Can a library save your life? Could public parks help address crime and addiction in your neighborhood? Think about libraries and churches and crowded subway trains — they’re shared spaces that can push all types of people together, playing a crucial role in civic life.
Eric Klinenberg calls this phenomenon social infrastructure. And, while crumbling bridges and roads can mean the difference between life and death, so too, argues Klinenberg, can the crumbling of our social infrastructure.
ERIC KLINENBERG: What would have happened if instead of reacting to the broken windows theory by doing mass incarceration and stop and frisk policing and zero tolerance policing… what if we had responded to broken windows by fixing the damn windows.
CHRIS HAYES: Fixing the windows.
Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. There's a lot of talk these days about American society being broken in some ways, and I go back and forth about it because there is a kind of presentism that we're all susceptible to where the moment we're in feels like the worst moment or the most intense moment or the most dramatic moment. And then you read history and you're like, well, there was lots of other times when things were pretty crazy and out of control. Like in the nineteen-tens there were anarchists just sending off bombs all the time and all over the place. And then the Palmer Raids, and like that must've felt pretty polarized and balkanized. And obviously the run up to the Civil War and the racist terrorism of the redemption period. And the Jim Crow south and the 1960s when there were political assassinations happening left and right and terrorist groups of various types and airline hijackings.
So you can sort of be susceptible to thinking that it's really bad now even as you look at history and understand that there have been moments of much higher level of conflict. But one thing I think is true about American society this moment is there is a thirst — and I mean it in the old fashion sense and not the millennial sense, Tiffany's shaking her head, so embarrassed… “Dad”… there is a thirst for social connection and community that feels unmet. And I think it partly feels unmet because so much of our social interaction is mediated through social media. And in many ways we have as many connections as we've ever had and we are in touch with more people than we ever had. But the way that American life is structured doesn't produce the opportunities for social connection the way that it might have once.
And that is something that I think about a lot because I'm someone who is a lifelong urban resident. I grew up in New York City. I grew up in the Bronx. I lived in Chicago, I lived in Washington, and then I'm back in Brooklyn and I have always loved the way cities push you up against other people. Now, not all the time. Sometimes on a very crowded F train when it's 98 degrees and you're literally being pushed up against another person — it's not awesome. But the thing that I love about living in a city are the places and spaces and events where you experience your fellow citizens. There's something always that's been incredibly elevating about that for me. It's something I crave. It's something that I missed when I was on a college campus particularly where you're sort of cloistered off from everyone and it's something that I think something people like and they seek out.
I mean, part of the reason that housing, for instance, in a lot of American cities, is so expensive is because demand for it is high and the reason demand for it is high is I think because people actually do like that. You will see real estate listings talk about walkable neighborhood because people actually do like and enjoy if they have the option, if it's affordable to be able to go out into some kind of communal public space where they interact with other people and maybe they know their neighbors and they have block parties. That is something people seek after and it's kind of hard to say what the word for that or phrase for that is — like what's that thing when you're really at a free outdoor concert in like a plaza. Or the thing that when you go to Europe, that feels awesome when you're in plazas and everyone's out and drinking coffee and there's a bunch of old men who are all yelling at each other about politics.
What is the thing there that's producing that experience that I do think there's a real universal desire for? I’ll avoid “thirst.” Just got a thumbs up from Tiffany. And so the question is, what is the name for that? And one of the reasons that I wanted to talk to my next guest is because he just wrote a book, it's called Palaces for the People that actually does an amazing job. It's a book length way of talking about what is that thing? What's that thing that I've been seeking and enjoying my whole life, growing up in cities, the thing that draws Americans to trips to Europe where they take Instagram pics of sitting in the plaza, the thing that makes neighborhoods in urban environments that have these features so desirable? He says, our guest today, "it's social infrastructure." It’s sort of a strange term, but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
It's the stuff that undergirds society, the stuff that undergirds our social life. And he makes the argument that we have allowed the social infrastructure of the nation to degrade in ways that are hurting our enjoyment, our experience of American life. Eric Klinenberg is someone that I have known for years. He's sort of friends of friends. He's been always a great guy and kind of a sort of a mentor. He's written a bunch of books. We talk about a number of them in this conversation and he's one of these really rare academics who manages to have one foot in academia and one foot in the real world really well. He is a top flight academic. He does incredibly good and rigorous work. He mentors grad students. He's all about that life. He also participates in public life in all kinds of really interesting ways and I think is very serious about taking the lessons he's learning to apply to real practical problems that we face.
And one of the things that's great about this conversation is this is a conversation that's not about Donald Trump, although maybe, so that we get enough downloads we'll put Trump's on how in the title. I'm peeling back the curtain. But this is, instead, it's a deeper conversation about why it is we feel the way we do about American society, why it is we've allowed the places that create society to degrade right in front of our eyes and what we can do to change it.
So I thought maybe we'd start a little bit with how this fits into your sort of oeuvre more broadly, your body of work – and I've known you for a long time. We met when I was 22 or something.
We're friends and we've exchanged ideas and I've read your body of work, everything you've written, I think, and there's a real connection through line. I think particularly between your first book, “Heat Wave,” a book you wrote called “Going Solo,” which is about the sort of rise of people living alone in America in this book, there's a real kind of narrative arc there. Maybe you can sort of talk about how you ended up writing about this topic.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah, I think you're right. And I guess the first thing I want to say is how exciting it is to be told I have an oeuvre at that, this is a peak intellectual moment for-
CHRIS HAYES: I was jealous of you and I described you as having an oeuvre actually-
ERIC KLINENBERG: Someday young man.
CHRIS HAYES: I was like, that's a great thing to be told.
ERIC KLINENBERG: If you didn't have to do so much television, Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's true.
