Taub’s newest work suggests diverse groups living side-by-side find common ground among themWilliam Harms
The vitality of urban neighborhoods depends upon the ability of their residents to work together, but the strongest motivators for neighborhood cohesion in many cases have been negative and based on a desire to keep other groups out, according to a new book co-authored by Richard Taub, the Paul Klapper Professor and Chairman of Comparative Human Development, and William Wilson, former Professor in Sociology at the University. “Strong neighborhoods and community identities are a double-edged sword. Efforts to develop and sustain strong communities create resources that can be used to prevent or impede unwanted neighborhood integration—whether it be racial or class based,” the authors wrote.
Taub and Wilson, who now is on the Harvard University faculty, led a research team that studied four Chicago neighborhoods in the 1990s to gain an inside look at the community’s societal resources and assess their prospects for decline or prosperity.
Their study included interviews with residents conducted by graduate assistants who also attended community meetings, did volunteer work in the neighborhoods and just hung out. Taub and Wilson met with all the students twice a month to compare findings and share notes. They combined that information with recent U.S. Census and other data to make their assessment in the book, There Goes the Neighborhood; Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and their Meaning for America, published this month by Alfred Knopf.
When residents develop a voice to share their convictions for supporting their neighborhoods, the neighborhoods remain strong and stable, the authors found. In neighborhoods where residents failed to express solidarity, residents chose to leave the areas.
“We started this book because we wanted to look at a strong African-American neighborhood,” said Taub, who has studied Chicago neighborhoods extensively and written two other books on the topic, Community Capitalism and Paths of Neighborhood Change.
As their point of comparison, Taub and Wilson chose a relatively prosperous and stable African-American neighborhood on the South Side, where many residents held government jobs and enjoyed middle class lifestyles. They called that neighborhood Groveland.
The other three neighborhoods reflected the range of ethnic composition in Chicago: one neighborhood on the city’s edge, which they called Beltway, was predominately white; another, which they called Archer Park, was predominately Latino; and a fourth, which they called Dover, was white and transitioning to Latino.
The names were chosen to provide anonymity to the residents who were quoted candidly by the researchers. In the case of Beltway in particular, much of the language used by residents was raw and racist.
Beltway had strong local organizations where people frequently spoke out against gangs and disorder, which they felt threatened their community. The neighborhood experienced little racial change at the time of the study.
Archer Park also was relatively homogenous, but not as cohesive as Beltway. The Mexican immigrant population in Archer Park was not as invested in local organizations that whites had established. By the 1990s, whites had largely decided on an exit option from the neighborhood.
In the transitioning neighborhood of Dover, the only force that bound the remaining whites and newly arrived Latinos was negative feelings about African Americans, the scholars found. “Racism in Dover was exacerbated by the fact that many residents of a nearby black community were destitute, so knowledge about African Americans drawn from adjacent areas reinforced the stereotype of black poverty,” the authors wrote. The two groups joined forces to fight against busing of their children to schools in a predominately black neighborhood.
The stable community of Groveland had little racial tension, as there were no non-African-American groups trying to buy housing and local residents were in firm control of their institutions. However, neighborhood residents were worried that poor blacks from nearby neighborhoods would move in.
Neighbors in Groveland worked together on crime prevention efforts that enhanced their social cohesion and gave voice to their response to the threats they perceived.
Although the research paints a bleak picture on the prospect of city neighborhoods evolving into integrated spaces, the authors suggest a way urban leaders can promote integration.
“Coalition building would have the potential to create a sense of group interdependence, reduce racial and ethnic conflict and enable diverse groups to live side-by-side in harmony, not in fear,” Taub said.