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Urban Sociology



How can we understand cities and neighborhoods?

Think back to any moment in your life when you stepped into an entirely new city, or even a new neighborhood that was very different from your own. You might recall hearing phrases that you hadn’t heard before, or observing customs that were unfamiliar. You might not have known whether a particular street was safe or dangerous, whether you were welcomed or observed with suspicion. You might have spent some time asking questions about that strange place, observing the people around you, or exploring your surroundings to figure out exactly how that place works, why the people are all from the same ethnic group, why the houses look so big and fancy, or why the streets feel so dangerous.

This is what urban sociologists do. In this chapter I’ll introduce you to the work of social scientists who analyze large-scale data on where groups of city dwellers live, where crime takes place, where housing is built, where jobs are prevalent and where they are scarce. I’ll introduce you to researchers who have spent years living in a community to try to understand how it works from the inside. And I’ll introduce you to others who run experiments, changing people’s environments in subtle (or major) ways and observing how they respond and how their lives change.

Let’s start with William Helmreich, a professor based in New York, who took a different approach—he decided to walk through almost every block of his city.Helmreich, William B. 2013. The New York nobody knows: Walking 6,000 miles in the city. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Helmreich walked about 6,000 miles over the course of four years, going through nine pairs of sneakers in the process. He kept notes on the scenes from the city as he passed, watched to see who was in the parks and who was on their stoops, and talked with as many people as he could. And he discovered an urban landscape that sometimes transformed from one block to the next, where kids took tennis lessons in a pristine park just a few streets away from where young men walked down the street conspicuously wearing the colors of their gang.Rothman, Joshua. 2013. “A Walker in the City.” The New Yorker. Retrieved at: He saw hints of change up close, and learned that residents had a very different view of the change in their neighborhoods than did outsiders like journalists or politicians. And he saw tremendous, almost unfathomable diversity, visible in the distinct clothes of Orthodox Jews and the bustling street markets of Chinatown.

Storefronts in Manhattan's Chinatown.

Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City. Source: manolofranco

Walking the city’s streets, he found a population of New Yorkers who “display both small-town values and a high degree of sophistication.” But what united everyone, according to Helmreich, was their shared claim to the city—the collective understanding of what makes their city different, the unflinching acceptance of the wide variety of people who come together in the subway cars, the feeling of solidarity that comes from living in the city where the towers came down on September 11th, 2001. Their city was their common identity.

I have two goals for this chapter. The first is to introduce you to some of the most important ideas and debates about how cities work, what cities look like, and how cities affect the way we live our lives. We’ll ask questions like, How has the growing movement of humans to cities affected our lives and interactions? How can we explain the emergence and transformation of cities and neighborhoods? How have American cities changed in the last century? What are some of the major trends and problems in urban areas? Are cities leading us toward economic growth and environmental sustainability or are they breeding grounds for poverty and inequality?

This is the stuff of urban sociology. But the second goal of the chapter is to get you to consider different ways to learn about the neighborhoods and cities that surround us, as well as communities around the world. William Helmreich decided to walk through almost every block of his city, and he learned a tremendous amount about New York in the process. But is there anything he might have missed along the way? Do people act the same way outdoors, on the street, as they do when they’re inside, with their friends and families? Do residents talk to a stranger in their neighborhood in the same way that they talk to a neighbor who’s lived next door for years? How might an older White man be perceived as he walks, alone, down a New York city street?

“You need to walk slowly through an area to capture its essence,” writes Helmreich in the introduction to his book. As you read through this chapter, try to keep thinking like a social scientist. Ask yourself: Do I believe the ideas I’m reading? What kind of evidence would be more convincing? If I were going to try to “capture the essence” of an entirely new city or neighborhood, how would I do it?