Photo by Brian D. Hawkins via flickr.com
Photo by Brian D. Hawkins via flickr.com/briandhawkins.com

For the first time in about a century, new Census data reveal that population growth in big U.S. cities is exceeding that of the suburbs. According to the Associated Press (via Huffington Post):

Primary cities in large metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1 million grew by 1.1 percent last year, compared with 0.9 percent in surrounding suburbs. While the definitions of city and suburb have changed over the decades, it’s the first time that growth of large core cities outpaced that of suburbs since the early 1900s.

In all, city growth in 2011 surpassed or equaled that of suburbs in roughly 33 of the nation’s 51 large metro areas, compared to just five in the last decade.

Young adults forgoing homeownership and embracing the conveniences of urban life appear to be a driving force behind this trend.

Burdened with college debt or toiling in temporary, lower-wage positions, they are spurning homeownership in the suburbs for shorter-term, no-strings-attached apartment living, public transit and proximity to potential jobs in larger cities…They make up roughly 1 in 6 Americans, and some sociologists are calling them “generation rent.”

A related report from NPR further cites tougher mortgage rules since the housing bubble burst as an important factor.

Even with big drops in housing prices and interest rates, getting a mortgage has become a lot harder since the heady days of “no income, no assets” loans that fueled the housing boom of the early 2000s. Most lenders now require a rock-steady source of income and a substantial down payment before they will even look at potential borrowers. And many millennials won’t be able to reach that steep threshold.

The combination of stricter mortgage requirements, college loan debt, and a tough economy leaves sociologist Katherine Newman skeptical of young adults’ prospects for home ownership for the foreseeable future. From Huffington Post:

“Young adults simply can’t amass the down payments needed and don’t have the earnings,” she said. “They will be renting for a very long time.”

male's eye  (mental masturbation)In February’s issue of Wired (now available online), Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh helps us understand the life of a prostitute in New York City and how the trade has been transformed by advances in technology.

While Venkatesh’s initial goal was to examine how the gentrification of Times Square and other areas of New York City would impact the sex trade, he quickly found himself documenting the rise of a new type of sex worker.

The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and “wellness” goods. In the process, “dating,” “massage,” “escort,” and “dancing” have replaced hustling and streetwalking. A luxury brand has been born.

The shift has resulted in an increase in both the price of, and level of respect for, prostitutes. Technology has played a large part in this as it allows clients to find companionship without resorting to driving the streets.

The Internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade. Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue.

Most exciting about this short piece was the amount of information conveyed in about ½ a page of writing through the use of a wide array of supplemental graphics. A map is used to show the movement of sex workers to trendier, more upscale districts in Manhattan. And a compilation of images, statistics, and well-chosen quotes demonstrate the divide between types of sex work, as well as the infusion of technology into the escort services. For instance, Facebook is quickly becoming a medium for advertising adult-services and a BlackBerry phone has come to symbolize a professional (and disease-free) status.

After the recent shock of a federal indictment of 29 Somali and Somali American individuals on sex trafficking charges, the New York Times reports on the Minnesota Somali community’s attempts to deal with the situation.

The allegations of organized trafficking, unsealed this month, were a deep shock for the tens of thousands of Somalis in the Minneapolis area, who fled civil war and famine to build new lives in the United States and now wonder how some of their youths could have strayed so far. Last week, in quiet murmurings over tea and in an emergency public meeting, parents and elders expressed bewilderment and sometimes outrage — anger with the authorities for not acting sooner to stop the criminals, and with themselves for not saving their young.

The indictment was the latest in a series of jolting revelations starting around 2007, when a spate of deadly shootings in the Twin Cities made it impossible to ignore the emergence of Somali gangs. Then came the discovery that more than 20 men had returned to Somalia to fight for Islamic extremists, bringing what many Somalis feel has been harsh and unfair scrutiny from law enforcement and the news media.

A sociologist weighs in on why this pattern of problems seems to be continuing:

Cawo Abdi, a Somali sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said that past surges in concern about troubled youths had not been followed up with money and programs to help them. “This is viewed as such a huge scandal and outrage,” she said of the new charges, “that it has to lead to some kind of action.”

Read the rest of the article for discussion of some of the challenges facing Somali people in the Twin Cities.

