Palaces for the People

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Sometimes when I’m driving or walking around the Bay Area, I’m astounded by every park I see. In a place where each parcel of land could be worth millions of dollars, there are these shared green spaces that are at least theoretically meant for everyone. I feel the same about libraries, they’re like miracles. Take a kid to a library for the first time and you’ll see. It is a temple dedicated to the concept of sharing. Books, sure, but also just sharing space.

Roman Mars:
Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist and bestselling author who makes a convincing case that a healthy community is not simply held together by shared values, but by shared spaces – physical, real world locations – where people across all strata, and ages, and races, and creeds bump into each other and form connections. He also makes a convincing case that we are neglecting our shared spaces, what he calls our social infrastructure. This is a shame because our social infrastructure could help solve or at least mitigate, some of our most pressing challenges, like isolation, polarization, education, crime, and even climate change. He lays out his manifesto in a great book he wrote called “Palaces for the People”. I think it’s just brilliant, so I asked him to chat with me.

Eric Klinenberg:
My name is Eric Klinenberg. I’m a professor of sociology at New York University and I’m also the author of a book called “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life”.

Roman Mars:
Where does the phrase “palaces for the people” come from?

Eric Klinenberg:
It comes from Andrew Carnegie, and I have to tell you that I was a little nervous about using that title because Carnegie, as you might know, has a pretty mixed record when it comes to human decency. He was really a pretty ruthless capitalist, titan of the Gilded Age, among the wealthiest people in the world when he lived, famous for breaking strikes in a pretty vicious way, and doing things that probably promoted inequality in many parts of the world. But Carnegie was also an immigrant. He was born in Scotland and came to the United States. And he believed that one of the amazing things about the U.S. is that it created institutions where people could get ahead in life and achieve something greater than they couldn’t have achieved in their home countries. And he wanted to help build a social institution that would do that even better.

Eric Klinenberg:
And so over the course of his life, he helped to fund more than 2,500 libraries around the world, about 1,700 of which were in the United States. He called the greatest of them “palaces for the people”. The library, as Carnegie saw it, was a place where a person who worked in a factory or lived in a tenement building, and experienced life as crowded, and uncomfortable, and rushed most of the time, could go and escape all of that. And so the great Carnegie libraries have high ceilings, and big windows, and spacious rooms where a person can go and read, and think and achieve something that they feel proud of. I just thought that was a beautiful phrase when I heard it, and it became the title for the book.

Roman Mars:
You talk about libraries as being the perfect example of what you call social infrastructure. So what is social infrastructure more broadly?

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah, well it’s a pretty new concept, especially in the United States. But when I use social infrastructure, what I mean to say is that, there is a set of physical places and institutions that shape our social life. And social infrastructure is just as real as the infrastructure for water, or for power, or for communications, but we haven’t been able to see it because we don’t have a concept for it. What I’ve learned over the course of my work as a social scientist is that, when we live in places where we invest in social infrastructure, places like libraries, or parks, schools, athletic fields, we reap all kinds of benefits. We become far more likely to interact with people around us, whether they are friends and family or neighbors who we haven’t gotten to know. And when we don’t invest in social infrastructure – if we neglect it, if we let it fall apart – we tend to grow more isolated.

Roman Mars:
You mentioned that social infrastructure is more invisible than hard infrastructure. How is it that you were able to see it for the first time?

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah. Well, the first time I thought about social infrastructure was when I was a graduate student doing a research project on a heat wave in Chicago, the city I grew up in. I was puzzled by something very strange in this heat wave. It was a disaster in 1995 that killed more than 700 people. As a social scientist, I was interested in understanding the patterns. The first pattern I observed was the most predictable thing that could happen in a disaster, and that’s that the poor neighborhoods – the segregated neighborhoods on the south sides and the west sides of Chicago – had the highest death rate by far. And that’s not interesting. It’s politically important because it’s a story about where resources go and where vulnerability is, but scientifically it’s what you would expect.

Eric Klinenberg:
But when I looked even more closely at the patterns, something really puzzling did emerge. And that is that there were a bunch of neighborhoods that demographically looked like they should have fared very badly in the disaster, but in fact proved to be strikingly resilient. They were safer even than the most affluent neighborhoods on the north side. Even more interestingly, they were these pairs of neighborhoods where the demographics were identical, like the same proportion of old people, and poor people, and African American people. And they were separated by just a street, they’re literally neighboring neighborhoods. And one neighborhood would have an astronomically high death rate, and the other would be one of the safest places in Chicago.

