Apr 20, 2010

On the Uses and Abuses of Urbanistic Social Research

I've been reading Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age, this incredible study of recent second-generation immigrants in NYC co-authored by John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY's Center for Urban Research. Mollenkopf wrote a ground-breaking analysis of the Koch administration, Phoenix in the Ashes: The Rise and Fall of the Koch Coalition in New York City Politics on Ed Koch's ability to consolidate voter blocs and convert them into governing majorities in the 1980s. I highly recommend this latest book for people interested in urban development issues that touch on immigration. Its longitudinal survey of a broad range of randomly selected subjects over the course of decades reveals new information on how Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Jamaican, Filipino, Chinese, Indian and other new groups have fared in recent years, potentially shedding light on that ever-present urbanistic red herring, the specter of gentrification. It was reviewed here when it came out two years ago. This kind of serious social science will be required to really transform urban policy and influence the coming immigration debate.

In the past, I have often championed urban research by architects and advocacy groups who have promoted underprivileged groups and sought to improve urban conditions and advance social justice--Laura Kurgan's excellent GIS visualizations of social scientific data in her justice mapping work, for instance, or CUP's outstanding exhibitions and pamphlets using visual tool to explain how the systems that govern urban space are organized. I also enjoy the type of exploratory and avant-garde research performed in the manner of participant observation or psychogeography, which ethnographers have used for over a century to discover new facts and document conditions that otherwise remain invisible. But I have also regularly complained about the confusion between pure advocacy, which assembles the facts according to their usefulness and ignores information that doesn't correspond to its goals, and real social science that leaves open the possibility that its conclusions will contradict its presuppositions. To state the obvious, this is important because without testing a hypothesis and subjecting it to verification, there's no way to know whether these strategies and projects are effective. The previous generation's political claims about architecture were to a large extent empty rhetoric that created little more than pleasing anecdotes in the form of visual representations. It would be a pity for generation after generation to rehash the same warmed-over Frankfurt School-based negative dialectical approach that has never in its history produced any discernible effect.

I think in particular about an activist architect like Teddy Cruz who has been using the poor residents of San Ysidro, California for years as an example of his attempt to restructure architectural practice by rethinking the relationship between architecture and the entire economic and political order. It seems pretty clear that what he's really talking about is a simple rezoning initiative that would allow smaller lot sizes so that the residents could build more affordable units. This is normally just called urban planning or design. It demands advocacy, grassroots mobilization, or insider political influence. But by inflating the issue to global dimensions and conflating it with a grossly misconstrued critique of capitalism, he has produced a great academic speaking career but no discernible changes in the conditions for his clients.

The path to a better life for a majority of immigrants seems to be, as ever, through education, hard work and some combination of assimilation and strong fealty to community. It's a path that continues to reshape the American idea as each generation grows up and consolidates its power. This book adds an enormous amount of nuance and detail to that story. It could be a great tool to encourage and promote successes and warn against the many dangers and pitfalls faced by new groups since the 1965 immigration reform act. It probably should be required reading for discussions on urbanism today. - STEPHEN ZACKS