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Thread: Urban blight and social isolation

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    Urban blight and social isolation

    i'm interested in writing my thesis on the role urban blight and environmental eyesores play in reinforcing social isolation. why do people living in blighted neighborhoods, but with access to a subway leading them into core activity sectors, remain socially isolated? how does the built environment reinforce perceptions of isolation even when, in reality, residents are technically able to access goods and services outside their neighborhood?

    i'm dealing with a specific neighborhood of Washington, D.C. but i'd appreciate any comments or guidance towards resources that deal with this issue in general!

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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    "how does the built environment reinforce perceptions of isolation even when, in reality, residents are technically able to access goods and services outside their neighborhood?"

    If your built environment is full of closed up stores, there is no perception of isolation, you are in fact isolated.

    If you cannot afford to put food on your table, (here's a shocker, most people living in blighted areas are very poor) you are in fact socially isolated as even hopping onto a bus or subay can cost several dollars for a round-trip. The most you can carry back this way is four smallish bags of groceries.

    Just because you are technically able to access goods and services does not mean it makes enconomic sense to do so. For example, many people living in Alaska are technically able to fly to New York City to do their shopping or banking. Is this a common practice? No. Why? Because it does not make economic sense. A few bucks a day to someone living at or below the poverty level in transportation costs are a huge hurdle; you see this also in discussing TANF (welfare to work) populations; jobs don't locate in blighted areas, but this is where the lowest wage earners live.

  3. #3

    It's all economics

    Most neighborhoods are blighted because of a lack of resources. Even if residents have enough cash to take the subway out for services, that's not going to help cure blight. It makes it worse. Infrastructure improvements definitely help. I know with the opening of the U-Street stop in DC that whole neighborhood has been transformed and all sorts of services have come into the neighborhood.

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    A couple of (random) thoughts:

    1. Social isolation can occur in a crowded place full of people. A homeless person may be surrounded by folks but no one will interact with him. Poor people from a blighted neighborhood may not be able to "fit in" enough. The level of cleanliness, hair in every place, etc. that many middle-class people take for granted may not be achievable. Middle-class people often seem unaware that their expectations are only achievable if you own a washer and dryer and a car. Living in an apartment and going to a laundromat, you may not be able to achieve the same level of pickiness in caring for your clothes because your degree of control over the situation is less.

    2. If you are old and no longer as physically able, or a young single mom with kids in tow, have health problems, etc. even if the price of public transit isn't too much of a barrier, the logistics may be too much. The same people with the same kids, health problems, age, etc, might be much more mobile with a car but can't afford it and just can't overcome the logistics of using a transit system.

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    Quote Originally posted by Loulou
    i'm interested in writing my thesis on the role urban blight and environmental eyesores play in reinforcing social isolation. why do people living in blighted neighborhoods, but with access to a subway leading them into core activity sectors, remain socially isolated? how does the built environment reinforce perceptions of isolation even when, in reality, residents are technically able to access goods and services outside their neighborhood?

    i'm dealing with a specific neighborhood of Washington, D.C. but i'd appreciate any comments or guidance towards resources that deal with this issue in general!
    I have a different take on the social isolation of urban neighborhoods. I think blighted urban neighborhoods are isolated because of the overwhelming insulation of well-kept city neighborhoods and suburban areas.

    If you talk to residents of blighted neighborhoods, they often don't see nicer neighborhoods as the cutting edge of opportunity; they are reminders of everything that their neighborhood is not -- culturally, economically, socially. And I don't think most residents and users of nicer places are aware of the insular nature of them.

    I just think you can't examine isolation without looking at insulation, too.

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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    Middle-class people often seem unaware that their expectations are only achievable if you own a washer and dryer and a car.
    That's exactly what I mean when I'm talking about insulation.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by pete-rock
    That's exactly what I mean when I'm talking about insulation.
    Thanks. But other than blind spots like that, I think many of them DO know their lives are insular -- and they PLAN them that way. They don't want to be exposed to "the riff-raff", high crime areas, etc. I have a certain amount of ambivalence. On the one hand, I do what I can to promote inclusiveness, tolerance, etc. On the other hand, yeah, I want to protect my kids and myself and I know that most folks aren't as trustworthy as I am. I know I come across as 'gullible' and naive and in some ways I am -- but it is partly intentional, a path I consciously chose and not because I am actually so stupid as to think everyone out there really is just nice all the time. But I do know that MANY times, people aren't actually trying to be mean. A lot of things are misunderstandings or someone is having a bad day or whatever (ie they are grumpy and it shows, which isn't the same thing as malice).

