BARBARA PHILLIPS, 3/89
Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
And the whole idea of what a city is depends on who you are, and what discipline you practice. If you're a sociologist, you may feel one thing about a city. If you're a poor person, you may have a different view. It depends on your social rank, your background, your education, all of these things.
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Barbara Phillips, author of City Lights and professor of sociology and urban studies at San Francisco State University. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Dr.ÝPhillips. What is a city?
BARBARA PHILLIPS: That's a good question. We don't seem to know, because it depends on who you are, and where you're standing, and what century you're in, perhaps also, as to what you think about it. For instance, we did a study last year with my students at San Francisco State. We asked kids from the suburbs what they thought about the city. We were a bit horrified to find out that their view of the city was fear, it was ?blitter, it was dirt, and uch! they didn't want to go there. Now, my students from the city, the students that were polled from the city, they were twelve to fourteen years old, they looked at the suburbs and they had these positive images, like ?borderlands, ?writes about this latest book by the architecture professor from Harvard, and he says it is, the suburbs are lands between things, people moved there originally to get away from the cities, hence the names like, places I came from, Oak Park, Forest Park, places like that. So I think when you talk about cities, first of all, the lines between city and suburb are very, very tenuous indeed, because also suburbs tend to be towns today, they don't have the idea of greenery and flowers and pretty little green belts. And the whole idea of what a city is, it depends on who you are. What discipline you practice, also. If you're a sociologist, you may feel one thing about a city. If you're a poor person, you may have a different view. It depends on your rank, your social rank, your background, your education, all these things. So I have no one answer to that.
MP: Can you elaborate on, say, how a sociologist would see the city, or an architect would see the city, or what it would be to a poor person living on the street?
BARBARA PHILLIPS: Again, that's really hard because a person who is homeless may look at, hmm, say a window, and there may be a, oh, a store window, say I. Magnin's in San Francisco, for instance, or Macy's, or Marshall Field's in Chicago, a display of things to have in your house. If you're homeless, you may pick up on something altogether different. Maybe it's a candy wrapper that somebody happens to be holding if you're hungry. And if you are a rather affluent person looking at the same display, you won't even see that. So, part of what we see I think depends on what our present intention is, who we are, whether we're rich, whether we're poor, and our needs at the time. If I'm hungry, I may see the world a little differently than if I'm just going to the deli to get my latest pasta salad. It may be a very different, my perception may be very different. You know when you walk down the street, I've tried this myself, usually I want to get someplace. I'm not walking to look at the people, to listen to the birds, to smell the aromas of curry or whatever it is, I'm walking to go someplace. But if I change my intention and I am walking because I want to see the diversity that we call the city, and to me that's really the strength of modern cities, whether it's in America or in Europe or in the Far East, in Tokyo, it's this cosmopolitan nature of city life. And, which is one of its strengths I think. You are going to be buffeted by people unlike yourself. Part of that can be fearful. Because people are unlike yourself! And for the same reason, it's exciting! People are not like you. And so you always have this double edge, this Janus kind of figure, this double-edged thing about cities, that they're exciting for the very reason that they may be fearful. And, the way you look at it again depends on your present intentions and who you are, whether you're a sociologist. I walk down the street and I say, Oh my, isn't that interesting? But I'm not homeless. I have a nice home to go to. And, if I'm looking at all these people passing by, I may not have resentment toward them if they're wearing nice clothes, etc., looking in the store windows. But if I'm homeless, I'm gonna have a different point of view. Maybe where we stand depends on where we sit, is that how it used to be said?
MP: Mm hmm. Certainly, a homeless person would see the absence of public toilets, the absence of water, in many cities of the United States, but maybe not in other parts of the world where water fountains and toilets are accessible.
BARBARA PHILLIPS: They're fast going everywhere, though. It's really interesting. If you look at the public institutions that are really truly public, the street is the major public institution for people. And in America, it's never been used as a place to be public! It's really a fascinating, I don't know who said this, this isn't me, I can't claim authorship of this, but, or observation of this, but, in most countries, on Sundays, for instance, in Mexico City on the Alameda, or in Paris, people go out and they go walking. They want to be seen. And they go public, to be seen. The zoos, the streets, they're full of people. In America, you're seen inside your house. You have people in to your house. And you go out to be anonymous. I don't know what it means, but I think it's an interesting cultural difference.
MP: Before we look at the city concept in a broader perspective, you actually carried this perspective point a little further in your book, in the introduction of the book you say who you are, in City Lights.