ERIC KLINENBERG: You would have a couple oeuvres.
CHRIS HAYES: That's true.
ERIC KLINENBERG: So, for the last few decades I have been working to figure out the sociology of connection. What are the conditions that shape the way we associate and build society? That's an old fashioned word, but one that I think still has some resonance and that we better recover if we have any chance of getting to a better place and-
CHRIS HAYES: Of literally surviving.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Of literal-
CHRIS HAYES: In fact is one thing I take away from your work, the stakes of it are actually survival.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's right. And so the neat beginning of this for me was this first big book project I did a about a heat wave in Chicago, where you've spent a lot of time and I've spent my childhood and worked for several years — a city we love, a place that's known as this kind of city of neighborhoods, right? That prides itself as being a community kind of city, despite all of the violence and ugliness — Chicagoans think of themselves that way. And I got into this set of questions because there was a catastrophic heat wave that hit Chicago in July of 1995 and more than 700 people died in just a couple of days. It was a remarkable event.
CHRIS HAYES: It's still a shocking number to hear.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It's shocking. And I guess there's two things that were shocking to me about that disaster. The first is that so many people died and died alone in such a short period of time during this moment of, kind of, incredible prosperity in the United States, like the mid-1990s. It's a time when things were going right and the narrative was about this turnaround and people were feeling good and the heat wave kind of smacked the city when it wasn't looking. But the other puzzle of the book was the question of why this turned into a nonevent because the truth is that the people died. There were these crazy images of things like 10 refrigerated meat packing trucks that had to go into the morgue in the center of the city because there were so many people died so fast. And no one was anticipating it, that the city literally couldn't handle the load.
CHRIS HAYES: The trucks are parked in a parking lot, like, all lined up.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah it's so strange. And while that's happening, this is the strangest thing of all, the mayor is getting on television and saying this isn't real. Well, the phrase was,“really real.” He kept saying, “This isn't really real.” He believed that the medical examiner was propping up the deaths in order to get attention or to politicize this. Does this sound familiar, Chris?
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, it's literally, I thought of you. In fact, you and I emailed about this. It is literally the whole Puerto Rico story you see — and down to questioning the death figures, down to saying that it was politically motivated and sort of denying that the catastrophe itself, it happened.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It's as if they were following the script and I wrote one of the, probably the first, op-ed in the New York Times about Maria saying these numbers are wrong and far more people are dying.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Then we've acknowledged, and since then we've learned that it's many times higher, thousands of people have died, more people died in Maria than on September 11th as far as I understand, more people died in Maria then in Katrina, than in Chicago, and we have a president who's patted himself on the shoulder, so but I don't want to go down that road. So the story of the heat wave was remarkable for a bunch of reasons. I felt like it was a metaphor for what was happening in this country. Part of the book is about why it's so hard for us to come to terms with and acknowledge these devastating things that happen. And it's kind of a metaphor for climate denial. It's a metaphor for the denial of inequality in cities. It's a book about our capacity to live with soft and slow-motion violence. Invisible suffering.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. That's one of the things, one of my takeaways from that book, which I read a while ago, but it still sticks with me. It's just the difference between the lonely, slow and darkened invisible deaths of these hundreds of people. And the spectacular catastrophe of an explosion, a terrorist attack, a truck being driven down a crowded street on July 14th in France… these mass casualty events that are designed to be spectacular verse the sort of quiet and slow and lonely deaths in the heat wave or in Maria.
ERIC KLINENBERG: There's nothing less photogenic than a heat wave, and they're kind of these invisible killers of invisible people, right? That you don't see the heat and the people who die are home alone and they are old and they're isolated and they're people of color in neighborhoods that don't get covered most of the time. And so it was no surprise, I guess, that we were able to skip through it as if nothing had happened. So that was one big puzzle. But the thing that got me into the Palaces for the People and social infrastructure idea is there was one chapter of the book that tried to look closely at an amazing scientific puzzle. And this is a genuine puzzle.
When you looked across the city, there were patterns to the deaths that would surprise no one, poor neighborhoods, African American neighborhoods, violent neighborhoods were far more likely to have high death rates, right? And no one's going to be winning a Nobel Prize for that observation. That's exactly what you expect, but I looked a little more closely and tried to parse out why is it that some of the neighborhoods that demographically should have been the most vulnerable turned out in fact, to be the most resilient. There are places where fewer people died in some very poor African American neighborhoods on the South Side, on the West Side than died in the most affluent white neighborhoods, including the place where I grew up around Old Town in Lincoln Park, and no one had tried to figure that out. Two neighborhoods that look identical on paper that are separated by one street, and there are these pairs of neighborhoods like that, including Auburn Gresham and Englewood on the South Side, which are places, I got to know well. Why?
And so I decided that you can't answer those questions by doing what social scientists these days typically do: crunching data.As much as big data can tell us, like, it, it wasn't producing the answers because we didn't have the metrics.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Because in the spreadsheet, the two neighborhoods, Auburn Gresham and Englewood, which are literally adjacent to each other or both, they look essentially indistinguishable.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's right. The things that we typically measure are the same. But when you got onto the ground, a whole different picture emerged. Auburn Gresham for instance, you have the population level was more or less what it was 30 or 40 years before the heat wave hit. And the properties were intact. There were kind of well-kept sidewalks, pretty high levels of commercial density, a lot of diners and barber shops and grocery stores. The parks were in decent shape, the places were well lit, you saw a lot of block clubs around there were pretty and there was one really big active Catholic church and a lot of other smaller churches there as well. It was a pretty intact neighborhood.
