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Why Eric Klinenberg Believes Social Infrastructure Will Save the World

When will we value libraries as much as we value new iPhones and cars?

The story of the roads, libraries, and public schools in America sounds like one of long-progressing decay. Crumbling buildings. Shortened hours. Abandoned parks. C-grade bridges and toll roads. That this is the story of America is not surprising. Since the 1970’s, the federal government has engaged in disinvesting from the very social structures meant to equalize us. In their place, the private sector stepped in and those who had the money to access private schools, private parks, and other private areas did so. The other half of America? They’re stuck with a second-rate social infrastructure that many pundits would deem impossible — and far too expensive — to fix while diverting funds meant for books to the police that roam the streets.

The results of this disinvestment is an erosion of public life, Eric Klinenberg, a Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Social Science and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, as well as the author of several books, including most recently, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life. In it, Klinenberg makes the case for the importance of social infrastructure and the good that it does for communities across the country as well as why we disinvested from it in the first place. Initially interested in the subject when he wrote about the Chicago heatwaves of 1995 — in which some Chicago neighborhoods fared drastically worse than others — Klinenberg started to look at what the neighborhoods offered. Were their sidewalks maintained? Were homes abandoned and lots left to stand?

What he found were life or death implications in American’s quality of life. Fatherly spoke to Klinenberg about the future of the library and the future of neighborhoods for American families. 

So what is your working definition social infrastructure? Is it, for example, a subway system? Is it just a social space like parks and libraries? 

I have a really capacious definition of social infrastructure. I use it to mean the physical places and organizations that shape our interaction. So, by all means, the subway acts as social infrastructure. Hard infrastructure can be social infrastructure, but how well it works as social infrastructure depends on how it’s designed, maintained, and programmed.

So, for instance, you can have a seawall that’s just a giant wall that protects land from the threat of rising seas and storm surges. A seawall can just be a critical wall. But you can also turn a seawall into a flat levy and you can turn the top of the levy into a park. So now the thing that operates like a seawall also functions like an urban park. That’s the idea for the Lower East Side coastal resiliency project in Manhattan. It came from that idea: you can have hard infrastructure that’s also social infrastructure. 

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Got it.

The subway could be an amazing social infrastructure, not just because it can help you get to other neighborhoods, but also because there’s something really important about the experience of being on a subway, for New Yorkers. It’s where you learn all kinds of civic skills. You learn how to deal with strangers, tight space, how to think about yourself in the context of other people. 

And, if you take care of the subway, and you make sure it’s running well and it’s on time and people’s experiences in the subway are pretty pleasant, then you have this amazing piece of social infrastructure. But if you neglect the subway and you let it fall apart and the trains get delayed and there’s a million people packed onto the platform and you stop onto the tracks every few minutes, then the subway becomes this hell experience. it turns into anti-social infrastructure. 

Yeah. Absolutely. 

New York is a city that’s famous for building out extraordinary social infrastructure: our parks, our subways, our schools, our playgrounds. There are all sorts of amazing thing the city builds. When we build them well, we get all of these incredible returns and the city operates well. It generates opportunities for all kinds of people. When we let those things fall apart, which I would say we have been doing, then the city itself gets debased. 

Speaking of the subway, do you think that this story of disinvestment in public services is the case across the country? And if we have been disinvesting in things like our roads, libraries, public schools and more, what is the result of that?

I think we really pulled away, with some exceptions — there are some cities that have invested in the library or their schools. But the trend in the United States since the 1970’s has been fiscal austerity: divesting from public goods, telling people that good things are going to come from the market, or the public sector is going to be flimsy and second rate. 

The consequence of that is that our society has become really competitive. People feel vulnerable and insecure all the time, and it’s winner-take-all. If you can make enough money to get into the good places, whether it’s like, first class airplanes or the fast track on the for-profit tollroad or the private school, things are really good. If you find yourself in the regular public system, there’s a lot of pain. One consequence of upper middle class and affluent people are opting out of the public realm is that it heightens the problem of inequality

Right. It creates two different societies.

What I observed, because I spent a lot of time going to branch libraries in particular, is that they’re actually booming with activity. There are enormous numbers of people who are using them, and there still is the feeling you get when you spend time in our best public spaces of American opportunity and diversity.

It’s really exciting! But you also know that all of those institutions are fighting for their lives because our government, our philanthropy, and our corporations left the public realm. People have pulled out of the public realm. And I think that we can see the consequences of that. 

What were the attitudes that preceded this divestment from public goods? Are people fighting for the library anymore?

I think a lot of people do. There are tens and thousands of people every year who clamor to get small increases in library funding in cities across the country. Some cities have referendums and voters choose to tax themselves more to improve their library systems. 

But I think, for the most part, the problem is that the wealthiest people, who have the most political clout and whose financial contributions drive philanthropy, whose voices carry in politics and in business, have opted into this market society. They are content getting the things they need from the private sector. The public realm can’t provide a check on all of that. So people need to be organized, and push very hard to get palaces for the people and not just palaces for the plutocrats. 

We have a lot of palaces, right? They’re just not shared and accessible for most people. I think that’s the story of the radical inequality that we see all around us. Obviously, that’s a system that’s working very well for some people. 

What can social infrastructure do to heal neighborhoods? 

First of all, I think that when we invest in good, shared spaces we get all kinds of returns. We can build bridges. People who live around each other can create something that feels more like a community. And that’s important. In disasters, creating networks of care, and mutual support [is important.] But it also matters every day for people’s feelings of life satisfaction. We can give people access to happiness that they don’t get from just succeeding in an individualized market economy.

I think for a lot of people, good social infrastructure is a lifeline. It’s not just about relationships. A good library creates opportunities for personal fulfillment, for learning, and for mobility. That’s one of the reasons that the United States has invested so much in that in the past. 

Parks created opportunities for recreation. But also for health. We have all sorts of evidence that people are healthier when they spend time outdoors and in green environments and a little less time hunkering down at home in front of a screen. 

In other words, investing in social infrastructure creates all around healthier neighborhoods.

And it’s really important for bridging some of the divisions that we have right now. If the public sphere is organized around things like Twitter, we’re going to be at each others throats for the foreseeable future. Our life online accelerates our rush to attack one another. 

I don’t think if we build more libraries, we’re going to solve the problem of polarization and social division. But I do think that if our challenge is to reconstitute some sense of a common purpose and a collective project, I don’t know a better way to start than by building better social infrastructure and investing in things like libraries and public schools.

What are we investing in, if not our libraries, schools, and parks?

In the time that the cities erratically divested from social infrastructure, they invested really heavily in more police and more surveillance technologies, and all kinds of war on terror. The war on poor people of color projects have not helped us achieve a good society that we want.