Eric Klinenberg Lauds Value of Libraries as Social Infrastructure

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, speaks Friday, July 5, 2019 in the Amphitheter. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Eric Klinenberg believes the key to a more equitable society lies in shared spaces — specifically, in libraries.

Klinenberg, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, and author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, spoke at 10:45 a.m. Friday, July 5 in the Amphitheater, closing Week Two’s theme, “Uncommon Ground:  Communities Working Toward Solutions.”

Klinenberg tried to impart the importance of libraries to his daughter through a social experiment. The plan was to take her to the new Amazon 4-Star store in SoHo, and refrain from buying anything. Next, he was going to take her to the Seward Park Library and let her check out anything she asked for.

However, his plan fell apart when the library was closed. Klinenberg forgot libraries closed on Sundays.

Not long ago, Sundays were actually the busiest day in the New York Public Library system because on Sundays, what you want is to go be with your family in a place that’s generous, and to be with your neighbors, and just to have that time,” Klinenberg said.

According to Klinenberg, the experiment was a “powerful experience” that taught him the vital role of social infrastructures.

“When I say ‘social infrastructure,’ what I mean is that in the same way we have a lower-level infrastructure that supports things like water, power, transit —  things we take for granted — there is a set of physical places and organizations that shapes our capacity to participate in social life,” he said.

Klinenberg was first introduced to social infrastructure as a graduate student. The first project he completed for his program was about the 1995 Chicago heat wave.

In 1995, the temperature in Chicago hit 106 degrees, but “felt like 126 degrees.” Over the course of five days, thousands of residents were hospitalized and 739 died.

I got really curious about what happened,” Klinenberg said. “I wanted to understand who died and why they died and where they died.”

The first thing Klinenberg did was draw maps of the mortality patterns. One thing jumped out right away: Chicago is a “famously segregated and unequal city.”

“The parts of Chicago that were most likely to suffer, that had the most deaths, were the neighborhoods on the South Side and the West Side where there is concentrated African American poverty,” he said.

Klinenberg said he doubts anyone would be surprised to learn that poor communities were hit the hardest.

“Is there a single person in this room who is surprised by the fact that when this heat wave came, this natural disaster came, that the poorest and most vulnerable areas were hit the hardest?” he said. “I don’t think so. That’s what we expect. That’s why that concept of ‘natural disaster’ is ridiculous. There is nothing ‘natural’ about that disaster.”

But when he looked closer, he saw something everyone else missed.

“The really amazing thing about what happened in Chicago, the real moment where social science helps us understand something we couldn’t otherwise see, is that there was also a set of neighborhoods in Chicago that looked, on paper, demographically like they should have fared catastrophically during this event,” he said. “But in fact, they proved to be some of the safest neighborhoods in Chicago, safer than the very affluent neighborhoods on the North Side.”

The neighborhoods of Englewood and Auburn Gresham border each other in Chicago’s South Side, but the impact the heat wave had on each of them could not have been more different.

According to Klinenberg, Englewood had suffered for decades before the heat wave hit. Factories had closed down, jobs disappeared and in response, thousands of people left.

It feels bombed out,” he said. “It’s not just that there’s segregation and poverty over here, it’s that the social infrastructure is bombed out.”

In order to survive in Englewood, Klinenberg said people made their homes as nice as they could. They hunkered down and avoided socializing.

“What happens is if you live over here, you don’t ordinarily go out and talk to your neighbors and get to know people, like you do in Chautauqua, or even on the other side of the street,” he said. “That’s fine most of the time, but when a heat wave comes and your survival strategy is to stay indoors, you cook.”

Auburn Gresham looked the exact same on paper. The data on poverty levels and segregation was identical, except that the neighborhood didn’t experience the same cycle of depopulation.

There are no abandoned lots or abandoned houses,” he said. “You still have retail infrastructure, you keep the sidewalks together, you’ve got local churches, you’ve got nonprofit community organizations. So what happens is you talk to each other.”

The socialization in Auburn Greshman made people more likely to check in on each other and help when needed.

“It’s not that in Englewood you don’t care, it’s just that you don’t know each other that well,” he said. “The death rate here in Auburn Gresham is 10 times lower than it is in Englewood. But here’s the really crazy thing: The life expectancy, no matter what the weather is, is five years longer. That’s social infrastructure.”

In September 2012, Klinenberg was teaching at NYU when he announced the university would begin working to rebuild New York City for “a new era.” That work was quickly brought to a halt a month later when Hurricane Sandy hit.

“Sandy was really hard,” he said. “I realized that in New York City even, there’s not really an institution that stands up and helps the city process what happens during a major event like this. I wanted the university to step up and play that role.”

In addition to planning city events focused on hurricane recovery, climate change and the future of New York City, Klinenberg started writing articles about social infrastructure. His work got the attention of the Obama administration.

They saw this work; they were interested in social infrastructure and they said ‘Look, we are going to have this international design competition to try to generate innovative ideas for how to build infrastructure and structures to help the United States get into the 21st century,’ ” he said.

