The Suburbanization of Immigrants Will Challenge Our Urban Values

The Census results are in and the suburbs are now poorer than the cities in America (http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2011/09/rapid-growth-suburban-poor/190/).  Cities, long a popular destination for immigrants because of their affordability and access to culturally-specific amenities (churches, schools, grocery stores, etc.), are no longer an option for many immigrant groups because of their much higher costs.  Suburban America now takes in more immigrants than urban America with some localized exceptions like New York and San Francisco. (Redefining urban and suburban America: evidence from Census 2000, Vol. II)  (Part of this is no doubt immigrants following suburbanizing industries but the disconnect between low-skill wages and city prices surely is significant.)

University of Chicago Library Map Collection

[Chicago’s a really great place to study social changes geographically because of its spokes and (half)circle model that makes patterns easy to recognize in top-down views.]

If what we think we know about cities being an engine of social exchange and integration and the geographic form of suburbs (auto-oriented, low density, large backyards, few parks, etc.) contributing to isolation, we should be able to measure these effects on immigrant populations moving out of cities because of high rents.

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone could provide the basic framework of the studies.  In that book, which documented the decline of indicators of social capital in America since World War II (bowling league participation is the titular example), the subject was the American public, in general.  American immigrant populations, arriving in a land with unfamiliar institutions and with a limited command of English, ought to especially rely on social networks to navigate their new country.  What kind and how these social networks develop in urban hinterlands could support or challenge many commonly held beliefs about the urban origins of social change.

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