Dalton Conley is a social scientist who studies race and class and economic opportunity. His books include Being Black, Living in the Red (1999), The Pecking Order (2005) and Elsewhere, U.S.A. (2009). He is also the author of the acclaimed memoir Honky (2000), which chronicled his experience growing up white amongst the mostly black and Latino residents of the projects between Delancey and 14th Street on the eastern edge of Manhattan. A couple months ago, Conley and I wandered around the stomping grounds of his youth. He discussed his work in the context of this changing neighborhood, mixing personal anecdotes with policy prescriptions and reflection on the lessons urban designers and planners can learn from closer coordination with efforts in the social sciences to understand the complex relationship between economics, space and society. Read our conversation below, followed by a video excerpt of the walk.
On Urban Omnibus, our very first Walk and Talk was with another urban sociologist. Richard Sennett took us on a stroll through the West Village — where he first moved in 1962 — and shared observations on everything from the difference between borders and boundaries to philosophies of craftsmanship. As it happens, Sennett also grew up in the projects, in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex that is currently undergoing demolition to make way for a “mixed-income neighborhood composed of a both high-rise and low-rise buildings.” And on his walk with us, Sennett mentioned that he is “a big believer in architectural determinism” and that the “details of urban design can make or break urban-scale propositions.” Dalton Conley has a different view. He believes that economics — specifically the economics of homeownership — determine opportunity. Planners and designers would do well to heed the advice of both scholars. – C.S.
Urban Omnibus (UO): What do you do?
Dalton Conley (DC): I’m a sociologist. You could say I’m an urban sociologist. Basically I study economic opportunity. Let me put it this way: my father is a horse player (and an artist) and he spends a lot of time handicapping the Racing Form, predicting which horse is going to win the race. So when I need to explain to my parents what I do, I say “Dad, I do what you do: I use statistics to try to figure out who’s going to win, except I’m doing it on humans instead of horses.” I predict socio-economic success based on the conditions of one’s childhood, birth, family background etc. And my work is definitely informed by my attempts to understand the experience of my neighbors growing up here vis a vis myself.
UO: Tell us about where we are right now.
DC: We’re at the intersection of Delancey Street and Columbia Street [which becomes Avenue D north of Houston -Ed.]. Growing up here, the Williamsburg Bridge was an important structure: it really marked the edge of the neighborhood. I’ve always read about how the highway construction of 1950s urban renewal cut off certain neighborhoods from other places. In this case, the bridge was exactly that type of barrier. Below that bridge you still find remnants of the old Jewish Lower East Side. There’s a very real division between what was the Jewish Lower East Side and the Puerto Rican Lower East Side, which I would say extends from the Williamsburg Bridge up to the Con Edison building that you can see in the distance at 14th Street. If you go east, of course you hit the river. And if you go west, it used to go all the way to Allen St — or 1st Ave — but now, more and more, cultural elites and gentrifiers have pushed the neighborhood’s western edge further and further eastwards to the point where it’s in constant flux.
But I do understand that this is still a Million Dollar Block, meaning that the state spends a million dollars or more on incarcerating people just from this block. So, clearly the problems haven’t gone completely away. But it is quite different now. It’s very international, there’s been a lot more immigration from other countries. When I was here it was just a little bit after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 that opened up the gates, and so it really hadn’t yet changed the character of the population so much. 75 percent of the population in this census tract in 1970 was Puerto Rican and about 20 percent African American, and the rest was folks like me or Chinese people.
UO: Where did you grow up?
DC: I grew up in Masaryk Towers. When I was born we were living in that tower over there, #73 and then we moved to #81, the corner one back there. #81 borders on Hamilton Fish Park, which was a cement park filled with lots of broken glass, malt liquor bottles and the like. We would play our baseball there. Masaryk Towers is Mitchell-Lama. The Mitchell-Lama Housing Program is geared towards low-income families, but ones that were better off than the people across the street in NYCHA housing for extremely poor folks. Masaryk was sandwiched on the other side by more NYCHA housing. There are Mitchell-Lama projects all over the city, like Co-op City for example in the Bronx, which is pretty middle class now, I think. But by virtue of the fact that Masaryk Towers is sandwiched between NYCHA buildings, it shared much of the crime and other problems that were rampant in public housing in those days.
UO: Growing up, did the different housing complexes have distinct identities?
DC: We definitely divided up the little league baseball teams based on which housing complex you came from. We were Los Piratas, and there was a baseball team for Baruch houses, for Lillian Wald Houses, etc. I think we won once, one year. We would all play on East River Park, which is of course being redeveloped right now. And despite what you see in the movies, we did not play stickball. We played baseball.
UO: I’m curious about your view of what role physical design plays in your analysis of inequalities of opportunity.
DC: I’m really skeptical about the notion that physical design can be a tool for better or worse in aiding opportunity or affecting the lives of people who live in low income communities. We’ve seen the fads come and go. We’ve seen this kind of housing, the sort of high-rise Le Corbusier style, creating open plazas by stacking people in high-density vertical towers, now be blamed for all social ills. I think that’s ridiculous.
