eye to the future. One can only hope that they would continue so and that other municipalities will be able to look further down the path than this moment and instant gratification.

14 Private enclaves are “abandoning the traditional public sphere of the streets to the poor, the `marginal', and the homeless (Caldeira, 1996).” They are turning the streets into the projects—highly concentrated areas of poverty, crime, and blight. This abandonment is a self-reinforcing cycle. After the initial withdraw the median income drops, the police presence that follows the wealthy exits, to the point that crime increases, those who have the means to care for the neighborhood are gone—as we know “flight brings blight”—poverty increases beckoning those remaining with money to escape these dire situations.

Cities with enclaves become dissected; “openness and free circulation,” hallmarks of modern cities are compromised. Thoroughfares become partial-fares; arterials are now cul-de-sacs. The geography is forever altered; the citizen's cartography becomes more scientific, each precinct Swiss cheese, the only analogy being perhaps Minnesota with its 10,000 lakes, but they possess innate value.

Residences are cordoned off from society, where shrubbery provided its benefits now stands concrete, where trees created a canopy rise cameras, where flowers painted the environs are guard stations and pepper spray.

Even in feudalism serfs were allowed to walk within the city walls, after all “city air makes one free.” During the time of the city's most disparity all of its citizens were accorded with more freedom about the city than we offer now. Even for cities without enclaves we see how its consequences are becoming acceptable as in Portland where the sit-lie ordinance stands as a blemish to the city's reputation as progressive. This is blatant class warfare, its message, blunt, telling us who is valuable, important, and worthy.

The private enclave's claims for needing to be fortified for safety are rubbish. There is no conclusive evidence of their efficacy in deterring criminal activities; incontrovertibly they impede the average citizen (Davis, 1990).

In today's globalized economy it always comes down to money, they want to preserve and promote their property values. It is also a way to sanitize their world, no longer are homelessness, hunger, drugs, alcohol, litter a part of their sphere. The affluent want a barrier from the indigent, they are attempting to create an oasis.

One of the consequences of enclaves is the loss of funds that comes from the loss of the prosperous, it is similar to what has been happening to cities since suburbs began burgeoning. These circumstances are direr. Already there has been an exodus from the city to the suburbs. The wealthy have figured out how to further sequester themselves from society, not just themselves but their resources as well.

At least in the suburbs entrance was possible, at least theoretically if not practically, enclaves restrict access to the streets and sidewalks; public space is privatized, commodified for purchase. Even those who work in such environments are treated with contempt, forced to use separate entrances, elevators, and required to provide identification every time they enter (Caldeira, 1996).

According to William Whyte “the quality of any urban environment can be measured, first of all, by whether there are any convenient, comfortable places for pedestrians to sit (Davis, 1990).” By this litmus test enclaves would be the worst sorts of urban environment, being a pedestrian is not even possible in their quarters.

Lin and Mele (2005) in their introduction to Caldeira's piece “Fortified Enclaves” claim enclaves make no contribution to public space or mobility; actually they take away from both. This manner of environment is normalizing inequality and segregation.

It is baffling that an argument against enclaves must even be formulated, forty years post Civil Rights Movement, one hundred and forty seven years subsequent to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, two hundred and thirty three years after the Declaration of Independence this is still an argument.

“…The United States … will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” —Emancipation Proclamation

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” —Declaration of Independence

I am almost at a loss of words as to how impeding enclaves are; how repressive, confining they are. Never have I experienced such exclusion. Ciudad de Oaxaca is the most fortified city I have been to, but never was public space taken and closed off, it was no more fenced in than suburban Portland (the fences are more substantial though).

After “separate is not equal” we must fight this fight one more time. For those who believe it to be their right to enclose themselves, the only argument possible is that of “the market.” In a “free” market those with the means must be allowed to apply those means however they choose.

At some point, perhaps since inception, the economy, the market, efficiency became the priorities of American culture. Was this caused by urbanization? How have we lost focus on people, our fellow citizens, those who make up society with us? Do we blame gesellschaft? Capitalism? Or the human soul?