Harvard professor discusses book, urban sociology in guest lecture
Six miles east of Brookings Hall in downtown St. Louis rests a 33-acre lot that has been vacant since 1976.
Formerly the site of Pruitt-Igoe, an urban housing project built in 1954, but which became internationally known in later years for rampant poverty and racial segregation, the space has become an icon of failed urban renewal.
Neighborhood elimination is just one means of solving urban poverty and community decay. Problems such as these can impact not only a space but also its residents, a visiting Harvard University professor of urban sociology told Washington University students and community members on Tuesday.
“We’ve been told that globalization and technology have rendered place irrelevant—you’ve all heard the phrase ‘the world is flat,’” Robert Sampson said. “[It’s an] interesting idea, [and] it’s true in regard to certain aspects of trade and so forth, but it’s certainly not true with regard to place.”
Sampson introduced findings from his new book, “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect,” as the Center on Urban Research and Public Policy’s biennial lecturer.
He spent over a decade using Chicago as the “urban laboratory” for his thesis, which was developed through extensive data collection, as well as less common strategies like videotaping streets, analyzing networks among civic organizations and archiving “collective action” events. Sampson and his research team also asked thousands of Chicagoans a series of questions to judge their “collective efficacy,” or desire to help each other and work toward common goals.
Showing a picture on his PowerPoint presentation of a wall and trash cans covered in graffiti, Sampson posed the question, “What constitutes disorder?” In different contexts, such an image could either define or have no relation to the community’s perception of unrest, he said.
Students in a class called “The Study of Cities and Metropolitan America,” taught by professor of education and Urban Studies Program Founding Director Carol Camp Yeakey, read the book in class and attended the lecture, titled “Inequality and the Future of the American City: Implications of the Neighborhood Effect.”
“This was an in-depth study that was conducted over 10 years in one of America’s major cities, and as such, it has implications for other cities, throughout not only the continental U.S., but other cities undergoing gentrification and change across the world,” Camp Yeakey said.
Because of urban studies’ interdisciplinary nature, professors and students from economics, social work, education and political science, among other departments, attended the event.
“We don’t have a sociology department here, so having that perspective made it all the more intellectually challenging and exciting for the students,” Yeakey said.
In the address, Sampson argued against a growing sentiment in intellectual circles that devalues the importance of immediate community.
Sampson also detailed a variety of policy strategies aiming to solve the issues of urban poverty and community decay, the first being “moving to opportunity,” in which vouchers are offered to encourage residents to leave struggling neighborhoods. Another method is to offer middle-income individuals vouchers to move into poorer areas, creating mixed-income housing.
Senior Lucas Delort, an urban studies major enrolled in Camp Yeakey’s course, said the lecture deepened his understanding of Sampson’s book.
“A lot of the first part of his book is him talking about a lot of old paradigms in sociology and social thought,” Delort said. “And I think he was trying to break away from a lot of that because he was focusing more on the neighborhood as the unit of analysis than the individual.”
Alana Hauser contributed to this report