Americans have long been concerned with the question of community. Scholars - and other observers - worry about the centrifugal forces that threaten to erode our social cement. In the 1830s, the French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States and recorded his impressions of what he called the "habits of the heart" in his classic study Democracy in America . He was particularly concerned with issues of family, religion and politics, which he felt created a connection between the individual and the larger community.
A century and half later, in the 1980s, the University of California sociologist Robert Bellah and four colleagues took a fresh look at the issue. In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life , they observed a rampant individualism that undermined a sense of community and "may be threatening the survival of freedom itself". Then in 1995, Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote a now classic article, recently expanded into a book entitled Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital . He complained about the decline in the "vibrancy of American civil society" and asked "Whatever happened to civic engagement?".
The three books considered here deal with the broad issue of community and the forces causing its erosion. The first focuses on the efforts of people in a public housing project to create viable social structures; the second examines a city succumbing to the forces that wear away its cultural life; and the third looks at the ways restless inhabitants flee from stable environments.
American Project examines the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise public housing complex in Chicago. It records the initial hopes when the development opened in 1962 and the deterioration that later occurred. Hollow City examines San Francisco's troubled and not always successful effort to cope with gentrification, which is raising land values and driving out the artists and activists who gave the city its special character. Restless Nation suggests that faith in a fresh start provides an explanation of American character and argues that this edgy impatience is more important than a commitment to community in understanding the values of the US.
Some of the books work better than others. American Project is a rich and perceptive account of the inhabitants of the project, which brings us into close contact with everyone from poor tenants to drug-peddling gangs. Hollow City contains a tightly argued narrative, accompanying a wonderful collection of photographs highlighting the important issues. Restless Nation , on the other hand, is a more traditional national-character study that somehow seems outdated and one-dimensional as it seeks to explain just what makes Americans tick.
What makes a community functional? This is the overarching question Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh seeks to answer in American Project . "Can people living in large public-housing complexes such as the Robert Taylor Homes sustain a viable, healthy community?" he asks. "The future of public housing depends on how this question is answered."
Venkatesh describes the opening of the complex in 1962. Located in the heart of the black ghetto, it embodied a sense of hope and renewal at the start. Trees, gardens and flowerbeds were interspersed among the tall buildings within view of the downtown skyline. There were abandoned tenements and garbage-strewn streets nearby, but there was still a sense of anticipation that this initiative could help turn the African-American community around.
Venkatesh creates "a systematic portrait of the ebb and flow of community life in the Robert Taylor Homes", in large part through his decision to "let the voices of its tenants chart our course". He notes, for example, how journalists and other observers often portrayed an apparently "fatherless" world, with men largely absent, yet they were there, hidden from view to avoid eviction from the public housing, but playing an important role in family life nonetheless. As Edith Huddle, one of the residents, noted, these were men who "we had to hide out but that doesn't mean that they still wasn't a daddy to our kids".
American Project shows how the community seemed to hang together at the start. There was a local advisory council that funded tenant patrols with money from the housing authority. At the same time, "Mama's Mafias" provided a more casual form of surveillance. There was hustling, which distributed a wide mix of handmade and stolen goods, but this too was an integral part of project society. As Venkatesh notes: "Hustling, then, was more than a blind adaptation to poverty; it was also a cultural practice through which individuals developed a sense of who they were in relation to their local community and to the wider world."
Then everything fell apart. Venkatesh sees the turning point in the period between the autumn of 1987 and the spring of 1988, as street gangs such as the Black Kings took control. Their aggressive activity led to the total disruption of everyday life. Gang wars unfolded, and soon agencies that had provided help in the past began distancing themselves from the project.
In this vivid and compelling portrait of the project, Venkatesh describes the breakdown of the public housing effort in 20th-century America. Most important is his observation that service providers and other officials often operated in a system that limited their ability to improve conditions. Given that situation, "the tenants of the Robert Taylor Homes must be acknowledged for their impressive efforts to cope and make life meaningful amid a dearth of resources".
Hollow City , although a different kind of book, in addressing the question of community, observes the consequences of rapid and sometimes uncontrolled economic growth. As venture capitalists and members of the dotcom generation flooded into the San Francisco Bay Area, their wealth - and greed - often eroded the cultural richness of urban life. In her narrative, Rebecca Solnit suggests that San Francisco, rather than Los Angeles, represents the wave of the future.
She notes at the start that 35 per cent of the venture capital in the US and 30 per cent of all multimedia/internet activity are located in the Bay area. About 70,000 jobs are created annually in this region, nearly half a million since 1995. The real problem is that "the influx of high-tech money is producing a sort of resort community in the Bay area, with real-estate prices so inflated that the people whose work holds the place together can't afford to live in it".
In the post-second-world-war years, San Francisco became a centre of bohemian and countercultural life. But now these communities have been forced to flee. Solnit argues articulately that "a city is a place where people have, as a rule, less private space and fewer private amenities because they share public goods - public parks, libraries, streets, cafes, plazas, schools, transit - and in the course of sharing them become part of a community, become citizens". But now civic and cultural life are in decline as those people, so important in enriching the collective existence, have had to leave.
Solnit includes a personal dimension in her work. "While I have been writing this book," she notes, "I have been watching my local grocery, Falletti's Foods, be reduced to piles of rubble." A once largely African-American area changed over the years into a mixed community, but now has given way to a gentrified districts, "clogged with sport utility vehicles parked on the sidewalks where children used to jump rope and women walk to church - SUVs belonging to people who are seldom seen".
Solnit's narrative is accompanied by the dramatic pictures taken by Susan Schwartzenberg. Some are grouped together; others appear alone every few pages. One of the best collections appears toward the end of the book and features new Starbucks Coffee shops in a variety of elegant old buildings around the city.
Restless Nation revolves around the flight from community. Americans have long been on the move, from the first journeys from Europe and other parts of the world to the subsequent travels that sent people to all parts of the continent. This restlessness, James Jasper contends, can be seen in the life of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, in the obsession with automobiles and in the antics and accounts of the members of the iconoclastic Beat generation. And it is what defines American character.
Jasper's book is part of a long-standing genre. From Frederick Jackson Turner, who contended in the 1890s that the frontier was the great defining force of American civilisation, to David Potter, who argued in the 1950s that economic abundance and prosperity were the more appropriate determinants of national character, scholars have been trying to understand those characteristics that best explain American culture.
And yet the genre has fallen on hard times in recent years. As the study of American history has looked far more closely at questions of race, class and gender, the analysis has become richer and more complex. Now, rather than trying to find a single explanatory theme, scholars have begun to look at instances of cultural interaction - as with recent work on borderlands - in ways that provide a more multidimensional portrait of the past.
Jasper argues his theme aggressively from beginning to end and, at times, it begins to seem repetitive. He includes some fascinating examples, including stories about members of his own family, as he establishes that mobility is indeed part of American life. But he never really shows satisfactorily the implications of that mobility and its larger impact on American life. And the book itself suffers from too many boxes spun out from the text such as those in a textbook, which only break up the narrative.
Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University, Ohio, United States.
Restless Nation: Starting Over in America
Author - James M. Jasper
ISBN - 0 226 39478 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £16.00
Pages - 295