Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Moment or two on Urban Sociology

I have written on this blog quite extensively about cities, most notably New York City, where I live. New York is where I've lived almost all of my life and in a way, how I look at the world is from the perspective of New York City. As an urban dweller and lover of city life, I am often awestruck by the loneliness and desolation of smaller cities, towns and suburbs.

Arguments For and Against Suburbia

I've been addicted to this site called topdocumentaryfilms.com, where I have been watching on most of my free time for the past few weeks, documentary films about religion, history, science, and society. This one documentary about the cause and effects of suburban sprawl called Radiant City, mentions all the philosophical, societal, and statistical facts of why I already hate the suburbs. Mainly that (1) suburbs, designed around the automobile, disengage people from having to interact in person with others, and foster a cocoon so to speak, of social isolation. (2) Reliance on the automobile creates a culture of laziness, where people don't walk to where they have to go, and this results in further social isolation. (3) Suburbs also force people to live further away from their jobs and where they shop, increasing commute time. And finally, (4) suburbs are typically bland, homogeneous, and decentralize their urban spaces.

In defense of suburban living, many argue in favor of cleaner, safer and quieter streets, better schools and friendlier neighbors. Mind you that cities do not have to be dirty, and dirty city streets are largely a result of their neglect by their residents, and local, state and federal governments due to the absence of the middle class tax base, which was a direct effect of suburbanization. Cities can be clean and vibrant places to live, if society has enough interest to care for them and is willing to devote necessary capital. The unfriendliness or urbanites, characterized by the stereotypical jaded New York attitude is largely a result of the size of the city: with millions of people living in one place, you can expect that most people will be strangers who you will never get to know, and you cannot be on first named basis with all of them as you can in a small town or suburb. It might also be unwise to even smile and gesture at fellow pedestrians on the street because there are simply so many of them.

Suburbanization and Urban Renewal

Much has been written over the past 60 years about the effects of suburbanization on cities by urban sociologists. It seems as if cities recently are making a comeback with renewed interest in conscious ecologically-friendly green living, exacerbated by the end of cheap oil. With urban renewal well underway for decades now, one must turn their attention now to the plight of the working poor who reside in urban areas they can no longer afford to live in. With demand to live in cities higher than it has been since the early 20th century, and the rising cost of living in cities is far out pacing the increase in wages earned by those working there, one can see a disturbing picture developing. For many working poor, it might be better off if urban renewal reversed itself back into urban decay. Decades ago New York City used to be cheap, comparatively from what it is now. A working class person can hardly afford to live in the city anymore, and working class neighborhoods are disappearing faster than last year's fashion trends.

I do admire European and some Asian cities where there is so much more emphasis on city life and the well to do live in the city center. Over there, the periphery of the city is not ringed by affluent suburbs as in the U.S., but instead by ghettos or slums populated often by ethnic minorities. This doesn't paint a pretty picture either, especially in how it appears in many Latin American cities where the isolated slums are left literally to rot in the searing sun. I fear that as urban centers become more highly valued, that the working class and poor will be forced into the outer ring suburbs that were once the aspired dream of the white flight participants.

My Personal Dislike For Suburbia

Energy questions aside, my primary objections to suburbanization are how bland rows of houses appear in cul de sac suburban sprawls, resulting in the inability to walk anywhere. I enjoy living in apartments. In my apartment complex for example, I don't have to shovel snow in the winter, I don't have to pay for electricity or water, and when something is broken, as long as it is not my personal property, by and large the building maintenance workers will fix it with no charge to me. City life also allows me to walk to my local shops and take the subway almost anywhere I want to go within its boundaries. In addition, there are multitudes of diverse peoples and vibrant nightlife and cultural scenes all reachable without a single gallon of gas or a single second in traffic.

I think one of the reasons many flock to the suburbs is to escape the ethnic diversity in favor of ethnic homogeneity. This is most often true of the white middle class, who want to live far away from their darker pigmented counterparts. The lack of nightlife doesn't bother suburban dwellers because traditionally, suburbanites are married with children, and transgressed the need for partying. It is this American culture of social isolationism, it is this desire to want to be far removed from those around you, regardless of whether they look like you or not, that I have one of my biggest issues with. This anti-urban attitude, this longing for living in a country house, surrounded by nature, where you don't have to come into contact with anyone else unless you want to, is what most disgusts me about American culture.

Where do Anti-Urban Attitudes Stem From?

Thomas Jefferson, for all his brilliant wisdom in the articulation of this country's founding principles of freedom, and the rights of man, wanted the newly formed United States of America to be a largely agrarian society living off the land in rural pastures. He loathed urban life, and in particular hated New York City. His beliefs typify the American pioneering spirit dreaming of wide open spaces. I think that the pioneer mentality is perhaps the root cause of this culture of anti-urban attitudes among Americans. New York, Boston and Philadelphia, were the big cities of the east, cell pools filled with grime and immigrants. They weren't part of the real America; real America and real Americans lived in the country, and in small towns in the heartland. I always take issue with people of this persuasion and like to point out as comedian Bill Maher so humorously puts it, that the irony here is that the "real Americans" in the deep south are from the only part of the U.S. that actually tried to break away from the U.S. and secede from the nation. Now they're the "real" Americans. Right.

I think from the perspective of Europeans who visit the U.S., they are seeing what a relatively new country should look like, post-industrialization: sprawling suburbs with wide streets, miles of endless highways, and an automobile centered life. In this the modern way we should all be living?

The Typical American City

What is a typical American city? I've often wondered this. Certainly New York or Los Angeles cannot be included because having been in both I can definitely say that they are like no other cities in the U.S. and perhaps the world for that matter. I think then that Chicago would line up as a good candidate. It has a very centralized downtown business district, with a forest of skyscrapers as most American cites do; a ring of industrial plants surrounding the city center; and a transit system linking the neighborhoods. Chicago would be the ideal location for an anonymous American urban setting and suffers from many of the conditions common to urban decay.

It was Chicago, that urban sociologist Ernest W. Burgess used as his basis for the concentric zone model of urban land allocation. In the model, there are a series of rings from the center of the city outward. The city center ring is surrounded by a transition zone ring, where deteriorating housing and low-scale businesses reside and are thought that in time will be bought up by the larger centrally located businesses as they need to expand. Within the transition zone is the manufacturing areas. Further out from the city center comes two, primarily residential rings, the inner of which is for the working class, and the outer of which is for a more affluent upper middle class. Beyond that are the suburbs or the commuters zone.

While not perfect, the concentric zone model attempts to create a theoretical template of urban land use in a North American city. It was followed by the sector model (Homer Hoyt) and the multiple nuclei model (Chauncey Harris and Edward Ullman) which show instead of concentric rings, strips and wedges and blocks of different zones centered around the central business district. These models, developed in the 1920s and 40s, perhaps do not reflect the contemporary and every changing urban landscapes of today. In a post-industrial economy, most American cities, Chicago included, have evolved beyond these theorized models of urban land placement.

So What?

I have dreams of living in a modern high-rise tower with breathtaking city views. I'd have a balcony where I can smell the summer air at night and gaze upon the thousands of twinkling lights. It would be urban cosmopolitan living at its finest. It's just a dream for now and obviously requires much more money. Being an urban dweller, I obviously care about the state of urban affairs, especially in New York City. So it is my best interest, and the interest of millions of others that urban conditions and future outlook are favorable.

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