  8. #8
    Cyburbian ChevyChaseDC's avatar
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    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...2005Jan29.html

    You should look into "Broken Windows" theory. The link above is to an article about broken windows theory, and how race may plays a major role in citizens' and outsiders' perceptions of neighborhoods. In a topic such as urban social isolation, race cannot be ignored, as whites and non-whites do view their surroundings very differently, much of it having to do with racism racial stereotyping.


    I disagree that more well-off city neighborhoods are 'insular.' Rather, I think it is just the opposite, that poor, distressed urban neighborhoods are insular and isolated from the mainstream economy. In our plan for Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia, we vehemently emphasized that not welcoming change is not an option, as demographic trends as they are will only continue the current pattern of blight, abandonment, crime, and despair.

    I'm curious which neighborhood in DC you are studying. DC is rapidly gentrifying, which, on the one hand does push out a number of lower income households, especially renters. on the other hand, the gentrified neighborhoods bring improved services, beautified appearances, cleaned up litter and graffiti, less crime, and a stronger sense of neighborhood stewardship and activism that promotes stability. "Gentrification" is a loaded term - it implies forcing the poor, especially non-whites, out of their neighborhoods as white yuppies move in. It is a far more complex than that, and I think that what it really is is generally positive change.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    A couple of (random) thoughts:
    2. If you are old and no longer as physically able, or a young single mom with kids in tow, have health problems, etc. even if the price of public transit isn't too much of a barrier, the logistics may be too much. The same people with the same kids, health problems, age, etc, might be much more mobile with a car but can't afford it and just can't overcome the logistics of using a transit system.
    BINGO. I was about to start a post about the fact that one needs not be in a blighted neighborhood to be solcially isolated. The point being, what other socio-economic factors other tha blight play a role in creating that environment? I think that is a broader question, but can one thesis respond to it?

    Oh, and Kudos to Pete-Rock on the insulation tangent.

    Perhaps there are too many spurious or fractal relationships here to boil down to the focus on blight as a cause [or reinforcement] of isolation?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Chet
    Perhaps there are too many spurious or fractal relationships here to boil down to the focus on blight as a cause [or reinforcement] of isolation?
    I wonder if the original poster meant the isolation of the neighborhood rather than 'social isolation'. I am not sure how to say that better -- which makes me feel that maybe an issue here (for this thread/ the thesis) is finding language that adequately expresses what the thesis question is really trying to ask.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    I wonder if the original poster meant the isolation of the neighborhood rather than 'social isolation'. I am not sure how to say that better -- which makes me feel that maybe an issue here (for this thread/ the thesis) is finding language that adequately expresses what the thesis question is really trying to ask.
    So are you saying this is asked more as an anthropological than sociological question? I can see how the response could be different depending on the intent...

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Chet
    So are you saying this is asked more as an anthropological than sociological question? I can see how the response could be different depending on the intent...
    Beats the heck out of me.

    I just mean that individuals can be socially isolated and members of a group can be isolated from others in their area -- this group can be geographically defined or it can be defined by characteristics unrelated to geographic location. There is some overlap in those two things.


    You know, what I am really saying is I have a headache and now would be a good time to play Simcity. Yeah. That's what I am really saying.

    Sorry for being unable to clarify my thoughts.

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    Quote Originally posted by ChevyChaseDC
    I disagree that more well-off city neighborhoods are 'insular.' Rather, I think it is just the opposite, that poor, distressed urban neighborhoods are insular and isolated from the mainstream economy.
    I don't mean that middle-class neighborhoods are inward-looking enclaves that aren't connected with the surrounding world. That's what distressed urban neighborhoods are. What I mean is two things:

    1) There are barriers, real and perceived, to participation in middle class society.
    - you generally have to have a car for transportation.
    - you have to have an education to compete for certain jobs.
    - it pays to have social connections with people in those areas who can help you find jobs.
    - in many neighborhoods/communities, you have to be a homeowner.

    There are probably others.

    2) You cannot have "isolation" without "insulation". The two go hand in hand; if there is some isolation somewhere, there is certainly some insulation somewhere else.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Loulou
    i'm interested in writing my thesis on the role urban blight and environmental eyesores play in reinforcing social isolation. why do people living in blighted neighborhoods, but with access to a subway leading them into core activity sectors, remain socially isolated?
    In Boston, the poor blighted neighborhoods are those without transit access. The vast band of African-American poverty lies between the southern Red and Orange rapid transit lines, connected to the subway only by bus. A 30-60 minute bus and train ride is required to reach the central city and its amenities. This amplifies the isolation of these communities and is one of the primary reasons Boston is so socially segregated.