I think the issue is not design but economics and specifically ownership structure. When people don’t have a stake in the local community — an economic stake that is — based on their concern for their property values, then social ills follow. Banks know this. Banks — at least before the bubble — would not lend to buildings where less than 50 percent of units were owner-occupied. Because they know that owners take care of and want to preserve the property values of the building.
I have a fantasy plan called “A Dollar and a Dream,” which used to be the New York State Lotto’s slogan. Basically I would sell all the public housing to the residents for a dollar and create this equity for the families, and you would see, all of a sudden, owners associations springing up. I think it would radically change the physical environment: change driven by economics affecting the physical environment rather than thinking of the physical environment as the driver.
UO: Since the subprime mortgage crisis, we’re hearing lots of voices arguing that we should shift our national priorities away from home ownership.
DC: Certainly, trumpeting home ownership these days is not very popular. But I think actually now is exactly the time to have low income home ownership strategies because the prices are low! It’s all about how you do it. If you’re doing it through sub-prime and exotic mortgages that have balloon payments and everything, of course you’re going to get high defaults and it’s going to create this crash. But if people don’t expect to be doubling their money every five years but maybe double their money every 40 years — which was the norm in the middle of the 20th century with more responsible home ownership – then I think that’s a definitely viable strategy and a very effective one. Homes are both a basic consumption good that we need, shelter, but they also have an investment purpose, and as much as it doesn’t appear so now, ultimately given population pressures, real property and real estate is always going to have a long-term trend upward.
UO: Hearing this, I can’t help but be reminded of Margaret Thatcher privatizing affordable housing in the UK in the ’80s…
DC: The difference is I’m trying to come at this from a position on the left actually, to argue that this is an empowerment strategy. At least for the post-civil rights generation — my generation — continued racial equality rests in the property dimension, the housing market and the securities dimension, rather than education or labor market primarily. It’s the property inequality that drives the other inequalities. We’re focusing most of our racial inequality amelioration efforts, through education and affirmative action in labor law, on the wrong side of the equation so to speak, when we really should be working to build up asset ownership among low-wealth minority communities.
UO: Getting back to your skepticism of spatial or environmental determinism for a second, what about the use of space? Is that something that urban sociologists are looking at these days? The layout here is so different from the rest of the Manhattan street grid, and I’m curious about how that enables or prohibits different kinds of uses on the part of, say, young people for example.
DC: I’m not trying to say that space doesn’t matter or that architecture doesn’t matter — my mother moved to where we moved because she thought it was pretty and because of the Le Corbusier style layout that meant there were parks for us kids to play in, jungle gyms and open space and benches and so forth.
And also, the distribution of people geographically totally matters. Though I think it matters largely because of the tension between where we live and where we go to school. Given how segregated we are economically and racially, you basically end up with a Catch 22 if you’re growing up in a low income community. You either can go to your local school and have this integration between your school life and your home life. Or you can do what I did and commute across town — I did it illegally, but these days there are plenty of legal options through charter schools and so forth — wasting hours of the day getting to and from school.
Some people say we should pour money into the schools in low-income communities, but equalizing funding isn’t going to do it, because the dirty little secret is that the single most powerful of the effects of school is your peer group. And unless you mix folks up, kids tend to sort themselves back into class-based peer groups. So we constantly face this tension around how we socialize our kids, given the fact that we are spatially organized and spatially segregated.
UO: Where are we now?
DC: We crossed Houston St. and we’re outside the Lillian Wald Houses where the friend to whom I dedicated Honky grew up. When we were 12 or 13, he was shot in the neck on 7th Street and Avenue C by a stray bullet as he was standing, chatting with his friend, outside his friend’s apartment. He became paralyzed from the neck down and has since worked very hard to regain use of his arms. Just last summer he and I came back here, and he hadn’t been here — let’s see, he was shot in 1981, Jan 1st, 1981 — so he hadn’t been here for 28 years or so. We took a tour, and he noticed how much the Lillian Wald Houses had changed as well. Of course all the playground structures are new and there’s been a lot of money put in here, but also there are even community gardens here that provide vegetables for the folks who work at them and such. He was kind of shocked at how much nicer even the NYCHA housing was than it was. A couple of generations before that, whether you’re coming from the South or Puerto Rico, or even just across the street, you were living in a walk-up tenement with no hot water half the time and no heat during the winter. These housing complexes were certainly a step up. But as to why it changed at some point and this type of public housing become housing of last resort — I really don’t know. I would argue that probably the ownership structure mattered a great deal, but one can never know, because unfortunately there haven’t been enough actual conscious experiments by social scientists or urban planners to test hypotheses to some of these questions.
UO: Which begs the question, what, in your opinion, can architects and planners learn from social scientists?
DC: I think what social science can offer urban planning and design and so forth would be their methodology: experimental methods. The first step is to do small-scale, explicit experiments of different housing forms, and different community structures, and then following those up with ethnographies and with statistical analysis and so forth. I know that’s being done in urban planning to a certain extent. But not enough.
Watch an excerpt of this conversation on Vimeo.