Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Talja Blokland (2002) 'Neighbourhood Social Capital: Does an Urban Gentry Help? Some Stories of Defining Shared Interests, Collective Action and Mutual Support'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 3, <>

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Received: 15/10/2002      Accepted: 14/9/2002      Published: 22/10/2002


In European and American cities alike, politicians and policymakers have developed a strong believe in 'mixture'. They believe that mixed neighbourhoods have the critical mass of an urban middle class whose economic, human and social capital benefits the whole neighbourhood. If middle classes have the social network contacts to access politicians and policymakers in ways that residents without such contact cannot, is it enough for the poor simply to rub shoulders in the same neighbourhood with the better-off? Does such social capital as individual asset become available to all? Or do the social networks within the neighbourhood, across the lines of class and race, need certain characteristics as meant by Putnam and Coleman for Portes' and Bourdieu's social capital to become transferable? This paper discusses these questions through a case study in a mixed neighbourhood in a New England college town. The case study suggests that the help of an urban gentry in collective action might depend on how inclusively and fluidly such a gentry defines 'shared interests', how power relations determine what 'collective' in collective action means, and how difficulties to speak with those the gentry might want to speak for can be overcome. For residents with limited resources, the case suggests that whether or not they can use an urban elite in their neighbourhood to access new resources depends on the quality and nature of informal rather than institutional relationships, and on specific characteristics of reciprocity and mutuality of neighbourhood networks across race and class.

Collective Action; Community; Ethnography; Gentrification; Middle Class; Neighbourhood; Poverty Poverty; Race; Social Capital


In European and American cities alike, politicians and policymakers have developed a strong belief in 'mixture'. To make communities sustainable or battle poverty pockets, they develop strategies for neighbourhoods of socially and economically mixed residence. How such ideas are put into practice varies by nations and cities. The most extensive welfare states, such as the Netherlands, the least developed ones, such as the United States, and the gradually most dismantled one, the United Kingdom, converge, however, on the general thought, that socio- economically heterogeneous neighbourhoods are preferable to homogeneously poor neighbourhoods for everyone, including the poor. Mixed neighbourhoods have the critical mass of an urban middle class whose economic, human and social capital supposedly benefits the whole neighbourhood.

This argument amounts to the reverse of the argument dominant in the American ghetto debate, that William Julius Wilson most forcefully formulated. To Wilson, the contemporary ghetto differs fundamentally from the ghetto up to the 1960s, with its vertical integration of different segments of urban blacks: 'Lower-class, working-class, and middle-class black families all lived more or less in the same communities (albeit in different neighbourhoods), sent their children to the same schools, availed themselves of the same recreational facilities, and shopped at the same stores.' (Wilson 1987: 7) Wilson argues that the exodus of stable black middle- and working class families left behind a population 'increasingly isolated socially from mainstream patterns and norms of behaviour.' (idem: 8) 'Confined by the restrictive covenants to communities also inhabited by the urban black lower classes,' Wilson states, 'The black working and middle classes in earlier years provided stability to inner-city neighbourhoods and perpetuated and reinforced societal norms and values.' (idem: 143)

The absence of a middle class in inner city neighbourhoods has thus become one of the key explanations of their decay. Middle classes used to provide important resources: they contributed to the economic vitality of the area, functioned as role models and had social skills and knowledge that stimulated local institutions, community organising and cohesion. The policy solution seems easy: bringing middle classes back in will turn distressed areas into vital, pleasant, cohesive neighbourhoods again.

Social Capital

One way in which policy makers have been addressing this issue is through the social science concept of social capital. Especially since Robert Putnam's efforts to bring social capital to the attention of a wider audience (Putnam 1993), it has gained popularity among politicians and policy makers. They often leave it undefined. In the academic debates, the many perspectives include two relevant, yet different views.

Some see social capital primarily if not only as an individual's road to resources. In economic sociology, for example, social capital refers to 'the capacity of individuals to command scarce resources by virtue of their memberships in networks of broader structures' (Portes 1995: 12; see also Portes & Sessenbrenner 1993 and for a more rational choice based approach Lin 2001). Bourdieu stresses that his forms of capital, social included, do not belong to persons but to positions in the social arenas (fields) within which struggles take place over specific resources or stakes and access to them (Bourdieu 1984: 113; cf. Jenkins 1992:85). Still, it belongs to an individual unit - person, class or group: 'The primary differences (..) which distinguish the major classes (...) derive from the overall volume of capital - understood as the set of actually usable resources and powers - economic capital, cultural capital and also social capital. The distribution of different classes (...) thus runs from those who are best provided (...) to those who are most deprived.' (Bourdieu 1984: 114)

