Neighborhood Watch

Rob Sampson’s Great American City points the way toward a new understanding of how cities function.
by | June 26, 2012 AT 6:15 PM

Just over two decades ago, sociologist Robert Sampson and a team of researchers began planning a study of how cities work of unprecedented sophistication and ambition. Instead of studying the suburbs, the ghetto, or the city center, they wanted to study the city in its entirety. Instead of focusing on a particular ethnic group, or socio-economic class, they wanted to study everyone by creating a representative cross-section of neighborhoods and interviewing, surveying, and tracking residents over time. They also observed neighborhoods themselves, cataloguing their characteristics, mapping their social structures, and measuring their resilience. Earlier this year, Sampson, now a professor of social sciences at Harvard University, published the book that presents an overview of his findings, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Univ. of Chicago Press). It’s a research tour de force, and a book that will change the way you think about neighborhoods. Sampson recently spoke with GOVERNING about his findings.

GOVERNING: Your book makes the case for the importance of what you describe as “neighborhood effects.” What do you mean by that phrase?

Robert Sampson:  Simply put, I mean the effect of our neighborhood surroundings on American life. There is the sense in many circles that globalization and technology have rendered place irrelevant—because we can be anywhere, the particulars of our somewhere really don't matter. In contrast, the book argues that place and particularly neighborhoods influence a broad array of social life. Furthermore, it's really a surprisingly diverse array of behaviors and phenomena — crime, child health, leadership networks, disorder, teen births, home foreclosures, and many other things that we typically associate with separate causes — that are concentrated by place. So the idea of neighborhood effects is really a broad conception to try to understand how all these things are both influenced by neighborhood and in turn influence individual behavior.

GOVERNING: Your book makes the striking claim that it might be closer to the truth to say that neighborhoods choose people rather than that people choose neighborhoods. What do you mean?

Sampson:  If we think of the notion that the world is really about individuals maximizing their choices, people would say, "Well, you select to live in a certain neighborhood because of individual characteristics and therefore that neighborhood doesn't really have an effect on you." But like a co-op or gated community, many neighborhoods “reject” people.  Let's suppose that you moved to a particular neighborhood and then that neighborhood changes. You can think of it as almost a kind of allocation mechanism whereby you're not really choosing in the traditional sense.  Instead other people are also making choices such that there's an interdependence that's going on that determines the individual “choice,” particularly patterns of racial change in not just Chicago, but in many American cities.

GOVERNING: One of your most striking findings is that neighborhood identities are quite stable over time.

Sampson:  There is a strong degree of persistence over time in the pecking order or status hierarchy of neighborhoods. If you look at something like the proportion of people in poverty and you go back to 1960 or 1970, and then you look at the connection to 2010, what you find by and large is that the communities that are high status and high income remain so. Communities that are poor tend to stay poor. In fact, the neighborhood with the highest poverty rate in Chicago in 1960 is still the highest poverty rate in 2000. That's over a 40-year period, which is quite remarkable. Neighborhood reputations, whether good or bad, are also quite “sticky” over time.  It is particularly hard to overcome a disadvantaged or spoiled neighborhood identity.

GOVERNING:  You've talked about the connections between race and place. One of the ideas that you grapple with in this book is the broken windows theory of disorder. Could you talk a little bit about how race, place and perceptions of disorder come together?

Sampson: The original theory of broken windows suggested that one broken window leads to another broken window. What I argue is that it's not the disorder itself that matters; it's how it is perceived. We found that people living in the same environment disagree about how much disorder there is. Age, social class, education and race matter a lot. Whites see disorder as more of a problem than Latinos and African Americans, across the board. When you then look at differences across neighborhoods, what we see is that the concentration of minority groups, particularly African Americans and immigrant groups, lead to a greater perception of disorder. This is true for all racial groups. In other words, blacks, whites, and Latinos all perceive there to be a higher problem with disorder in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantaged and racial minorities. I argue that that really has to do with the longstanding connection in American society between disorder and racial disadvantage. It's a form of self fulfilling prophecy—if you think something's real, its consequences are real. I also show that shared perceptions of disorder lead to future rates of poverty. What this suggests is that perceptions, not just the reality of how many broken windows or broken beer bottles there are in the street really matter.

GOVERNING: Does it make sense to move low-income residents out of disadvantaged neighborhoods by giving them housing vouchers, as Chicago and the federal government have sought to do with the “Moving to Opportunity” program?

Sampson:  Oversimplifying but only just a bit, there are three approaches to this problem, I would argue. One, as you noted, is to move people out. “OK, there's a problem neighborhood or there's a problem of concentrated disadvantage over time. How do we address it? Well, we can just move people out.” By the way, there's a direct analogy to schools. You have a bad school. Well, you give vouchers and you get them out of the school, right? I mean, it's a very individualistic kind of philosophy, very American at one level, the voucher movement. I'm not so much arguing against it, but it has to be placed in context and considered against other alternatives.

The other one, which Chicago engaged in, in addition to vouchers, is to literally destroy the neighborhood. What I mean by that is that there was a move to tear down the high concentrated public housing projects of the poor that were thought to be a failure historically. Tens of thousands of families lived in the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green. What the city did and the federal government was to raze the public housing projects and disperse individuals elsewhere into the city.

There's a third way perhaps to think about this, and I probe it in my book, and that's to renew the

neighborhood, to repair what's in the neighborhood in a holistic way. And it's consistent with findings from the book in that things go together, that social problems tend to be clustered. Therefore, it's not really about any one particular outcome, it's about understanding holistically the social structure of the neighborhood. An example of that would be the Harlem Children's Enterprise Zone.

