Hyping Social Infrastructure: A Review of Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People

Klinenberg, Eric. Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. (New York, New York: Crown, 2018). 336 pp. $28. ISBN 978-1-5247-6116-5

By Jacob Bruggeman 

Americans today consistently hear about the differences in wealth, geography, identity and politics that divide us, but they hear rather less about the forces of community and commonality which bring us together. Most welcome then is sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s new study of what he calls “social infrastructure,” which refers to “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact” and that counter fragmentation. Palaces for the People does not imply that social infrastructure is a suitable substitute for “well-designed hard infrastructure”—the bones upon which communities are built—but it is a clear, forceful argument for social infrastructure as the lifeblood that keeps communities healthy.

Klinenberg takes off from, of all people, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, whose brutal anti-labor policies did so much to fracture the body politic. But once retired, Carnegie came to understand that free libraries served as places in which diverse populations could converge and where community could be formed and strengthened. Carnegie called libraries “palaces for the people,” and thanks to his immense wealth and progressive philanthropic agenda, he built twenty-eight hundred palaces all over the world. In Palaces for the People sociologist Klinenberg begets a new defense of old-fashioned libraries and other public and private institutions which he believes are essential if a community is to flourish.

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The Phoenix Carnegie Library, now known as the Carnegie Center, is a historic site in Phoenix, Arizona’s Library Park, Carol M. Highsmith, March 3, 2018, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Though libraries take up a prominent place in Palaces for the People, social infrastructure is not just constituted by and in branch libraries: it is cultivated in community gardens, schools and universities, and the wide assortment of voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of in the 1800s. One could even argue that communities’ police forces, if they are dedicated to building ties to a place and its people rather sending them to prison, can be an essential element of social infrastructure. Klinenberg’s idea of social infrastructure, however, is generally limited to public institutions and places. Palaces for the People is not problematic for this focus, but readers may well put down the book wanting to better understand the role of businesses in bolstering social infrastructure. But in regard to the popular twenty-first century argument that humans are only socializing with their iPhones, Klinenberg asserts that despite the apparent dominance of all things digital, face-to-face interactions will remain “… the building blocks of all public life” and that physical interactions between people will necessarily define social interaction for generations to come.

When a community’s social infrastructure is deficient or missing, we see the emergence of inequities, declining civic life and polarized politics. To address these problems solutions are inevitably put forth: Economic solutions (which often take the form of development at the local or national level), technocratic solutions (such as those engineered by planners and policy makers), and civic solutions (including the rather artificial efforts to establish community groups and voluntary associations). We can properly and forcefully demand additional funding for schools, for low cost housing and health care, but we may be overlooking the need to address a deficient social infrastructure, the “missing piece of the puzzle” that pulls together and makes workable economic, technocratic, and civic proposals.

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The Carnegie Library, erected in 1904 in in Trinidad, Colorado, on the Purgatoire River on the northern end of the Raton Pass leading into New Mexico, Carol M. Highsmith, June 8, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division

Klinenberg argues that social infrastructure, when robust, “fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves.” No one showed this better than Klinenberg himself in his study of Chicago’s weeklong heat wave in July 1995, which was among the deadliest in American history. Survival rates in the city’s poor Hispanic neighborhoods were often far better than other neighborhoods precisely because of a superior Hispanic social infrastructure emphasizing visitation, self-help and care for the elderly. Social isolation killed all too many—more than 700—who died at home alone.

Klinenberg places his book in the context of the polarized politics of a nation’s   “…splintered social and cultural geography.” But what makes the book so useful is that it is neither strident nor pontifical. Palaces serves as an entry point for readers interested in learning more about inequality, civil society, and polarization in America and how to deal with those concerns. Indeed, it gains force and traction from the fact that it is grounded on a strong and growing body of literature on civil society and urban design, including classic works by Jane Jacobs, Robert Putnam, Elijah Anderson, and Ray Oldenburg. Just as important, Palaces is a work of scholarship that stakes a middle ground between market-based and state-based approaches to contemporary problems, and as such, it invites support from a broad spectrum of groups and leaders.

Finally, though Klinenberg is no Luddite, he does invite historians and social scientists to put aside our spreadsheets and Power Point presentations, instead asking us to renew and deepen an appreciation for specific places in our research. Furthermore, Klinenberg guides his readers—many of whom are not academics, but members of the general public—to the realization that each community and city is unique and that we should be wary of using quantitative data alone to generalize about their social conditions. Ultimately, if Palaces convinces readers of anything, it is that the goings-on of a community, and the places in which the things go on, must be grounded in local institutions—in palaces made by and for the people.

Jacob Bruggeman is an honors student in his fourth year at Miami University with majors in history and political science, and a combined BA–MA program in political science. Jacob was recently honored for his research as one of fifteen national recipients of the Gilder Lehrman History Scholar award, and he is one of two Joanna Jackson Goldman Scholars at Miami. Next fall he will begin coursework for a MPhil in Economic and Social History at Cambridge University. 

Featured image (at top): The Carnegie Public Library in Bryan, the oldest existing Carnegie Library in Texas, Carol M. Highsmith, June 12, 2014, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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