Englewood, again, demographically similar, had lost tens of thousands of residents. It had lots of empty lots and abandoned homes on every single block. There was virtually no commercial activity. It's a food desert. There were churches, but they were really strapped for cash. It was just that they were in hard times, and what I discovered is that the physical ecology of Auburn Gresham was incredibly protective because if you're old and vulnerable, frail, young, those conditions draw you out of your home and into public places where you build relationships. Whereas if you live in a place like Englewood, especially if you're vulnerable, you're far more likely to kind of hunker down at home and that gets you killed in the heat wave.
CHRIS HAYES: So I grew up Bronx in the 1980s and we lived in a sort of working-middle class neighborhood and then moved to a sort of more upper middle class neighborhood both in the Bronx, but I had a lot of occasion to be in neighborhoods of the Bronx that were poor working class. Poor neighborhood in the Bronx, the ones that we went to were very lively, poor neighborhoods. Okay. This can be in the 1980s when the violence level was high. Right. I mean, so it was like, there would be drug dealers out of the street and stuff like that, but tons of people in the street, tons of commercial activity, tons of stores, bodegas, music blaring, cars triple parked, craziness.
But when I moved to Chicago and I would go for reporting in the beginning or riding my bike to neighborhoods in the South and West side where it was just lot after lot after lot. It freaked me the fuck out.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It should have, man.
CHRIS HAYES: It's just like, I have been in poor neighborhoods. I grew up in New York in the 1980s. I've been through a lot of poor neighborhoods. Nothing to me was as eerie and terrifying and creepy as the kind of loneliness and barrenness of these really huge cracks of the city of Chicago that are vacant.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's right. And it's scary because there's no “eyes on the street,” in the Jane Jacobs sense of the term, but also just the kind of the sinister, total segregation of Chicago. That means neighborhoods get neglected in ways that they don't in New York City. I had the same experience when I moved to New York City. I thought there were poor neighborhoods here, I thought there were dangerous places — these places are full of life. And in fact, we've had this vocabulary for thinking about urban poverty for generations that comes from the Victorian slums, this idea that a poorer neighborhood as a place that's teeming with activity.
CHRIS HAYES: “Teeming,” that's always the verb.
ERIC KLINENBERG: But there's a whole section in “Heat Wave” that's it's about the country in the city, these are abandoned places and they're so dangerous.
CHRIS HAYES: And there's places I have to say it, in subsequent life as a reporter, there are places like them in Baltimore, in St. Louis, in Cleveland... I mean they're-
ERIC KLINENBERG: Philadelphia.
CHRIS HAYES: Philadelphia.
ERIC KLINENBERG: And parts of the Bronx-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: ...to be fair, the Bronx did not survive the 1970s wholly intact. So in the heat wave, the death rate in Englewood — the bombed-out neighborhood, the depleted neighborhood, the scary neighborhood — the neighborhood was 10 times higher than it was in Auburn Gresham. But then, also, I found out that the life expectancy in Englewood was five years lower than Auburn Gresham, and this for me was the kind of big insight that generated the book that ultimately became “Palaces for The People.” I came to think of, that what was driving the difference to be social infrastructure, not social capital, which is what the term we used to talk about the size and density of people's social networks, right? But social infrastructure is the kind of underlying conditions that shape social capital — the context, the physical context.
I define social infrastructure as the physical places and the organizations, places like YMCAs and churches that shape our interactions. I've come to think that the social infrastructure is just as real, even though we haven't really had a word for it, as the infrastructure for water or for power or for transit, and when the social infrastructure is robust and we invest in it and it's well taken care of as in Auburn Gresham, it leads to all kinds of good things.
CHRIS HAYES: Better outcomes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It makes it more likely we're going to interact with each other. Those interactions can lead to relationships and cohesion at best, they've helped to build this thing we call community in a soft and fuzzy way. And when the social infrastructure is neglected and degraded, it makes us all more likely to hunker down and be on our own. And so this book is really a bid to think about what it would mean to solve two problems with this concept that one problem is ever more of us, not just in the U.S., but in other parts of the world believe that society is broken, that we're more polarized than we've been since the Civil War. It doesn't feel like we have a sense of collective purpose.
And the second thing is that we all know is that the infrastructure is broken and the systems that we depend on to be part of a modern society are simply falling apart and are overwhelmed by 21st-century challenges. And whatever happens in the next few years, before too long, we really have no choice but to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure.
CHRIS HAYES: So the concept is really intriguing to me. And you do a great job in the book, sort of spelling out. I think the iconic example in the book and in some of your talking and writing with the book is the library. And I think the library is so interesting too for a bunch of reasons. You say this in the book and it's something that a friend of mine said to me years ago that, if public libraries did not exist now, there is no way that we could invent them. There is no way. You could not go to Congress or your local state legislature and say to the publishing industry, "We are gonna give away your product. We're going to fund — we're going to take public tax dollars to fund people giving away your product for free at no cost." What do you think?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Excuse me?
CHRIS HAYES: It's impossible. It is impossible. Before you even get to the library as, like, a site of social infrastructure, and I want you to talk a bit about that. Talk a little bit about what the conceptual underpinning is and how oppositional that is to the way that we structure things now, just conceptually.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Ask yourself to try to warm up to this concept. How many places do you go in your life where, when you walk in the door, what people there ask you is, “What can I do for you and I give you something?” And not, “What can I take from you?”
I work in a university and I am a big champion of universities. I believe that universities give net more than we take, but we take so much. The cost of school is so high. It's a calculation you have to make about where you're going to study and whether you'll get enough out of it. I understand that.
The library as an institution does the opposite. It only gives. The concept here is that you as not even a citizen, just as a person...
CHRIS HAYES: As a human.