Istanbul 2010 - A Panasonic Lumix TripFor many Istanbul stands as a symbol of success. It’s growing status as a ‘global city’ and a European Capital of Culture has attracted tourists, foreign investments, and massive development projects. Luis Gallo’s recent article in the Hürriyet Daily News provides a reminder that with development and prosperity there are rarely winners without losers.

[I]n the shadow of those skyscrapers, there is another Istanbul, a little-seen realm where the urban poor are coming face-to-face with the bulldozers clearing ground for the sparkling new city. The neighborhood of Sulukule, perhaps the world’s oldest Roma community, is already flattened, with just a few holdouts living amid the rubble.

This raises difficult questions as development continues.

With massive amounts of money, and the city’s international reputation, at stake, fierce debate is raging over the government’s “urban transformation” programs: They may be beautifying and enriching the city, but at what social cost?

Critics are quick to point to the increasing inequality that ‘success’ is bringing. Ozan Karaman, an urban-geography scholar from the University of Minnesota, explains

“Lack of representation will result in further marginalization of the urban poor and perhaps the emergence of a new type of poverty, in which the poor have no hope whatsoever for upward mobility and are in a state of permanent destitution.”

Tansel Korkmaz and Eda Ünlü-Yücesoy, professors of architectural design at Istanbul Bilgi University, argue that the government ignoring the plight of the poor is not simply an unexpected result of development. Instead, they claim that the government’s goal is to to hide the urban poor in 21st-century Istanbul.

“The following statement by Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan about the neighborhoods of the urban poor summarizes the essence of the official approach: ‘cancerous district[s] embedded within the city.’ Planning operations in Tarlabaşı, Fener-Balat and Sulukule are [intended] to move the urban poor to the outskirts of the city and to make available their inner-city locations for big construction companies for their fancy projects,” Korkmaz said.

Recently, in the rapidly changing Tophane neighborhood in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, dozens of people attacked a crowd attending an opening of art galleries. The  violence is a sign that frustration over being displaced in the name of gentrification has finally boiled over and is likely not a one time occurrence.

Experts say clashes between newcomers and longtime residents could become more frequent if people feel they have no say in the transformation of their neighborhoods and believe they must resort to violence in order to make their voices heard.

Even with the increasing tension, Ozan Karaman manages to hold onto hope while remaining critical of the current development approach.

“Urban redevelopment projects should be executed in collaboration with citizens and residents, not despite them. There is no need to re-invent the wheel; there are plenty of models of community-based development that have been successful since the 1970s.”


Patricia Cohen’s recent article in the NY Times, “‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback,” documents culture once again being used by social scientists as an explanation in discussing poverty.

Cohen begins by setting the historical context.

The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.

The idea was soon central to many of the conservative critiques of government aid for the needy. Within the generally liberal fields of sociology and anthropology the argument was generally treated as being in poor taste and avoided. This time of silence seems to be drawing to a close.

“We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned.

The new wave of culture-oriented discussions is not a direct replica of the studies of the 1960s.

Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.

Cohen continues by providing examples of how culture is now being examined. To do so she turns to Harvard sociologist, Robert J. Sampson. According to Sampson culture should be understood as “shared understandings.”

The shared perception of a neighborhood — is it on the rise or stagnant? — does a better job of predicting a community’s future than the actual level of poverty, he said.

William Julius Wilson, a fellow Harvard sociologist who achieved notoriety through studies of persistent poverty defines culture as the way

“individuals in a community develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding.”

For some young black men, Professor Wilson said, the world works like this: “If you don’t develop a tough demeanor, you won’t survive. If you have access to weapons, you get them, and if you get into a fight, you have to use them.”

As a result of this new direction in the study of poverty, a number of assumptions about people in poverty have been challenged. One of these is idea marriage is not valued by poor, urban single mothers.

In Philadelphia, for example, low-income mothers told the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas that they thought marriage was profoundly important, even sacred, but doubted that their partners were “marriage material.” Their results have prompted some lawmakers and poverty experts to conclude that programs that promote marriage without changing economic and social conditions are unlikely to work.

The question remains, why are social scientists suddenly willing to deal with this once taboo approach?

Younger academics like Professor Small, 35, attributed the upswing in cultural explanations to a “new generation of scholars without the baggage of that debate.”

