On Tuesday afternoon, about 20 people gathered in the Osterman Common Room for a faculty panel on neighborhoods and suburbs. Held by the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities as part of the “Humanities and Environments” series, the event featured three University professors, each of whom presented their current research on topics such as poverty, the war on drugs and urban neighborhoods.
To begin the event, Alexandra Murphy, assistant professor of Sociology and faculty affiliate of the Population Studies Center, drew on her ethnographic work in Penn Hills, a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, to discuss the uniquely suburban ramifications of poverty. In particular, she focused on how the physical landscape of suburbs, originally designed for white middle-class families, exacerbates the transportation and social needs of the low-income people who now live there.
To illustrate her point, Murphy used the example of Roslyn, a woman she interviewed. According to Murphy, Roslyn moved from Pittsburgh to Penn Hills to escape crime and violence and immediately faced the stark physical differences between city and suburb.
“In the half square-mile that surrounded her (Pittsburgh) neighborhood, there was a Head Start, fourteen churches, an elementary school, a public park, a senior center, a Salvation Army, four bars, a barbershop, three beauty salons, a corner convenience store and four different bus lines,” Murphy said. “In Penn Hills, the only neighborhood amenities that were in the same half-mile radius within her new (Penn Hills) house was one church and one golf course.”
According to Murphy, Roslyn could not afford a car. Because Penn Hills had limited public transportation and few sidewalks, Roslyn and others who did not own reliable cars found they had little mobility, restricting their access to resources such as stores, community centers, employment opportunities and social service centers.
“Those with the greatest difficulty getting around in Penn Hills, those I’m calling homebound, are acutely isolated,” Murphy said. “In addition to mobility, the physical mold of suburbs also has important relations to people’s social networks in this space. It shapes who they know and what ties that they have to draw on.”
Matthew Lassiter, professor of history and urban and regional planning, spoke next on the war on drugs in the suburbia context from the 1950s to 1980s. He discussed how suburbs were idealized as safe utopias, which meant the influx of drugs into suburbias were seen as crises. According to Lassiter, mainstream views characterized ethnic minorities as external villains who were invading and corrupting innocent white Americans from “good” families, especially females.
“In the 1950s, there was explicit, racist, constant coverage of Mexican Americans as a crime threat who were invading white communities,” Lassiter said. “African Americans in this time period are actually not constructed as dope-pushers crime threat, although they would be later … And media often showed white females who start with marijuana in parked cars with their boyfriends, and then they end up getting wrapped up in these pushers, and then they become prostitutes and addicts and they’ll never recover.”
In addition, Lassiter focused on how attitudes and perceptions of drug use varied between different identities, leading to policy disparity.
“The war on drugs is in part about the impossible public policy of criminalizing the social practices of tens of millions of white, middle-class Americans who are otherwise seen as law-abiding citizens,” Lassiter said. “And this of course affects what the war on drugs looked like in the 1980s. In suburban neighborhoods, (there’s) more of a public health prevention campaign, and (there’s) militarized interdiction in non-white urban centers.”
To close, Harley Etienne, assistant professor of urban and regional planning, shared his “big questions” about urban neighborhoods, covering topics from inner-ring suburbs to the relationship between poor neighborhoods and their education systems. In his discussion of neighborhood recovery from the Great Recession, Etienne highlighted Detroit’s housing vacancy issue.
“We can see that there is a massive problem with housing vacancy in Detroit,” Etienne said. “Part of it is where Detroit started off, and then we have all these other factors like the bankruptcy and the tax foreclosure crisis that exacerbated the issue.”
According to Etienne, his “big questions” all ultimately centered on the empowering the use of the word “ghetto.”
“All this is actually leading to this implicit question, which is, ‘How do we put all this together to reassert the term ‘ghetto’?” Etienne said. “The use of the word ‘ghetto’ could actually be a provocative way to draw attention to really oppressive conditions in particular neighborhoods. We’ve actually morphed into using euphemisms … Given declining property values, underfunded schools, police violence et. cetera — can we put all this together and come up with a new framework and justification for using the term ‘ghetto’?”
LSA junior Charde Madoula-Bey said Lassiter’s presentation struck a chord, as it addressed her own interests.
“I wrote a research paper in a previous class about how the war on drugs was a political agenda to eradicate the Black population through mass incarceration,” Madoula-Bey said. “With Matthew’s point of view, it was really interesting how it kind of took away the criminalization of African Americans and put it on Mexican Americans, which was a perspective I was totally unaware of.”
However, Madoula-Bey expressed she wished the speakers could have presented more on possible solutions to the issues they discussed.
“I thought the event was very informational,” Madoula-Bey said. “However, I felt that it wasn’t quite as expansive as it could’ve been. I know they only had 15 minutes to talk about their research, but I feel as though there should’ve been more points as far as how we could solve these problems, not just what their research is and how they go about their research.”
According to Peggy McCracken, director of the Institute for the Humanities, the theme of environments was purposely meant to be a broad category, allowing for the interdisciplinary nature of the panel.
“By ‘environments,’ we mean both natural environments and built environments,” McCracken said. “This panel is much more about built environments … We have invited people from very different fields often to talk about a similar topic. I loved the diversity of views, and also it was nice because they gave so much concrete information.”
Residential College lecturer Olga Lopez-Cotin said she found the event thought-provoking, as it addresses topics related to her area of expertise.
“I am personally very interested in these topics because I teach about it and I come from a very different conception of the city,” Lopez-Cotin said. “The city is where life happens, and the suburb is a notion that is very foreign to me. And so this is really intriguing to me. What’s the history, the fascination with the suburbs? How was it constructed politically as a way to diffuse political organizing? What effects has this all had on our society?”