What Makes Neighborhood Community?

The main inspiration for this blog was the result of two conversations that I had in a span of one week. The first conversation was with my future son-in-law, Beau, who considered the community issue in his sixth grade class. He had an assignment that I would argue might be advanced for many adults. His teacher asked him to write a paper on what was a community. Beau struggled greatly with the assignment because he, like so many people, conceives community as merely the buildings and physical structures that are empirical. After prompting Beau with some ideas, be began to move away from the physical structures and I was quite impressed as he began to understand community required interaction with other people. The next conversation arose in my Introduction to Sociology course that I teach at MATC. The question was raised, “What is a community?” in relation to a question I posed regarding society. Most of the students, interestingly, reduced community much in the same way that Beau did initially.

The idea of community has struck me for several years now. I am well-read in much of these ideas of community and neighborhood, yet I see that it’s a difficult idea for many people to understand. It makes sense as neighborhood and community are so similar, but people have drastic ideas of what neighborhoods are. A growing movement among sociologists has been that community is not has geographically bound as it was once considered. So, let’s consider these ideas.

3rd Street in the Walker's Point Neighborhood, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Structure, Structure, Structure

You are given the task of creating a community. What do you need to do to build it?

Drawing a blank? Let me try and assist you.

Perhaps your first thought is that you should build some houses. Maybe you should consider building parks? Schools? Maybe some roads? Then, maybe some other things like community centers? You know, physical structures? That is, maybe you consider the Field of Dreams model in that if you build it, people will come? So, do buildings and roads and other physical structures build a community?


In fact, when I talk to a lot of people about how to define community and / or neighborhoods, the first thought considered are the physical things because, honestly, I think the issue is that we are used to defining what we see and feel. But communities and neighborhoods have something that is a little different and difficult to see; they possess social bonds, granted they may differ in intensity between people. But, it’s the social bonds that make community and neighborhood.

A collection of buildings is not a sufficient and necessary condition for community. In fact, the way buildings are placed can either increase or decrease interaction between people. Community actually transcends the buildings and other physical structures. When I read a definition of a Levittown that was built in the 1950s, I cringe as it begins: “Levittown is a suburban planned community planned by Levitt & Sons” (Wikipedia). In my mind, it was a planned bunch of buildings; communities are not “planned” but instead emerge largely as a result of social processes.

You can set up a fish tank, but it doesn’t come to life until you add your fish. I remember once setting up a fish tank in a very orderly manner, believing that my plan would keep the fish somewhat entertained, as much as you can entertain fish. I did not consider at all that the fish would change their environment. A Jack Dempsey that I added into the tank moved some of the gravel around to create a little bed. The Oscars moved the driftwood that I carefully placed in one side of the tank to the other side and tipped it over. The fish eventually set some crude norms and established their environment the way they wanted to. So, merely creating an environment does not mean you will create the processes to sustain life. The living do all of that.

An interesting conundrum can be added to the issue of community: while community arises as a result of social processes, the urban form is greatly impacted by social processes. Even when you consider Levittown, the urban form arose as a result of numerous structural and social reasons. Levittown (there were several, so I am basically discussing all of them as a “generalized other”) arose due to a postwar housing shortage, governmental programs that greatly assisted war veterans, governmental programs that favored new housing over old housing stock, and a desire for many people – especially returning war veterans – to own their own new home. People who moved there did so with a great deal of restrictions. For example, no African Americans were permitted to own homes there. Residents had to comply with a large list of rules. The houses essentially all looked the same. Yet, as people moved in, the environment became reshaped. For example two big rules – no fences and no laundry on lines on Sundays – changed largely because of new norms that emerged among residents. First, residents desired having pools in their yards, and thus there was a necessity of fences. Second, many people desired to do laundry on Sunday.

Ultimately, rather than physical structures, what impacts and influences the emergence and sustenance of communities is social structure. That is, community cannot be sustained without those social structures that allow society to remain intact. In this case, community arises because of norms that are created among people. Levittown actually started out with rules which were formal norms, but people are far more influenced by informal norms. Thus, an important emergent factor in the development of norms is the interaction that occurs between primary groups (family members, peers, and close friends) and secondary groups (co-workers, fellow church members, club members, schools, etc.) and the interplay between them and social institutions and statuses. This interaction between society and ourselves allows us to participate in society and it allows communities to emerge.

Yet, even when I think on neighborhoods that I live in, I am aware of a geographic component. It’s easier to say that I lived at a place rather than among large groups of peoples. And we may even describe those places in terms of the physical rather than the social. And such is the conundrum in trying to understand what a community is.

How Do We Define Community?