Scholars like Professor Wilson, 74, who have tilled the field much longer, mentioned the development of more sophisticated data and analytical tools. He said he felt compelled to look more closely at culture after the publication of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s controversial 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” which attributed African-Americans’ lower I.Q. scores to genetics.

The authors claimed to have taken family background into account, Professor Wilson said, but “they had not captured the cumulative effects of living in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.”

He added, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural forces.”

This surge of interest is particularly timely as poverty in the United States has hit a fifteen-year high. And the debate is by no means confined to the ‘Ivory Tower’.

The topic has generated interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates. Views of the cultural roots of poverty “play important roles in shaping how lawmakers choose to address poverty issues,” Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, noted at the briefing.


How do businesses affect neighborhood crime rates?  Some people would answer this question by asserting that the increased foot traffic that businesses bring to neighborhoods translates into more eyes to curb crime.  According to others, residents withdraw into their homes to avoid crowds, which could make crimes more likely. 

To test these opposing ideas, Christopher Browning and his Ohio State colleagues examined 1999-2001 rates of homicide, aggravated assault and robbery in 184 census tracts in Columbus, Ohio; and Psych Central News reported on their findings.

Neighborhoods that combine residential and business developments have lower levels of some types of violent crime[homocide and aggravated assault]…The findings were equally true in impoverished areas as they were in more affluent neighborhoods, possibly offering city planners and politicians a new option in improving crime-afflicted areas, according to the researchers.

But, neighborhood density also plays a role.

In sparsely populated neighborhoods, increases in business-residential density initially lead to more frequent violent crimes.  However, once the building density reached a certain threshold, certain types of violent crime began to decline.

As Christopher Browning put it, “A residential neighborhood needs more than the addition of one or two businesses to see any positive impact on violent crime.”

The researchers are hopeful that bringing businesses into neighborhoods could help cut back on some violent crimes.

As the 5-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Salon‘s Matt Davis examined the New Orleans of today.  Unlike much of the nation, New Orleans has recently being going through an economic boom.   The number of economically disadvantaged people in the Orleans Parish has halved to 68,000 over the last five years, and the median household income has been rising.

Yet, these statistics are not as positive as they seem.  Instead, they are largely the result of poor residents leaving New Orleans after Katrina and not returning.

“By most measures, it’s quite clear that the 100,000 people who are missing are the poorest and darkest former residents of the city,” says Rachel Luft, professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans. “And they are being replaced by a slew of YURPs, or young urban redevelopment professionals, who tend to be whiter, wealthier and better educated than the traditional residents of New Orleans. I think they’re being held up as the great white hope for rebuilding the city.”

Many of these “YURPs” are participating in volunteer programs like Teach for America.  Others are participating in celebrity-run charities like Brad Pitt’s organization.

…Brad Pitt’s charity, the Make It Right foundation, has acquired the nickname the “Make It White” foundation, and has drawn quiet criticism for foisting $350,000 Frank Gehry-designed houses on poor black property owners in the Lower Ninth Ward, who may well, at some point, see an incentive to sell out and realize the nonprofit’s equity in their homes.

Today, New Orleans hosts 354,850 residents, which is almost 78% of its pre-Katrina population.  Yet, only 60% of these residents are black, compared to 67% before the storm.

France & Ewing in South Minneapolis

A recent feature in the University of Minnesota’s UMNews report documents Rebecca Krinke’s most recent public art creation. Krinke, an associate professor in landscape architecture, explores how memories and emotion become attached to specific spatial locations. In doing so she blurs the line between geography, sociology, urban studies, emotional exploration, and art.

The map has turned into a sociology experiment of sorts and a sounding board for people’s emotions: hope and despair, contentment and anger, love and hate.

Krinke began with a giant laser-cut map of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Beginning in late July, Krinke started taking the map to public spaces in Minneapolis and St. Paul and inviting passersby to use the colored pencil of their choice—gold for joy and gray for pain (or both)—to express their memories of places.

The map soon was filled with color – some representing memories of excitement and wonder, others representing tragedy and grief.

One man was sharing his tale of overdosing on heroin in Minneapolis when another chimed in and said, “Yeah, that happened to me, too,” Krinke says. “And they looked at each other like, ‘Well, we made it.’”

