Words come to us through all kinds of devices and in all sorts of formats. From book summaries to TED Talks to podcasts, blogs, and beyond, Sociability’s Words on the Street celebrate words — wherever they come from — that can teach us something new, give a unique perspective, and inspire us to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Welcome to a new regular column curated (and this month, written) by Katie Gosa.
TLDR stands for “Too Long, Didn’t Read.”
TLDR book summaries hit the high points of thought provoking books you may not have time to read. But if you DO have time, TLDR will give you a good idea of why this book may be a great add to your reading list.
So, here we go:
Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg
Klinenberg’s book seemed to be the most appropriate book to start off Words on the Street with because it taught me an incredible—and incredibly important—concept. That concept is Social Infrastructure.
Social infrastructure, as defined by Klinenberg, encompasses “public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools… sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments… particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called ‘third spaces,’ places (like cafés, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased.”
We notice physical infrastructure (and/or lack thereof) in our day to day lives as we drive to work and complain about potholes, walk our dogs and cross the street to stay on a sidewalk, or say a silent prayer of gratitude when our drainage systems keep the streets from flooding during the spring thunderstorm season. As important as our city’s physical infrastructure is for our quality of life, so too is the social infrastructure of our community.
Here are my 10 key takeaways from Palaces of the People about social infrastructure and its roles:
- Social distance and segregation in physical space as well as in lines of communication breed polarization. Contact and conversation remind us of our common humanity, particularly when they happen recurrently, and when they involve shared passions and interests. In recent decades, we’ve lost the factories and industrial towns where different ethnic groups once formed blue-collar communities. We’ve made our neighborhoods more segregated by class. We’ve seen private companies organize competitive, professionalized sports programs for affluent children, and left most low-income kids to play in leagues of their own. We’ve watched cable news programs and listened to radio talk shows that tell us what we already believe. These conditions facilitate social bonding within certain groups but make social bridging difficult. They foster polarization, and divided we fall. There’s no easy way to restore the sense of common purpose and shared humanity that makes civic life possible. But the hard work that lies before us will be impossible if we don’t build better social infrastructure.
- Currently, America’s social classes are more divided than racial groups. Social classes aren’t interacting with each other as frequently as they used to, which is a big problem.
- Rebuilding the social divide and bridging America’s intense polarization require strong social infrastructure. This means real places where people of all demographics intermingle, form relationships, are exposed to different types of people, and through their environment, regularly engage with each other.
- The social fabric of our society is more stable when people are connected to each other. This connection allows the “fabric” to hold disagreeing perspectives while remaining intact.
- Building real connections requires a shared physical environment—a social infrastructure. Shared physical environments create “urban social freedom,” places where people can open themselves to encounters that had long been feared or forbidden. Playing together, such as a game of soccer on a local field, leads to rehumanizing each other, a needed step to integrate and democratize divided society.
- Social media is not a safety net or gathering place. It both contributes to social division/polarization while simultaneously connecting people who might not otherwise be connected.
- The Internet has become young people’s core social infrastructure because we’ve unfairly deprived them of access to other sites for meaningful connection. If we fail to build physical places where people can enjoy one another’s company, regardless of age, class, race, or ethnicity, we will all be similarly confined.
- The founding principle behind the library—that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage, which they can use to any end they see fit—is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our time…and is precisely why libraries are so important. Anyone can use the library, regardless of how much money they have, what age they are, or what they’re interested in. Libraries have something for everyone, which leads to people from all walks of life interacting with each other.
- Until recently, America, was “closely divided,” not “deeply divided.” Citizens identified strongly with or against one of the two major parties, but—with exceptions for issues such as abortion, sexual morality, and capital punishment—they generally did not have firm or extreme views on most major policy matters. That has changed in the last decades, however, as social inequality and class segregation have deepened. National news programs transcending ideological lines have lost viewers, and the internet has generated the rise of “filter bubbles” where everyone can find facts and opinions that confirm their beliefs. All of this feeds the kind of in-group connection that social scientists call “bonding social capital” but starves us of the “bridging social capital.” We need to live together.
- We need, now more than ever, an inclusive conversation about the kinds of infrastructure—physical as well as social—that will best serve, sustain and protect us. We need a democratic process that proactively solicits the active participation of people and communities whose lives will be affected by the projects our public dollars will support, plus respects local knowledge and wisdom as well as technical expertise. We need to engineer civility in societies that are at risk of breaking apart.
Many of us are more than a little concerned about the hyperpolarization of our communities, regardless on which side of the aisle you stand. With social media algorithms and the isolating effects of the pandemic, many of us are feeling a sense of disconnection from our community, and I think, more than ever, can appreciate the importance that social infrastructure plays in our sense of belonging and connection.
Here’s a simple first step. The next time you have a free afternoon, spend time in your favorite form of social infrastructure, like River Legacy, or my personal favorite, the George W. Hawkes Library in Downtown Arlington. You know, the place with all the words.
Although I tried to summarize all key points in this book, there are plenty more important pieces of information and insights to discover. If you’d like to dive further into this topic, consider purchasing “Palaces of the People” by Eric Klinenberg or going to your favorite library to check it out. Hint, hint.
Dare to Lead with Brené Brown
We can’t stop listening to this podcast. Brené and a series of remarkable guest speakers cover everything from the importance (and how) to build trust on your team, the hard but vital work to address racial inequity, how the pandemic has changed the work environment, and how to be a leader without “armoring up.” Especially helpful are the “roleplaying” conversations for real time examples of how to respond differently during hard conversations. We recommend listening to any of the podcast episodes in the series, though this two part-er about B.R.A.V.I.N.G. trust is a good place to get started.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
In need of a belly laugh? Can I recommend this story from Hyperbole and a Half? If you’re laughing until you’re actually crying, you may relate to this author as much as I do. If so, well, hey.