Others see social capital more (Coleman) or almost exclusively (Putnam) as a feature of some sort of collective. Although Coleman certainly points to how social capital is a particular resource to an actor (Coleman 1988: S97), he also stresses that as social capital is in relations, an individual investment in social capital does not only benefit the individual; an individual can never produce social capital by himself; and certain social structures are more beneficial to social capital than others. (idem: S107-9) Social capital lies in relations, but beyond individual control: '(..) Most forms of social capital are created or destroyed as by-products of other activities. This social capital arises or disappears without anyone's willing it into or out of being.' (idem: S118)

Putnam takes this a step further in his definition of social capital as those aspects of a social structure that improve society because they make co-ordinated social action possible: networks of trust, mutual responsibility and duty, and networks of bonding that build bridges and open up new possibilities. Like Coleman, Putnam does not see social capital as an individual tit for tat: '[M]ore valuable (...) is a norm of generalized reciprocity: I'll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.' (Putnam 2000: 21)

Some might argue that such apparent contradictions prove that social capital is 'a dumping ground for synthesis across the social sciences' (Fine 2001: 19). Social capital might have conceptual shortcomings, but also alerts us to a question of theoretical and political relevance. On the one hand, we have the approach of social capital as the capacity of individuals to command scarce resources by virtue of their memberships in networks of broader social structures. How such social capital works is a matter of how individuals got something they needed. On the other, we have the approach of social capital as a feature of a field of relations, relations that can be potentially resourceful in social capital. Such social capital becomes most visible when people in some sort of network use each other's resources to get something done together.

How, then, do we move from one level to the other? If middle classes have the social network contacts to access politicians and policymakers in ways that residents without such contact cannot, is it enough for the poor simply to rub shoulders in the same neighbourhood with the better-offs? Does such social capital as individual asset become available to all? Or do the social networks within the neighbourhood, across the lines of class and race, need certain characteristics as meant by Putnam and Coleman for Portes' and Bourdieu's social capital to become transferable?

Indeed, policy makers seem to assume such transferability on the neighbourhood level, contributing great value to geographical proximity for social proximity. Four stories derived from an ethnographic study in a New England college town might help clarify why one might be concerned about their high expectations of social capital of a middle class.

The Research Location: From Italian Urban Village to Mixed Historic District

The ethnography on social capital in a 'mixed neighbourhood' in a New England college town was conducted from December 1999 to December 2000 and January 2002 to July 2002. During both periods, I lived in an apartment in the neighbourhood; first in the northern corner, then in the historic district. The fieldwork included participant observation, observation and participation[1]. As sites for collective action, I attended meetings of neighbourhood groups and political organisations. In-depth interviewing with key persons in these groups complemented this material, as did research on secondary sources and archives[2]. Two research assistants, Gaby Barnard and Jocelyn Simonson, conducted most semi-structured interviews with businesses in the neighbourhood. The people in this study knew that I was writing a book on their neighbourhood with a focus on how they got things done together. Most research notes were written immediately after returning to my apartment in the area. At neighbourhood meetings, I took notes visibly to everyone, as did many residents. Gradually, I began taking notes in conversations or while going somewhere with residents, as some thought it odd a writer was not taking notes. There have been two politically active residents who have welcomed me at political neighbourhood gatherings at their homes and allowed me to attend social events, but first postponed and upon my return for the second phase refused to be interviewed. The ethnographic part of this project does not aim at testing pre-existing hypotheses about the relationship between geographical proximity of a middle class and the access to social capital of poorer residents. It aims at exploring possibly general mechanisms and patterns within such a context that might contribute to further theoretical insights into how access to individual assets, interactions and collective action relate.

As a fieldwork site, I chose this neighbourhood with ca. 3060 residents and its distinct boundary of the railroad that separates it off from downtown for its history of gentrification since the late 1960s. This gentrification had brought about the mixture of residents that I was looking for.

In 1825, the city bought the land from farmers and opened the Square there; the sign for speculators and landowners that boom time had arrived. A fence was built, trees were planted, and even before all the impressive houses were constructed, the Square had become a 'city square' (New Haven Preservation Trust, n.d: 5). Merchants and wealthy descendants of colonial families ringed it with exclusive mansions and by the eve of the Civil War, the neighbourhood 'was pretty well built up and was beginning to have a settled look' (idem: 16). As the town developed its manufacturing industry and railroad, European immigrants arrived. The Irish first settled in the streets surrounding the Square, to be close to the factories. By the end of the Civil War, the neighbourhood had lost its exclusivity and became predominantly working class. Italian immigrants followed, and by World War I they had become the dominant ethnic group (Geismar & Krisberg 1967: 19). Much of the neighbourhood was slum housing for poor immigrant workers and their families. The slums in two streets were replaced by public housing in 1942 as their condition was considered so severe. 'Little Italy' was not to last very long. When the city began to lose its industrial base, suburbanisation accelerated, and migration of blacks from the South increased, the neighbourhood was only one part of the city in decay. Redevelopment in the early sixties gave the final blow to the urban village.

