March 18, 2019

Social Infrastructure, Postlandia, and Shared Investment in Public Space

author photoBy Colby King

Each day, it seems, we see new controversies that highlight how we (intentionally or not) misunderstand each other. These controversies regularly lament the decline of public life in our society. You are likely familiar with these laments: We gather news inside our own bubbles. Our neighborhoods, schools, and social activities are increasingly segregated by race, class, or other social groups. Our political views are polarized, and “the discourse” of online discussion further polarizes us.

Last year, sociologist Eric Klinenberg published a book in which he suggests one solution to these dilemmas is social infrastructure. The book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life takes on an ambitious agenda for social infrastructure.

What is social infrastructure? Klinenberg defines it as “the physical places an organizations that shape the way people interact.” Why are these places so crucial? As Klinenberg explains, “Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local, face-to face interactions—at the school, the playground, and the corner diner--are the building blocks of all public life (p.5).”

Klinenberg highlights libraries as particularly good examples of social infrastructure, and how they contribute to social life. As he explains:

The openness and diversity that flourishes in neighborhood libraries was once a hallmark of urban culture; in fact, the most influential theories about what makes city life culturally distinctive emphasize the pleasures as well as the challenges of dealing with difference on a daily basis (p. 46).

While he acknowledges that some important sites of social infrastructure arise from the market or nonprofit sectors, “most of the vital places and institutions that we need to rebuild are either funded or administered by the state (p. 226-7).” Klinenberg goes on to write: “Generations ago, Americans took great pride in the power and resilience of our ultramodern systems: majestic dams and bridges, sprawling railways, reliable electric grids, clean waterworks, verdant parklands…” (p. 227).

This line got me thinking beyond libraries as examples of social infrastructure, and specifically about post offices. When I moved several states away from home for graduate school, I adopted a hobby of sending postcards to friends and family. I found myself spending more time at the post office, and then I heard this NPR story about Evan Kalish, a graduate student at the time who was attempting to visit hundreds of then-threatened post offices across the Northeast.

Kalish now maintains Postlandia (formerly known as Going Postal), a photo journal and blog, through which he documents his travels by way of the post offices he has visited. As of this writing, Kalish has visited 9,288 post offices, across all 50 states.

There may be good reasons that Klinenberg did not highlight the post office in his book, but his Postlandia blog highlights the role of post offices as social infrastructure, and the website documents these spaces and the pride they inspire. When asked about his favorite post office for that NPR story, Kalish explained that those built during the Depression as part of federal construction programs stood out to him the most. Kalish identified the post office in Greenville, Pennsylvania ,(not far from where I grew up!) as his favorite. As he explained to Robert Siegel, this was because:

In terms of sheer grandeur and pride that's visible in its construction, I would say it takes the cake … It's tall. It's got beautiful granite columns with an orange tint. It's got a beautiful marble interior. It's got marble columns. The counters that are still there from the '30s have carved metal lions.

You can see the Oct. 7th, 2010 post about his visit, including photos of this post office here.

Just building buildings, though, does not create social infrastructure. My ESB contributor colleague Jonathan Wynn makes an argument in his 2015 book Music/City: American Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport that the return on public investment in concrete cultural institutions that Klinenberg promotes has not really been sufficient.

Instead, Wynn suggests that efforts to create more ephemeral cultural activities can create the same positive outcomes in social connection and solidarity, without such permanent or costly investment. Barbara Fister explains, Klinenberg’s argument is that “we need to think harder about how to build social infrastructure into the proposed solutions to all social problems because how we design things to benefit the humans who live with them matters as much as all the concrete or technology we pour into them.”

The importance of how people live with the spaces that are built for public social life was highlighted in a recent discussion between NPR’s Gene Demby and host Ari Shapiro on NPR’s All Things Considered. Demby is a member of NPR’s Code Switch team, who has covered politics and written about race for The New York Times and the Huffington Post before joining NPR. Demby and Shapiro were discussing the controversy around Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook photos and blackface. Shapiro asked about why, after a variety of controversial incidents there have been wide calls for better dialogue around race, these calls do not seem to prompt substantial change? Demby’s response was nuanced, and highlighted the ways in which social infrastructure is necessary for these kinds of dialogues to be productive. As he explained:

We need to have these conversations, but there aren't really spaces where we can do that because of this long history of white supremacy. Like, our spaces are segregated. So there's not a lot of spaces in which people have vested interests in the same sort of institutions, in the same sorts spaces where they're vested in making sure these conversations continue, right? We're not working these things out in our PTA meetings or in our neighborhoods because we live in different neighborhoods and we send our kids to different schools, right?

And it seems like people are hoping that with dialogue we can sort of reverse engineer inclusion into spaces that were designed to be separate. We can talk and then come together. That's the way the thinking goes. But it doesn't work like that. We can't have the dialogue without these spaces to hold the dialogue and where people are vested in staying in the dialogue to begin with.

Social infrastructure, as Klinenberg describes, provides public space for positive social interaction to occur, but those spaces also must include people with multiple perspectives who are each interested in maintaining the dialogue. As Demby argues, these spaces are what is necessary for more productive dialogues on race: spaces in which people can hold dialogue and where the people participating in that dialogue represent a variety of perspectives and are also each vested in staying in the dialogue in that space.

Joshua Kim, at Inside Higher Ed wrote in response to Klinenberg’s book that “Coffee shops and independent bookstores seem to be having a renaissance. Dog parks and bike paths are something new in the built social infrastructure.” This may all be true, but to what extent do those spaces include people from multiple perspectives who are vested in staying in dialogue with each other in that space?

I would like to encourage you to think about the spaces in which you talk about culture, politics, and other social issues. Do you contribute to discussions in public spaces, whether community organizations, events at your local library, or while dropping off mail at the post office? How do you interact (or not) with unfamiliar people in these spaces? Are diverse perspectives represented in those spaces? Are the representatives of those perspectives equally vested in the maintenance of that space? What might you be able to do to contribute to the social infrastructure needed for civic life?

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