Eric Klinenberg:
The numbers alone couldn’t tell the story of what was going on, so in kind of classic ethnographers style, I started traveling around and spend time in the neighborhoods. And what I observed is that the places that had low death rates, turned out to have a robust social infrastructure. They had sidewalks and streets that were well taken care of. They had neighborhood libraries, they had community organizations, they had grocery stores, and shops, and cafes that drew people out of their home and into public life. What that meant is that on a daily basis, people got to know each other pretty well, they used the social infrastructure to socialize, and so when this crisis happened in Chicago, they knew who was likely to be sick, who should have been outside but wasn’t. And that meant they knew whose door to knock on and who to help.

Eric Klinenberg:
Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods that had really high death rates, the social infrastructure was depleted. There were a lot of abandoned properties, empty lots, abandoned houses, sidewalks were often cracked and broken, very little commercial life, not a lot of institutions there. That meant that people were likely to stay home, and unfortunately during the heatwave, this was a deadly thing to do. I realized that the end of that project, actually, it was social infrastructure, not the traditional hard infrastructures that we normally think of, that that explained who lived and who died that week in Chicago.

Roman Mars:
The Chicago heat wave convinced Eric that social infrastructure was vital to public health and safety in cities. And so years later, when Superstorm Sandy hit the New York area, he wanted to make sure people knew that it was going to take more than just seawalls to make New York safer and more resilient in the face of climate change. He got involved in a competition sponsored by the federal government called Rebuild By Design, and again and again, he emphasized to the various design teams the importance of building infrastructure that brings people together.

Eric Klinenberg:
But one day, I was taking one team around a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they came up to me and they said, “Eric, we’ve been listening to you talk about social infrastructure and how important it is, and we realize that the design that we’re going to propose for this competition is going to be right in line with that. We have this idea for something we’re calling a resilience center.” And I said, “Wow, that sounds amazing. who wouldn’t want a resilience center? Can you tell me about it.”

Eric Klinenberg:
And they said, “Okay. So this resilience center is going to be a nice building that we’ll put in a vulnerable neighborhood in a town in Connecticut, and we see it as a prototype that we could build in cities all over the country, and it will be open as much as possible. It will be spacious. It will have flexible use s. It will be staffed by personnel who are aggressively welcoming, let’s say. Their job is really to make everyone feel like they’re welcome all the time. And we know that very young people and very old people are most at risk and most need resilience at home because they might not be as mobile as other parts of the population, so we’re going to have all kinds of special programming for kids, things like story time in the morning. And since we know that kids come with caretakers, parents, or grandparents, or sitters, we’ll do something for them too. Maybe we’ll give them access to Wifi and computers. And we really see this resilience center as an amazing new institution that could strengthen people who live in every vulnerable part of the country.”

Eric Klinenberg:
And I said to them, “Wow, that’s an amazing idea.” Because I’m a professor and I’m used to telling people first, that their ideas are amazing, and then I said, “Have you ever heard of a library?” Because clearly, they had just redesigned the wheel. At first I thought it was a little crazy, but then I realized that it was completely predictable and forgivable because we live in a moment where so many people think of the library as an obsolete institution, right? We think it’s a relic from another part of our history, and that it’s not used much by anyone. Even though it turns out that nothing could be further from the truth.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Eric Klinenberg:
I realized that I really needed to spend more time in libraries myself, and to write something that reminded people just all of the extraordinary things that libraries do as social infrastructure. Because they’re such valuable institutions for us, and yet they are taken for granted, and in many parts of the world and the country, are on the chopping block.

Roman Mars:
And so Eric started visiting libraries all over the country. He went to smalltown libraries, and suburban libraries, big city libraries designed by famous architects, and small neighborhood libraries in little brick buildings. In this time, he found lots of people using the library, and many of them using it in some pretty surprising ways.

Eric Klinenberg:
One of my favorite programs came from the Brooklyn Library where they created the Library Lanes, virtual bowling league, which meets weekly in the basements and community centers inside libraries, they’re kind of common rooms. And the context for understanding why these things are so amazing is that about 20 years ago, a great social scientist named Robert Putnam wrote a book called “Bowling Alone”. The complaint was people used to do things together collectively in formal groups, and now everyone, like in Putnam’s nightmare from 1999, everybody was just watching television at home together in the living room. Which I now think of … Now that I have kids who have their own mobile devices, that’s like a socialist utopian fantasy to me. Like, oh my God, if only we could have a night together watching the same screen, it would be amazing.

