Skip to main content
Great American City
Great American City takes us from the grand theories conjured by its commanding title, down to the iconic street corner to see what it really means when windows are broken. This is a book of big, challenging, provocative, and inspiring ideas, as well as of meticulous, rigorous, and exhaustive data. Sampson has truly shown his shoulders big enough to be counted among Chicago’s most venerated social observers, as well as the most astute theorists of place.” —Mary Pattillo, Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University

“A revolution is under way in social science, and Robert Sampson’s Great American City offers an excellent exemplar of the new turn… The book convincingly demonstrates that individual outcomes are not the simple result of atomistic choices but reflect highly contingent decisions that unfold within spatially grounded social structures and institutionalized processes that limit options and reproduce existing inequalities between individuals, households, and neighborhoods. By situating human beings within a well-defined social system, Sampson contextualizes individual actors and their decisions socially, spatially, and institutionally.” —Douglas S. Massey, Science


Read more about the book


Buy this book: Great American City
An Excerpt from
Great American City
Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect
by Robert J. Sampson

Observing Chicago

"Chicago is the great American city." – Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago

Enter contemporary and, yes, global Chicago. Logic demands that if neighborhoods do not matter and placelessness reigns, then the city is more or less a random swirl. Anyone (or anything) could be here just as easily as there. Identities and inequalities by place should be rapidly interchangeable, the durable inequality of a community rare, and neighborhood effects on both individuals and higher–level social processes should be weak or nonexistent. The effects of spatial proximity should also be weak. And so goes much contemporary scholarship

By contrast, the guiding thesis of this book is that differentiation by neighborhood is not only everywhere to be seen, but that it is has durable properties—with cultural and social mechanisms of reproduction—and with effects that span a wide variety of social phenomena. Whether it be crime, poverty, child health, protest, leadership networks, civic engagement, home foreclosures, teen births, altruism, mobility flows, collective efficacy, or immigration, to name a few subjects investigated in this book, the city is ordered by a spatial logic (“placed”) and yields differences as much today as a century ago. The effect of distance is not just geographical but simultaneously social, as described by Henry Zorbaugh in his classic treatise The Gold Coast and the Slum. Spatially inscribed social differences, I argue, constitute a family of “neighborhood effects” that are pervasive, strong, cross–cutting, and paradoxically stable even as they are changing in manifest form.

To get an initial feel for the social and physical manifestations of my thesis and the enduring significance of place, walk with me on down the streets of this iconic American city in the first decade of the twenty–first century. I begin the tour in the heart of phantasmagoria if there ever was one—the bustling “Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue, the highly touted showcase of contemporary Chicago. As we start southward from the famed Water Tower, we see mostly glitter and a collage of well–to–do people, with whites predominant among the shoppers laden with bags from the likes of Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, and more. Pristine stores gleam, police officers direct traffic at virtually every intersection throughout the day, and construction cranes loom in the nearby distance erecting (or in anticipation of ) new condos. There is an almost complete lack of what James Q. Wilson and George Kelling famously termed “broken windows,” a metaphor for neighborhood disrepair and urban neglect. As I walked south on a midmorning in January of 2006, street sweepers were cleaning both sides of an already clean street as if to make the point. Whatever “disorder” exists is in fact socially organized, whether the occasional homeless asking for money in approved locations (near the river is common; in front of Van Cleef & Arpels or the Disney Store is not) or groups with a cause pressing their case with pamphlets, signs, and petitions. A favorite blip around the holidays is charity appeals mixed with the occasional hurling of abuse (or ketchup) at shoppers emerging from the furrier. I see nothing on this day but many furs. Other warmer times of the year bring out a cornucopia of causes. On a warm day in late March of 2007, a homeless shelter for women presses its cause alongside an anti–Obama crusader (the latter getting many glares, in this, Obama country).