The urban regeneration is both praised and despised. The highway built right across the area meant relocation to many families, and cut off the increasingly black housing projects from the rest of the residences. Zoning redefined the rest of this side of the neighbourhood as light industrial. The Square side of the highway remained mainly residential. Commercial plans were developed for wholesale and retail on the Avenue that connects to downtown, but the once Italian and Jewish shopping street never regained its lively pre-war character. But not all was lost to the bulldozer. Thanks to the efforts of, among others, active residents and the city's Preservation Trust, the Square was saved, and piecemeal regeneration revived its architectural exclusiveness.

This history laid the basis for a mixture of people: mixed in income, professions and education, in their choices of residence, in race and ethnicity. Census data show that what started as more or less one area, became increasingly two distinct census tracts: one tract south of the Avenue (1422, the Square) gentrified, the other tract north of the Avenue (1421), with the by definition poor community of the housing projects, remaining relatively impoverished[3].

By 1960, blacks had increased their presence in this neighbourhood from virtually none in the 1940s to around 20%. While tract 1422 then became 'whiter' again, 1421 became a tract where whites are a minority. In both tracts in the 1940s, over half of the population worked in manufacturing as unskilled or semi- skilled workers. Tract 1422 gradually shows a shift to managerial and professional jobs. In tract 1421, low paid service jobs replaced the work in manufacturing. In both tracts, the number of residents older than 25 with 4 years or more of high school went up, but far more so in tract 1422 than in 1421. The median incomes of both tracts show a widening gap over the years, as does the percentage of families living in poverty. This percentage, computed in US statistics since mid 1960s, was 33,8% in 1970 for tract 1421 and just 8,4% for tract 1422. In 1980, the situation had grown worse in both tracts: now 48,8% families in tract 1421 and 10,5% in tract 1422 lived in poverty. In 1990, following the national trend, fewer people live in poverty, but the difference between the two tracts was still huge: 28,8% in tract 1421 and 5,1% in tract 1422. Of the poor people in tract 1422, 48% were elderly, white women. In contrast, in tract 1421 45% of the poor households were single mothers with children. In this tract, 51,4% of all the children younger than 12 was living in poverty. This is a sharp contrast with tract 1422, where none of the children was poor. The growing differences between the two tracts are further reflected in the built environment, as shown in widening gaps in property values, median rents, and the number of owner-occupiers as proportion of the number of units.

Drawing Borders

Can we, given these divergences, still speak of this area as one neighbourhood? Geographically, the northern corner in between the railroad and the highway cannot belong to anything else, nor can these two small streets be seen as a neighbourhood in themselves. Politically, this town is organised in wards. Each ward elects one 'alderman' for the Board of Aldermen, the democratic body that controls the Mayor and his staff. The Square neighbourhood constitutes one ward and elects one alderman. To investigate what the presence of a middle class and their access to the polity means to a neighbourhood, treating the ward borders as the borders makes sense.

Meanwhile, residents do not draw the borders of their neighbourhood this way. The highway now physically separates the housing project from the rest of the area. Geismar and Krisberg, involved in a social service program there in the 1960s, reported already that 'everything beyond the project (except for a few stores) is part of the outside world. The people in the projects don't think of themselves as part of the Square area, and most of them will not make the journey to the school and community centre, which is less than a mile away.' (1967: 31) The community centre today only is a facility for elderly, and the school has been closed for renovation and re-opened as a magnet-school. An existing school program from elsewhere in town has moved in, and only two children from the housing project attend this school. All others are bussed to different neighbourhoods. The residents of the projects talk about the Square as 'over there' and those who are involved in or know about a neighbourhood group, the Good Government Committee, refer to the participants from the Square as 'the Square people'. The idea that they are part of the same neighbourhood is strange to them. At the Square, few include the 'other side' of the highway in their sense of neighbourhood. Those who do tend to be politically active residents, aware of the design of the ward.