BARBARA PHILLIPS: Many times I think authors and teachers don't tell people who they are. As if, they are scientifically pure. As if they have no point of view. And I personally believe that everything, and every person, sees things from a particular point of view. Because I'm a twentieth-century woman, because I grew up in the city of the big shoulders, Chicago, because I studied sociology and not music or engineering, because I traveled, I had the good fortune to travel overseas and live in some of the most wonderful cities in the world, Paris and London and Tokyo and Dar es Salaam and Lagos, Nigeria, I'm sure that I'm a different person, and I can't kid my audience that these experiences, that I am not a sum of all my parts. I think it was Alfred Lord Tennyson who said, "I am part of all that I have met," and I think it's our duty as teachers, or even in friendship, to reveal what has made us the way we are. Which is the same to say that you're rigid, that you're frozen in stone. I found this a couple years ago when I traveled to China. I traveled to see what I thought were going to be socialist cities. I was very excited to make a comparison between capitalist cities of the West, you know, or mixed-economy cities like Chicago, like New York, like cities in America, and cities in China. Beijing, Shanghai, etc. When I got there, I wrote my friends postcards saying, "color this pink and fading fast," because I didn't see any red, I didn't see any what I thought to be typically, stereotypically, communist cities. Not at all! So that, oh, okay, let's change gears here. So in a sense that we're always changing and I, my ideas have probably changed in many ways in the last ten years, given current events, given new data. But wherever we are at the time, I think we owe it to our audiences, whoever they may be, to reveal our basic assumptions about how the world works. I tell my students I adore cities. I don't want to Squirrel Junction. And I want them to know that I'm not approaching city life as if I can't wait to escape from it. And I think that's important, when people reveal who they are, so that, for instance, one of the things I try to have my students know when they read a newspaper or a magazine of opinion, try to figure out where is the writer coming from, what is the background of the magazine. If they're knowing, they're from the Institute for Contemporary Studies in San Francisco, that that will be libertarian. If it's going to be from the Hoover Institution, it will probably have a certain point of view. If it's from the Brookings Institution, in Washington, it will be from a liberal perspective. Now these perspectives change also. What's liberal today, ya know, [laughing a little], isn't liberal twenty-five years ago.
MP: As a sociologist, where is the perspective of sociology? What are the powerful thoughts, starting with Durkheim, that are really useful? And I know there are other more contemporary people, behavior in public places in ?Goffman. But, what are some of the powerful tools that you use, to look at cities?
BARBARA PHILLIPS: In the nineteenth century, there were, there was a host of sociologist, and I think it really has to do with when Hegel said that "the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk," it was a certain time in human history from the 1850s on, that the dusk, or the dust really if we look at it that way, had settled over the French and Industrial revolutions, what Marx called the two great, the twin great revolutions, that's, the brooms that swept Europe clean. And it was just after the Industrial and French revolutions calmed down that a whole generation of European, male, sociologists, looked around and saw the change in the countryside. They saw the changes of where people lived, the change of place, for one thing. The place, what people did for a living. The change from really farming, agrarian economies to industrial economies. And so, one sociologist, a German, ?Ferdinand ?Tunies, came up with this kind of typology of a shift from one form of social organization which he called Gemeinschaft, which is usually translated as "community," to Gesellschaft, which is usually translated as "society." One of the interesting things is that ?Tunies, this man was not alone. If you look at, whether it was Durkheim, or Marx, a whole generation and really afterwards of Europeans, both French, English, and German sociologists and social thinkers, saw the same kind of evolutionary movement, in the same way that Darwin had seen the changes from the single-celled organism to more complex organisms, these social thinkers saw the change from rural, simple, agrarian life to much more complex, urban, industrial, capitalist life. And so, they had a vision that this evolution was one way, just a one-way street. There's no going back, and once you started on this, it was a progression. These thinkers like Durkheim and ?Tunies, disagreed on minor points, but basically they were all of the same cloth, they were evolutionary thinkers in the mode of Darwin. And what they saw was the same movement, from the simple to the complex, from the religious to the secular, from rural to urban. One of the questions that really haunts me, about, in my own work and I've been thinking about trying to revise this book, is the following. Most of the thinkers thought that certain institutions would become less important in modern life or as Gesellschaft continued. They thought, for instance, that religion would become less important, the sacred would lose its power. Others, in the same tradition, thought that either class consciousness or some kind of group consciousness would replace consciousness of kind based on race and ethnicity. And clearly those things have not happened. And to me, most of the thinkers of the nineteenth century really did not understand, in my view, the holding power of these kinds of basic identifications, both religious identification and ethnic/racial identification. We look around the world and we see people, whether it's the Kurds or the Basques or the French Canadians, or all the groups who still claim some kind of nation feeling. And it's all the more incredible to me, if you think that in a sense the nation-state can no longer protect us, that we're in a world of Chernobyl when, you know, radioactive waves can kill Laplanders' animals, and that even today we're more of a one world than ever before. And yet people are still struggling to feel this sense of community based on consciousness of kind, of blood. And that some of the ideas of these nineteenth-century thinkers, that, for instance, according to Marx, class would become more important, the consciousness of doing the same kind of work and having the same relationship to the people who own the productive means in society. And it hasn't happened.