    However, this is a chicken and egg phenomenon. Did the poor move there because the lack of transit access made it more affordable? Were they steered into less accessible and less desirable areas by banks and real estate agents? Or, was improved transit withheld from this area because it lacked the political and economic influence of other areas? In light of recent events and projects (i.e. Fairmount Line, Silver Line Washington), I tend to favor the latter thesis.

    To offer a more relevant opinion on your question: I think you should look at perceived or real racism in the central city, self-confidence levels of the poor and their comfort level when entering downtown and central city attractions.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Chet
    BINGO. I was about to start a post about the fact that one needs not be in a blighted neighborhood to be socially isolated.
    Now we are talking "class." Poor and working-class individuals will always feel isolated from the middle- and upper-class institutions and services, whether they stand individually or cluster together. Point being: this isolation/insulation is amplified when the poor cluster and when the upper-class cluster.

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    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    I wonder if the original poster meant the isolation of the neighborhood rather than 'social isolation'. I am not sure how to say that better -- which makes me feel that maybe an issue here (for this thread/ the thesis) is finding language that adequately expresses what the thesis question is really trying to ask.

    As the original poster, who appreciates all of these responses, I'd like to clarify. The area I am looking at, for those familiar with the DC area, is Ward 8, East of the Anacostia. The area is physically/geographically isolated from the rest of the city - the Anacostia river provides a barrier to the north, large tracts of abandoned land and major highways surround the area on all other sides. The area is also quite demographically segregated (as many DC neighborhoods are) - 95% African American, many on public assistance, etc. In 2001 the metro line was extended out to this area, prior to which was only connected via highway bridges andspotty public bus service. My focus of interest is on the effect the metro has has on reducing (if at all) the social isolation of the neighborhoods, given that the geographic isolation has, to a small extent, been reduced.

    I hope this clears things up a bit.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Plus PlannerGirl's avatar
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    Welcome to Cyburbia from a fellow DC area planner.

    OK a few questions is this not the same area that DC is trying to bring light rail to and the residents turned out en masse to say they DON'T want it?

    Is this Marion Barry's ward? Ballou High?

    I admit I don't live IN the City (would love to but too high a rent for me) but the feeling you get from the various press is the residents WANT to stay isolated, they don't want "others" coming in. Though for the life of me I'm trying to figure out who the "others" are.

    It is a sad part of the City, crime, bad roads, abandoned housing, blocks of open land where homes were razed. There is a strong feeling of despair though I have seen inroads over the last few years (Howard Ave has cleaned up).

    Keep us informed on what your work uncovers, I for one would be very interested.
    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin

    Remember this motto to live by: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO- HOO what a ride!'"

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    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    I'm no expert but...

    ...the economics, never mind the politics, of US (and other developed countries') urban ghettos are quite intricate. I very much doubt that physical separateness accounts for much, by itself. If a 'blighted' neighborhood was rendered safe from a very high crimne rate, presumably: a) retailers would step into low-rent spots if there was sufficient demand for cheaper-goods shops (seen it ahppen with my own eyes) and even employers woudl eventually do that (i'm thinking light assembly/industry, low-cost service, etc.). often, there are regulatory hurdles to this and certainly government cna take the lkead in ameliorating some of teh conditions in conjuction with lcoal buinesses. Isolation,a fter all, can become a relative source of cohesion, so it's not automatically bad.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PlannerGirl
    OK a few questions is this not the same area that DC is trying to bring light rail to and the residents turned out en masse to say they DON'T want it?

    I admit I don't live IN the City (would love to but too high a rent for me) but the feeling you get from the various press is the residents WANT to stay isolated, they don't want "others" coming in. Though for the life of me I'm trying to figure out who the "others" are.
    Your comments remind me of something I saw years ago. Some island in the deep south was given to all the black slaves (or their descendents) many years ago. The land was owned in common by families and everyone shared everything. In an interview, one old woman said that when she was growing up, if someone went fishing and had a good catch, everyone would get some of that fish. The community had a share-and-share alike ethic. Then developers came in and began buying land and building resorts. Land values began to rise and families couldn't pay their taxes. Families would sell their home and land. By the time the money was divided between 26 people and everyone ran out and bought a new car and some nice clothes, all the money was gone. It was destroying the community and the people in it. They couldn't seem to find a way to fight back. One guy wanted to turn his own land into a resort but the developers had control over his water supply (or something) and were blocking his efforts -- basically trying to force him out.