Moreover, the Avenue that divides the two tracts also seems a social divide: people on the side of the square often see it as the border of one's neighbourhood. This Avenue became a contested site for residents during my fieldwork. Upgrading the Avenue had been a key element in the regeneration plans, but its success has been limited. The Avenue had lost its neighbourhood function. Most of the current businesses no longer depended on local shoppers. Many were highly specialised in goods as varied as flooring panels, hand-made pianos and wedding party pastries, attracting clients from the greater metropolitan area. Although the pastry shop used the Italian history of the area in their marketing, none of the business people interviewed believed their location was an asset to their business. Few, too, saw it as a disadvantage. The buildings on the Avenue were large. More and more vacancies in a depressed property market had resulted in social service agencies moving in. At some point, the strip contained over 20 social service agencies, such as a program for youthful offenders, a drug rehabilitation program, the offices of a women's shelter and support program and so on.

During my research, another social service agency had purchased a large, half-empty building to establish an intensive short-term residential treatment program for adults awaiting trial. This was reason for collective action of 'the neighbourhood', in which people from all parts - residents from both sides of the Avenue, business people from the Avenue, and residents from the Housing Project, participated. I will use this protest as a setting to discuss if and how the presence of a middle class might contribute to the social capital of all.

Does the Neighbourhood Elite Facilitate Collective Action?

'How do we define ourselves?'

Over the years, community organisations came and went, until the formation of the most recent one, the Historic Association, founded around 8 years ago. When the issue of the new social service agency came up, this neighbourhood group went through what some described as an 'identity crisis'. Whereas few had doubts that the social service agency must be fought by all means, they disagreed whether their group should be involved, if not take a lead, in doing so.

Some Historic Association members had played major roles in almost all neighbourhood organising for more than thirty years. When one of them initiated the current Historic Association, she and some neighbours held a membership meeting among property owners; renters could be members, but because home- owners had a 'shared interest in maintenance of the area, the focus was on them'. The lady who founded and initially chaired the organisation:

'I think they pay $25 a year dues. And we had a newsletter. To keep everybody up to date on what is going on.. and eh.. then we get fundraisers, and do little projects, like the part of the fence needed to be repaired, we would repair it, we restored the monuments (...) It was mostly restoration. That was a big deal.' (Int 5, p.1)

For the founder, the aim of the association was clear: to preserve the area and the architecture and to keep the area nice and clean. But not all agreed. Next to the social service agency, two other things created disagreement among the active members. First, the current president was engaged in attempts to save a clock factory from being torn down on a location that was formally located inside the Square neighbourhood, but as it was on the other side of the highway it was by others believed to be outside. Second, there had been some political turmoil over the neighbourhood's aldermanic seat. This had resulted in the formation of a neighbourhood group called 'The Good Government Committee'. This Committee had a broader base than the Association, including residents from all parts of the neighbourhood. Overlap between leading people in both groups meant that although most people believed politics should be 'left at the doorstep' in the Historic Association, issues of importance to Good Government carried over into the Association.

When the social service agency announced their plans, this triggered the Historic Association to try to resolve their disagreements. The board members organised a day of retreat with the help of a hired 'mediator'. For home-owners who had invested financially, culturally and socially heavily in this neighbourhood and to whom the place where they lived had over the years become a crucial part of their identity, there seemed to be a real sense of crisis.

To some members, their sense of neighbourhood identity and community was confined to the Historic District and the 'sort' of residents: maintaining their community was a matter of the built environment and the cultural symbols it carried, not so much a social issue. Maintaining their community was also a matter of exclusion. Although one of the members, Mr M., a retired high school teacher and the unofficial 'neighbourhood historian', had stressed in a conversation how much he liked living in the city for its diversity, when it came to defending the neighbourhood, such a defence was little short of keeping the identity as a middle class enclave. He also believed, that the Historic Association was not equipped at all to take up larger issues, and his 'life long experience' had taught him that when ambitions grew too large, the Association would not survive. He had seen many a neighbourhood organisation fall apart.

Other members' convictions of what 'community' meant to them drove them to include wider social issues, such as the faith of the Avenue, in their ideas of what a neighbourhood group like theirs should be doing. Mrs E., who had worked as a social worker in her younger years over thirty years ago, felt strongly about excluding tenants of the projects. She believed that the resources within the group could mean something to its residents of the projects. Mrs S., a woman in her fifties who had been an activist ever since she was a member of the American Peace Corps in her twenties, had recently become involved with the Historic Association (protesting against the demolition of a historic railroad bridge). She reacted surprised and upset when someone suggested the Historic Association was to protect the rights and interests of property owners. She replied she did not want to be part of an organisation with such a goal.

