[URBANTH-L]Where IS the Bronx? /Critique of Putnam

OlatokunboAdeola Enigbokan enigbo01 at newschool.edu
Tue Aug 14 04:07:16 EDT 2007

INEQUALITY is key to understanding the lack of communial solidarity and civic involvement that Putnam finds plagues American cities. 

Residing and teaching in New York City, I am faced with the daily reality of travelling between Harlem, where I live, The Bronx, where I teach in a public university, and Lower Manhattan, where I teach in a private university. (I am paid the same meagre salary for adjuncting at both schools, despite the exponential difference in tuition).

At the public institution my students are working class and working poor Black and Latino native New Yorkers many of whom are first generation college students, and in Lower Manhattan, I meet a group of upper-middle class or rich white students who come to the city from suburbs and sprawl, lured by the romance of entertainment and fashion, and "making it" in the big apple. ( i use all of the class-identification terms loosely, of course)

One classroom aims for professions like "nurse", and "accountant" while working jobs in retail and fast food service. The other is filled with students who aim to command "an empire of beauty," or "work at the United Nations" while putting in time at coveted unpaid internships in the publishing industry, or volunteering with international NGOs. (from student surveys)

The distance between these two worlds is more than the hour-and-a-half-long subway ride--a fact which became apparent when one (Lower Manhattan) student asked sincerely in class one day "Where is The Bronx?" 

This lack of geographical awareness is no joke. The embodied INEQUALITIES of mobility and opportunity, built into the city's landscape, make it impossible to even imagine Other spaces, much less communicate and cohere civilly across spaces.   

(Even the overload of mass-mediated imagery, for all its insistence on bringing the world to our fingertips, leaves dark clouds of question marks hovering over our urban jungles. For Putnam, with the light and magic of statistical inference, clouds of question marks transform into unpassable chasms--craters of decay in "THE" American civic fabric.)

Where IS The Bronx? 

In that simple question there is all of the INEQUALITY of opportunity, the disparate histories, the lived reality of urban segregation, though hopefully, the promise of its eventual end.

I HEART my broken city, and all of my geographically challenged students,

Adeola Enigbokan
Environmental Psychology
CUNY Graduate Center

>>> Allen Feldman <af31 at nyu.edu> 08/13/07 9:58 PM >>>

We should  not buy we into Putnam's idea of progress model in mounting critique. The civil liberty of freedom of movement  and settlement, is a foundational  civic value in itself in American society-- one that was intensely associated with the development of private life and private property-- and was not intended as a motor  for building social trust and volunteerism. American diversity has more often than not  been a founded on  inequity. The post colonial frontier settlement of the  18th and 19th centuries which created mixed settlement patterns of Europeans, displaced Native Americans,Mexicans, slaves and later ex slaves,  and mixed race fractions, was not   expected to promote communal trust and solidarity or an equitable public sphere. Nor is the antithesis  between diversity  and community solidarity exceptional. Racist social orders are inherently diverse as are  colonial societies.  What is so unique in American society to buck this trend-- the faithful guarantee and enforcement of civil rights? Tell that to African-Americans who were denied the right to vote in recent national elections or subjected to police profiling on the most diverse space in the country-- the nation's public road system. Do we have  a study from Putnam of communal solidarity and volunteerism on the highways? Are spatial mobility and  trans-local communication networks discussed? Is sedentary face to face interaction the sole  definition of community here?
Putnam's study from the summary below assumes, at baseline, an ideal Habermasian transparent public sphere  as his definition  of civic community with no communicative (media) distortion in which economic  inequity and historical  institutional racism play no role in inhibiting communal identification. Gemeinschaft was not originally associated  by Tonnies with a  culturally, racially and ethnically diverse and economically differentiated society with an extreme division of labor, but Putnam has here stood Tonnies on his head.

Allen Feldman
New York University

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