As we near the Chicago River, Donald Trump announces his vision. It is not subtle, of course, but rather a symbolic shout; in the city of skyscrapers the cranes here are busy erecting the self–described world’s tallest future building, one in which “residential units on the 89th floor will break a 37–year world record held by the John Hancock Center for the world’s highest homes off ground level.” Chicago is once again a “city on the make,” as Nelsen Algren put it well, and so it seems perfectly fitting that Trump chose Chicago for this particular behemoth. On a cold day in March with barely a hole in the ground, international tourists were busily snapping pictures of the spectacle to be. A year later at fifteen stories and rising, and then later at almost ninety, the shutters of the tourist cameras continued to flap. In April 2009, only the height had changed and Trump’s vision was complete. Here, status is in place.

After crossing the Chicago River from the Near North Side into the Loop and passing the clash of classic architecture and Trump’s monument to the future in its midst, one begins to see the outlines of the new Millennium Park in the distance, the half–billion–dollar extravaganza long championed by the second Mayor Daley and built considerably over cost with cries of corruption and cronyism. Yet there is no denying the visual impact and success of Millennium Park, a Disney–like playground, all shiny and new. Even on a cold winter day there is public activity and excitement in the air. People mill about, skaters glide across the rink, and film–projected faces of average citizens stare out of the fountain’s facade. Looking west from the park the skyline and bustle of the Loop stand out in a different way than the Near North—more workers and everyday business activity against the backdrop of landmark buildings and institutions.

Continuing south along Michigan Avenue past Roosevelt Road one sees more action, but with a twist. The architecture and historical pulse of the southern part of Chicago has always been different from points north. Despite its proximity to the Loop, the community of the “Near South Side” was marked by vacant rail yards, vagrants, dilapidated SRO (single–room–occupancy) hotels frequented by transients, penny arcades, and warehouses. The latter are now being redeveloped for lofts and one old SRO building after another is being swept away for new condos and chic restaurants. Unlike the cumulative advantages being piled high atop the long–stable Gold Coast, renewal is the order of the day. Alongside and in some cases atop former railroad yards, the Near South development rose to prominence in the mid–1990s when Mayor Richard M. Daley and his wife moved there from the storied political neighborhood of Bridgeport in 1994. Other developments soon took off and today flux is readily apparent where decay once stood. Few Chicagoans just ten years ago would have imagined eating smartly at South Wabash and 21st, the former haunts of hobos and the homeless. Whereas the Magnificent Mile has long anchored development and moneyed investment, the Near South Side tells a story of real change.

Further down Michigan Avenue between about 35th and 47th Streets in the communities of Douglas and then Grand Boulevard, the scene is jarringly different. The transformation of the Near South has given way to what sociologists traditionally called the “slum.”In a walk down Michigan Avenue in 2006 I saw what appeared to be a collapsing housing project to the left, broken glass in the street, vacant and boarded–up buildings, and virtually no people. Those I observed were walking quickly with furtive glances. On my walk in 2006 and again in early 2007, no whites were to be found and no glimmering city parks were within sight. The cars were beat up and there was little sign of collective gatherings or public activity, save perhaps what appeared to be a drug deal that transacted quickly. Yet even here there were stirrings of change, symbolized most dramatically by vacant lots to the west of where there once stood hulking and decaying projects built expressly to contain the city’s black poor.

In fact, the South Side of Chicago once housed the most infamous slum in America. Chicago showed it knew how to build not just skyscrapers but spectacular high–rises for the poor; the Robert Taylor Homes alone once held over twenty–five thousand residents–black, poor and isolated, outdoing Cabrini Green, another national symbol of urban despair. As described by the Chicago Housing Authority itself, Robert Taylor apartments were “arrayed in a linear series of 28 16–story high–rises, which formed a kind of concrete curtain for traffic passing by on the nearby Dan Ryan Expressway.” The wider neighborhood of the projects—“Bronzeville,” as it was named by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton in Black Metropolis—became infamous as one of the most dangerous and dispossessed in the country in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet in a short ten–year span the Robert Taylor Homes have been demolished (literally, blown up with dynamite) and former residents scattered throughout the metropolitan area. The tragic mistake of designed segregation became too much for even the Chicago City Council to ignore. Officially recognized as a failed policy, the last building of Robert Taylor was closed at the end of 2006.