At the retreat, in defining borders of the area with which the Historic Association should be engaged such differences came to the front. They first talked about a commercial street with a number of Italian American restaurants and an arch to signify it as the town's little Italy. Should it be included? Mr M did not think so: 'They feel they belong to that street. And they have their own interests over there, and their own fights. Stay away from it. Stay away from it.' His wife confirmed: 'They don't have an interest in our society at that street. We need to keep them at arm's length.' She added that if you left it up to them they would turn entire parts of a historic street into a parking lot; 'we don't want them to be involved because they don't have the same interests.' Mrs C., owner of a modest condo on the edge of the Historic District, called out: 'So, we're not interested in that street even architecturally, in the buildings on that street?!' Mr K., a lawyer with a preference for limited boundaries, laughed loudly and said: 'Yes, we're interested! If the restaurants put up new neon signs, we're interested in fighting that!' But he concluded that it was 'a highly commercial street', so it should not be included. On the bases of previous experiences with the businesses on this street, its residents (who might be just as interested in fighting neon-signs) were excluded from the area with which the Association was concerned.

Then, the question came up of whether the projects belonged to that area. Mrs E. wondered whether 'our relationships with the projects (...) will be carried out by the Good Goverment?' Mr M. interrupted: 'We need to make a differentiation between political boundaries such as those of the ward, and geographical boundaries, because then, these go as far as the river'[4] and the organisation should not. Mrs E. started to say something again. Mr M. did not let her, and continued to explain that one must not try 'to do everything', and should 'protect ourselves'. There was the elected official, the alderman, 'to talk about all those issues.' The alderman was whom people should go to with their problems, not the Historic Association: 'When three dogs start barking, don't call me, call your alderman, don't call me!'

The discussion then diverted back to the street with restaurants, relating it to the Avenue: if the neon signs could be fought by the organisation, could the social service agency on the Avenue not? The mediator intervened, saying it was not about what one could do but about who was included in the area, and concluded: 'So, we don't have a shared interests with the Avenue defined, so we skip over it.' The wife of Mr M. reacted to the statement of the mediator: 'I like that expression, shared interests.' It gradually became clear that 'shared interests', a notion that was not substantially discussed, was to be the criterion for whom to include and who not. Although geographical proximity could enable an overarching network along class, race and ethnic lines, the group worked with an implicit definition of interests where such differences served as the basis for social identification, and for how they saw their community, and to whom they disposed their social capital.

Then, the man hired to merely mediate said: 'And then the other boundary is the highway.' Mrs M. agreed: 'That is a man-made boundary.' The president, Mrs B., who had wanted to preserve the clock factory beyond the highway, agreed too ('Clear, that's clear'). The mediator clarified: 'So the clock factory is not included in our shared interests.' Mrs B. started a sentence: 'I think what we all agree on is that there are issues that are not important enough for our organisation but individuals can still....' Mr K. interrupted her, exclaiming theatrically: 'It's a free country!' People laughed, and the mediator wanted to close on the topic, but the African American politician, Mrs P., asked: 'When you talk about the cross-over, where does it end?' Mr M. replied: 'The projects. It cuts off the projects.' He added that of course if some people wanted to go over there and 'try to do something', they were welcome to do so, but the Historic Association was not part of that. Mr K. agreed: 'Anything outside our district must clearly affect us in order to take a position in it.' The mediator intervened again: 'Do you have a shared community of interests with the folks of the housing project?'

Mrs E. spoke up: 'Well, in the sense that they are families, I mean the park, they...' This time, the mediator interrupted her, twisting his question and the criteria for inclusion: 'Do the folks over there care about your Historic District?' Mrs E. hesitated: 'I don't think so.' Mrs P. weakly objected that they could go to the school near the Square, and wondered: 'I agree, may be it's not part of it, but then, how can you be not part of it....' But before she could finish, it was Mr K's turn to interrupt: 'I see it as the political versus the socio-economic. We are interested in the socio-economic, the quality of life.' When Mrs B. exclaimed that these overlap so often, Mr M. again argued that the Historic Association had only limited capacities, should stay away from the political, and 'if you want to belong to a social service, or a quasi one, go ahead!' But it wasn't something this Association had anything to do with. Mrs. S. then said softly that there were so many overlaps, that they could work on coalitions, and the mediator resolved the issue: 'Let's make them not members but allies.' This was something that anybody could fill in according to their own ideas, as they passed over what was meant by it. And all agreed. Mr M. warned once more: 'we are in place to co-operate with them, but we are not taking them under our wings. In the newsletter we can inform them, because we are all part of the larger family called the Square, and let them know we are here and what we do, without being political or without any sort of superiority.' Mrs B. exclaimed: 'That is wonderful! That's the way to put it!' And Mrs P. enthusiastically said: 'Oh, it is, can you repeat that?' Mr M. smiled and said modestly: 'Oh no, it went out of the back of my head' and said it was just like when he used to be a teacher in front of a classroom: you say something, and you cannot repeat it, because you forgot it when you said it. All laughed and hence the issue of the borders was resolved.