Eric Klinenberg:
But what happened in Brooklyn is that these brilliant people realized, there’s all these older people who live alone in neighborhoods around New York City, and they’re exactly the people who would’ve been most likely to die in the heat wave in Chicago, right? And they have to do special programming for them. And some older people are bookish or want to do arts things, but some actually want to be physical and exercise and be social that way. And they need to be. So they created this program called Library Lanes, and once a week, this group of older people come together and they put on actual bowling jerseys with their library name on it, and a librarian connects and Xbox to a television, and they compete against other library teams.

Eric Klinenberg:
I’ll tell you, I’m a sports junkie. I spend my weekends following my son around to his soccer games.I like to go to professional and college games. I’m not lying, Roman, when I tell you that I haven’t been to a sporting event as exciting and collectively effervescent, the sociological praise, as this incredible match in East New York where this group of older bowlers came back and crushed it in the final frames to win the match. It was amazing.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so great. Wii bowling tournaments it’s not exactly what people think of when they think of a library, and certainly wasn’t what Andrew Carnegie thought up when he thought of the library. So what are some other examples of how a library is being used today outside of the conventional – like you get a library card, you get books and stuff.

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah. Oh my goodness. I was just thinking about Andrew Carnegie being told about all the things that these palaces for the people have turned into. I hope he would like them. I mean, let me tell you about some of the things that I saw. I mean, first of all, the libraries remain places where lots of early literacy development happens. And every morning, often before the library would open, the librarians would open the doors for groups of preschoolers or kids from day camp who had come in with teachers and get exposed to books and be told stories.

Eric Klinenberg:
There are so many people who just can’t afford books, and don’t have books at home, or have parents who speak another language, and they come to the library to learn to read and to learn to love books. And that’s amazing. Probably Carnegie anticipated that. But he probably would not have seen that libraries have now become the places where people who used to be incarcerated come more than any other institution to search for a job, to get help putting a resume together. He probably would not have anticipated that libraries have become the places where there’s more instruction for English as a second language, more citizenship classes than any other public institution. He probably didn’t anticipate that libraries would do things like karaoke hours for immigrant communities that want a good place to sing together.

Eric Klinenberg:
I don’t know that he would have seen all the teenagers who come to the library at the end of the school day because it’s the safest and warmest, or if you’re in a hot place, coolest place where you can study, apply for college, or just mess around and play video games in a social way. I’ll tell you, I’ve seen so many kids come to the libraries to play games. And when they played games together there, they did it in a way that was very collective and very social. It was not the stereotypical image of a kid in a hole, in their own basement being on their own. They were socializing in this very new way. Libraries are just doing an enormous number of things.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Eric Klinenberg:
And I really think that we fail to recognize how lucky we are to have inherited this institution. I don’t know if you saw this, but about a year ago, there was an article that came out in Forbes Magazine, where an economist argued that libraries are in fact obsolete, and said, “If you don’t show me the cost-benefit analysis that cashes out the value of the library, I think we should stop all the public contributions to them, knock them down, and replace them with Amazon Stores.”

Eric Klinenberg:
I was amazed. At first I thought my friends were just trying to troll me by planting this article in Forbes. (laughing) They knew I was writing about the library, but then it turned out it was real. And this amazing thing happened. The librarians of the world united and got on Twitter, and wrote the most eloquent testimony to the ongoing power of libraries to convene people. They wrote such amazing things that Forbes literally took the article down…

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Eric Klinenberg:
… the next day. It was one of the few good things that Twitter has ever done for the world. When I tried to think of what a great social infrastructure is, it’s not that libraries are the only social infrastructure, hardly. But they’re just about the most effective social infrastructure that I can imagine. And it is a shame that we don’t make more of them by maintaining them or updating them in the way that they deserve.

Roman Mars:
Right. I mean, because there’s still radical and innovative today. That’s what’s so amazing about them.

