Reflections on Neighborhoods and Collective Efficacy

By Charlie Collins

Transforming social cohesion into informal social control: Deconstructing collective efficacy and the moderating role of neighborhood racial homogeneity, by Charles R. Collins, Zachary P. Neal, and Jennifer Watling Neal, was published in Volume 39, Issue 3 of the Journal of Urban Affairs and is currently available for free access for a limited time.

As I reflect on this paper, which examines the neighborhood role in collective efficacy factors, I can’t help but place myself in the various neighborhoods I’ve lived in throughout my life and think about those neighborhood dynamics that influenced me. The neighborhood as a space brings with it social, cultural, and economic influences that can have huge effects on the residents within them. The schools, institutions, organizations, and even demographic make-up of a neighborhood can have profound effects on individual and collective outcomes. Quality social, economic, and cultural institutions may positively impact residents; poor institutions may have negative impacts.

In the neighborhood that possibly made the largest effect on my adolescent development – the Lanksershim neighborhood of San Bernardino, California, located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles – I remember a rich tapestry of cultures, faiths, and ethnicities. My closest friends were first generation Cambodian, Mexican, Laotian, and Guatemalan. We ran around the neighborhood as a cohesive group along with my African-American and White friends. Convenience stores, restaurants, and laundromats, owned and operated by Samoans and Pilipino families lined our streets. The current demographics still reflect my lived experience.

This diversity also brought with it tribal conflict. In the 1990’s, off-shoots of L.A.’s Bloods and Crips engaged in battle. More recently, it’s been the Norteños and Sereños. Beyond gang wars, racial tensions always seemed palpable – even for my diverse and cohesive group of friends. A store owner accosting a customer, an angry stare between adolescents, or a school-yard fight was a common occurrence between people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

The richness of this cultural melting pot was often undercut by the desperate poverty we experienced. The Norton Air Force Base, an economic powerhouse for San Bernardino, was about 6 blocks from my home. When it shutdown,  homes became ignored and dilapidated, broken cars sat on cinder blocks in yards, and stray cats moved about unmolested. Our schools were financially broke. Liquor stores out-numbered grocery stores. A lack of educational after-school programs left adolescents up to their own devices. To add insult to injury, the 10’ fence encompassing my high school created the ominous feeling of a prison yard.

It is through the lens of my personal lived experiences in neighborhoods such as Lankership that I conduct my research and contribute to my science. I strive to see communities that are both diverse and cohesive. Unfortunately, the scientific literature on this question is not in my favor. Thus far, much of the urban science shows that racial diversity often undercuts neighborhood outcomes, such as social capital and collective efficacy. Even this paper, which seeks to understand how racial/ethnic homogeneity influences the relationship between two collective efficacy factors – social cohesion and informal social control, does not give evidence on my behalf. These factors are important because they provide residents the collective capacity to address neighborhood needs, such as crime, for example.

In this paper, my co-authors and I found three important results that may inform neighborhood structure and processes, particularly regarding neighborhood racial make-up. First, we found that within more racially homogeneous neighborhoods, residents tend to report higher levels of informal social control. Meaning, in these neighborhoods, residents are more likely to indicate that their neighbors will intervene on behalf of the neighborhood, such as breaking up a fight between two adolescents, for example. Second, we found that when residents report greater levels of social cohesion they also report elevated levels of informal social control regardless of neighborhood diversity. In other words, when residents perceive their neighbors as willing to help each other,  they also report greater informal social control. Third we found that within racially homogeneous (i.e. less diverse) neighborhoods, the relationship between social cohesion and informal social control was reduced. Meaning, that racially homogeneous neighborhoods tend to have a stronger relationship between social cohesion and informal social control. In these neighborhoods, residents tend to enact greater informal social control mechanisms if they have strong social bonds (i.e. social cohesion) with their neighbors.

Given the rich diversity that I experienced as an adolescent growing up in San Bernardino, these results have important implications. Our results indicate that although racial diversity may have a negative effect on the relationship between social cohesion and informal social control, the power between social cohesion and informal social control is undeniable. I’d argue that for growing and maintaining the extent to which residents feel a push toward contributing to the social order of the neighborhood, building social bonds are important – those similar bonds that I experienced, regardless of race or country or origin.

As an academic, I’ve now taken these very personal and real stories and abstracted them into numbers, data, and statistics, which have no direct impact or meaning for those families still struggling to make ends meet in San Bernardino. I am physically far removed from that time and space now, but I am cognitively tied to it for eternity. It will always impact my research and the way I go about asking scientific questions. My only hope is that one day my body of research will be pooled with those doing similar work so that collectively, I can have a real and immediate impact on places like San Bernardino.

Charlie Collins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at University of Washington at Bothell.

Book Review Preview: The New Urban Crisis

By Jason Plummer

Florida, Richard, The New Urban Crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class – and what we can do about it. (New York:  Basic Books, 2017)

Florida’s stated purpose for writing The New Urban Crisis to (1) define the new urban crisis, (2) identify the forces that led to this crisis, and (3) outline a pathway to achieve an inclusive urbanism.  He uses the first few pages of the preface to describe his childhood neighborhood, a mix of blue collar and middle class residents.  Ultimately, implementing the strategies outlined in his new book should recreate this type of mixed-income neighborhood, a “walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets, bike lanes, parks, exciting art and music scenes, and vibrant areas where people could gather in cafés, and restaurants” (p. xv).

The first three chapters expand on his first stated purpose.  In these chapters, Florida outlines how cultivating a nightlife, attracting start-ups, and tech firms without thinking about inclusion leads to inequality.  The next four chapters identify the forces that led to the new urban crisis and offer a fact-based discussion of gentrification.  In final chapter, Urbanism for All, Florida outlines a pathway to achieve an inclusive urbanism:  land value tax, tax increment local transfers, investments in mass transit, redirect the home mortgage tax credit from affluent homeowners to low income renters, index the minimum wage to a percentage of the prevailing median wage of the metropolitan area, invest in public education, and in terms of global affairs, transition foreign aid to place-based initiatives.

For those who embraced cultivating the creative class as an economic development strategy, The New Urban Crisis will provide guidance building a more inclusive city.  For those who rejected the creative class approach as fueling gentrification and racial stratification, since he does not provide details on how to implement his policies, it is hard to assess whether this revised approach is taming the negative externalities of development or a radical rethink of community development.

The full book review will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Jason A. Plummer
California State University, Los Angeles