Over a year later, the lady who had founded the organisation had resumed the presidency to help out in this time of crises. No one at the projects had so far received a newsletter. The social service agency was still being fought through legal action, but the Historic Association played no role in it. Beautification of the park had regained priority, symbolised by the unveiling of a plaque in the middle of the park to commemorate the general after whom the park and Historic District was named.

'This is not NIMBY'

When it came known that the social service agency planned to move to the Avenue, Mrs C. whose condo was in a street right behind the Avenue, had organised a meeting with the press. Members of both neighbourhood groups knew about it, but it was not an action by these groups. The next day, the newspaper featured a small article in which three women who had met with the press stated they already had their share of social agencies on this Avenue, and another one would contribute to further blight. They also stated this was not a NIMBY: they did not claim they wanted no social services on the Avenue at all, but had compiled a list with over 20 agencies that already held office there, and said they could face no more. Two of them discussed the newspaper's picture of three middle-aged white women. They expressed their concern, because the picture exactly suggested a NIMBY of three white women protesting. They believed this was a wrong representation of what was really going on. They argued that people on the other side of the Avenue did not want the agency either, nor did the people in the projects.

Every meeting, such as an informal meeting with a small group of residents from Good Government and the elected officials of the city and state, a private meeting of some of the leading persons in Good Government with the mayor, a meeting with the lawyer of the social service agency and spokespeople of the organisation, or a meeting with people from the city to work on alternative views for the Avenue, someone would mention the projects, and bring up the same point, that 'the people in the projects' did not want this, and that they were not just citizens concerned about their property values. Mrs P. said, for example, to the elected officials in the living room of one of the members of the Good Government that 'this group has been working very hard with the projects' that had to deal with 'the whole impact of a ghetto by design' and that there was a 'great vision for the Avenue' and that the social service agency definitely did not fit in that vision. But the vision on the Avenue or the interests of the people in the projects in such a vision were not discussed that night (or at any of the other meetings I attended).

Many arguments could be made why another social service agency would be against the interests of the projects' residents. Sincere concern about the quality of life for the projects' residents was expressed in bringing to the attention the (not investigated) opinion of the residents of the projects too was that the agency should not be allowed to move in. Meanwhile, the middle class residents had found a very powerful way to get the issue on the agenda of the various meetings without being criticised for NIMBY. Whereas in the Historic Association, some of these residents had stressed or agreed that they did not have a community of shared interests with the people in the projects, their use of the notion of shared interests here strengthened their case.

'The people in the projects'

Often, all-but-one white middle class residents at meetings of both organisations, in informal conversations when socialising and in conversations they had with me, they talked about 'the people of the projects' in quite general ways. They ascribed opinions, problems and ways of life to them based on the very small number of residents who attended Good Government. Informal socialising between the Square residents and people from the projects was rare. They were primarily involved with the president of the projects' Tenants Representatives Council. Such Councils might work. Here, it did not. The limited skills of the officers in literacy, running meetings, and so on, played a role. But that was not the fundamental problem. The Housing Authority organised such councils on the request of the federal government as a precondition for governmental funding. It imposed a model on community organising that appears 'bottom-up'. The Council was very formally organised, with set meeting times, attendance lists and elected officers. Its structure was so remote from the ways residents normally dealt with each other, that it was at least ineffective in involving residents and making their views and opinions go 'up' from the bottom. Meanwhile, the middle class residents lacked other ways of access to 'the projects'. They accepted the role claimed by the president and people she brought along to Good Government that nothing could be done in her projects without her consent. This hampered their attempts to deal with concerns of the residents and gave them little publicity and legitimacy within the projects.

The most active persons of Good Government attempted to engage with the project residents' concerns. Once they set up a meeting with the Director of the Housing Authority to discuss some of the concerns of the projects' residents. They called for a 'social service agency meeting', where they quite successfully invited most of the agencies (supposedly) serving the projects' residents, as it was their understanding that all these non-profits functioned in a rather isolated and fragmented way. Setting up such meetings proved easier than getting results visible to residents. A year later, a misunderstanding blown out of proportion had damaged the relation of the Good Government leaders and the Director, and nothing had happened after the agencies' meeting. Social services were still not or badly functioning, and some improvement was the result of a new organisation taking over because an old grant ran out, not of anybody's collective action. Consequently, their well-intended efforts had little effect on the idea among the projects' residents, that nobody cared about what went on in their part of the neighbourhood, and that those who acted as if they did had something to gain: grants, jobs, or political positions.