Fortunately, the map still radiates more than its share of good times and golden memories. Of fish caught in Minneapolis lakes. Of trails hiked and biked over and over again. Of sports venues old and new.

The overwhelming reaction to the piece has inspired Krinke to look for ways to continue, and expand, the project. It also points to some sort of underlying desire to make public emotions that rarely see the light of day.

As artists and designers, “there’s a lot of potential here,” she adds. “Maybe we’re the witnesses. Maybe that’s why they like talking. It’s like testifying in a way. I guess [it’s] a deep fundamental human need to be heard.”

silver and goldA new study finds that it now costs approximately $60,000 a year for a family of four to survive in Philadelphia without government assistance, reports The Philadelphia Inquirer.  This actual cost of living is almost three times as much as the federal poverty level:

The $60,000 figure reveals that there are many more people who are having trouble making it, said Carol Goertzel, president and chief executive of PathWays PA, a Delaware County advocacy group for which the standard was prepared.

Advocates say the Pennsylvania study demonstrates that years of stagnating wages and growing income inequality have taken a toll, making it harder for working people to survive.

“Everybody is feeling hard times right now because of the recession,” said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “We like to blame and judge certain people and say they’re poor” because of inner failings, Morgan said. “But in the past couple of years, we see it can happen to anybody. This study is a wake-up call.”

Unable to stretch their wages to cover basic necessities, families lack adequate income to meet the costs of food, housing, transportation, and health and child care, wrote sociologist Diana Pearce, who prepared the study. These families are “nevertheless not deemed poor by the official federal poverty measure,” she added.

nypdA recent survey of retired police commanders in New York City has been causing a stir in the news media and the blogsphere this week, including this article in the New York Times:

More than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers said in a survey that the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics, according to two criminologists studying the department.

The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it.


In interviews with the criminologists, other retired senior officers cited examples of what the researchers believe was a periodic practice among some precinct commanders and supervisors: checking eBay, other Web sites, catalogs or other sources to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce reported grand larcenies — felony thefts valued at more than $1,000, which are recorded as index crimes under CompStat — to misdemeanors, which are not, the researchers said.

Others also said that precinct commanders or aides they dispatched sometimes went to crime scenes to persuade victims not to file complaints or to urge them to change their accounts in ways that could result in the downgrading of offenses to lesser crimes, the researchers said.

“Those people in the CompStat era felt enormous pressure to downgrade index crime, which determines the crime rate, and at the same time they felt less pressure to maintain the integrity of the crime statistics,” said John A. Eterno, one of the researchers and a retired New York City police captain.

His colleague, Eli B. Silverman, added, “As one person said, the system provides an incentive for pushing the envelope.”

The research has been criticized roundly by some, including former police commissioner William Bratton in an op-ed response yesterday:

The notion that there has been widespread downgrading of felony crime under CompStat is way off base. First, categories of crime that are nearly impossible to downgrade, notably homicide and auto theft, have declined much more than the categories that might be more readily manipulated. Auto thefts, which must be reported accurately because victims need crime reports to make insurance claims, are down 90 percent since 1993, the year before CompStat was inaugurated. In contrast, grand larceny, the category that can be most readily downgraded (by reducing the value of the property stolen), has declined only about 55 percent. Homicides, which generally report themselves when the body is discovered, are down about 76 percent, from 1,951 in 1993 to 471 in 2009.

Sociologist Jay Livingston also provides an alternative look at victimization data for burglary over the same time period in NYC that would appear to back Bratton up.

So, who to believe? Again, from the New York Times article:

The seven-page summary of the survey certainly indicates that many of the retired officers believe the system has gone significantly wrong.

Indeed, the researchers said the responses supported longstanding concerns voiced by some critics about the potential problems inherent in CompStat. The former officers indicate that it was the intense pressure brought to bear on the commanders of the city’s 76 precincts in twice-weekly CompStat meetings — where they are grilled, and sometimes humiliated, before their peers and subordinates, and where careers and promotions can be made or lost — that drove some to make “unethical” and “highly unethical” alterations to crime reports.

Given that concern over crime and crime numbers are not unique to New York, this is undoubtedly not the last we’ll hear on this topic for a long time to come.