ERIC KLINENBERG: As a human being are entitled to access to your, our shared cultural heritage. There is something in you that can be refined, can bring you someplace better. And what you need is the right set of resources and the right context and a place that will believe in you and support you as you try to become something better. Maybe that's a better speaker of English or maybe that's a better student of history, or maybe that's a better human being or companion. The library and many of the public institutions that we once invested so much in are there to help us become something better.
In that sense I think they represent the best of who we are in this country, but also the best of who we are collectively as humanity. It's amazing that we find that concept of the library and that institution in places throughout the world.
CHRIS HAYES: This is a key part of the library, and I think it connects to two other things that I think of. You write about public space in the book. When I think about New York City, I'm a city kid, and New York City actually has a lot of social infrastructure, the library system, the subway, and the parks, to me those are the big... The thing that is so key about them, and you write about this in the book, this sort of interesting study of people in a fairly poor neighborhood using a library and then you have this interesting interview with a woman who's relatively affluent in the New York sense, who also loves the library and uses the library, found community in the library.
When you look at the parks and the library and the subway, those are the three places that every kind of New Yorker is in. They're fully absolutely universal. Wall Street traders take the subway, homeless people take the subway, people that work the night shifts at the bakery take the subway. You go to the park and it's like every kind of New Yorker is in the park and every kind of New Yorker is in the library.
It seems to me that's a huge part of what's undergirding the, what you're talking about when you're talking about social infrastructure.
ERIC KLINENBERG: I want us to think about the world we'd like to live in and what it would mean to live in a better city, what it would mean to be in a better country. The idea of more ideological harmony and less acrimony, that seems somewhat far fetched to me at the moment. I don't think that we get to a better place through more moral suasion. I don't know what your dinner parties are like, but either...
CHRIS HAYES: I got three kids. Right now there’s no dinner parties.
ERIC KLINENBERG: In 2007 I went to a dinner party.
CHRIS HAYES: I get home at 10:00.
ERIC KLINENBERG: I'm sorry Chris. Some of you listening at home. I might've been to a dinner party. [typo? Unclear] We are just so divided. Too many of us do live in these ideological bubbles. When we get onto social media, which is not really a social infrastructure, it's a communications technology, we have a tendency to get very overheated with one another very, very quickly.
CHRIS HAYES: It's fucking bullshit.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It gets so hostile so fast on the internet. It's just insane. I don't believe, at this point, that the solution to our problems is for us to sit in a room and argue it out. I do believe that we have a need to rebuild the places where we live and that if we do it in the right way we can start to restore some sense of common purpose, even if it's only in the beginning. We have a shared interest in getting the subway right or we have an shared interest in getting the parks right.
CHRIS HAYES: That's a good argument, but it seems to me that's a kind of ends-based argument. It's like if you're making an argument to someone about why you should invest in social infrastructure that's a good argument for it. That sort of health of the society and the nation. There's also the people that built this kind of social infrastructure were not doing it for that reason.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: They built it out of a first principle, which is a zealous belief poor people should have parks.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Not because... There's also a belief it'll make everyone healthier and it’ll be good, blah blah blah. I almost feel like you have to have the ideological commitment and zealotry around the universal applicability of public goods in order to drive this because the people that built this stuff that's still indoors had that belief system.
ERIC KLINENBERG: You know, you're right, and thank you for calling that out. That is the underlying first principle of the book, that these are essential public goods. If we aren't actively pushing for the provision of these essential goods we have already lost. The conversation about what government should do and what we collectively should ask for is already so impoverished because we have just grown so accustomed, not just to austerity, but to the entire discourse of governance, which is about cost and benefits. That went right to the library.
You might remember this summer, an economist, and it had to be an economist, wrote an article in Forbessaying it is time for us to get rid of the library. The library is an obsolete institution. Give me the cost benefit calculation that shows me that the library is worth our collective investment. Since you can't, Mr. Hayes, let's knock those things down and put up Amazon shops everywhere because let's all face it, the market's going to deliver something better.
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The article went up and at first I thought maybe someone had just put it up to troll me specifically, so pointedly an argument against everything that I've been thinking about and writing about. Then it turned out, no, actually there was a magazine that was called Forbes that published this thing and the response was overwhelming.
CHRIS HAYES: It was.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It was overwhelmingly awesome. It's like the librarians of the world united and just took apart the reasoning of this thing. I've never seen a magazine, and specifically not Forbes, take down an article so quickly. They literally took the motherfucker down off the internet because it was so humiliating.
It's not clear to me that public officials have taken heed. It's not clear to me that the case for the library as a public good, and parks and subways and childcare centers or other things that I write about, is really one that we know how to make these days because we're so used to being on the defensive. I want to put it there.
CHRIS HAYES: That's my point though, that what I think when I was reading the book, it's like, I think you're doing this really fascinating intellectual project of trying to recapture... It's like you're working backwards to socialism.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's not exactly a terrible description for some of what's happening in our politics right now. When I see this wave of young people and young political candidates embracing a more socialist vision it's not that they read the literature and the literature inspired them. It's that they looked at the problems and saw the solutions that we're using now and can envision another scenario that I think is very much like the scenario that I'm offering here and from there discovering a set of ideological principles that I think is now more tangible.
I believe that if we start with ideology, if you come home to your conservative parents or your true centrist Democrat parents and you tell them about the Marx and Engels that you read...
CHRIS HAYES: Don't do that.
ERIC KLINENBERG: It's not going to go well.
CHRIS HAYES: Don't come home to anyone and tell them. I mean come on.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Dude, you're talking to a guy who went to sociology grad school in Berkeley so I was there, man. I was deep in it. I do think there's something about the pragmatism of this.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: If we start to break down...
CHRIS HAYES: With a tangibility of it.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Fine. I'll meet you there.
