The riches that social networks provide

One of my neighbours complained to me recently how the neighbourhood had changed. With the reconstruction of Regent Park, a wave of newcomers had been (dis)placed into the TCHC housing behind his house (also social housing).

“They have no respect for the neighbourhood,” he said, “and they’re causing all kinds of trouble.”

Now on the face of it, Don’s complaint could be seen as a predictable reaction to the arrival of newcomers, however I sympathized with him. This wasn’t a case of NIMBY-ism, because his complaint was really more about bad planning than about “bad” people.

In a hard-hitting article published in The Atlantic last summer, Hanna Rosin explored what happened to residents of large urban housing projects who had been moved to housing in “better neighbourhoods.”

Rosin followed residents of the projects and spoke to academics who were examining the impact of these displacements. She described some foreboding findings:

  • Social problems which had been concentrated in high poverty areas were dispersed into the neighbourhoods where residents found new housing and were more difficult to police. In effect, the bad spread further.
  • Social networks were decimated. Moved to new neighbourhoods, residents lost any long-standing or supportive relations upon which they might have come to rely and were slow to build new ones. In short, the good was lost.

Without supports, either formal or informal, to ease the transition, outcomes were bound to be poor.

Strong social networks build when we live near someone for years, or send our children to the same local school, or meet on a summer stroll past a front porch. Social networks are even more important in a low-income neighbourhood because we share resources among us.

For instance, my neighbour Marlene announced no one needed to buy a bundt pan because she had bought one recently. And, I know, that if I need a ladder, Ming and Doug both have one, or if they need a jigsaw, they can borrow mine. If I lived in another, less well-networked neighbourhood, we each would have faced the choice of buying our own or doing without.

Our new, displaced neighbours were settled here in a strange neighbourhood without these resources, and no provision was made to fill the gap.

I should borrow that bundt pan to make a welcome cake and introduce them to the neighbourhood.

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