Some, such as Mr and Mrs E., attempted to build informal contacts with a lady they knew. This lady had a lot on her plate: troubles with her own health, troubles with some of her children and grandchildren, and psychological difficulties that made it hard for her to keep her life on a stable track. Living in poverty, she occasionally had money thanks to family members, but she generally had difficulties to make ends meet. Her health coverage was limited, so that when her teeth got so rotten that she needed 'new teeth', the dentist pulled her teeth, but she never got new ones. She was superb in hiding this, as she was in hiding many of her personal problems. But when she was invited for a meeting about the Avenue in a local restaurant, she did not want to come. Mrs S. had told her she wouldn't have to pay. Not being able to pay was not her biggest concern. The fact that she lived in the projects defined her as poor. She was not worried about that. She was worried, however, about finding herself a place of respectability within that network of 'others.' She did not want to come to the meeting in the restaurant, because she did not want to have to eat in the presence of the white middle class people. When I called her from the restaurant to see why she was not there, she told me, apologised for it and called it stupid, and eventually came when I said she did not have to eat and we would probably be done eating by the time she arrived. She ate, but just like at an earlier occasion where she had to eat, left most of the food untouched.

Her sense that she was unable to live up to the standards of the middle class she was dealing with, often expressed to me as either a matter of being black or being 'a country person' was further illustrated when Mr and Mrs E. tried to get a little closer to her and possibly to help her if needed. Mrs E. had called her repeatedly to make an appointment to go for lunch. She had agreed, but somehow never made it. Mrs E. believed that she was very private and did not want anybody to get near her. This might have been accurate to some extent. However, she was also afraid to 'go for lunch' where 'my people' never go for lunch, to end up in a subtly not welcoming, all-white environment, and to have to eat there without teeth. She said that she would love to go out with Mrs E. - if she only had teeth.

'Never ask the Square people'

Still, the Good Government Committee linked people with different levels of access to different resources, so that theoretically this institutional context could provide social capital on an individual basis. The president and the few residents that came along with her to the meetings could form the bridges and extend the networks of many with little resources to some with more. This did not happen. The middle class people in the network were generally well-off, and had access to lots of resources not just through networks. Their wealth enabled them to purchase most social support through other channels than those in the neighbourhood-based network. They hired a carpenter to make a cabinet, a cleaning lady to do their house, they had accountants to advise them on finance, lawyers for juridical advice, and doctors and therapists for health problems. They did not need to turn to each other. Some talked about some of their issues and shared feelings, but their intimate friends lived elsewhere. Although their network had the diversity of different people with different forms of access to resources - social capital in the sense of individual assets - they did not commonly use their neighbourhood relationships in such a way. Some might feel they could turn to each other if they had to, and called so-and-so 'such a nice person' and talked about being able to 'trust' him or her. But they would, generally speaking, first seek those other routes. As a consequence, the people with less access to resources of legal advice, medical information, or financial support, were not part of a network in which there was a flow of such resources for personal use. When the Good Government or the Historic Association needed the specific skills of specific people for the group's goals, they certainly called on them. The lawyers took a lead when the fight against the social service agency had become a (still continuing) legal battle. When a meeting with the superintendent of schools had to be arranged, a former member of the Board of Education is said to have used her access routes. These relations with all sorts of people with plentiful resources were, in other words, not strong in social capital in that there was no expectation nor a sense of duty that they mutually supported each other in individual issues.

This sharply contrasts with the networks among poor residents, where those with the least problems are the ones who are best able to provide mutual support in their networks, and reciprocity is a precondition for successful survival. Once, a woman from the housing projects ran into serious trouble with her son, who had been arrested. When I came to her apartment she was upset, because she could not reach the lawyer she knew because he had defended another son in another case. I asked her had she thought about calling one of the lawyers she knew from the Good Government. She said it was not the right thing to do. First, it is hard to present yourself as morally worthy to white middle class people when your son is involved in drugs in a society so strongly demonising drugs and drug dealers. Second, it is hard to present yourself as someone who works for the best of the neighbourhood, where drugs is seen as a crucial problem, while your own children are dealing drugs. But more than reputation was at stake. The social network had individuals with all sorts of possible assets, but few people depended on each other. Given the social inequality, she might have guessed that if someone was going to do her a favour, this wouldn't be like a 'favour bank' - it would mean creating a debt, and reinforcing an already existing and in the social interactions quite visible position of subordination. The social segregation within the network not only related to how black people from the projects behaved when they came to meetings (they, for example, did not sit around the main table at the first meetings, but a little aside in the back, and insisted on staying there) and how some white people reacted to them (when the president of the TRC spoke, some other people started a conversation among each other). The social segregation also related to extremely wide gaps in social experiences and understandings. So even though there were networks with potential access to needed resources, for personal problems, 'you never ask the Square people'.

