A community is a place where people around supposed to be able to live and thrive together. When one thinks of a community, the image that most likely is visualized is one of a place where each person lives harmoniously with all the other members of that community. While this may be the typical image of a community, it is not the realistic view. In reality communities can share both good and bad aspects. In Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom make the argument that the place a person lives ultimately matters over all else; the place which a person lives effects the choices that that he/she makes and determines his/her ability to obtain a high quality of life.
In the first chapter the authors begin by laying out their thesis: place matters (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 1). The authors look at three different Congressional districts to show how place is different in metropolitan American. Those places include “poor central-city in the South Bronx of New York”, “a district that spans the West Side of Cleveland and its suburbs”, and “a wealthy outer-ring suburban district west of Chicago” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 3).
The first district explored by the authors is the South Bronx. This is one of the poorest and most Democratic congressional districts in the United States. Some of the problems of this district are as follows: high percentages of children, high rates of infectious diseases and violate crimes (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 4). The area has such a high poverty rate because the government pushed thousands of homeless families there. Despite these problems, the South Bronx has a few good aspects to it as well. Immigrants bring rejuvenation to the area, housing units are being built or redeveloped, and there are large numbers of thriving community groups (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 5). This area shows the greatest sense of community. Church groups, neighborhood associations, etc. keep the people in this area close knit to one another. People in this area are more likely to know about and can relate to others in their community. Even with this high sense of community in this area, people continue to flee to the suburbs. As this suburban flight continues, city areas like the South Bronx will continue to “decay” no matter how hard they try to keep up with the surrounding suburbs (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 6).
One example of type of suburb that people are fleeing to is Ohio’s Tenth Congressional District in west Cleveland. This area serves as a stepping stone between the city and the exurbs (i.e. the outer-ring suburb of Chicago). This area consists of mostly white “socially conservative and economically liberal” people; this means that people in this area vote both Republican and Democratic in elections (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 7). This is a “rust-belt” suburb, meaning that it once had prosperous manufacturing companies but has now lost them and suffers greatly for that loss. This area pits inner-ring suburbs against outer-ring suburbs. The inner-ring suburbs have low property value and are “concerned with urban decline”; outer-ring suburbs have higher property values and are where many people are being to flee in order to find a better life (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 8).
The final and ultimate step that people take on their flight from the urban areas and inner-ring suburbs are the wealthy outer-ring suburbs like the one in Chicago the authors focus on. The authors refer to this as exurbia. Exurbia is a place where there are high levels of income and education among its residents (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 11). There is an increase in population in these areas as the “accomplished people” try to escape the world of the common people.
Using the above-mentioned Congressional districts as examples, the authors begin to make their case of how place truly matters. One argument they make is,
The fundamental reality is one of growing economic segregation in the context of rising overall inequality. People of different classes are moving away from each other not just in how much income they make but in where they live. America is breaking down into economically homogeneous enclaves. (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 12)
In other words, America has a widening gap between its wealthy and poor. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, there is a problem emerging: the disappearance of the middle class. Low-wage workers continue to fall behind those who make higher wages, and this only widens the gap between the two. There has been an economic boom in the United States, which has made the country more prosperous than it has ever been. That prosperity does not reach all people; it seems to only favor the rich. Rising economic segregation has taken away many opportunities for the poor to rise in America today. The poor may find that the economic boom has increased their income; however, as their income increase so does the prices they must for their living expenses (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 19).
Identifying economic class goes beyond determining how much money a person makes; it is also defined by where a person lives. The lowest people on the economic scale are assumed to live in central cities; the middle-low income people live in the inner-ring suburbs, and the wealthiest live in the exclusive outer-ring suburbs. The authors point out that as one moves outward from the central city to the inner-ring to outer-ring suburbs incomes rise (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 37). The outer-ring suburbs become known as exurbias. The lower income residents of the central city face problems that the residents of inner-ring and outer-ring suburbia do not face: “crime, unhealthy environments, inferior public services, heightened stress, higher cost for retail goods besides groceries, and alienation from society and politics” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 91).
As people begin to move into the different classifications of places [central city and inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs], politics begins to be affected. One idea is that the rich may become so powerful that they are able to dominate the poor (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 20). Up to the 1900s the idea was that “one government runs the center of the metropolitan area, while many different suburban jurisdictions govern the wealthier periphery” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 37). Today every major metropolitan are being split into one or more central-city governments and numerous suburban governments (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 37).
Another aspect of politics that economics is affected is governmental policy. As people are becoming economically segregated, the economies of the areas they live in are being affected. As stated early, the poor live in the central city, while the rich are living in the wealthy outer-ring. Living in the central city and being poor can create problems for the residents. Central city residents are left with burden of having to pay taxes in the city. These people are poor and sometimes close, to if not below, the poverty line. If all the rich move out of the city, there will be little revenue for the city to generate and they might be forced to raise taxes to pay for public spending.
The poor people of the central city may not have the money to pay the increased taxes so they will only get poorer while they try to get caught up. On the flip side, a person who lives in the outer-ring will enjoy many freedoms. One such freedom may be a lower tax rate simply because his house is outside the city lines. When the rich move out of the city, it leaves the poor to pay the tax burden. One solution to this problem may be to limit sprawl. If sprawl is limited, then people will be forced back into the inner city, and this increased revenue may help to decrease poverty.
After the book identifies the fact there is a gap between the rich and the poor of America, it begins to bring out some of the facts of the economic segregation and urban sprawl of American citizens. One of the ideas that is focused on is the inequality among regions. The authors say that “the American economy should be understood as a ‘common market of regional economies” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 33). The Bureau of Economic Research identified one hundred and seventy two different economic regions in the United States; “wages and house prices tend to track each other within each region” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 33).