The competition was called “Rebuild by Design.” Klinenberg was recruited to be the research director and show design teams the “needs, vulnerabilities and possibilities” for the region, post-hurricane.

The teams didn’t come in with a proposal; they came in with a mission statement, and they would shape their proposal in the context of the competition. Klinenberg said bringing in outside perspectives was important, because a lot of leading engineers and policy officials suggested the city build a wall.

“This isn’t really a Republican thing, by the way,” Klinenberg said. “There is a long-standing American history of being confronted with a problem, like say, racial integration, and saying ‘Oh, the solution to this is to build a wall.’ They didn’t invent this, guys; we own it.”

But a wall wouldn’t work to protect Manhattan. The first reason is because the Hudson River’s ecosystem is too fragile to block the flow of water. The second reason is because New Jersey is on the other side.

If you build a wall to protect Manhattan from a massive climate event, the water and the sediment that was surging in, it doesn’t just evaporate; it goes to New Jersey,” Klinenberg said.

The pattern continues from one state to the next; the question becomes: Where would the wall stop?

“Let’s be honest, we have to ask that question everywhere,” Klinenberg said. “Whether it’s inside the City of Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Chicago or Detroit or New York City, or whether it’s the southern border, where do we stop building the wall? The thing about a wall is, at best, it protects the people who are on the right side and says to everybody else ‘To hell with you, figure it out for yourself.’ And as it happens, a wall works just about as well for water as it does for people, which is not too well.”

Klinenberg was walking a design team around Brooklyn when they pitched him an idea called a “resilience center.” The building was supposed to act as a home away from home. There would be programs geared toward children and the elderly, with activities such as craft classes, book clubs and film screenings. There would also be free Wi-Fi, comfortable seating and coffee.

Klinenberg told the team they just described a library.

It was weird because they basically just spent months reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I got frustrated about that because I love libraries, but the truth is that we live in a moment where a lot of people do take them for granted, and fail to recognize that we do have these things called libraries.”

Klinenberg recalled an article in Forbes magazine in which a columnist wrote: “A library as an institution is obsolete.” The columnist went on to propose that libraries across the country should get knocked down and replaced with Amazon stores.

Then, an “incredible” thing happened. Librarians united and posted testimonies about the power of libraries on social media.

“They said things about how libraries remain the place where more Americans get early literacy and exposed to books than any other institution,” he said. “The library does more English-as-a-second-language training than any institution. It does more citizenship courses, it provides companionship for older people, it has after-school programming for young people — the same young people we are always telling to get off the streets.”

Along with the resources libraries can provide, Klinenberg said a common theme on social media was how library cards serve as a right of passage.

For many of us, it’s the first time in our lives that we get officially recognized by the government and by the community as a participant, as a member,” he said.

In response, Forbes took the article down. Klinenberg said he considers it “the only good thing that’s ever happened on Twitter.” However, it worries him that there are still people who think libraries are irrelevant.

“There are people who think if we are going to solve a big problem, we better get an app, we better have a market-based solution to make it sustainable,” he said.

Klinenberg asked the audience to forget that libraries exist, and to imagine pitching the idea of a library to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in Albany. Every aspect of the pitch would be appealing, until someone suggests that everything in the building should be free and operate on a system of trust.

“I am almost willing to guess that the idea that I just pitched to you, this idea of these public libraries, might be one of the most radical ideas ever to be pitched here on the stage of Chautauqua,” he said. “It’s a radical idea, but here’s the crazy thing: We have it. It’s real.”

The “radical” presence of libraries raises a question: “How did that happen?”

What happened, that we have libraries in every town, in every neighborhood, that welcome us all in, that operate as the best social infrastructure you can get?” he said.

Klinenberg said libraries came to life because of the values of people who lived generations ago.

“People just like us, sat in a place just like this and said ‘I want to live in a society that’s a good society, where everyone has an opportunity, where people do well and live well, but not so outrageously well that it comes at the expense of the well-being of the people around me,’ ” he said.

Libraries were also the result of a government that invested in public good.

“They said ‘We are not just going to say this rhetorically, we are going to put our money there,’ ” he said. “ ‘We are going to invest our tax dollars, we will pay more money. I might have a little bit less, but in the big picture I am going to have a lot more.’ Generations before us said that. That’s why the (Smith Memorial Library) is right there.”

In order to progress as a society and create new, worthwhile social infrastructures, Klinenberg said the current generation needs to start prioritizing the “people coming next.”

We have to rebuild,” Klinenberg said. “We have to build bridges. We need to reanimate our social life, our civic life and we need to do it now. If we try to do it by building a wall, we’re doomed. But you know how else we’re doomed? If we try to do it on our phones. No two people will argue faster in any form than Twitter if that’s where they meet. You know where we are going to do it? You know where we are going to rebuild? Smith Library over there, and in places like Chautauqua.
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The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is entering her third season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily, covering all things music-related within the online platform. Previously, she recapped the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2019 and the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2018. In addition, she is a rising senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona, where she most recently served as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic, as well as a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.