I’ve been doing research lately in South Shore, the neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side in which I grew up, and I’m struck more than ever by the sharp contrasts it presents. Blocks of trim bungalows with well-kept lawns intersect with desolate commercial streets that can’t seem to support even the most basic businesses — a supermarket, a bank, restaurants. Poor people displaced by the demolition of high-rise housing projects live around the corner from middle-class householders. Among South Shore’s attractions are its lakefront location, abutting Jackson Park and convenient to downtown, but its reputation for violent crime tends to drive people away and encourage residents to fort up fearfully in their homes. There are committed citizens and good neighbors, but there’s also widespread disinvestment from public life, and a lot of guns, attack dogs, and security barriers.
Part of South Shore’s appeal as a place to live and to study is that it’s a fairly unexceptional urban bedroom community. But you can see city-shaping historical processes at work there: the sorting of Americans into haves and have-nots, the hollowing-out of the middle class, the loss of faith in government, the persistent effects of racial inequality, the consequences of deindustrialization, and the rise of a postindustrial economy in which the most accessible path to success runs through public schools abandoned by almost everybody who can afford to.
As I try to piece together a big picture with which to frame this research, I’ve been rereading “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect,” a great book by Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, one of our most influential and original thinkers about city life. Sampson has led the way in studying “neighborhood effects”: how where you live affects your perceptions and life course. The traits that line up specifically with neighborhood, and not just with related factors like income or race, include everything from birth weight to school performance to altruism and sensitivity to disorder.
Countering a current strong tendency in social science, popular culture, and political discourse to load primary significance onto individual attributes and choices, Sampson argues that neighborhoods aren’t just neutral containers in which we act out our individuality or encounter global-scale external economic and social forces. Rather, neighborhoods are “important determinants of the quantity and quality of human behavior in their own right.” And, he has found, those effects are measurable and remarkably wide-ranging, long-lasting, and consistent over time.
So the stakes of neighborhood life are high — even if heavy reliance on screens and cars can obscure that truth by shutting off many people from a sense of alertness to their immediate locality. I’ve been asking residents of South Shore what future they imagine for their neighborhood. The answers range all the way from cafe-and-brew-pub gentrification to an apocalyptic breakdown of the social contract, and they aren’t just empty talk. How people see their neighborhood shapes their decisions about whether to stay or go, whether to send their kids to the local schools, how to apportion money and political power and other vital contested resources. “When people act as if neighborhood matters,” Sampson told me on the phone recently, “that helps to shape the concrete ways in which neighborhood really does matter.”
Neighborhood, it turns out, has always mattered. Michael E. Smith, a pathbreaking archaeologist at Arizona State University, has argued persuasively that neighborhoods are an urban universal, showing up wherever human beings settle in substantial numbers. Whether distinctions between neighborhoods are based on wealth or occupation or ethnicity or some other principle, whether they’re imposed by the authorities or improvised from the bottom up, his comparative analyses of ancient cities and semi-urban settlements all around the world show that people have always organized themselves in space by making such distinctions.
That’s the big, big picture: We live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods live in us. I try to keep it in mind as I go back and forth between my home in Brookline, an enclave buffered by education and prosperity where I almost never think about crime or worry about the neighborhood’s future, and South Shore, where a pervasive sense of exposure to the social and economic tensions of our time produces bumper crops of precariousness and uncertainty.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’