Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


The urban checkerboard, etc.

Beyond the city limits

"The traditional view of a 'city'--in which you know when you're in one and when you're not--has changed," says David Harvey, professor of geography and environmental engineering at the Whiting School. Cities are snaking past their boundaries, forming a "complex web of urbanization."

When you travel out of many American cities, you drive past miles of fast-food franchises, used-car lots, and other businesses, sometimes until you're nearly upon the next city. Such commercial strips extend that "web," Harvey notes. So do "edge cities"--business satellites with attendant services, outside the traditional urban center, that often appear to crop up for no apparent reason. The web also takes in suburbs and the new "exurbs" beyond the suburbs. And now people are moving to areas even farther out, to what could be called the New Suburbs--often planned, exclusive communities. In the Baltimore area, these new settlements are popping up in places like Hagerstown and Frederick--some 60 to 100 miles from Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

"The idea of the city as the center of social interaction is dissolving," says Harvey. As people who are financially able flee to the suburbs and beyond, the poor are left behind.

The structure of the enlarged web is also becoming more intricate, Harvey says. Urban analysts used to talk about doughnut-shaped cities, he explains, in which businesses and families moved away from the city's "hole" to its borders. Today, urban areas look more like checkerboards than doughnuts, with oases of affluence amid patches of squalor. Baltimore's revitalized Inner Harbor, for example, sits among impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. Even within suburbs, more poor communities are cropping up.

"Walls" (both physical and figurative) separate the diverse sections of the geographical checkerboard, says Harvey, making for increasing segregation. In Baltimore, the six-lane Martin Luther King Boulevard, for example, "is a strong physical barrier between the University of Maryland medical campus and the tenements. In a society that is officially against racial discrimination and for democracy, we're increasingly building isolated communities that are often racially discriminatory."--MH

"You can't move a university"

The role of universities is undergoing major change, observes Stanley Gabor, dean of Continuing Studies. Where once universities could content themselves to be isolated "ivory towers," he says, today they must face up to the problems of the communities in which they are located. In Baltimore and at universities across the country, urban problems threaten to make it more difficult for universities to carry out their educational missions.

Universities as a whole will have to get more involved in helping their communities cope with economic development, crime, and other social issues, Gabor says. At the University of Pennsylvania, newly installed President Judith Rodin said last December that universities need "to put cities back on the agenda." Universities, she said, "have a responsibility to the cities in which they are located."

Says Gabor, "Universities are moving toward an outreach in the community that uses applied research, a role they traditionally have not taken." He says, "It's a question of doing the right thing, and it's also a question of survival. You can't move a university." He also notes an economic component, since state and federal aid to universities is increasingly tied to university involvement in community development.

At Hopkins, there's a myriad of ways in which various divisions are undertaking outreach. The School of Continuing Studies, for instance, offers a Leadership Development Program aimed at minority managers, as well as a new management program for police executives from Baltimore, Washington, and six counties. Gabor himself is active in BUILD, a program that brings together 45 African-American ministers with Hopkins faculty. The hope is that the ensuing discussions will prompt faculty members to undertake research projects--projects that ultimately will wind up bringing state, local, and private dollars into the community.

Continuing Studies is in a particularly good position to get involved in outreach, Gabor says, because most of its adult students live and work in the surrounding communities. And this student population will continue to grow. Last May, for the first time at Hopkins, more part-time students received graduate degrees (1,365) than did full-time graduate students (1,361). --SD

A show whose time has come

Epidemiologist Alfred Sommer looks at the recent popularity of the Broadway show, An Inspector Calls, and is buoyed by optimism. Set in Edwardian England, the show pits "smug, upper-middle class values--that every man's job is to care for himself and his family, and to hell with the rest of society"--against the voice of a younger generation that recognizes the need to reach out to all members of society, Sommer explains.

That's exciting because the play bombed when it first came out in the late 1940s and again when it was revived in the 1970s, says Sommer, who is the dean of the School of Public Health. "Yet here we are in 1994 and we have a hit. Why do we have a hit?" he found himself wondering after the final curtain call.

"Maybe because the show strikes a resonant chord at this particular time in our society," Sommer suggests hopefully. "Maybe people are increasingly recognizing that you can't escape from homelessness, drug abuse, and poverty. That you can't build a fence around yourself and think that you're going to be disconnected."