Humans are interesting as they create social patterns. If you watch people who have never met before participate in various situations they will establish patterns in each of those situations. For example, a crowd at Milwaukee’s Summerfest can become quite massive. Yet, movement streams within the crowd emerge, allowing people to pass through dense crowds. There are no signs or police directing people to go in any direction; they just form. Interestingly, in many cases, the streams often do adhere to a social norm regarding how we drive (staying on the right side as you move about).  Mark Buchanan in The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You (2007), comments on this ability: “Where people go, along circuitous, snakelike paths, may well not reflect the actual desire of any single person or even an average of them all” (p. 7). So, perhaps this ability to establish patterns seems logical in the establishment of community. That is, emergence is a concept that we should really consider rather than destiny.

What I am referring to here is that, generally, there is no such thing as a planned community. This may seem repetitious, but to explain this idea it needs to be placed in proper context. Instead, what is planned is merely the establishment of physical structures. We often refer to those as subdivisions. Sometimes, developers use the words community because they denote exactly what we want when we live somewhere: a safe, warm and welcoming place. But an actual community requires a bit more than the physical structures.

And here’s where things become murkier. Let’s examine just what a neighborhood is and what a community is.

Neighborhood versus Community?

Neighborhoods are essential to the vitality of a city. They are “geographical islands of autonomy” (Barbara Fermen, 1996, Challenging the Growth Machine: Neighborhood Politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh, p. 14) all of which comprise the environmental elements of the city of which they are a part of. Because people live in these areas of the city, neighborhoods have a rich social history, and as such, they have drawn the interest of scholars, especially with regard to how neighborhoods impact they lives of those denizens. Neighborhoods are ultimately a microcosm of the urban whole, a place where “We can begin to examine questions of participation, and quality of life, the fundamentals of a polity, a human city, and a humane society” (Ferman, p. 13). Jane Jacobs (1961) suggested that cities and their neighborhoods share a symbiotic relationship as she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “We must never forget or minimalize this parent community [the city] while thinking of a city’s smaller parts [the neighborhoods]” (p. 153). That is, as the health of the neighborhoods go, so too goes the city.

In neighborhood scholarship, what has been problematic is a unified concept of the term neighborhood. The terms community and neighborhood have been used interchangeably in contemporary research (Phillip Olson, 1982, “Urban Neighborhood Research: Its Development and Current Focus,” Urban Affairs Quarterly, 17(4): 491-518) leading many to infer that the terms are synonymous. Most of the neighborhoods that have been observed were abnormal neighborhoods, have generally described as existing in distressed conditions, such as being “disorganized” or “slum” or lacking some ideal character, while presuming at the same time the primary issue for these neighborhoods was the lacking of community. Much of the confusion, therefore, has been the result of scholars etching their analytic lenses in such a manner that they have imposed their own conception of neighborhood upon the denizens; rarely have scholars considered the salience of the neighborhood with regard to the residents’ own conception.

Certainly, the Chicago School scholars greatly influenced the way that neighborhoods were conceptualized in urbanist research. In their undertakings, they generally set geographic boundaries to the neighborhoods under study, rarely identifying the geographic referents that the denizens had of their own environment. With regard to the names of Chicago’s neighborhoods, Albert Hunter (1974) observed, “only God and [Robert] Burgess” knew how the neighborhoods came to be named as they were (Symbolic Communities: The Persistence and Change of Chicago’s Local Communities), suggesting that he played a role in those names. Instead, scholars would better understand these areas by examining what Hunter describes as their “cognitive image.” He notes:

Residents’ ability to name and bound their local areas is considered an operational measurement of the clarity of their cognitive image of the local area. Those knowing no name and unable to give boundaries are considered to have a less clear definition of their situation than those who both know a name for their area (whether it is shared or not) and are able to completely bound it (whether or not their boundaries coincide with their neighbors’). (p. 95)

A person who is able to define their space thus identifies with that space; their locale thus has salience.

Failing to account for what residents conceive as their neighborhood leads to confusion because labels ascribed to these areas do not necessarily conform to the meanings that people have of their environment. This failure can lead to some discord between social reality and researcher bias. Consider the example that Zorbaugh (1929) notes when he examined Chicago’s Near North Side, otherwise “known” as “North Town,” and the “Gold Coast.” He paints a picture of what he calls “cultural disorganization”:

The isolation of populations crowded together within these few hundred blocks, the superficiality and externality of their contacts, the social distances that separate them, their absorption in the affairs of their own little worlds – these, and not mere size and numbers, constitute the social problem of the inner city. The community, represented by the town or peasant village where everyone knows everyone else clear down to the ground, is gone. Over large areas of the city ‘community’ is little more than a geographical expression. Yet the old tradition of control persists despite changed conditions of life. (The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side, p. 16)