Eric Klinenberg:
They’ve reinvented themselves.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Eric Klinenberg:
And one of the things that’s so striking about libraries is that the local staff has the capacity and agency to develop programs that work for the community that they’re in.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Eric Klinenberg:
Right? There’s no strong hard rule that says a library has to do X, Y, or Z thing. So a library can be, it can lend tools, it can lend seeds, it can lend clothes to people who need better clothes for a job interview. It can do program in all kinds of languages. I’m sure listeners can think of 50 things that happen in their libraries that I don’t even know about.

Roman Mars:
Has the design of these spaces shifted as they’ve started to accommodate all these other activities besides books, and magazines, and newspapers?

Eric Klinenberg:
Very much so. Although not as much as it could if libraries had more resources to play with. One of the things that I’ve seen is certain municipalities have recognized the value of libraries and have invested in new facilities that can do other things. Like most libraries need to have a special room or set of rooms for teenagers now because so many of them come in the afternoon that they can quite easily take over the place and make it difficult for other people. So you see a lot of teen rooms. Unfortunately, libraries have become these institutions of last resort for people who slip through the cracks and our safety net. And so you will find homeless people, and people with mental illnesses, and people who are really struggling to get by, oftentimes, people with drug addiction, who come into libraries and need a special kind of protection or assistance. And some libraries, including in San Francisco, have really been aggressively experimenting with ways to provide more supportive environments like that.

Eric Klinenberg:
Other countries have made massive new investments in national library buildings that do extraordinary things. The new library in Helsinki is amazing. There’s a new library in Calgary that’s amazing. And some American cities are beginning to invest in libraries as well. But generally speaking, when that happens, we invest in the bright shiny central library that patrons are likely to feel proud of, rather than in the branch libraries, which are really the lifeblood of the system.

Roman Mars:
In the book you also talk about crime as an infrastructure issue, which was a really subtle nuance on the broken windows theory that I found really intriguing.

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah, I don’t know how much people know about the broken windows theory of policing and crime, but this classic essay at this point from James Q. Wilson and George Kelling that said that when there were broken windows in a neighborhood, people perceive the broken windows as a sign that no one is organizing the neighborhood, that there no one has social control. And the notion is that criminals realize that they could get away with anything in a place like that, and so did.

Eric Klinenberg:
Intriguingly, when the original broken windows article came out, it was used as a justification for bringing lots more police into poor neighborhoods, right? Broken windows theory got us the stop-and-frisk policing and zero-tolerance policing. Because the notion was, if you’ve got disorder, you need to make sure that there’s a lot of extra help to keep criminals from doing their thing. And that is a big reason that we have this system of mass incarceration that’s really transformed the United States, and especially poor neighborhoods.

Eric Klinenberg:
And having spent a lot of time thinking about the power of social infrastructure and physical places, I found myself asking this question, like what would have happened if we had responded to broken windows, not by sending in so many police officers, but by fixing the damn windows, right? How did nobody ever think of that? It’s really weird.

Eric Klinenberg:
I went back to the original article when I had that thought, and I found that, if you read it closely, the chain of events that leads to this idea that we should send in more police and do zero-tolerance policing is, a neighborhood gets abandoned, property gets abandoned, graffiti goes up, a window’s broken, and then the things spiral out of control.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Eric Klinenberg:
So why is it that the theory wasn’t called the abandoned property theory, right? It’s a horrible title. Broken windows it’s an awesome title, right? We have bowling alone, and broken windows, and these great catchy phrases that turn out to justify really terrible social policies. And in the case of the broken windows thing, it didn’t even work. So we forgot all about the abandoned property part.

Eric Klinenberg:
So I started asking, what would happen if we had fixed the windows? If we did fix up that property? And when I asked, it turns out that someone else had thought about it much more than I had. There’s this team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania that had been asking a similar question, and they ended up teaming up with the city of Philadelphia, which has tens of thousands of abandoned properties and empty lots, and also the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which sounds like an old person’s gardening club, but turns out to be this powerhouse of operation that helps to control all this vacant land in Philadelphia.

Eric Klinenberg:
And they started one of the most exciting social science experiments that I know of happening right now. And for more than a decade, they’ve been doing this thing, which is they randomly select blocks where they will make simple interventions. So if there was an abandoned house, they would board up the building and prevent squatters, or potential drug dealers or criminals from using the property. And if it’s an empty lot that would have weeds, and debris, and all kinds of garbage that would make it a public health hazard, they would clean it up, mow it down, and put in a little pocket park. Maybe plant a tree, put in a bench, put a wooden fence there.