Signs of individual concern for the community are there if you look for them, Sommer says. Interest in the teaching profession is undergoing a resurgence on college campuses across the nation. Poll after poll shows that Americans favor universal health coverage, even if it means paying a little more.

Closer to home, the dean recalls an all-school meeting he called several years ago, in which more than 400 faculty, students, support staff, and administrators met to discuss the school's future. Midway through the day, the group broke down into 20 discussion groups. Each group was assigned a particular topic and was told to come back with one top priority.

"More than half the groups put as top priority increased involvement between this school and the East Baltimore community," reports Sommer, clearly pleased. "That was not their question. It had nothing to do with what they were asked to discuss." He smiles. "That's so wonderfully in contrast to 'Every man for himself,' and 'Extract what you can from society.'" --SD

Young and violent: what to do?

If you've flipped through a newspaper recently, chances are you've seen a story about a young teen, a kid really, who has committed a violent crime. How should we deal with a 16-year-old who has raped or murdered? "I think that we're at a crossroads in that area," says David Altschuler, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies on the Homewood campus.

There are those who call for abolishing the juvenile court system, he says, on grounds that "violent juvenile offenders should get swift, certain, and harsh treatment, and that's guaranteed only in the adult system."

Altschuler disagrees with that rationale.

"Research and experience have shown that young defendants in a system already overloaded with older individuals are not treated like adults in many instances." The adult courts often don't convict the juveniles, or they don't incarcerate, opting instead for probation, he says. Why? In relation to what the incarcerated adult has done, the act committed by the juvenile seems less serious. Also, he says, "when you put youngsters in front of a jury, age becomes a mitigating factor."

"I believe that [violent] juvenile offenders are treated more seriously in the juvenile system than they are in an adult criminal justice system.

"I'm not suggesting that our present juvenile system is the be-all or end-all. I'm not opposed to incarcerating young people who have committed violent crimes. But the question has to be, Which system is in the best position to deal with a very hard-core (though not large) group of youngsters, from whom we need to be protected?

"I would argue that the juvenile justice system is in a better position," he says. One reason is that the juvenile system has more to offer in the way of rehabilitation.

"In the short run we may gain community protection [by incarcerating juveniles in adult prisons]. But what will be left when these kids get back out again? What are their prospects for productive and law-abiding citizenship?" Ultimately, says Altschuler, "they're going to get out and we'll have to deal with them then." --SD

Suffer the little children

"There seems to be a popular belief that we need to get government off our backs," says Bernard Guyer, chair of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health. In doing so, he says, our society is taking aim at the very institutions meant to protect and promote the welfare of women and children: most notably the public schools and the health and welfare systems.

"It's a never-ending attack. I really think it's dangerous," says Guyer. "We don't know what government is supposed to do anymore." In the resulting confusion, he says, "those who are meant to be protected are going to be particularly affected."

Children have never been politically powerful, and with the increasing graying of the American population, they are becoming even less so, Guyer says. He offers health care as an example.

The 65-and-over population "is guaranteed universal health coverage through Medicare," he says. "No one even debates it."

"Yet children have absolutely no entitlement to health care in this country," he says. "Absolutely none." Kids are dependent on their parents for health care coverage, and "more and more companies are eliminating coverage for children."

Guyer sees an increasing polarization between those parents who are affluent enough to provide for the needs of their families, and those who are not. "We're creating a gulf," he says. More affluent parents tend "to be afraid of those at the bottom end," and so end up trying to "build a fortress" against poverty by living out in the suburbs and sending their kids to private or well-funded public schools. But the violence and other negative by-products of poverty can't--and won't--be contained, Guyer warns. "We're reaping the harvest of disinvestment in a huge proportion of our society." --SD

Business centers no more

At the turn of the century, a safety feature for the electric elevator was invented--a technological innovation that had a profound impact on how cities are organized, says economist Paul Lande, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. "Suddenly, we could build up, rather than out." The high-rise office building was born.

Today, Lande believes, American cities have begun to undergo an even more dramatic change, thanks in large part to the rapid advancement of computer/communications technology. According to Lande, the Baltimore, Atlanta, or Detroit of the year 2044 will no longer function as a business center.