I visited the area in March 2007 after the last building was destroyed. It was eerily quiet as I paused to contemplate and observe vast open spaces where grinding poverty once reigned amid families making the best they could out of an unforgiving environment. An especially haunting reflection came to mind, a visit in 1992 to the Robert Taylor Homes in the same exact block. Passing inoperable metal detectors and walking up urine–stenched stairs because the elevators were broken, the physical signs of degradation were overwhelming. Yet a group of us entered an apartment that was immaculate, where we met two single mothers who told a story of survival and determination to see a better day. Both of their sons had been murdered and they had knitted a quilt with one–foot by one–foot squares honoring every other child who had also been murdered in the projects. The unfurled quilt extended nearly the length of the room. Shaken, I remember thinking at the time that surely anything would be an improvement over the prisonlike towers. On this spot one sees almost a verdant green expanse, with downtown far in the distance (fig. 1.1). The “problem” is now out of sight and for many, including city leaders, out of mind.

Heading slightly east and progressing toward the lake, one sees the emergence of a thriving black middle class amid the rubble and vacant lots adjacent to the former projects. Hard as it might be to imagine, $500,000 homes are being erected next to boarded–up buildings at the center of what was a low–rise slum just years earlier. Riders arriving by train into Chicago between the 1960s and the recent past would witness concentrated poverty up close—abandoned buildings and all the signs of decline appeared to the west of the tracks on the South Side in the small community of Oakland, which sits just north and east of Grand Boulevard. Nearby at the corner of Pershing and Langley, new homeowners are beckoned by a sign for the “Arches at Oakwood Shores”—a country club –like name where prostitutes once roamed freely and physical destruction was rampant. Vacant lots serve as reminders of the transition still in progress. At Drexel and 43rd on a day in March of 2007, a group of homeless men sit around a fire on a trash–strewn lot. At 47th and Wabash sits a huge boarded–up building, menacing in feel. Although still a work in progress, the areas in Oakland and around parts of Bronzeville represent one of the most stunning turnarounds in urban America today. How and why this happened takes on significance considering that most slums in Chicago, as shown in chapter 5, remain slums.


figure 1.1. In the former shadows of the projects: where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. Photo by the author, September 13, 2007.


figure 1.1. In the former shadows of the projects: where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood. Photo by the author, September 13, 2007.

Soon after heading south from this surreal transformation to the likely “Black Gold Coast” of the future, one finds stately mansions in Kenwood and then the integrated and stable community of Hyde Park, home to passionate intellectuals and a dense organizational life. Adopted home and inspiration to President Barack Obama and other movers and shakers, almost nothing happens in Hyde Park without community input and institutional connections, visible in signs, churches, bookstores, petitions, and a wide variety of community organizations. People instantly know what you mean when you say you live in Hyde Park; the name swims in cultural meaning. It was no accident that Obama was a “community organizer,” as chapter 8 explains.

Just west of Hyde Park, however, stark differences appear again. Across Washington Park sits a community of the same name that has seen hard times and still struggles mightily. Along the major thoroughfare of Garfield Boulevard stand burned buildings, gated liquor stores, and empty lots. At the corner of Michigan Avenue, we could not find a more apt portrayal of the second part of Zorbaugh’s contrast. The inverse of Michigan Avenue north of the Loop, here we find dead spaces permeated by a sense of dread. At midday, groups of men hang out, bleary eyed and without apparent purpose. As we head further south into Woodlawn we see block after block of what most Americans would consider the classic ghetto. Black, visibly poor, and characterized by physical disrepair, west Woodlawn looks bleak to the eye. Zorbaugh might not have imagined the Black Gold Coast and the Slum, but today it is apparently here.