I think there is a mixed story in Chicago, in terms of what's happened with regard to the tear down of public housing and vouchers. What we’ve shown, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the poor tend to move to relatively poor neighborhoods. So the neighborhood might be slightly better, but it might also be on a downward trajectory. In fact, that seems to be what's happening in some of the ongoing studies. And it may also be that if people move out of those neighborhoods because they perceive that there's an influx of poor residents and they don't want to live near poor residents, then, what you have is that neighborhood becoming increasingly poor. That's a direct example, by the way, of the strong form of the argument that neighborhoods choose people rather than the reverse. If you move to a neighborhood seeking to better your family and you perceive it as a better off neighborhood and it is until you get there or it soon changes to go back to poverty, then, in a real sense, what you've chosen isn't actually what you selected. What's happening in Chicago in the south suburbs is that many of the mayors are complaining about increased service needs, and you can see neighborhoods such as Englewood and southwest side are taking in lots of residents from the former projects. It’s not clear that the organizational resources are there to support the needs of the residents. That's really the open question.

GOVERNING:  Your book challenges policy makers to think about neighborhoods as more than just collections of individuals. What are some of the areas where you think public policy that was informed by an appreciation of neighborhood effects might be different?

Sampson:  The first and perhaps the most basic notion is again the idea that neighborhoods and places are important units of analysis in their own right. They have social characteristics and meaning for people that go beyond material circumstances. That is, it's not just about poverty and race, although those are crucial characteristics. It really is what we can think of as social personality, or what I call the “social climate” of the neighborhood.

Policymakers need to take stock of that. Sometimes people are surprised by the fact that when given the opportunity to use vouchers to move to another community, people often reject it. Only about 50 percent of people agree, actually. Why would that be? Well, there are qualities and ties that exist in neighborhoods that we're not considering. Take the example a family that moves from a poor neighborhood, I'll say a black family, to a less poor neighborhood, maybe a mixed income community. Maybe a community that's predominantly white, at least when they move in. If that family does not feel comfortable, or if they feel that the interactions are hostile, that counts for a lot and may explain why some people are moving back. All of this is to say that places and the neighborhood social climate are crucial in understanding our policies. That’s why even when people do move out, there's a high proportion that move back to lower income neighborhoods. We need to take these mechanisms into account; we need to consider place/space interventions.

Moreover, even if we are undertaking let's say a voucher program or an experiment, or a policy that is trying to disperse residents after the tear down of public housing, we have to evaluate scientifically the results in all the neighborhoods. We have to think holistically, and that's really the spatial angle of the neighborhood effects argument. Put another way, we never intervene in just one place. We may think we are—the problem with a lot of the studies is we say, "Oh well, we're just tearing down this particular housing project," or "We're just moving this person to another neighborhood." The whole point of the book is that everything is interdependent. Our decisions are interdependent with other people's decisions. And therefore neighborhood change, or the effect of a policy, needs to be embedded in this way of thinking. The book provides a way to rethink policy.

GOVERNING: Final questions: why Chicago?

Sampson: We didn’t start out with the notion that Chicago was our target. We actually embarked on a serious study of many cities in the United States. We did site visits at multiple cities. We collected crime data, data on poverty, changes over time, the nature of administrative records in the city, the demography of the city. So, for example, we looked at places like Los Angeles, New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago and other cities. What we really wanted to do was to be able to study a city in its entirety in a way that really weaved together what was going on. So, we needed access to crime records, to health records, to school records. We also wanted to be able to work collaboratively with officials.

After we did that, we came up with a short list. One of the distinguishing features in deciding on the final site was that we wanted to be able to represent key race ethnic groups in American society, namely whites or European Americans, African Americans, and Latino-Americans.  We also wanted to represent the diversity of the population across social contexts. In other words, this wasn't designed to be a study just of the “ghetto.” A lot of studies in sociology are just of the urban core but we didn't want it to be a study of any one group. We wanted to study white, black, and Latino communities, mixed communities, and low-income, high-income, and middle-income communities. So that's really how Chicago came to be selected. It was also a city that has been studied over the years, which provides a nice historical context. Maybe a little less tangible, but nonetheless important feature, I argue in the book that Chicago is widely considered the quintessential American city or, as my title puts it, Great American City.

GOVERNING: You repeatedly compare your results in Chicago to similar analyses of Stockholm as part of a strategy for determining whether your results are Chicago specific or more widespread. How well did results match up?

Sampson: I thought that the Chicago/Stockholm comparison was particularly interesting because Stockholm, of course, is in a society that is so fundamentally different from the United States. What is interesting though, is that if you look at the concentrations of disadvantage in both places you see almost the exact same relationships with outcomes. There are powerful mechanisms having to do with segregation and self-sorting and perceived disorder that are actually quite similar in cities around the world. The one outlier seems to be South America. There's research on cities in Brazil, for example, that suggests that things might be working there a bit differently.

But I think Chicago is an interesting laboratory to examine these kinds of relationships. As I said, it's a very American city. It's representative of a lot of what's happened in U.S. cities in the late 20th century and early 21st century. If you think about it, riots, racial change, increases in crime, outmigration, de-industrialization and now gentrification, immigration and crime declines. All these things have buffeted Chicago just like they have other cities. And yet you see these persistent neighborhood effects.