Eric Klinenberg:
And they wanted to see what happened in the places where they made the intervention and what happened in the places that they left alone. And the results were staggering. They achieved almost a 40% decline in gun violence around the abandoned properties that they treated. And that’s a staggeringly high number, right?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Eric Klinenberg:
To get that. And that has been durable over the course of a decade. What’s more, they hooked up heart rate monitors to people who live in those neighborhoods. And they found that, even for a resident, when you walk by an untreated property just in an abandoned place that was left to become a site of debris, people’s heart rates really spike dramatically. And of course, we know that stress-related diseases are especially high in poor neighborhoods that have a lot of abandonment. But when people walk by a place that’s been treated and turned into a little park, their heart rate hardly changes. Again, that’s just an amazing thing to achieve with a modest investment in social infrastructure.

Roman Mars:
And did the crime just move from one place to another or did it just reduce in total?

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah, so that’s they thought was going to happen. That you fix up one block and crime just bounces to the next one, but the amazing thing here is it didn’t. It turns out that … We think of crime as being about bad individuals doing bad things, and no doubt that’s part of the story, but a lot of crime is just situational, right? If you create a city with lots of places where no one is in control, and no one feels a sense of responsibility, and people have a hard time managing things, you create situations where crime is more likely. But if you take those situations away, the crime just doesn’t happen. And so the answer’s no. They did not get the crime bouncing elsewhere, it simply didn’t happen.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So I’m reading your book, and I think about myself in the city and how I interact with people, and how my lived experience and my idealized experience sometimes are not in a complete concert. So like if I were a planner, I’d plan for social infrastructure, if I were a mayor, I’d pay for it. But as a person who’s slogging through life, I don’t always want to encounter people. And so when we build…

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah. I live in New York City, man, I get that.

Roman Mars:
Totally. So when we build social infrastructure, how do we make sure we’re designing for our true selves and not our idealized selves.

Eric Klinenberg:
Yeah. Well, it’s my take here that there’s no shortage of places where people can hunker down and get their own private space these days. We’ve created a whole society based on our idealization of privacy and autonomy, right? I mean, it used to be that families shared bedrooms together, right? Families shared beds together. Now, I know so many people who moved out of their cities because they felt like their kids needed to have their own individual bedrooms.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Eric Klinenberg:
I mean, it’s just … I’m with you that we all need a space for privacy. And in fact, a library is a really amazing social infrastructure in part because it combines shared tables and programs and activities with little nooks where a person can go and anonymously be in their own head, right? And a park does the same thing, right? A park can be a place for a collective life, and a park can be a place where we go to be like Theroux and have our own time and space. I think you’re right. We always need to be mindful of those things. We don’t want to force people out into the public realm, but my sense right now is that it’s the publicly-accessible public realm that’s really in short supply.

Roman Mars:
I’m intrigued by this idea of public ownership and how we convey that. I mean, I think one of the reasons why the public parks work and libraries work is because we feel like we own them when they’re done, right? We feel like we belong. And that makes everyone closer-connected. It also just like, they treat the world better when it’s ours versus a private space that we can just occupy as long as we are buying that cup of coffee. How do we make sure we make things so that everyone feels like they’re really a part of it?

Eric Klinenberg:
Oh, man, that is such a tough question. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially in light of the past year where we’ve started to see more publicly just how restrictive and exclusive some of our most valued semi-public spaces can be. Remember that video that circulated about the two African American guys in Philadelphia who went into a Starbucks? And they went there and … Tell me if this ever happened to you. You go to meet somebody, and they’re late?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, like all the time.

Eric Klinenberg:
Have you ever experienced that? Right? So these guys go and … I know that I’ve sat in Starbucks waiting for someone who doesn’t show up for 10, 20, 30 minutes, an hour, and no one’s ever said anything to a white professional academic guy. But these two guys, they don’t get asked to buy something, they don’t get politely asked to leave, they get arrested for being in this shared space. It’s a crazy thing. And so in that context, people who get in feel entitled and privileged, and there are a whole bunch of people who are left out all together. And that alerted me to the extent that our public space and our public realm – our shared spaces – are part of the commercial economy. They are really restrictive, right? You have to be able to pay, you have to be let in.