CHRIS HAYES: No, I'm not arguing with you. I'm just saying I think that's what's really effective about the book is like just look at... Do we like libraries? I mean it's almost you're sort of building this argument with this sort of first referendum. Do we like libraries? We like libraries.
ERIC KLINENBERG: When the book started the original idea was that I was going to organize it around these special places. There would be a chapter on libraries and a chapter on parks and a chapter on subways. That was the architecture. But then it occurred to me that a much better and more tangible or pragmatic way to do this is to focus on problems, because in fact, there are a bunch of problems that both the left and the right are trying to solve, although in some of them the one side is just trying to deny that they exist, things specifically about climate change.
It turns out that there's some incredible ideas and actually some experiments for solving those problems that involve investing in social infrastructure that very few people know about, including people who are experts in some of those fields. I decided a much more powerful way to organize the book would be to take readers who are interested not only in the ideology, not only in the ideas, but also in the problems and walk them through some of those things.
CHRIS HAYES: What's your favorite example of that?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Oh man, well the material on libraries comes from a chapter about social isolation and loneliness, which is a concern of a lot of people. We've never been more atomized. We've never been more lonely. I think that's the zeitgeist of the time.
I talked to so many mothers, professional mothers, who had a child and had this initial period of total bliss and then were taking time off of work, and some of them were not professional, they just had a child and were not working, and they were home, and it's New York City so we live in tighter places here, and the home quickly got suffocating. Their partner was away or they didn't have a partner. It was just them and the baby and they got really lonely and they didn't know where to go. They found the neighborhood library and when they walked in the door it was all these other people in their situation and kids and they could put their kid down and the kid could play. They would find out about neighborhood resources and make friends and those are lifelong relationships.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s a revelation.
ERIC KLINENBERG: I like that chapter about isolation. I think I'm going to say that the chapter that for me really speaks to the heart of what I've been thinking about the last few years is the one that's about climate change. For the last several years this has been the focus of a big part of my research and after I did this work in Chicago I came to New York. I teach at NYU. I had done a lot of writing and organizing debate after Sandy hit New York to try to figure out what comes next. How is climate change going to effect the future of New York City and how does New York City and this region need to change in anticipation of the storms that are coming?
I got this call out of the blue from the Obama administration. Shaun Donovan, who had run the public housing agency in New York City, was the HUD secretary under Obama, and he asked me if I would be the research director for this thing called “The Rebuilt By Design Competition,” which was designed to try to generate innovative infrastructure projects from groups all over the world – engineers, architects, landscape architects. My job was to show them around the region and talk about the various needs and vulnerabilities and possibilities that we have as we start to rebuild.
Actually, my interest in the libraries came from this moment when one of the teams said, "We want to build a resilient center." They listed off all the characteristics of what a brand new resilient center could be. I said, "That's an amazing idea. Let's go to the library first because it does all that stuff."
The reason I think that climate change is so important here is because we're talking just in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Florence and we're not far from Maria and Harvey and even Sandy, and we're now seeing these multibillion-dollar investments in places that have to be rebuilt. We can either build walls — build a wall is not just about immigration, it's also the Trump strategy for sea level rise.
CHRIS HAYES: Literally sea walls.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Just building walls, taking out the most militarized architecture and the dumbest infrastructure idea we have, which is a wall, and putting it up. You can't wall the United States. you can't wall off the world from the threats that are coming. It literally doesn't work. You could spend a ton of money trying and I fear that we will.
What I've seen in this work I've done with all these design teams, many of them that come from the Netherlands, by the way, where they've been thinking about this for a long time, is that it's now possible to build a new infrastructure that changes the way we relate to water and relate to each other. You can build climate security that doubles as social infrastructure and improves the quality of people's lives every day. In my work on this project, I insisted that every team incorporate social infrastructure into the designs that they had and the consequences that these ideas are really different than the traditional sea wall.
For instance, on the lower east side of New York, which is low lying and which has enormous amounts of public housing and low income housing and low income people and got totally flooded out in Sandy, there's also this kind of gray ecology with the FDR Expressway and the waterfront area, which is just not very beautiful. The design that came out of this competition from a Danish architect named Bjarke Ingels, is what they call a bridging berm. Instead of building a simple wall, it's like they've created a sloped parkland that will connect the neighborhoods to the riverfront and also beautify the waterfront area so that it's a park. It's a recreational area. It's a better bike path. It's a place that could potentially make people healthier all the time.
It's such a good idea that now the threat of this is that it will generate a new way of gentrification, which is a weird problem to walk into. Here's another area where you need the right policy and the right politics to make sure that doesn't happen. We can build much more intelligently than we have been building.
CHRIS HAYES: The image here, which is we're going to have to build a lot of stuff in this next era and how do we build it to produce the kinds of results and experiences that say a Central Park or a great library or a well functioning subway produce. There's also this question where it's interesting you said gentrification because here to me is the challenge.
Everything is effected by the gravity of inequality. It can be effected in two ways. One way it gets effected is if something's really nice then you will gentrify that neighborhood. The 606 is a great example in Chicago.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Back to Chicago, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: I know the people very well. Friends of mine who were the people that push for this. It's like the high line but it's much longer. It connects ...
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's such a Chicago thing. That's exactly how someone who spent time in Chicago is. It's like the high line but it's much longer. It's way bigger than the high line.
CHRIS HAYES: It was an abandoned ... It was a track of ... It was like a three or four mile track of freight rail, ran through the city and connects a bunch of different neighborhoods with very different characteristics. The beautiful vision behind this thing was to in a city that is very balkanized and has borders to connect these places, and also to make a public investment in neighborhoods that aren't just the affluent ones.
This was a huge amount of dollars investment that went into creating this awesome space in neighborhoods that are predominantly the working poor on the west side of Chicago. What has happened?