Even after manufacturing was dispersed, he explains, "these city centers existed so that businesses could communicate with each other cheaply." Since transacting business often required face-to-face interactions, it made economic sense for accountants and lawyers, insurance agents and bank officers to work in close geographic proximity. "It saved time and money for them to be near each other."

That's changing today, thanks to rapid advances in computerized communication. Within the year, for instance, video-based PC conferencing will enable businesspeople to "meet" with colleagues and clients from all points of the globe--without leaving their chairs. "This means that 'place' is less critical," Lande says. "And that's going to have a profound effect on how we think about cities. Fifty years from now, we probably won't have taller and taller office buildings, because the driving economic forces for being downtown will all have changed."

Lande predicts that businesses will increasingly "diffuse" geographically, moving to the suburbs and to international locales--wherever they can set up shop more cheaply. "We're already beginning to see this happen."

How will we use our cities, if not as centers for business? "I think the demand will probably be for recreation," the economist says. Many cities grew up around rivers or harbors, and "water is a wonderful recreational resource." --SD

"Kindness of Billy"

As a young boy living out in the country with his 80-year-old grandmother, Hopkins President William C. Richardson was called on each afternoon to carry notes back and forth between his grandmother and her sister. These notes were their sole method of communicating, since they had no phones.

Whenever a thought came to them, recalls Richardson, "they would jot it down during the day, and late in the afternoon I would literally run with it through this path in the woods [to my great-aunt's] house." The elderly women addressed the envelopes, he recalls with a smile, "Kindness of Billy."

"It was the equivalent of sending it through e-mail," Richardson says. In fact, he believes that the advent of electronic mail is dramatically changing the way in which we communicate: "People have gone back to writing letters--to the idea of free-form communication within a community.

"People, particularly professional people, are communicating in ways sort of like those notes. You don't have to have an accumulated body of knowledge--just a quick question or thought. And when you're finished with it, you just throw it away. It reminds me of what letter writing was like back in the days when mail was delivered twice a day," he says. "There was an immediacy to that."

"E-mail also brings the whole world together," Richardson says. He tells of his older daughter, who spent three years working in Hong Kong for an American corporation. Each evening, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard time, she'd jot off memos and notes to her colleagues in New York, who received them in time for the start of their work day.

Richardson sees e-mail and voice mail as "crude beginnings to a much more elaborate way of communicating." Two hundred years ago, he says, meetings--except at the highest levels--were much less common. People tended to conduct business whenever they ran into one another. "E-mail and voice mail may be one way of bringing that back," he says, "since most of us don't live in the village for very long." --SD

A melting pot--sort of

"There must be a thousand Eurasian kids born in this country every day," says Hopkins anthropologist Sidney Mintz, and that's new: 30 years ago, an Asian woman holding hands with a man of European extraction was something a person would notice. Today, one thinks nothing of it, and Mintz sees this trend as part of America's shift toward a new self-image to replace the old stereotype of the United States as a white nation. Now black Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and so on have changed all that. "We're becoming a much more complex and variegated country than ever before, and the way we define ourselves, our mental stereotype, is also changing."

Mintz thinks all the richness will be wonderful, "though of course there's going to be a lot of moaning and groaning, from growing pains." He smiles. "If I had any reason to want to live and be 100, it would be to see what it's going to be like!"

He does not foresee black Americans entering the melting pot in the same way as Asians, however, for reasons he illustrates with an apocryphal story about the president of Haiti.

"Mr. President," asked a reporter, "what percentage of your people are white, would you estimate?"

The president thought a minute. "Oh," he said, "maybe 70 percent."

The reporter was astonished. "Mr. President, look around you_.I mean, I don't think so."

"Well, what do you mean by 'white'"? asked the president.

"Anybody who has white ancestry."

"Yes," said the president. "That's exactly what I mean, too."

And that's the way it is, says Mintz. Alone of America's minorities, black Americans live behind an unbending linguistic line: White and black alike, "we continue to say that if you have any black ancestry, you're black." A child with that Asian mother and white father is "Eurasian," and people brag of being "one-eighth Indian." We might say a person is "half-Filipino"--it sounds exotic. But Andre Watts, who has a white mother, is always "the world-renowned black pianist."