Eric Klinenberg:
And there are a lot of places, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods and cities, where people just know that they’re not welcome because it costs $7 for coffee, or $9 for ice cream, or they don’t take cash at all, they’re there only for people with credit cards, right? And I have to say one of the most amazing things I observed in the public libraries where I spent time, is that there are places where this impossible community of people who are so different from one another, come together, and all kinds of people who have real struggles, come to because there’s just not space for them anywhere else.

Eric Klinenberg:
And in the year that I spent going to the library, pretty much every day, I can count on one hand the number of times that the police had to be called in, and that there was a real security concern because people were acting out towards one another. Most of the time when people go into libraries, they recognize that they are being respected, and dignified, and honored. And I think it brings out the best in us. I think it’s a great question. What kinds of public places can do that? Can exalt our experience in the world in the way that a library can. And what can we do to make sure that the places that we built do that even better?

Roman Mars:
Is there any momentum towards more social infrastructure? I mean, do we require a modern day Carnegie? Do we require our government to do more? Do we require us to demand more? What is it going to take? And do you see any evidence that it’s happening?

Eric Klinenberg:
It’s an urgent question, how are we going to pay for this? And it’s true that Carnegie was a philanthropist and philanthropic dollars went to build a bunch of libraries. I closed the book by noting how strange it is that we live in a world with these titans of the Information Age, who have made billions of dollars. You know with things like social media and computing, and who haven’t made contributions to social infrastructure in a way that I would like to see.

Eric Klinenberg:
In fact, one of the really off-putting things for me about Mark Zuckerberg’s use of the concept social infrastructure is that, he’s been promoting Facebook as the social infrastructure – he uses that language – for the 21st century and says Facebook is where we’ll go for meaningful interactions. And yet if you go to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, no one on earth has spent more money on actual physical social infrastructure than Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a worker’s paradise there, right? The bike paths, and the yoga studios, and this shared spaces for serendipitous encounters, and the massages for people while they’re coding at their desks. It’s amazing there. And in fact, the people who work in those companies don’t let their kids go on the devices because they know how dangerous a phone can be as social infrastructure.

Eric Klinenberg:
On the one hand, I want to see the big philanthropists of our time spend more on things like libraries. But I also know in my heart that philanthropic dollars are ultimately inadequate and they’re like randomly distributed to the places where the philanthropists tend to spend time. And that if we’re ever really going to make this work, it’s going to have to be through a public commitment, like a major public works program. And I think it’s just a matter of time until we do that, but clearly, we’re going to have to muster up the collective will for it. And we certainly can’t rally for it and call for it if we don’t have a name for the thing that we want.

Eric Klinenberg:
And that’s one reason why I hope that social infrastructure is sticky, that it means something. Because, you know what? We have no problem paying for infrastructure when it comes to the things that we think of as critical. The infrastructure’s like one of the few things that both Trump and Clinton agreed that we needed a few years ago. I just hope we can recognize the need for social infrastructure, and find some way to persuade the people who are running our government that without their support, it will never happen.

Roman Mars:
It’s we need like a social infrastructure week.

Eric Klinenberg:
I’m thinking more like a decade.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, exactly.

Eric Klinenberg:
At least. And look, if you look at any report that comes from the World Bank, or even our own government, they recognize that we will soon be spending tens of billions of dollars, and then hundreds of billions of dollars, and trillions of dollars internationally to build new infrastructure. Because the systems that we have to keep us in the modern world simply don’t work. And we know it’s true in the case of the subway, and we know it’s true in the case of the power grid, and it’s my observation that it is also true, maybe even more true, in the case of our social infrastructure. They have just been absolutely neglected. If we want to support the kind of social life that we all need, regardless of our politics, regardless of our income, regardless of where we live, that we all need to live well and be better connected with each other, we’re going to have to find a way to invest in it.

Roman Mars:
Eric Klinenberg’s book is called “Palaces for the People”. You will enjoy reading it and nodding vigorously along with it. You can get it at a bookstore near you, or you can also get it from the library.

Credits

Production

Host Roman Mars spoke with Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life; This episode was produced by Emmett Fitzgerald

Comments (14)

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  1. Patricia Lu

    Thank you for this episode. There are so few municipal establishments that are open to the public anymore. There are so few places that are indoors that you can go and hang out, and take a rest, maybe learning something without having to buy something. Horrible to think that anyone would have the gall to name libraries as obsolete. Libraries are our tax dollars at work for once!