This description that Zorbaugh provided is characteristic of many scholars’ own concept of the problems of the urban environment. For example, Ferdinand Tönnies made a distinction between Gemeinschaft – loosely, the pre-modern society in which feelings of togetherness [community] and mutual bonds exemplified by family or neighborhood – and Gesellschaft – often explained as society in which groups are driven by members’ individual aims and goals and thus characterized as individualistic. Tönnies thus made this distinction based on the norms that he perceived from his own background of growing up in a wealthy farming community. Scholars, therefore, have imprinted their own biases when they examine what a neighborhood and/or community as. More recently, Robert Slayton (1986) commented that biases were introduced by the Chicago School scholars whose own upbringing in rural communities contrasted sharply to what they were viewing in the city; that is, these scholars made comparisons to their own notions of social reality that was salient to them (Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy). This is emblematic of the main problem in which the social reality of the denizens is overshadowed by the researcher bias. In reality, neighborhoods are “social constructions named and bounded by different individuals” (Barrett Lee, R. S. Oropesa, and James Kanan, 1994, “Neighborhood Context and Residential Mobility,” Demography, 31(2): 252).

Arguably, these biases played a role in the descriptions of some of the downtrodden neighborhoods. For example, Jacob Riis’ description of the conditions of the tenements of New York in 1890 opened a path for many to scrutinize slum areas. His opening description of the “genesis” of the tenement clearly is a lamentation of the loss of community:

The first tenement New York knew bore the mark of Cain from its birth, though a generation passed before the writing was deciphered. It was the “rear house,” infamous ever after in our city’s history. There had been tenant-houses before, but they were not built for this purpose. Nothing would probably have shocked their original owners more than the idea of their harboring a promiscuous crowd; for they were the decorous homes of the old Knickerbockers, the proud aristocracy of Manhattan in the early days. (How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, p. 1)

Not to denigrate the story that Riis told – he certainly pointed out serious social issues – but the language that he chose illustrates the lens that he uses to describe the environment; that of a middle-class reformer who extolled the “nurture” view of humanity.

The phasing of these slum areas from once existing as vibrant communities to distressed areas is perhaps the most common theme one finds in early scholarly research (Gilbert Osofsky, 1972, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930, 2nd ed).Roy Lubove (1963) noted that slum areas were frequently marked with underlying socioeconomic conditions that progressives rarely attempted to ameliorate. Slums were often described as present in a transitory state, morphing from their earlier purposes of being permanent homes (The Progressives and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1890-  1917). Akin to the slum, the ghetto was an area described as being marked by the same kinds of deterioration as the slums, but what distinguished ghettos were their strict boundaries that confined specific groups through external, institutional and structural influences. For example, Osofsky described the process of how a former white upper class suburb – Harlem – became a ghetto due to the overextension of housing and changes in the American economy. Blacks who had migrated from the South and who possessed little to no specialized labor skills were housed in apartments meant for couples of higher socioeconomic means. What resulted was an area marked by overcrowding, poverty (confounded by exorbitant rents and occupational discrimination), landlords who failed to maintain their properties, and ultimately oppression as the residents, once they moved into the area, were unable to leave.

The scholarship of distressed residential areas cannot be understated, however much confusion has arisen as to the priority of community and neighborhood. That is, are all neighborhoods communities? Scholars have been wont to interchange the terms frequently, adding much to the confusion. For example, scholarship (especially emanating from the Chicago School) examining ethnic enclaves later exchanged the words describing enclaves to those of community where they had “territorial integrity…identifiable borders and…separated from its neighbors by natural or manmade boundaries” (Sudhir Venkatesh, 2000, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto). There exists, then, a problem in describing the nature of neighborhood: is neighborhood inseparable from community? The answer to that is mercurial, unfortunately for scholarly purposes. That is, a neighborhood is not necessary for a community to exist.

The term community suggests that people embedded share common cultural attributes, such as a common language, symbols and values. To be a part of a community requires membership which facilitates the burgeoning of “a common perspective and a common culture” (Albert Hunter, 1974, Symbolic Communities: The Persistence and Change of Chicago’s Local Communities). Communities are social spaces which do not have limiting physical boundaries (Henri Lefebvre, 1974, The Production of Space) and as such they should transcend any geographical limitations that residential spaces have. Communities also have a social network which can bridge across from one place to another, depending on the strengths of the bonds in that network (Bender, 1978, p. 11). Ultimately, communities can be inclusive and exclusive, and their geographies are not necessarily fixed; communities can thus exist within neighborhoods, but often communities transcend them (more about this below).

