“Few modern social infrastructures are natural, however, and in densely populated areas even benches and forests require careful engineering and management to meet human needs. This means that all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for development or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.”
In the summer of 1995, a brutal heat wave struck Chicago, killing more than 700 people. When sociologists, including Eric Klinenberg, began to study the deaths, they realized that communities with similar demographic conditions sometimes had vastly disparate survival outcomes during the heat wave. The disaster formed the core of Klinenberg’s earlier book, Heat Wave, but it also leads into his most recent publication, where he examines the physical conditions that develop communities and make them resilient. In many ways, Palaces for the People combines Heat Wave with Going Solo, where he examined the increasing trend towards living alone, and Modern Romance (with Aziz Ansari) where they looked at how people form romantic relationships in the digital era. In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg examines public libraries, parks and community gardens, schools, and sports leagues, in an effort to demonstrate how these “social infrastructures” improve our communities, our relationships, and our quality of life.
The concept of social infrastructure is related to, but distinct from, social capital, in that social infrastructure represents “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops.” Social infrastructures are the places people congregate, and develop communities. The physical landscape of a neighbourhood can be the difference between neighbours who develop “strong and supportive relationships” and those who become “isolated and alone.” If roads and subways and electric grids are the hard infrastructure of a city, soft infrastructure is what we fall back on when these things fail. Klinenberg also notes that while pubs and cafes are classic “third places,” they are not the focus of Palaces for the People, because “not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.”
Klinenberg takes as his first, and key example, the public library, drawing his title from the phrase used to describe the libraries endowed by “robber baron” Andrew Carnegie, who gave away most of his fortune in his later years, so that he is today better remembered as a philanthropist. Klinenberg freely acknowledges Carnegie’s predatory behaviour a titan of industry, someone who was involved in breaking unions, and exploiting workers. However, he still cites Carnegie’s contribution to public libraries as an unparalleled work of public service and social infrastructure building, giving away what would be billions in today’s dollars to endow thousands of libraries.
Klinenberg puts his finger on the pulse of the public library when he writes that “the problem that libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them, or take out books. On the contrary, so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.” However, Klinenberg never delves deep enough into the public library to touch on the tensions that often arise between the different groups trying to coexist in these spaces, and the entitlement some “tax paying citizens” feel to never be exposed to people experiencing poverty or homelessness. In glossing over this divide, Klinenberg loses the opportunity to engage with this tendency to self-segregate, to lay private claim to public spaces, or to retreat from public spaces when too many “others” occupy them. Those who can afford to buy their own resources and materials can abandon the public library, just as some white people responded to the desegregation of public swimming pools by building private pools in their own backyards.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Palaces for the People are the cases that look like social infrastructure on the surface, but do not effectively serve as such in practice. Gathering places are not necessarily good social infrastructure. Klinenberg highlights a number of institutions that have deleterious effects on community, creating further division rather than unity. Among them are private country clubs, gated communities, fraternities, and tech campuses. In the last case, tech companies often create elaborate social infrastructures for their high level employees—demonstrating that they understand the concept—while shutting out the campus’s service workers, as well as the surrounding neighbourhood. In most cases, all a tech campus means for the existing community is more traffic, and rising rent. The segregation of spaces that are ostensibly open to the public, such as public pools, and churches, have damaged their ability to serve as effective social infrastructure, though this varies widely from case to case. Klinenberg also notes that safe, separate gathering spaces for minority groups are important social infrastructure despite their segregated nature.
Palaces for the People also takes a look at what role technology plays in our social infrastructure, and our changing civic life. Klinenberg has harsh words for tech companies in general, and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, for the claims they have made about community, versus the reality that has played out as social media proliferates. However, he is careful to qualify that digital technology cannot be simply scapegoated as the source of all our woes. He points to studies that find that polarization has actually increased most among people over the age of seventy-five. By contrast, social media is most heavily used by the eighteen to thirty-nine cohort. Therefore, Klinenberg cautions that “social media may well contribute to our widening ideological divisions, but if the Internet doesn’t explain changes in the group that has grown the most polarized, it cannot be entirely to blame.”
Palaces for the People provides a high level look at a number of social infrastructures and their impact on their communities, any one of which could probably be the subject of their own book. However, this is a broad, useful introduction for the non-academic reader into thinking about how our investment in public spaces impacts our private relationships, as well as our larger civic life and social cohesion.
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