book review: palaces for the people

What counts as social infrastructure? I define it capaciously. Public institutions such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, and swimming pools are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Community organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructures when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, furniture, clothing, art, and other consumer goods. Commercial establishments can also be important parts of the social infrastructure, particularly when they operate as what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third spaces,” places (like cafes, diners, barbershops, and bookstores) where people are welcome to congregate and linger regardless of what they’ve purchased.

eric klinenberg

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg is a fine book that opines for the resurrection and full funding of “social infrastructure” – pieces of city life that sustain and grow the fabric of communities. Public libraries are one such places. Where we once built grand “palaces for the people” (what Carnegie called his libraries), we now hardly even fund public libraries. 


For me, one of the most important pieces of social infrastructure is the public space – democratic areas that welcome and embrace all in spite of divisions such as socioeconomic class and race. This shared sense of ownership as well as the mingling of different peoples are what I believe contribute to a communal identity. And they don’t have to be things such as public squares. My favorite example is the NYC Subway system. Because of the flat fare, anyone and everyone uses the system from the ultra wealthy to the indigent poor. They rub shoulders as fellow straphangers. In London, the Tube is price zoned and it is not uncommon to see only one subset of people on the train. The buses, however, are a different story. The Subway is one way that New Yorkers feel that the city is theirs altogether – that they are all New Yorkers together. Think of those times when the train has gotten stuck in the tunnel – everyone feels one another’s pain. Nothing smells like bonding than shared suffering.


The problem is these shared spaces – these public goods of social infrastructure – are being privatized and erased. Where we once had the high street for shopping, we now have the shopping mall – a private space where buskers, street food, protesters, and canvassers are not allowed. Wealthy neighborhoods where one could perambulate and admire are now gated off. Social infrastructure not only supports the less fortunate, it provides a space for community to arise. But this shared ownership and identity is now being balkanized and walled off. People don’t rub shoulders anymore.