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Reviewed by:
  • Making Our Neighborhoods, Making Our Selves by George C. Galster
  • Trinh Tran
Making Our Neighborhoods, Making Our Selves
By George C. Galster
University of Chicago Press, 2019. 416 Pages.

What are neighborhoods? How do neighborhoods shape us? How do we in turn shape neighborhoods? In Making Our Neighborhoods, Making Our Selves, noted urban scholar George Galster tackles these major questions on the origins, nature, and consequences of neighborhood change. Galster's key argument—that we make our neighborhoods and then they make us—marks a critical contribution to the scholarship on neighborhood effects, which while extensive and multidisciplinary, has often struggled to find theoretical and analytical coherence.

The premise that "housing leads; other aspects of neighborhoods follow" informs the core of Galster's theoretical model, drawn primarily from his preexisting published works. Housing markets drive neighborhood dynamics, not on the local level but rather on a broader metropolitan scale as a segmented, interconnected array of submarkets. Household occupants and owners (i.e., householders) and developers of residential property decide whether to move or stay, own or rent, invest or downgrade, based on price signals and constraints provided by the housing market. In assessing neighborhoods, these actors consider both the physical condition of dwellings and the demographic and economic profile of existing residents. The willingness and ability of individuals to pay for particular dwellings signals to suppliers what changes might be lucrative. These individual decisions aggregate into neighborhood outcomes by governing the human and financial resources that flow into neighborhoods. For example, local retail businesses like dry cleaners, small shops, and hair salons will follow. Likewise, local governments will alter the flow of resources and services based on how households sort themselves among the evolving stock of dwellings available across the metropolitan region.

Thus, contra a substantial bulk of the literature which focuses on the internal sources of neighborhood change, Galster locates the origins of neighborhood change outside of neighborhoods. Householders and developers might switch neighborhoods not because the neighborhood has changed in quality, but because they can now get a better value for their money via other housing submarkets. But why stop at the metropolitan level when looking at external sources of neighborhood change? Why not ask how national and global forces operate to shape the housing market? How might the supply of federally subsidized housing change neighborhoods? What happens to the supply of dwellings when the costs of the material goods for construction rises because of trade tariffs?

Galster then turns towards the multidisciplinary scholarship on neighborhood effects to explore how where we live in turn shapes us. He surveys an impressive body of work—from economics, geography, sociology, social psychology, behavioral economics, and developmental psychology—to consider how the social and physical dimensions of neighborhoods shape individual cognition, perception, behavior, and life outcomes. Neighborhoods "make us" by determining how and where we collect data about the world (e.g., through social interactions with neighbors and information we gather passively as we go about our daily lives); affecting our mental and physical health (e.g., through exposure to violence and toxic chemicals); and influencing the human attributes that we acquire (e.g., through access to educational institutions and employment).

Galster's critical insight here is that neighborhoods are both cause and effect. Neighborhoods mold our beliefs and expectations that then drive our decision making regarding where to live and invest financially. In turn, these residential mobility and housing reinvestment decisions guide the flow of people and financial resources into different spaces that then shapes neighborhoods. In his cumulative causation model, neighborhood dynamics are nested in a complex web of social processes that interlock across multiple scales (individual, neighborhood, local political jurisdictional, and metropolitan) in circular, self-reinforcing relationships.

The result of this market-oriented system is a fundamentally unequal spatial opportunity structure in which there exists systematic bias toward too little investing in housing in certain places and too much segregation by race and class. The forces of neighborhood inequality join together in a mutually reinforcing system of cumulative causation because neighborhoods shape the mental and physical health, attributes, and skills that individuals acquire which...


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