Social Capital in Collective Action and as Individual Resource: Some Hypotheses

What do these stories teach us about social capital and the possible help of an urban gentry? For collective action, four hypotheses can be derived from this case that further research could challenge or confirm. On the question of how to relate an individual's capability to get something and social capital as a characteristic of a field of relations, the case study suggests two more hypotheses.

As we have seen, middle class resident appreciated the mixed character of their neighbourhood. They enjoyed its diversity, architectural beauty, its urbanity and its rich history, and thus formed their social identity through the use of the local territory. But they did not necessarily define a community of shared interest with all in their neighbourhood. The power relations within the Historic Association, with some women more leaning towards a broad definition of the community and some men with a preference for a more limited conception, partly explained what happened, and how the Historic Association came to define itself as excluding the black projects. From this, we can derive the hypotheses that firstly, middle class residents' expressions of preference for mixed neighbourhoods do not necessarily reflect their willingness to act on the basis of an inclusive community, or to define shared interests by geographical proximity regardless of race and class. Their collective actions might be based on a wealth of social capital, but might be implicitly or explicitly exclusive. Secondly, when neighbourhood groups engage in collective action, the definition of 'collective' can only be understood by taking power relations both between activists and non-activist residents and among activists into account. These collective actions might thus be based on a wealth of social capital, but the ways in which and aims for which this capital is being used might depend on inequality in relationships.

Thirdly, the notion of shared interests in collective action can be highly fluid, as demonstrated by the case of the Avenue. Inclusive collective actions might not necessarily be a case of middle classes making their social capital available to a common cause of all. They can also be instances of strategic use of certain groups of residents in mixed neighbourhoods (in this case housing project residents) to strengthen a cause already defined. This indicates that neither a neighbourhood, nor a community, can be seen as a stable, unchanging 'thing' with a fixed amount of social capital. On the contrary, inclusion and exclusion are used to facilitate collective action - processes in which some more than others have the power to define the conditions on which this happens.

Fourthly, in situations where middle class residents made sincere attempts to support residents form the projects, their desire to speak for the projects was hampered by whom they spoke with. They depended for their access to the residents on the weak community organisation of the projects themselves. Because of a lack of informal relationships outside the scope of community actions, they had little other ways to acquire knowledge about, or get to be known in the projects. This indicates that effectiveness of collective action in which social capital of middle class residents is used for poor people's issues might, among other factors, depend on the presence or absence of informal and multiple ties between individuals on both sides.

On the question of how social capital of the middle class could become available to individuals, we have seen, firstly, that well intended middle class residents, willing to share their resources, faced boundaries. The everyday lives for both groups are so far apart, that bridging the gap turns out to be hard. This suggests that gaps in life experiences, the wider stigmatisation of the poor and the recognition by the poor that they have to work hard to present and maintain an image of themselves as decent and hence deserving poor makes it hard for social capital on the individual level to develop in informal relationships that originate in neighbourhood contexts.

Secondly, the more specific, personal and non-spatial the issues become, the less relevance the elites have as a resource to others, as is demonstrated in the example of the presence of lawyers in a network that remain unused as resources. This, then, suggests that simply rubbing shoulders in the same neighbourhood is not enough for social capital to be accessible across barriers or race and class. Indeed, the social networks within the neighbourhood might need a certain type of social capital for social capital as an individual resource to develop. Coleman (1988: S97) pointed out that potentially strong for social capital are relationships which include expectations and duties of people doing things in favour of each other. Such capital has two anchors: trust that people will act according to the expectations placed upon them, and the degree to which they actually do so. Moreover, social relationships have special potential for social capital when they provide norms and effective sanctions on adhering to such norms. Both seem absent in the cross-class and cross-race networks that the neighbourhood as a location and its groups for collective action within it here provided. The level of generalised reciprocity for individual favours, according to Putnam (2000: 21) a crucial characteristic of networks rich in social capital, was low in the network dominated by the ways of life of the middle classes. This might hamper the development of a high level of social capital as in a 'favours bank', so that knowing someone who could help out is not enough to make this happen. Whether or not one can access relationships to get something done seems hardly a matter of the individual's capacity to command scarce resources.


1See for these distinctions Gans 1962: 336-8.

2A survey on social support and social networks among 250 residents is part of the larger research project, but has not been used as basis for this paper.

3Based on US Census 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990.

4He thus meant that they would include the entire area of light industry and commerce beyond the highway and the projects.


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