It has become it's a great success. It's beautiful. You can run on it. You can bike on it, but has also increased the real estate value of the homes along the trail and has become a kind of vector of gentrification.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Again, like the high line.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: There's the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans and in Atlanta. LA is revitalizing the river. I think you're right.
CHRIS HAYES: That's one part of it. How do you deal with the fact that if you make the investments and you create good social infrastructure in the atmosphere of extreme inequality when that's a precious commodity people will then bid each other up in the market to get near that?
ERIC KLINENBERG: I lived inside of this problem in New York City because of Rebuilt by Design. We've been actively working on it. I guess one thing it says, and I want to be very clear about this, social infrastructure is, in my view, the necessary first step. We have to have the idea of it and we have to have the shared first principle that these public goods are ours.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes, and open to everyone.
ERIC KLINENBERG: I actually don't think that there's a better way to start this process of rebuilding and doing something better. It's not like we could just build these things and everything snaps into place. We just then go onto the next set of fights. Clearly once you build the social infrastructure and the immediate thing is to make sure that people who live around those places that are getting improved have the right to stay. That is a battle.
As it happens in the lower east side of New York, there's obviously lots of gentrification that's already happened, but a lot of the buildings there are publicly controlled.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: People have a security in the neighborhood.
CHRIS HAYES: Thousands and thousands and thousands of units down there.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Tens. There's some places that are more vulnerable to gentrification than others. I tackle this head on in the book. Gentrification is not a solution. Development that leads to gentrification doesn't help all that much.
First step, let's development a shared understanding that we have a right to these places, that it's our collective resources that we pay when we pay taxes and when we build a state, and that our collective resources are going into projects that they shouldn't go into or going back to the wealthiest people around who don't need them. We need to have a vision for what these public investments could look like and how they would help our lives.
A quick thing that occurs to me because people are like, "Oh, but there's so much cynicism. People on the right, they don't really like this social infrastructure, they think the market should do everything.” Find the most affluent suburbs in the country that are full of conservative voters, or find areas where affluent people live and you will see incredible investments in shared social infrastructure. You'll find it in the local schools which they control. You will find it in the athletic fields, which they move to the suburbs to have.
CHRIS HAYES: In the pool that's in the middle of the Dallas gated community that everybody uses and no one else can use because it's a collective good that they all want to use in the summer.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Absolutely right. And so people get-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Why this appeals.
CHRIS HAYES: They get why it appeals, but, right, and here's again the trick. So this segues perfectly because at one level it's like the threat of gentrification is one threat. The other is the opposite, which is that, you know the old line about poor people's programs become poor programs, which is that you build public universal goods and because of the equilibrium they're in, and because of the quality of them, over time they become just used by the poor, and then have no political constituency or power, and they get underinvested.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Or you have to maintain them, right? You have to invest in them. And the problem with libraries, you know, in many cities now, is not that there are not libraries there. It's that because we don't see libraries as critical infrastructure, because we see libraries as luxuries, and some of us even see them as obsolete, we don't pay to keep them updated, and they're literally falling apart. Many of them are not accessible to people with disabilities. Many of them have only one or two working bathrooms, and people need bathrooms in libraries. They're moldy. We don't invest in staff. You know that there are libraries around New York City now that close on a weekend day. Or they close early in the evening before working people who have daytime jobs can go to them. And by the way, this is a little bit about the fact that the subway today runs more slowly than it did 75 years ago, on average. The libraries have fewer services in some respects and less accessibility than they once did, not because the buildings aren't there-
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ERIC KLINENBERG: But because we failed to invest in them. So it's not just about building it and walking away and saying okay, this is yours now. Social infrastructure requires an active commitment.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. But part of the political economy of that active commitment, right, there's two cycles that things can go on, which is a vicious cycle and a virtuous one, right. So the vicious cycle to me is public housing. Jimmy First, who I think you knew in Chicago who wrote a great book about sort of how public housing developed over time, and you write a bit about public housing in this book, where it was envisioned to be a kind of universal publicly-provisioned good over time becomes you know, for poor people and gets just massively underinvested and there's the political economy of it just collapses in on itself.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: Literally elevators are not fixed.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: In Chicago high rises for year.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: In New York City, they're dealing with a lead crisis in NYCHA that has been covered up disgustingly. That stuff's is not attended to and it's because, well those are just poor people. If you look at Central Park, right, which is on the other end of that, a public good, surrounded by rich people that use it, like hell yes they maintain Central Park.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's right, that's right.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, 'cause it's like, we're all invested in that because like, the wealthiest people in New York City go for a jog in Central Park. Now Central Park is public, anyone can walk in to it, but like believe me, the richest stakeholders in this city have an interest in it. And the subway is somewhere in between the two, right? So when you have mass participation in public goods that are high quality, you get the virtuous circle 'cause then people are like, I like being here, I like taking the subway, you know what I mean?
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm going to work on it and use my political might, even if I'm a relatively affluent person, and if you don't get that, then you just get the, that's for other people, and I'm going to take my Uber.
ERIC KLINENBERG: And look, this is the danger of the kind of segregation that we have had-
CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.
ERIC KLINENBERG: In this country for such a long time. And we've long had racial segregation and one reason that the Chicago public housing problem has been so severe is because Chicago works so hard to segregate African Americans.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Yes. Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: And exclude African Americans.
CHRIS HAYES: By design.
