Friday, June 14, 2013

Back to the old neighborhood

Land use law scholars and other academics continue to rediscover the neighborhood as a terrific lens through which to view a number of issues.  I thought I’d profile three recent works (hubris alert:  one of them is admittedly mine) in this post.

The first is Robert J. Sampson’s (Harvard) book Great American City:  Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.  From the press release:

For over fifty years numerous public intellectuals and social theorists have insisted that community is dead. Some would have us believe that we act solely as individuals choosing our own fates regardless of our surroundings, while other theories place us at the mercy of global forces beyond our control. These two perspectives dominate contemporary views of society, but by rejecting the importance of place they are both deeply flawed. Based on one of the most ambitious studies in the history of social science, Great American City argues that communities still matter because life is decisively shaped by where you live.

To demonstrate the powerfully enduring impact of place, Robert J. Sampson presents here the fruits of over a decade’s research in Chicago combined with his own unique personal observations about life in the city, from Cabrini Green to Trump Tower and Millennium Park to the Robert Taylor Homes. He discovers that neighborhoods influence a remarkably wide variety of social phenomena, including crime, health, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, leadership networks, and immigration. Even national crises cannot halt the impact of place, Sampson finds, as he analyzes the consequences of the Great Recession and its aftermath, bringing his magisterial study up to the fall of 2010.

Following in the influential tradition of the Chicago School of urban studies but updated for the twenty-first century, Great American City is at once a landmark research project, a commanding argument for a new theory of social life, and the story of an iconic city.

The second is another book just published by Carol M. Rose (Arizona) and Richard R. W. Brooks (Yale) entitled Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms.  From the press release:

Saving the Neighborhood tells the charged, still controversial story of the rise and fall of racially restrictive covenants in America, and offers rare insight into the ways legal and social norms reinforce one another, acting with pernicious efficacy to codify and perpetuate intolerance.

The early 1900s saw an unprecedented migration of African Americans leaving the rural South in search of better work and equal citizenship. In reaction, many white communities instituted property agreements—covenants—designed to limit ownership and residency according to race. Restrictive covenants quickly became a powerful legal guarantor of segregation, their authority facing serious challenge only in 1948, when the Supreme Court declared them legally unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer. Although the ruling was a shock to courts that had upheld covenants for decades, it failed to end their influence. In this incisive study, Richard Brooks and Carol Rose unpack why.

At root, covenants were social signals. Their greatest use lay in reassuring the white residents that they shared the same goal, while sending a warning to would-be minority entrants: keep out. The authors uncover how loosely knit urban and suburban communities, fearing ethnic mixing or even “tipping,” were fair game to a new class of entrepreneurs who catered to their fears while exacerbating the message encoded in covenants: that black residents threatened white property values. Legal racial covenants expressed and bestowed an aura of legitimacy upon the wish of many white neighborhoods to exclude minorities. Sadly for American race relations, their legacy still lingers.

The third is a law review article, Legal Neighborhoods, just published by yours truly, Stephen R. Miller (Idaho), in the Harvard Environmental Law Review.  Here is the abstract: 

Political and legal tools have emerged since the 1970s, and especially in the last two decades, that provide political and legal power to neighborhoods. However, these tools are often used in an ad hoc fashion, and there has been scant analysis of how these tools might work together effectively. This Article asserts that those locations in cities that evoke a "sense of place" are created not just with architectural or landscape design, but by the operation of neighborhood legal tools as well. This Article argues that cities consciously overlay the panoply of emergent neighborhood legal tools as a means of place-building. This approach is referred to in the Article as creation of a de facto "legal neighborhood." This approach does not call for secession of neighborhoods from cities or for the wholesale privatization of public functions, as have others that argue for neighborhood empowerment. Rather, the Article asserts that the collective operation of these neighborhood tools is greater than the sum of their parts, providing a method for civic engagement at a level city-wide politicians feel comfortable serving, in which residents feel comfortable participating, and which is proven to assist the kind of place-making that makes densely settled areas attractive. These features of the neighborhood make understanding legal neighborhoods a necessary component to any effort to address the built environment's social, political, and especially its environmental effects, such as climate change. The Article provides approaches for linking the neighborhood to city and regional affairs, and a history and theory of the concept of the neighborhood as an argument for the important role and function of neighborhoods in American life.

It seems to me that the neighborhood is reemerging as an increasingly popular topic in both law and the social sciences, just as it did at the turn of the last century.  Perhaps there is a conference in the midst of this renewed interest, just waiting to come to the fore. 

Stephen R. Miller

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