    I don't have a rebuttal or ..explanation of how this relates to what you said. Your comments made me think of that piece (probably on "60 minutes" years ago). I thought I would toss it out there, for whatever it's worth.

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    Cyburbian Plus PlannerGirl's avatar
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    Thats funny thats where my fathers family is from the island i think is edisto (sp?) island and my fathers family held a plantation across the water from it.

    This part of DC seems to WANT to stay off on its own, I wish I understood why.
    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin

    Remember this motto to live by: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO- HOO what a ride!'"

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    Quote Originally posted by PlannerGirl
    This part of DC seems to WANT to stay off on its own, I wish I understood why.
    I know nothing about Ward 8 in DC, other than what I've seen on TV. But I do know a lot about inner-city neighborhoods in general.

    I guess the complaint from many inner-city residents is that "good" things (improved police and fire services, improved roads, better quality homes, more retail choices, etc.) don't happen in those places until some other group comes in and brings change. Most inner-city residents recognize that they don't always benefit from the transition (although IMHO they generally do better than they think).

    Deep down I think a lot of inner-city residents feel entitled to those "good" things mentioned above by virtue of being human, not simply consumers. A worthy sentiment, but not exactly how our world operates.

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    Anacostia is becoming less isolated. It would be interesting, but difficult, to measure how large a role Metro has played in this. I remember back in the late '90s, before I moved to DC (well, Arlington), that big money interests were starting to buy up properties in Anacostia, due to the proximity to Capitol Hill and the views of the city. Long delayed redevelopment plans now seem ready to happen. The new stadium development and Anacostia riverfront project are, of course, coming as well. I have always been struck by how attractive some Ward 8 neighborhoods actually are. Many homes off Penn. Ave. are quite attractive. Not exactly what one would have expected based on what one sees in the news (big surprise there). I've read that it could have, except for a historic accident, been Cleveland Park. And some neighorhoods SE of the Anacostia are beginning to integrate. But whether that would have happened even without metro given the pressures of a strong housing market in other parts of the city is another matter.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian the north omaha star's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Eyes on the Street
    Most neighborhoods are blighted because of a lack of resources. Even if residents have enough cash to take the subway out for services, that's not going to help cure blight. It makes it worse. Infrastructure improvements definitely help. I know with the opening of the U-Street stop in DC that whole neighborhood has been transformed and all sorts of services have come into the neighborhood.

    That Metro station has been there since the early 80s. What happened with U Street, is that developers were running out areas to build in terms of costs and space and decided to venture north of downtown and east Rock Creek Park. Parts of Anacostia and the H Street/Benning Road corridor still remain as the Final Frontier.
    Last edited by the north omaha star; 05 May 2005 at 3:24 PM.
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    Cyburbian the north omaha star's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Loulou
    As the original poster, who appreciates all of these responses, I'd like to clarify. The area I am looking at, for those familiar with the DC area, is Ward 8, East of the Anacostia. The area is physically/geographically isolated from the rest of the city - the Anacostia river provides a barrier to the north, large tracts of abandoned land and major highways surround the area on all other sides. The area is also quite demographically segregated (as many DC neighborhoods are) - 95% African American, many on public assistance, etc. In 2001 the metro line was extended out to this area, prior to which was only connected via highway bridges andspotty public bus service. My focus of interest is on the effect the metro has has on reducing (if at all) the social isolation of the neighborhoods, given that the geographic isolation has, to a small extent, been reduced.

    I hope this clears things up a bit.
    Loulou

    I will bet that when you were/are doing your research, that you will find that the Green Line was the last line of the original 103-mile system to be completed. Where does the Green Line run? It runs from Branch Ave. to Greenbelt through some of the worst poverty stricken areas in the city and the region. One can argue that these are the areas where Metro is needed the most.
    I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
    is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
    Because opinions are like voices we all have a different kind". --Q-Tip

  25. #25
    Cyburbian the north omaha star's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Kovanovich
    . Many homes off Penn. Ave. are quite attractive. Not exactly what one would have expected based on what one sees in the news (big surprise there). I've read that it could have, except for a historic accident, been Cleveland Park. And some neighorhoods SE of the Anacostia are beginning to integrate. But whether that would have happened even without metro given the pressures of a strong housing market in other parts of the city is another matter.

    The Hillcrest and PennBranch neighborhoods have been a couple of Washington's best kept secrets.
    I am recognizing that the voice inside my head
    is urging me to be myself but never follow someone else
    Because opinions are like voices we all have a different kind". --Q-Tip

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