MP: We'll be right back. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest today is Dr.ÝBarbara Phillips, author of City Lights and professor of sociology and urban studies in San Francisco State University. So far we've discussed the city, the role of a spokesperson in explaining their own position and perspective, a little bit about the history of sociology, and now I'd like to ask you how we relate the city to the world, in this ethnicity issue, as well as the planet.
There is a thinker who I respect very much, ?Fernand ?Brodelle, a Frenchman whose own history is worth a whole program, but he wrote a three-volume series that was recently translated into English in civilization and capitalism from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. He's been very influential both in American history and in American sociology through the work of ?Immanuel Wallerstein. One of the ideas that ?Brodelle talks about is the modern world system, and he talks about how cities, at least since the fifteenth century, were really the key to understanding the economic arrangements in the world. There were key cities that were at the head of a world economy. Venice, Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, and then in 1929 about he figures, New York City. As of this morning, I see in the newspaper that Americans, a majority of Americans, I'm not sure how the poll was taken, if it's a random sample or not, but anyway, the poll that was mentioned in the local newspaper here talked about how a majority now feel that Japan has a stronger economy than the U.S. economy for the first time since polls have been taken.
MP: ............. the super economy.
BARBARA PHILLIPS: The super economy. Now, if that's true, according to ?Brodelle, if you look at the primacy of these super cities, he would call them super cities, if you look at New York, prices of land in New York, I'm not sure what a square foot rents for in terms of, if you look at the CBD, the central business district, which is usually the most expensive land in any city. But if you look at Tokyo, a postage stamp, literally a piece of postage stamp, is something like $100 a square postage stamp, not even a square foot. And so that it has probably the highest square footage in the world in the CBD, that's only one indication of its primacy. Inflation and, there are other indicators of primacy in the world system of cities. But, according to ?Brodelle, these cities change. Now, we can't of course take the city away from its major economy, and it's of course the Japanese economy that makes Tokyo or any other city run, just as in New York it was the United States economy. But what I find so fascinating is that the kind of, at the same time that we have primacy going from New York to Tokyo, at some levels we have people talking about how at the local level they want to make their cities better, and then we have this global system here, again, which, like Chernobyl I think, really did change a lot of people's perceptions about who can protect them! Not only can't local government protect them from such things as crack cocaine, or white-collar crime, or homelessness, but it can't protect them from toxic wastes, it can't protect them from problems that the world now faces. So we're in a very I think interesting historical moment, when people for the first time, especially in America, when we were used to being on top since World War Two, in terms of the world economy, for the first time we understand, we're no longer going to rule in terms of the economic, the productive sphere, that it's moving elsewhere. This is a big, a sea change. When I talk to my students about this, they don't like to hear it. It's very disturbing. Because, at least in my generation, we were always on top. And when I say to my students, "do your parents own houses?" and they're mainly working-class people, student, children of working-class parents at San Francisco State, 28,000 people and it's a wide range, but in the majority they are older, they're in their late twenties and they're children of working-class families, and they say, "yes, our parents own their houses." And I say to them, "you may be the first generation where less has to be more, where you're not gonna own a house." And they don't like hearing this. It's like then you become the harbinger of bad news. But there's such great changes going on! that, not only may the city we live, cities still have personalities. Yes, it does feel different to live in San Francisco than it does in Chicago, two cities I have spent a great deal of time in. And the ethnic turf is different, and you can feel it. And living on the Pacific Rim is different from living in the center of the country. And yet, the forces that seem to be overtaking all of us, and the movement overseas, for jobs, is, well, it's inevitable. I think it's a really exciting historical time. The problems I see are that there's very, there's very little social theory, in my view, coming out, right now, and maybe we're not at the dusk yet, maybe we're not at that historical time that Hegel talked about that the Owl of Minerva, the wisdom hasn't come yet, because we haven't lived through enough. We haven't seen the satellites up there long enough. We haven't seen what it means to telecommute instead of commute to a job. We don't know so many ramifications of modern communications technology in particular, that it's really an exciting time! And at the same time, you get a lot of charlatans. You get all these people telling you This is the Way, you know. And I don't think it's any accident that in the 1850s you got a lot of the same kind of charlatans, or communal groups. "Follow me, follow me, I've got the way. Come to Oneida, New York. Come to New Harmony, Indiana. Come to wherever it may be!" We have the same thing going on. "Follow me to Rajneeshpuram, follow meó" name the place! Because when we live in such uncertain times, that easy answers, of which there, in my view, aren't any, but become so appealing. We should not be surprised that there are rises in easy answers of all kinds. And people will follow them. And, mental health, ya know, institutions and people who can't have those kinds of easy answers, there's lots of ways out.