ERIC KLINENBERG: By design, I mean literally by design. So like the construction of highways on the South Side, the Dan Ryan Highway was used as a barrier to separate the kind of white ethnic community that the original Mayor Daley belonged to from the African Americans-
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Who moved into the Robert Taylor homes, you know, on the other side. Chicago did everything possible to segregate. And then to neglect. This kind of malign neglect.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ERIC KLINENBERG: The public resources that were, that were there for African Americans. And New York City, though it's segregated, has a better track record-
CHRIS HAYES: It does.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Of this. And you know when I, the public housing in New York City is you know, woefully inadequate and underfunded. I think the capital needs of the New York City public housing is like 17 billion dollars. It's so much money, it's unfathomable. It's probably significantly more than that. It's still so much better.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: And, but this is the kind of the, this is the realm of politics, right? And you're totally right to say as long as we are so segregated, it's going to be a bitter difficult fight to try to distribute resources fairly. And I don't think the palaces for the people solves that problem. Unless you have the sensibility, which I guess I advocate, that there is something, that it's not just the palaces, it's also this kind of for the people that all of us should be participating in a democratic politics that demands more equal provision of services.
CHRIS HAYES: So that's, to me, that's actually the key thing about it actually. And the reason that I think it is a more attractive vision. It is the difference between the following: it is the difference between a surcharge on the wealthiest to fund medicaid expansion, which is what we're doing now, it's part of the ACA, and Universal Healthcare.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the difference, right? I mean, that's health infrastructure, not social infrastructure. But as a question of conceptualizing how redistribution works right, there's two different ways to think about it. One is you tax people and then you provide things to people that can't pay for it. So like you have an Uber tax, right? And rich people drive around in Ubers, which get increasingly expensive, because there's less and less space on the roads, and they get bid up. And then you have an Uber tax, and you take the Uber tax money and you fund a subway system and a bus system that increasingly becomes just what working class poor people use. Or you have a high-functioning universal subway system that everyone is paying into and everyone's using. And then that will naturally be redistributive, right?
And so what I think is attractive about the vision of Palaces for the People is like, people have been in libraries and no libraries are cool, they've been in parks, you know, and like it's like that is a version of it that's not, we're going to tax and distribute to some other people you don't see. The point is like, you want to build stuff that everyone wants to be in and around.
ERIC KLINENBERG: I think that's right. Look, I would very much like to see this kind of vision articulated by our most progressive candidates for office.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ERIC KLINENBERG: And so, part of the book which was written in kind of fury after the 2016 election was we need to change the conversation.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ERIC KLINENBERG: We need kind of a, to articulate what it is that we want and you know, we don't, and we don't get it today by sitting around complaining about the situation with the same people. And it surely doesn't help to say it's not going to get worse, and this is the worst we've had, he did that and now everyone's going to react to it. We actually need to spend time together figuring out you know, what it is that we would want to build.
CHRIS HAYES: And I think like that what I thought about as I was reading this book, you know I, I've always loved New York City parks. And any city parks. I love city parks. I think city parks are like the greatest in the world. In fact, I think my dream, one of my dream jobs would be Parks Commissioner in New York City.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Okay. Anyone listening, uh?
CHRIS HAYES: I'm just throwing that out there. Um, no, because it's goes past something practical and it goes past something even ideological to something that to me is almost I would say spiritual, or like sublime, like I can picture myself as a 24-year-old living in Chicago and riding my bike to the lake at Montrose Beach, which is on the north side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Uptown. And on a beautiful Saturday, there being black folks who are there, who are cooking out, white folks who are there who are cooking out and playing sports, a pick-up basketball game, people, all different kind of races, lots of Mexican Americans who are playing soccer on these huge soccer fields, and there's just some feeling of like, yeah, we're all here.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Like we're all here. It doesn't mean anything fixed, it doesn't like create some lasting political colition, but I feel like there's just something elemental about all of us like, yeah, we're all enjoying this together right now. We're all in our own world, I'm not like, I'm not playing soccer, right. I'm over here. Those experiences to me are extremely fulfilling and vanishingly increasingly rare in America.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Totally right and it's, they're the best moments.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ERIC KLINENBERG: We're participating. It's like that's what makes this country special in some way. The possibility of moments like that and you know there is this kind of idea like oh, well, you know, we all need to be good, like if you're not really friends, you know it's about friendship and love and if you're just adjacent to one another, then maybe that doesn't count. But I actually don't think that's right. I think part of living in a city is learning a level of civility that allows us to rub up against one another.
CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Respectfully and to be like okay that's your space over here, and this is my space and it's cool and we're just like find a way to have, to hold the peace. And that's not easy to do, right? And we have lots of examples of how explosive these situations can become when we neglect that kind of common vision of who we can be together. But, those moments of peace in the park, I was just in Millennium Park in Chicago and I experienced that in the most profound way at this kind of dance event. People together, it was an amazing thing. Now I will say also, there's a part in the book, there's a chapter about polarization. And I write about the swimming pool, which in some countries is this vital gathering place. Like there's been a lot of writing about Iceland and the hot pots of Iceland-
CHRIS HAYES: Yes.
ERIC KLINENBERG: The pools that are also centers for civil society and I report on them a little bit. They are kind of amazing things. You know in the United States the swimming pool has a totally different cultural history. It's like the flashpoint for racist segregation and violent attacks, like white people, I mean this one story of like a famous African-American performer who dipped her toe into a pool in a white area and they fucking drained the pool as a consequence. And of course like there's histories of race riots where African Americans go onto the white section in Chicago of the beach in the water and all hell breaks loose. And so it's not like, you know, we don't have an ugly history of screwing up these shared public spaces, but we also have it within us to be much better than that. And we have a lot of examples of places that do work better than that.
And I actually think like, in the flesh these days, we know how to pull off that vision of a diverse civil society. And even in places that are reactionary in so many ways, there's some capacity uphold civility in shared spaces that you would see on most days.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean one of the things I thought about in reading your book, even from a programmatic standpoint, it's just like, let's just spend two hundred billion dollars to just clean up every vacant lot and every abandoned house in the twenty largest cities in America. It would be totally transformative. It would be a form of actually reparations frankly.
