character of a neighborhood-strongly expressed by how much people help
and trust each other-may influence its collective health and economic
survival even more than such obvious indicators as income levels and
foreclosure rates, a long-term study suggests.
Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson
believes it is vitally necessary to understand the neighborhood
environment, not just the characteristics of individual residents. In
1994 he became the scientific director of a 15-year-study based on interviews and surveys in 80 economically diverse Chicago neighborhoods. His new book, The Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect is based on the research.
A New York Times story by Benedict Carey describes
the community resilience of Chatham, an African American community on
Chicago's South Side that has weathered economic recession and recent
violence. Carey describes how the community rallied when Thomas Wortham,
a young off-duty police officer, Iraq war veteran, and long time
resident was fatally shot after leaving his parents' house one night in
May 2011. Family members, friends, and police officers gathered in Cole
Park, near the scene of the murder, and stayed, signifying their support
of keeping the picnic areas and playgrounds safe for families and out
of the hands of the badly-behaved. Crime in the area stopped afterwards,
according to analysis by Sampson, though it rose again in 2012, which
has been a violent year in Chicago.
In an interview with Marc Parry in the Journal of Higher Education,
Sampson explained that his research team followed more than 6,200
children and families wherever they moved in the US, and interviewed
12,000 city residents. Sampson hopes the twenty-first century will be an
"era of context." The Chicago study exemplifies "ecometrics," which Sampson calls the new science of context.
team collected exhaustive data on businesses, civic organizations,
clubs, nonprofits, churches, local leaders and officials, networks, and
the extent of collaboration among them. Researchers recorded physical
and social details they saw in public spaces. In a video, Sampson describes some of the findings and correlations. In areas where
homicides were high, child health was poor. Areas most highly
segregated in the 1960s had the highest foreclosure rates today, so
history matters. People were asked whether they would help an injured
stranger on the street. In their "lost letter experiment" researchers
scattered stamped, addressed envelopes in neighborhoods across the city
and measured the rate of return. High rates of return came from the same
areas where people would help an injured person.
What does Chatham have that some similar neighborhoods lack? One thing is a "social efficacy," or social cohesion,
which Sampson says seems to protect cities from internal and external
adversities. Chatham has more than 100 block groups and citizen
volunteers who organize events as well as monitoring neighborhood
tidiness and noise. It ranked second among Chicago black communities on
how frequently people worked together for common goals such as
organizing events or fund-raising for a cause. It ranked first among all
neighborhoods on questions about how highly residents valued and
enforced respectful behavior by children. The Times story notes
it also has small residential and commercial business buildings, few of
them more than three stories high. That makes communication easier, and
means one abandoned building is less trouble than a partly vacated
apartment complex. Nearby neighborhoods with lower social efficacy and
cohesion, even though they have newer developments and more young
professionals, have been slower to recover from recession and reduce
specific neighborhood has a personality that affects all aspects of
social life, the choices we make about where to live, about how much
disorder we'll tolerate, about how we raise our kids," Sampson told the Times.
"Large scale forces like recession of course matter, but they are
moderated by local neighborhood factors, whether you're in Chicago or
Stockholm or other cities."