"This distinction is left over from 1865," says Mintz, pointing out that Latin America and Puerto Rico have no such categories. Black is "a social line, not a racial one." -- EH

Segregation by choice

Sociologist Thomas LaVeist says he has noticed a new trend among black Americans: voluntary segregation. The legal battles over forced segregation have been fought, he says, but only more prosperous, better-educated black people have successfully integrated with white society. Now, LaVeist says that he's seeing signs of black people segregating by choice, to help their communities help themselves.

"What really hit me was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that said applications to historically black colleges are on the rise," says LaVeist, an assistant professor of sociology at the School of Public Health. These schools are once again getting some of the best black high school graduates, he says. He sees affluent and highly educated blacks moving back into black neighborhoods, black middle-class families moving back to Southern cities, and black scholars discussing the merits of voluntary segregation. --DK

No way to govern

Political science professor Benjamin Ginsberg has been keeping an eye on American politics, and he says, "It seems to me there's been a sharp decline in the government's ability to govern. The founders had this idea that when you elected someone to office, they were given room to govern." No more, he says. Now we have governments that can't even seem to formulate policy, much less execute it.

He cites three factors as combining to create this situation: the collapse of the party system, a change in the balance of power between government and media, and scandal mongering. "At one time America was noted for its strong political parties," Ginsberg says. "Now, it's an every-politician-for-himself type of politics. We have elections, but no government is formed."

What has brought government to this impasse, he says, began with turn-of-the-century reform movements.The new primary system took the selection of candidates away from political parties and turned it over to voters. Civil service reform eliminated patronage. Ballot reform made straight-ticket voting harder to do.

These efforts were meant to open the political process to the public, says Ginsberg; at the same time, they eroded the need for party loyalty among politicians and candidates. Fifty years ago, a candidate needed the party's backing--not only to get nominated but also to turn out the vote and for campaign funding. Patronage was powerful in bringing forth both workers and money. The party could punish an office holder who was disloyal to party and president: next time they'd nominate someone else.

Today an elected official can go straight to the people via television, bypassing the party machinery. "Life would be simpler if there were Democrats and Republicans," Ginsberg says, "but now every member of Congress is an entrepreneur." Congress, he says, has become an "open-air bazaar. We've seen it with every important issue President Clinton has pushed: health care, the federal budget, NAFTA. Lots of senators and representatives held out to the last minute, trading their critical votes for goodies.

"Today's reforms are tomorrow's problems. Sometimes a good process leads to a bad outcome. We now have an open governmental process that makes governing very difficult."

Adding to the difficulty, he says, has been a change in the balance of power between the media and government. It used to be that political leaders had the upper hand; they could trade favorable coverage for that all-important access, without which the reporter had no story. But now politicians have the greater need.

Says Ginsberg, "The media has discovered that not only are politicians dependent on them to reach voters, but that by adversary journalism the media can enhance their power and standing in society. For journalists, the route to status is through investigative reporting, through attacking the politicians to whom they once were beholden.

"We've always had criticism. But the amount and vehemence are at a high level." Ginsberg points to Bill Clinton as his example. After Clinton was elected, says Ginsberg, he was so foolish as to suggest that he didn't need reporters to reach the public anymore; instead of pesky press conferences he'd just appear on cable-TV call-in shows and conduct broadcast town meetings. "The media went after him," Ginsberg says. A better balance must be restored, the political scientist believes: "If you have weak government and strong media, you have no governance at all."

This imbalance contributes to the third factor he cites as undermining governance--scandal mongering. "I call it the politics of revelation," he says. "In the 19th century, you tried to retire your opponent to the private practice of law. Now you try to send him or her to jail." Ginsberg says the business of finding some damaging revelation about a candidate or office holder has become professional: there are now people in Washington who specialize in turning up anything that can be used by rival politicians or interest groups to batter an opponent.

"Since Watergate, you can count the victims," he says. "Most of the victims did what it was said they did, but in many cases what they'd done wasn't much. It's not just the individual who is wounded. The office can come to a grinding halt." For example, he says, during the Reagan administration, allegations against Anne Gorsuch and Rita Lavelle brought the Environmental Protection Agency to a standstill.

"Public life has become so difficult. The rewards have diminished, and the costs have gone up," Ginsberg says. "The solution would be to strengthen the party system. But for political systems to change, you require a crisis. In American history, it's been war or a depression, sometimes a combination of the two. My guess is we'll muddle along until something bad happens." --DK

Some good news--for a change-- from the public schools

The news from America's public schools, at least as reported in the popular media, usually falls into two categories: bad and worse. So education researcher Robert E. Slavin commands immediate attention when he reports certain signs of improvement in American public education.

