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The Enduring Neighborhood Effect

Why inequality persists despite significant urban social transformation


Death Corner

Known as "Death Corner" in the 1920s, the intersection of North Cambridge and West Oak sat near the first buildings completed in 1943 that later became part of Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green housing project.

A quick walking tour from Chicago’s wealthy Magnificent Mile to the “infamous” Cabrini-Green, a demolished public housing site, provides a powerful snapshot of urban and demographic shifts that have occurred over decades in the city, said Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson at a recent event, co-sponsored by IPR.

The tour passes through “world-class” neighborhoods, eventually arriving at a mixed-income housing development erected on the site of now leveled Cabrini-Green (see sidebar on “Death Corner”).

As the 2013 Social Inequality and Difference Lecturer on May 17, Sampson used the tour to trace the city’s transition over four decades, one of “contrast, diversity, and change.” He unpacked 10 years of wide-ranging, in-depth research on nearly 350 poor, middle-class, and wealthy neighborhoods throughout the city from his 2012 book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (University of Chicago Press).

“The motivation for the book is this idea of spatial inequality—and this is not something that just goes on in Chicago,” Sampson said, explaining that these kinds of patterns can be traced back to ancient cities. The book attempts to study all types of neighborhoods and their differences. It includes a diverse sample of black and white, working-class, and wealthy, poor, and middle class ones. “It’s not just studying the ghetto,” Sampson said.

The project’s massive and sophisticated data collection consisted of two key parts: a longitudinal birth cohort study of 6,200 children—including 12,000 interviews from pregnancy to young adulthood—to examine the children’s changing life circumstances, and an intensive study of each neighborhood’s social, economic, organizational, political, and cultural structures.

In addition to combing through census statistics, crime records, and housing data, the researchers also conducted numerous community surveys and systematic social observations, analyzed each neighborhood’s organizational networks, and compiled an archive of collective action events, such as rallies and marches.

The study, which at its peak employed more than 150 people, eventually chronicled the expectations of more than 10,000 Chicagoans for their neighborhoods. It also deployed several novel elements to examine neighborhood contexts. For example, Sampson and his colleagues studied return rates for fully addressed and stamped letters dropped on the ground in randomly assigned neighborhoods. They also outfitted SUVs with cameras and videotaped neighborhoods for real-time scientific observations.

Robert Sampson with IPR faculty
Robert Sampson (left center) stands with IPR Director
David Figlio (far right), sociologist Anthony Chen (right center),
and social policy professor Dan Lewis before his talk.

Their observations and data allowed them to document not just higher-order structural changes and community-level processes but also drill down into individual actions, suggesting that place still very much matters in shaping a person’s outcomes.

Sampson described how the social personality or character of a particular neighborhood could be revealed through such seemingly unrelated statistics as homicide and incarceration rates, low-birth weights, and even technology use—how these and others are part of the “same story.”

“When you start adding all of these things up, you get to the notion of an enduring neighborhood phenomenon,” Sampson said.

The overarching theme that emerged was “persistence despite change.” Sampson and his team found that the ranking of neighborhoods by their poverty rates remained surprisingly persistent for the past 40 years despite significant cultural, racial, and demographic changes across the city. Such change, he underscored, reproduces a certain kind of inequality stemming from a city’s social order. While it is easy to assume that things like homicide rates and child health are tied to poverty concentration, Sampson reported that income levels do not always explain their presence in a neighborhood.

The research also suggested that several important theories and concepts of urban policy need rethinking, given the profound reshaping of the urban “ecology.” As an illustration, Sampson pointed to the “powerful” cues of disorder, referring to the famous “broken windows” theory of crime. Put forth by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, it postulates that acting to prevent and fix low-level vandalism like graffiti will discourage greater acts of crime and violence in a neighborhood.

Yet Sampson argued that perceptions of crime and disorder are much more nuanced than that. He points to how people in the same neighborhood have radically different perceptions of disorder when you ask, for instance, for their thoughts on graffiti: One person’s work of “art” is another’s act of “vandalism.”

All in all, what their data show is the great amount of variability across neighborhoods. By isolating the character of the city’s social structure and focusing on social processes and mechanisms, Sampson said his hope is to bring “it all together” to construct a more complete theory of neighborhood effects.

“Individual-level ties do have associations that go beyond the usual suspects of socioeconomic status and race with regard to community outcomes,” Sampson said. Who people associate with starts with myriad individual choices, but they have “higher order consequences.”

Sampson speaks with panel
IPR economist Jonathan Guryan (left) and sociologist and
African American studies researcher Mary Pattillo joined
Sampson for a panel
discussion following the lecture.

He ended by pointing to the Great Recession, the historic drop in crime rates, declines in teen pregnancies and arrests, increasing life expectancies, and changes in housing policy as emerging social phenomena set to transform cities yet again and warranting further study by social scientists.

Sampson touched on many of these themes in a panel discussion following the lecture with several IPR faculty. IPR economist Jonathan Guryan pointed to the need to tailor poverty-reduction policies to individuals as well as communities. IPR political scientist Wesley G. Skogan considered the “great mystery” of why crime is still dropping despite factors that would seemingly push it up. Sociologist and African American studies researcher Mary Pattillo, an IPR associate, discussed the importance of examining the effects of specific policies, such as school closings and urban renewal. Social policy professor Dan Lewis, also an IPR associate, served as moderator.

"Rob Sampson is a leading voice in many conversations across the social sciences, including sociology, demography, public health, and criminology," noted IPR sociologist Anthony Chen. "But his voice has been especially strong and clear in making the case that neighborhoods matter in myriad ways for myriad outcomes that both social scientists and policymakers care deeply about. Since his interests overlap so extensively with so many of us at IPR, we were all the more delighted to hear him speak as part of IPR's annual Social Inequality and Difference Lecture."

Robert Sampson is Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and Director of the Boston Area Research Initiative at Harvard University. The events were co-sponsored by IPR, the Center for Civic Engagement, the Departments of Sociology and Political Science, the School of Education and Social Policy, and One Book, One Northwestern.

Click to see a map of the "legacies of inequality" PDF (pdf).

Header photo and map credit: R. Sampson