MP: Maybe we can get this in perspective in terms of the city, because a city is, because it's so ambiguous, and because it's a composite of all of the forces acting on it. How do cities act out or display the social forces of the world? Obviously, that's where the homeless end up, there are very few homeless in small towns and even less in suburbs. There are toxic problems, spills occur in the cities. Transformers have to be taken out of buildings in the cities, and yet, and the optic cables are put in first in the cities, the telephones come to the cities first.
BARBARA PHILLIPS: Well, yes and no. I had a housemate once who went to literally Grant's Pass, Oregon. She gave up her law practice in San Francisco, she wanted to commune with nature, and she made buttons out of pennies and sold them. Well, a year later she went to lawyering again because they had a pesticide problem up there. I think there's no place to run. We are all in the same cottonfield together. If you go out to rural California, you're gonna have the pesticide problem. There is literally with toxicity, with the oceans, I was just having a wonderful vacation with my family in Cabo San Lucas. Oh, this gorgeous place! the tip of Baja California. Sure it's wonderful, except that the Japanese have a contract to take out all the fish, so forget the fishing. Seven RV parks. Okay. I mean, where am I? Ho. This is Mexico? Is this a foreign culture? I really had no idea where I was. Things are looking the same more so because of communications, because of roads, because of all these kinds of transportation, modernity I guess, just modernity, that I don't think that you can stop problems at the borders of cities, and yet we have this what, in my view, this fragmented system, this political system, that was made for a different time, that was meant to ensure individual liberty, so that the federal government would not impinge on personal rights. And yet how can this kind of government inside of one metropolitan area, maybe we have, say, 600 different kinds of governments, including these special districts that do water, and you do mosquito abatement and dah-dah-dah-dah and on and on and on! Well, how can we come to any agreement? I have no answer for this. If I did, I probably wouldn't be sitting here, I'd be, ya know, Queen of the May. But, I don't know. I thinkó
MP: Are there some good examples? In this case, you're alluding to some sort of slow regionalization, or an ?SMSA where you get some more powerful, regional, political entity. Is the St.ÝPaul/Minneapolis exampleó
BARBARA PHILLIPS: Yes, that'só
MP: Or maybe a counter example is Dade County, or Dallas or Houston.
BARBARA PHILLIPS: Yeah. And Canada's always been, ya know the Toronto two-tier metropolitan government in Toronto, Canada, has always been one of the examples. In Europe you don't have similar problems because you had such centralization historically, everything, and, it's not true any more, but in France on 11Ýo'clock in the morning and third graders are all reading the same book all over France, you know. Well, we've had the opposite tradition, where you have local control over education in particular, but local control over almost everything. I don't know, because it's the same way, you know, people voted for our president now three times in a row that promised them such things as local control. I mean, have the people spoken? I don't know. Some people spoke this week in Louisiana saying that they wanted their all-white little community and, these are very difficult questions. And I think we're going to go bumbling along politically while, and this is to me the irony of course, we talk about local control out of one side of our mouth, and yet multinationals and nation-states and these large institutional forces control, in my view, how we live, basically. What we think, what we see on television, the kinds of communication systems we have. And yet, we think we have control because we can choose the books for fourth-grade history.
MP: You're contrasting political entities that are small, local, even, ya know, mosquito-abatement districts, to oil corporations that buy and deliver the oil, over a 20,000-mile distance, and telecommunications companies that pick up and transmit through satellites, and make the final decision in some room either in Los Angeles or New York.
BARBARA PHILLIPS: It seems to me that what we produce, what we think, how we get to work every day, those kinds of things, we as individual citizens have very little control over. And those are the issues that in a sense control who we are, what we think, who we are as human beings. And yet, we have the illusion, the perception, that we have some control. By the way, over our individual lives, the perception of control is important. That's why flex-time may be important. Okay. You can come to work at 9:30 instead of 9. Well, aren't you lucky. Now, we're not gonna let you set how much you get for work on an hourly basis, but you feel that you have control over what you're doing. And I think that's really important to being human. But meanwhile, if we look at a very different macro, cosmic, level, the choices you have over how you lead your life are not really local. It's like small town and mass society. People go to small towns because they want control over their lives. You ask, they have all these polls, "Why did you go to Squirrel Junction?" "Well, you know, we want to control our life." And yet! The supermarkets, the chains, I mean, from the basic things in our lives, the food we eat we don't grow it any more, it comes from chain stores. All these decisions? What kind of phone equipment? You're not gonna go out and make your own phone equipment. I mean there might be one Steve Jobs, one Wozniak, in the garage, making things. But every one like that, there's huge corporations.
MP: Thank you for being with us. Our guest was Barbara Phillips and, ironically, I'm you host, Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought. The books we mentioned were City Lights from Oxford University Press, Ferdinand ?Brodelle, who wrote Civilization and Capitalism, ?Tunees, who wrote Community and Society.