Item 1: Since 1971, there's been a significant reduction in the gap in achievement test scores between whites and minorities (both blacks and Hispanics). For example, among 13-year-olds, blacks scored 43.1 percentage points behind whites in 1971 at the reading level that enables a person to search for information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations. By 1989, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that gap had shrunk to 23.1 points--still big, says Slavin, but shrinking. "That's not widely reported because it's good news," says Slavin, principal research scientist at the Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools at Homewood.

Nobody knows why the gap is closing, but there are several theories. Slavin points to a significant effort to improve schools in the South, which were among the worst in the country and dragged down national achievement scores. He also notes that the government has mandated higher spending on poorer schools, and the effects of this spending are beginning to show.

Slavin believes that the gap in achievement scores will keep closing, but says, "Progress is glacial. The gap is not reducing very fast, and it needs to." He also warns that it is narrowing in part because there's been no improvement in white performance in 20 years. "How can you be happy when much of the population isn't going anywhere?" he asks.

Item 2: Since 1970, there's been a significant reduction in the number of dropouts among black students, from 27.9 percent of persons ages 16-24 to 13.6 percent in 1991. Slavin suspects that the same factors that have narrowed the achievement gap may have led to this improvement. He points out that many districts with large populations of black students have instituted special programs meant to keep them in school.

"What's interesting is that this reduction in dropouts has not taken place among Hispanic students," Slavin says. "I don't think anybody knows why." He suggests that language problems may be a factor, together with the continuing immigration of Hispanic kids who, when they arrive on these shores, are way behind their U.S. age group because of inadequate schooling in poor Latin American countries.

Item 3: "Drug use has sharply reduced among students. It peaked around 1979 and has declined ever since." Though use of cocaine is up, Slavin says,the abuse of all other drugs is down, especially heroin. Alcohol abuse is down as well, though not by as much. --DK

Focusing on the trigger-maker

"For years we were told by the automotive manufacturers that safety doesn't sell," says Stephen Teret, former head of the Injury Prevention Center at the School of Public Health. The effort to improve car safety "was a terribly, terribly difficult battle waged over a couple of decades." Today, he notes, "there's been a 180-degree turnaround." Now safety features are being used as selling points: airbags, anti-lock brakes, better bumpers.

"Our hope is that that kind of turnaround can take place now with other products--in particular, guns. We're starting to look now at guns as consumer products. For years we haven't done that; no one has regulated the gun manufacturers," he says. "We've focused all our attention on the person who pulls the trigger rather than on the person who makes the trigger.

"We haven't been willing to be as assertive with commercial interests as we've been with individual behaviors. In our society we hold sacrosanct the absolute ability of a corporation to do almost anything it wants to do to achieve a profit. We've set up a system that enhances the ability of people to do things under the guise of commercial enterprise and not feel any personal responsibility. Corporations are basically running the world. And they provide a very thick layer of insulation against individual social responsibility."

In an ideal world, all persons would accept responsibility for their individual actions. In reality, it will probably take lawsuits to make gun manufacturers and others more accountable, Teret says. With cars, for instance, the first airbag was patented back in 1953, but the industry didn't want to be regulated, and so efforts stalled--until around 1982, when Trial Magazine outlined how plaintiffs with car accident injuries (that could have been prevented by airbags) could sue manufacturers. In the first case, Ford settled for $1.8 million just 10 days into the trial, Teret says. That launched a tidal wave of lawsuits; by the end of 1985, there was $1.1 billion in airbag litigation against Ford. Today, airbags verge on becoming standard features.

Teret thinks the same approach will be taken with guns. After all, child-proof technology has existed for 100 years, and now designs exist such that only the gun's owner can shoot it.

Teret has funding to start the nation's first university-based Gun Policy Research Center. Fifteen years ago Teret couldn't get anyone interested in supporting his research on gun-related injuries. "Now I get phone calls from foundations all the time asking, How can I help?" he says. "There's been a fantastic turnaround." --SD

Written by Sue De Pasquale, Elise Hancock, Melissa Hendricks, and Dale Keiger.

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