ERIC KLINENBERG: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: Sure as shit shouldn't call it that, but you make a good case, an empirical case that would have huge tangible like positive economic effects in terms of crime, in terms of health, all these things. But like we could do that. We could do that.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Totally.
CHRIS HAYES: We could totally, we could just say, we're going to pay, we're going to mobilize to revamp, redesign and reconceptualize and tend to all of these spaces.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Our failure of imagination when it comes to urban planning from HUD and the President down is outrageous. And it's not just this administration by the way. I mean we've failed to deal with this problem for decades now. To like just, a quick shout out to the team at the University of Pennsylvania led by Charles Branas, epidemiologist who, I guess he's now at Columbia, but they've been doing this experiment in Philadelphia where there's more than 40,000 empty lots or abandoned buildings, and they've been trying to figure out, what happens if you spend a few hundred bucks like fixing up an empty lot, taking down the weeds and the trees and the debris and turning them into little pocket park with a wooden post fence and what happens if you just board up an abandoned building so it can't be like a place that drug dealers kind of squat in. And what happens they've observed, in this incredible series of studies over the last decade, is when you treat a place, you get something like a 35 percent reduction in gun crime compared to the adjacent blocks that haven't been fixed up, for just a very small investment. That drop lasts year after year and the gun crime doesn't get displaced into the next block.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the most interesting part of the reveal.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Because we think that crime is about like these people and that people who are inclined to commit criminal acts and there are some people who are more likely to commit crime than others, 'cause they have guns and they participate in like a brutal part of the you know underground market or something. But in fact what we also know is that most crime is situational, right. It adheres in a place in a moment. And if you change the situation-
CHRIS HAYES: Yep.
ERIC KLINENBERG: The crime just doesn't get committed. That's why like, you know, Manhattan is so safe. New York City is so safe, you know, compared to historical standards. The situation in New York City means that you're surrounded by other people. There are eyes on the street. There's booming commercial life. There's good lighting. There are conditions that make it far less likely you're going to commit a crime. Whereas in other places, like the bombed-out, depleted neighborhoods with the abandoned houses, whether it's in Chicago or Milwaukee or Kansas City or the Bronx or Philadelphia, they are objectively dangerous places to be. And what this Philadelphia experiment shows empirically, is that you can get these tremendous reductions in crime and you can also reduce stress, because our heart rates skips when we are, jumps when we walk by these places. You get reductions in stress-related health problems if you fix places. And the article that I did in the New Yorker about this is like, what would've happened if instead of reacting to the broken windows theory-
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Doing mass incarceration and stop and frisk policing, and zero tolerance policing, what if we responded to broken windows by fixing the damn windows!
CHRIS HAYES: Fixing the windows. I guess the best way to finish off is like, it seems like there's two things that are true and present at the time, which is like one, there's a kind of like constant crisis in our politics at every second of the day. And at the other is like, it does feel to me that there is a constituency and a readiness for the kinds of vision that you're spelling out here, increasingly. Partly because I think the ideology that is against it is dying.
ERIC KLINENBERG: I think that's right. I think we're hungry for some different way to govern ourselves. I think we want something to vote for, to call for, to demand. It's not like I think that the, I mean you spend a lot more of your time thinking about the Trump voter than I do I'm sure. But it's not, I don't think that the, that kind of mythical Trump voter is asking for the things that are, you know we've been delivered over the last few years. I actually think that there's, like there's a chapter in the book that, it says a lot about the opioid epidemic, which is you know, a disease related to social pain. We know that people who are most prone to opioid addiction are living in these areas that we're also prone to Trump voting. And that, rebuilding the foundations of the places they live and spend time, so that there's some better way to establish connections and to restore some meaning and purpose in daily life. That would be tremendously useful.
I think that you can get behind social infrastructure in better parks and better libraries and better childcare centers and better schools if you're in a red state or if you're in a blue state. But in the real politics of this, I think where I'd like to see this go is I would really like to see a wing of the Democratic Party, a kind of a rising world of progressives, recognize that we could have an active agenda on this thing and it would be pretty damn appealing for a lot of people who've become quite cynical that neither party's got anything to offer them.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I gave the commencement address at the Honors College at CUNY.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Oh wow.
CHRIS HAYES: Which was in a great theater in Washington Heights. And like CUNY's another thing. It's an incredible jewel of social infrastructure-
ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And of public good. And if CUNY didn't exist, we couldn't build another. So many things like that and I think that you're right, that there's a, there's a real political potency for someone that could sketch out that vision.
ERIC KLINENBERG: And I think it's coming. I do see it. Yeah, it's incipient. It's on the rise.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, it's also contained in the new book, "Palaces for the People" by Eric Klinenberg, who is a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU. Eric, thanks so much man. This is great.
ERIC KLINENBERG: Hey, it was great. Thank you Chris.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Eric Klinenberg. The book, which is out now, was recommended by the New York Times, fancy, it's called "Palaces for the People." He is a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU. He's got a great op-ed we will link to on the website about libraries which we talked about a lot in that conversation. We love to hear from you, I mean, most of you. We love to hear from most of you, you can talk to us in two main ways, you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet with a hash-tag WITHPOD, which I do monitor very closely. I saw a tweet from the other day that said something about how the podcast was great even though it was clearly a gentle way from the bosses to cancel your show. It's like that’s not exactly how it came about, but um, so yes, we love to hear from you. Even theories like that which are not true. But even theories like that we like to hear from. Hashtag W-I-T-H-P-O-D, WITHPOD, or email@example.com.
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