Since the characteristics in each region are similar only within the regions, inequality is created among the different regions. The book argues, “rising inequality among regions is partly a reflection of the bicoastal phenomenon” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 34). The bicoastal phenomenon refers to the idea that cities on the East and West Coasts of the Untied States did better economically than the ones in the country’s interior. The bicoastal effect occurs as a result of technology and industry; there is not a lot of technology and/or industry in America’s interior so people have begun to move to the coastal areas where these two aspects are abundant. There was once a gap between the North and the South, but one between the coast and the interior is replacing that gap.
As regions continue to place gaps amongst themselves, they are also creating something called a clustering effect. The clustering effect is when different regions attract different types of businesses; this is also known as specializations for each region (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 35). Examples of specialized regions are the “Rust-Belt” cities and the textile states.
In some ways it is good to let specialization of regions occur but in other ways it is not. Specialization of a region gives the people in that region something to identify with and develop a livelihood on. However, while people are developing this livelihood, they tend to become dependent on the specialized industry of their region. If the industry figures out that it can move to a new location and produce the same goods for a cheaper price, it will more than likely relocate and leave many people unemployed. Once one manufacturer moves out of a region, other manufacturers [of the same industry] also begin to move out of the region. This creates a domino effect on the people and the economy of the region. The economy begins to suffer as a result of the industry’s relocation.
Like regions, cities and suburbs place economic segregation between themselves. The authors move back to this notion to point out that as one moves outward from the central city to the inner-ring to outer-ring suburbs incomes rise (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 37). It is argued that lack of transportation makes it difficult for some people to have jobs that they so desperately need. A large number of jobs have moved into the suburbs, and this makes it difficult for people in the city to find jobs because so many lack the transportation necessary to reach those jobs (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 58).
Jobs such as manufacturing move into the suburban areas and away from the city; while professional, white collar jobs remain in the cities. People that need to work in the manufacturing jobs live in the cities, and those who have the skills and education necessary to work the professional jobs live in the suburbs. Jobs and the people who have the skills to work them are moving away from each other (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 59). The lower income families cannot afford to follow the jobs because the houses in the suburbs are too expensive. In terms of the suburbs, they seem to be interdependent on cities for things such as jobs.
Yet another effect of economic segregation and urban sprawl is the quality of health that people experience. “Economic inequality negatively influences health” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 67). The standard of living in a community is directly effected, and just as important, as the economic aspects of that community. The book suggests that,
People living in concentrated poverty areas experience all sorts of detrimental conditions, in particular, poor access to health care, an unhealthy physical environment, and detrimental social relations and lifestyles.” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 68).
People who live in the central city are more likely to experience these types of conditions because they are at the bottom of the economic scale and do not have the ability to pull themselves up. Equality in an economic sense gives people more equality in health standards; people with equal amounts of money have equal access to healthcare.
Health standards are not the only aspect that is unequal among suburbs and cities. Cities see an increase in the amount of money they spend on living expenses and taxes. For example, studies have been done that show that the poor in central cities pay more for groceries than people in suburbs. The poor city dwellers must purchase food from small convenience stores because there are no supermarkets in the city neighborhoods (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 77). If city dwellers do rely on supermarkets for the food, they must spend even more money commuting to the areas where the supermarkets are located. Cities are poorly served with some of the conveniences (i.e. supermarkets) that suburbs have available so the cities must in turn pay more for this lack of convenience.
While the poor city dwellers find it hard to manage their needs for living, people in suburbia have a surplus. To obtain and keep a high status and to further themselves from urban dwellers and city problems, suburban families find that they must purchase expensive housing on the suburban fringe (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 81). Suburban families must also make investments such as owning one or more cars. This creates problems for suburban families. Families here most of the time purchase things on credit and incur massive mortgages (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom 81).
Looking at both low income city dwellers, middle income suburbia residents, and wealthy exurban residents, this book explores how the place people live affects the economic, political, and social lives of those people. Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom explain their thesis with sound examples and facts. In comparison to Gainsborough’s use of examples, the three authors do not take their examples to extremes. Gainsborough uses so many examples in her book Fenced Off: The Suburbanization of American Politics that the book seems very repetitious and redundant.
Unlike Gainsborough, the authors of Place Matters do not use excessive examples to prove their thesis. Even though they cite various examples that do prove their thesis, their examples are too general. The book focuses on only three Congressional districts in their study: the South Bronx, the inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs of Cleveland, and exurbia in Chicago. These places are not representative of the entire country. Each Congressional district that the authors chose to focus is in the northern part of the United States; the southern and western parts of the country are not represented in this study. By excluding central cities, suburbs, and exurbs in the southern and western United States, the thesis of the book is somewhat weakened. There is no evidence to show how suburbs and cities in these areas function in regards to economic segregation. After research is conducted, it may show that the suburbs and cities in the South and West react differently than those in the North and Midwest.
Place Matters describes how place effects a person in economic, political, and social terms. Communities in the United States must face reality: they are becoming more and more economically separated. People move into a community because they are seeking a place where they can identify with other people of similar standing. As American citizens face increased economic segregation, they must find new ways to decrease the economic gap in order to provide a greater equality between cities, suburbs, and exurbs. Economic equality will lead to equality among people and their standards of living. In a country that is based on the principle of equality, communities must work to have equal footing so everyone can have the same chances in life.
Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, & Todd Swanstrom. 2001. Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century. Kansas: University of Kansas Press.
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