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Can Block Clubs Block Despair?

April 22nd, 2007

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One bright spring morning, Peter St. Jean set out on an unusual scholarly expedition. St. Jean is a sociologist at the University of Buffalo who studies the relationship between concentrated poverty and crime. He drives a maroon Nissan Pathfinder, which that morning he’d loaded up with video cameras, two mounted on tripods and pointed out the rear side windows and one more up front, fastened with Velcro to the center of the dashboard.

“This way we’ll see every angle,” explained St. Jean, a 39-year-old man of Caribbean origin with a shaved head, thick, muscular arms, and the compact build of a wrestler.

St. Jean wasn’t at work on a documentary. He was doing field research, and had invited me to tag along as he gathered footage on an SSO run, or “systematic social observation,” a method of capturing on hidden camera the physical characteristics and social activities in a neighborhood.

He pulled out of the driveway of his ranch house in Williamsville, a suburb where he lives with his wife and two children on a tree-lined cul-de-sac bordering a creek. We were heading toward a very different place: the east side of Buffalo, the poorest part of a city that has seen its population shrink and its tax base plummet at alarming rates in recent decades. “Enjoy this feeling,” St. Jean said as we turned onto Williamsville’s Main Street, passing boutiques, a shopping plaza, and a beauty salon. “You won’t have it for long.”

Sure enough, as we neared the city, the landscape altered. We passed an empty lot overrun by weeds, then another strewn with garbage. The boutiques gave way to liquor stores and boarded-up buildings, many emblazoned with graffiti: “DUCE.” “CRIP.” “DANGER!”

Before becoming a sociologist, St. Jean spent 12 years in the U.S. military: He’s used to navigating his way through treacherous environments. After half an hour, he pulled up in front of a house with a partially collapsed roof where, he said, a few months earlier the body of a woman named Michelle Hicks had been found bearing signs she’d been strangled. The block looked run-down and desolate, the kind of place where it was all too easy to imagine a homicide happening.

St. Jean started driving again. He turned on to a street, only a few blocks over, that looked very different. The lawns of the row houses lining it were neatly trimmed. The garbage was arranged in tidy stacks in garbage cans. Trees had been planted along the divider, and some of the dwellings sported their own gardens. At the entrance to the street was a sign: “Help Us Keep It Clean.” It had been placed there by a block club, a grass-roots organization formed to encourage neighbors to meet and discuss their shared concerns. No major crimes had taken place on this street in recent memory, a fact St. Jean attributed to the higher level of trust and cohesion among its residents.

Can such a seemingly mundane factor explain why one block in a neighborhood is safer than another? For several decades, the debate over the myriad problems of America’s inner cities has been dominated by two schools of thought: on one side, liberals who have emphasized the structural factors (racism, poverty) at their root; on the other, conservatives who’ve stressed the behavioral pathologies (out-of-wedlock birth, criminality) they believe are to blame. Yet over the past decade, a new theory has emerged to explain why some areas fare better than others even when their residents face similarly daunting odds. It stresses neither jobs nor personal behavior but something at once more elementary and more difficult to capture: the nature of the social interactions taking place among neighbors, and the degree to which they foster a shared capacity to solve problems and enforce collective norms. These qualities appear to have a powerful effect on everything from the level of violence in a community to the conduct of adolescent youth to the likelihood that a neighborhood will remain poor, which is perhaps why a growing number of scholars and policy-makers are interested in teasing out what exactly fosters such traits.

The first indication of this dynamic came nearly a decade ago, in August 1997, when the journal Science published a seven-page article titled “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” It reported some findings from one of the largest social-science research experiments ever launched in the United States.

The experiment took place in Chicago, where, in the mid-1990s, surveyors fanned out into 343 “neighborhood clusters” — geographically contiguous tracts consisting of roughly 8,000 people each — to interview thousands of residents. One of the elements the surveyors were measuring was the level of “social cohesion and trust” in a community. To gauge this, surveyors asked residents to rank, on a five-point scale, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements: “People around here are willing to help their neighbors”; “This is a close-knit neighborhood”; “People in this neighborhood can be trusted.” A second set of questions sought to measure “informal social control” — the capacity of adults in a community to work together to achieve a sense of public order. Here, individuals were asked how likely they thought their neighbors were to intervene in various situations: when a fight broke out; when someone was spray-painting graffiti; when the local fire station was threatened with budget cuts. Researchers supplemented the interviews by crisscrossing the city in vans fitted with video cameras to conduct systematic social observation of street life in various neighborhoods.

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The results of the survey were striking. Throughout Chicago, the levels of violence and social disorder were markedly lower in communities where the sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene were higher — qualities that, taken together, constituted something the designers of the experiment called “collective efficacy,” This was true in some predominantly black neighborhoods as well as in several white ones. It applied to some middle- and working-class communities, but also to some of the poorest neighborhood tracts examined. And it appeared to explain why similarly impoverished neighborhoods do not always share the same fate: When researchers compared two neighborhoods with similar levels of concentrated disadvantage (unemployment, percentage of welfare recipients) but different levels of collective efficacy, they found that in the neighborhood where collective efficacy was higher, the odds of being victimized by a crime were 30 percent lower. The chance of being murdered was 40 percent less. The absence of collective efficacy, the study found, correlated even more powerfully with some types of violence than did poverty or race.

“I consider it one of the most important criminological insights in the last 20 years,” said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, co-director of the Institute for Child and Family Policy at Columbia University, described the study’s impact to me as “huge.” Brooks-Gunn is a psychologist who studies childhood development. She has published papers showing that collective efficacy can play a role in delaying the age of sexual initiation among youth, particularly among adolescent girls. She said there are studies under way evaluating its effects in six countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Collective efficacy is a variation on a concept known as “self-efficacy” that was coined several decades ago by a Stanford University psychologist named Albert Bandura. Bandura postulated that individuals are capable of overcoming any number of disadvantages if they believe their actions will make a difference in their lives. Studies showed that when children were convinced they could solve math problems, for example, they were more successful at solving them than peers with more talent who doubted their own abilities. “A resilient sense of efficacy enables individuals to do extraordinary things by productive use of their skills in the face of overwhelming obstacles,” Bandura observed.

Over tea one day, Felton Earls, a professor of social medicine at Harvard who co-authored the original Science article, told me that collective efficacy applies the same insight to neighborhoods and groups. It’s a theory that emphasizes the capacity of residents to overcome obstacles on the basis of shared expectations — specifically, that they can work together for the common good. A small African American man with dark, pensive eyes and a neatly trimmed gray beard, Earls grew up in New Orleans, in a black community that was far from affluent. “But we didn’t think of it as poor,” he told me. There were “no gangs, no drugs,” he said, “There were many indications of high collective efficacy, and by that I mean supervision of kids. There was music. There was church.”

Collective-efficacy researchers like Earls don’t claim that structural factors like racism and poverty are unimportant. What they do contend is that even people facing severe disadvantages have the capacity to organize themselves in ways that can make a tangible difference, both at the neighborhood level and on individual blocks. A few years ago, a graduate student at the University of Chicago decided to measure the level of collective efficacy on different streets in one community, Grand Boulevard, a poor, mostly black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. That student was Peter St. Jean. In his forthcoming book, Pockets of Crime, St. Jean shows that some blocks in Grand Boulevard have much higher levels of collective efficacy than others, and that these areas tend to be less dangerous.

But what exactly was at work on those safer blocks? Earls told me that back in 1997, shortly after the article in Science appeared, he was called in to a meeting with then…

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