Continuing the patchwork quilt, if we head eastward to the area south of the University of Chicago, renewal announces itself once again. First one witnesses a stretch of open land where tenements once stood. Then east of the elevated tracks and former strip of decay on 63rd Street, new homes start sprouting. Around 63rd and Kimbark it looks almost like a suburb with back decks, grills, and lawns on display. On Kenwood Avenue, just south of 63rd, sit more new homes in a row. Tidy and neat, the middle class is moving in to reclaim the slums.

Heading further south to Avalon Park and Chatham we find the neighborhoods where a stable black middle class has existed for decades. Along street after street south of 79th and west of Stony Island one can see neat brick buildings, myriad neighborhood associations, and children playing happily in the streets. No new developments, no dramatic changes, and little media glare like that chronicling the disrepute of the slums. For years and like many neighborhoods across the U.S., this area has seen families raising their kids, tending to their homes, and going about quietly living the American Dream. At almost every block a sign announces a block club and shared expectations for conduct.

If we head west past the Dan Ryan Expressway we find more stability, albeit an impoverished one. Here we confront concentrated poverty stretching for hundreds of blocks. Outsiders are often surprised at how far one may drive in certain areas of Chicago’s South Side and see marked signs of deterioration. Stability of change thus rules again, where neighborhoods maintain their relative positions in the overall hierarchy. Why these neighborhoods and not the ones like Oakland?

And so it goes as one continues on through the highly variegated mosaic of twenty–first–century Chicago—or Boston, New York, Los Angeles, or any other American city. Venturing down the streets of our cities, the careful observer sees what appear to be “day and night” representations of community life. There are vast disparities in the contemporary city on a number of dimensions that are anything but randomly distributed in space. Perhaps more important, the meanings that people attribute to these places and differences are salient and often highly consensual. Our walk also reveals that important as was Zorbaugh’s work, the Gold Coast and the slum is not the only contrast. No matter which direction one turns in Chicago, the result will be to encounter additional social worlds—perhaps the teeming immigrant enclave of Little Village, bohemian Wicker Park, white working–class Clearing, yuppified Lincoln Park, the upper–class white community of Norwood, the incredibly diverse Uptown, or the land that time forgot, Hegewisch.

Thus while some things remain the same from Zorbaugh’s day, other things have changed. The intersection of West Oak and North Cambridge in the west part of the Near North Side was considered “Death Corner” in the 1920s by Zorbaugh. That maintained for decades and the area around the infamous Cabrini Green homes was still dicey on multiple visits in the decade of the 2000s, a swelter of contradictions. Decay was present in many blocks with a large number of boarded–up buildings near Oak and Hudson. On Locust near Orleans it was common until recently to see high–rise projects with unemployed men hanging out during the day. Yet the Cabrini Green projects are in the process of being razed to be replaced by low–rise, hopefully mixed–income housing. The area sends mixed messages and its future is one to watch, however painfully. On a brisk day in March of 2007 I witnessed a clearly emaciated and drug–addled woman begging for money a short stroll from Cabrini units near a large sign announcing new condos and a gym on North Larrabee St. with the unsubtle proclamation: “Look Better Naked.” I revisit Death Corner in 2010 in the final chapter.

For now it is clear that Chicago possesses neighborhoods of nearly every ilk—from the seemingly endless bungalow belt of working–class homes to the skyscrapers of the Loop, the diversity and disparities of Chicago are played out against a vast kaleidoscope of contrasts. Indeed, The Gold Coast(s) and the slum(s)—and everything in between represent a mosaic of contrasts that reflect the twenty–first–century city and its diversity of interrelated parts.

Robert J. Sampson
© 2012, 552 pages , 6 halftones, 46 line drawings, 14 maps, 1 table
Paper $25.00 ISBN: 9780226055688 E-book $10.00 to $24.99 ISBN: 9780226733883

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press