There is scholarly tradition, however, suggesting a neighborhood-as-community perspective which postulates that the two terms are interrelated. Slayton (1986) cited George Hillery’s (1955) definition of community as having three elements: networks of interpersonal ties which provide sociability and support; residence in a common locality; and solidarity of sentiments and activities (“Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement.” Rural Sociology, 20, pp. 117-119). This definition is ascribed to a rural description of community as opposed to an urban perspective, and it is similar to what many of the Chicago School scholars adhered to. The neighborhood thus conceived becomes a generator of community and neighborhoods failing in creating community are thereby deviant in nature; a neighborhood which produces no community can therefore be neither. Generally speaking, Chicago School scholars lamented the failure of community when they could not identify viable social interactions and networks within immigrant neighborhoods. More recently, the neighborhood-as-community perspective appears to have coalesced the terms by ascribing geographic referents to the notion of community. For example, Edward Orser (1994) defines community as “…a relatively small area with defined boundaries shared by a population whose sense of common space, form of social interaction, and broad consensus…provides the basis for common identity” (Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story, p. 12). The distinction here is important since it departs from the concept that communities can transcend geographic boundaries.

The problem with the neighborhood-as-community perspective is that neighborhoods do not always have like-minded residents who communicate within the parameters of cultural norms that are necessary to produce a community. Neighborhoods would be better understood as the space allocated for the primary purpose of residence. Certainly, the builders of housing stock adjacent to the stock yards in Chicago or the housing stock on the south side of Milwaukee were less concerned about generating communities than they were about creating residences for working class families. Communities can emerge from neighborhoods because they are environments which elicit social interaction, but communities can exist within neighborhood space, span across into other neighborhoods, and communities can transcend into regions or even nations. An excellent example is described by Gina Pérez (2004) regarding the nature of community of Puerto Rican families between San Sebastian, P.R. and Chicago, noting that their transnational practices and imaginings have shaped the cultural, economic, and political landscapes in both places (The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, displacement, and Puerto Rican Families, p. 7)

Perhaps freeing community from neighborhood has led to some convenient operationalization by researchers in neighborhoods. This has led to a common acceptance toward examining neighborhoods as census tracts or other notional entities. To be fair to researchers using these methods, this operationalization is often due to the available data that can be used to describe or explain the phenomena under study. As a result, the concept of neighborhood is generally reduced to an array of variables to be scrutinized, but the reality may be skewed to meet the needs of the researchers. For example, Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls (1997) applied what they termed a “spatial definition of neighborhood” in their research design. They combined 847 census tracts in Chicago to create 343 neighborhood clusters, with each cluster representing approximately 8,000 people in geographically contiguous census tracts and “internally homogenous on key census indicators. The creation of the neighborhood clusters allowed for statistical analyses, yet a question remains on whether they truly represent the neighborhoods as the residents imagine them.

In George Galster’s (2000) definition of neighborhood, he suggests that neighborhoods do contain clusters or residences as well as other land uses, becoming what he terms as a “composite commodity.” The following are what Galster describes as the attributes which comprise the “complex commodity” of neighborhood: 1) structural characteristics of residential and non-residential buildings; 2) Infrastructural characteristics; 3) Demographic characteristics of the residents; 4) Class status characteristics of the residents; 5) Tax/public service package characteristics; 6) Environmental characteristics; 7) Proximity characteristics; 8) Political characteristics; 9) Social-interactive characteristics; and 10) Sentimental characteristics. Galster, however, goes on to describe the nature of neighborhoods by noting four distinct consumers of neighborhood space: households; businesses; property owners; and local governments. It is these consumers who then become producers of the neighborhood. Galster recognized the complex nature of many attributes which, in concert, impact the social production in the neighborhood (“On the Nature of Neighbourhood.” Urban Studies, 38(2), 2111-2124 ). In this conceptualization, Galster conforms to Lefebvre’s statement: “every social space has a history, once invariably grounded in nature, in natural conditions that are once primordial and unique in the sense that they are always and everywhere endowed with specific characteristics” (p. 110).

What Galster’s definition contributes to urbanist literature is that it recognizes the complexity of neighborhoods. While researchers have attempted to reduce this complexity identifying key variables or easily conformed data sets, ultimately the problem with not including a historical analysis of the neighborhood fails to capture the evolution of phenomenon. Before one can a ghetto, a barrio, or a slum emerged, one has understand the etiology of the neighborhood. One has to ask why structures were placed where they exist today, why did people migrate into the space, and why did they chose to leave. The understanding of the distribution of the key characteristics of the neighborhood permits a detailed understanding of the present state of the neighborhood, as Galster states: “what attributes that place will possess – what that neighborhood will be – will be shaped by the decisions of current and prospective consumers” (p. 2116).


About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

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