  2. This episode is high quality and the best thing I´ve heard in a long time.

    I really wish there were versions of this text, in other languages, because it is a topic of great public interest.

    1. 99pi

      Hi Christina – that is so kind of you! Unfortunately, we don’t have the text in other languages but you could try using an online service such as google translate. Thanks for listening!

  3. Thank you so much for doing this podcast on Palaces for the People! When my children were little and we had no money, the library was our escape. We were there at least once a week, and often more frequently than that. I still remember checking out Nina Laden’s “When Pigasso Met Mootisse” for my son over and over again because every time we had to return it, he would ask for it again. Not only were we able to check out books from our library, we could also check out movies, fishing poles, and video games.

    We have moved a few times since their toddler days, but the first thing we do when we move to a new town is get a library card to the local library.

    Thanks again for reminding everyone what a valuable resource our libraries are!

  4. Frances

    This episode made me wonder, how different is the concept of “social infrastructure” from the concept of the commons, and their enclosure which is driven by capitalism? Silvia Federici and others have written quite a lot about it. The enclosure of the commons in 16th century Europe is often cited as the beginning of modern capitalism. Isn’t the enclosure of the commons the same as making social infrastructure less robust? I find it strange the author isn’t more overtly critical of capitalism, because capital drives the enclosure of common spaces, making us more isolated, more vulnerable, more exploitable.

    Thanks for making one of my favorite podcasts!

  5. ruth

    I support libraries 100% and this episode is fabulous. Its amazing that you need an academic to tell you that as humans the most important capital we have is our humanity.
    And yes is that what in the worse case scenario (re:heatwave )will determine your fate.
    Yet you see people like the economist in Forbes magazine and you wonder, was he born from a machine?
    Libraries and community centers offer a myriad of services of that help humans to become better socially and culturally. The sole fact that they provide you with the opportunity to educate your self for free is a wonder that most privileged people fail to see. And this difference alone can change your life from a certain failure to a possible success.

  6. Irene Anaid García Tamayo

    Hello, congratulations on the podcast! I like the the topics, the way they are approached and how at the end it always feels like listening a really good story. I was initially drawn to this specific episode because of the picture. This is the public library of my hometown’s public university: Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Morelia, Michoacán, México. I saw that in most of the pictures showing buildings, the names of the places are written at the bottom of the picture. So I wanted to add the information for this one as it really is a beautiful library and it was a nice surprise to see its picture.

  7. Andrea Maenza

    I love this discussion and I love libraries! They are also more environmentally friendly than all of us buying all those materials.
    What I really want to comment on or ask is about the broken window theory. You asked what should have been an obvious question: “why not fix the windows?” But I want to go back even one more step and ask why is there abandoned property in the first place?
    I live in the Toronto suburbs, and abandoned property is rare. Other than old farm houses, I think abandoned properties are rare across Canada. (Relative to what I see in the US).
    I’m guessing there must be legislation (property tax laws, liability???) that makes it more undesirable to abandon property here.

  8. TS

    This was a truly excellent episode; the guest was excellent, the topic is very germane to our current situation, and Roman asked some really good questions–all around excellent. I’d have liked to hear more about the design characteristics or considerations for social infrastructure. I suspect there’d be some overlap with prescriptions from both Ostrom and Olmsted.

    Also, congratulations, Avery! A great series from a great producer. I really enjoy your work.

  9. Troy

    I live in Seattle and while I listened to this episode I thought of how in 1998 voters in Seattle passed the “Libraries for All” bond, which not only built the amazing central library, but rebuilt many of the branch libraries. Now 20 plus years later, Seattle has this amazing library infrastructure. I use the library often and when I go it is packed at all hours that it is open.

  10. Robin

    Broken Windows Theory actually recommends the very methods taken by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society as well as more proactive policing. As this article explains, “people perceive the broken windows as a sign that no one is organizing the neighborhood — meaning those intending to commit crimes would feel like they could get away with it there.” So the broad solution is to organise the neighbourhood in a visible way. Denying drug dealers and squatters space by boarding up abandoned buildings and maintaining lawns are laudable but only go so far. There are many areas where the situations during which crime is more likely occur on the street itself. Hence, police patrolling and taking away illegal weapons and drug paraphernalia (stop and frisk) are vital parts of organising a neighborhood.

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