In This Episode
We all spend time, money, and energy to “take care of ourselves.” We exercise, eat right, and meditate. But what if we can’t actually do it alone—what if being healthy is more about taking care of each other? Our world feels more connected than ever before. And yet, we feel more alone. Depression, suicide, and overdose have skyrocketed. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed addresses how disinvestment in the spaces that bring us together, like public parks, swimming pools, and libraries, has helped shape a slow-moving epidemic of loneliness. We break down the consequences of this social isolation, and consider what we can and should do about it.
TAPE: ANDY SCOTT [00:04:27] Our dog’s name is Wren. We call him Renny.
[00:04:31] Scott_Abdul: Oh nice, what kind of dog is Renny?
[00:04:35] Scott_Andy-PHONE: He is a dachshund mix. He’s like 27 lbs, so he kind of looks like a giant dachshund.
ABDUL VO: That’s Andy Scott. You’ve definitely heard her name before–in the credits of every episode. She’s my partner in crime, the editor whose made sure everything you’ve been listening to is fresh.
TAPE: ANDY SCOTT [00:04:52] Scott_Andy-PHONE: No We rescued him. He was 2 years old. And he was, we like to say that he was a Trump baby. We got [00:05:00] him after Trump was elected because I needed something like cute and sweet that like didn’t know about a lot of bad things in this world.
ABDUL VO: When Andy got Renny, she was living in Brooklyn. And getting the dog meant joining what she calls “dog culture.” But not just any dog culture–a very specific artisanal Brooklyn variety of dog culture…
TAPE: ANDY SCOTT: [06:40:00] In our local park, Fort Greene Park, there was just like this incredible culture in the mornings before 9 a.m, this dog culture. And basically the city has this rule that before 9 a.m, dogs can be off leash in the city parks may not be every Park but it’s a lot of parks and [00:07:00] it’s before 9 a.m. And after 9 p.m. So basically like if you want your dog to get the kind of exercise and socialization that happens when dogs can be off leash then like you go to the park before 9 a.m.
ABDUL VO: So each morning in Fort Greene Park, upwards of 50 to 100 dogs run free. And their people, well, they, you know, chit chat.
TAPE: ANDY SCOTT: [00:08:51] And at first I was like, I don’t know if I can do this, like I’m not like super morning person. Can I talk, can I have conversation [00:09:00]. But basically over the course of like the two years that we were part of this culture, you know, you see the same people every day and you make these incredible friendships [00:09:11] Scott_Abdul: You ever like hang out with any of the folks that you met? [00:09:14] During off-leash hours outside of off leash hours? [00:09:18] Absolutely [00:09:19] Scott_Andy-PHONE: basically you see the same people every day, [09:22] you walk around, you talk you’re there for 30 minutes to an hour. There’s 50 plus dogs and their people in the park. So imagine that, and you walk around and you know some days it’s like a therapy session, you’re talking about your day, talking about your life, something’s happened and you’re bonding over that, some days, you’re just telling stories and laughing and goofing off or you just like it’s just a daily check-in like how what are you doing today? And the I don’t…like laughing with friends before 9:00 a.m is a really special thing.
ABDUL VO: About two months ago, Andy and her wife, Robin, left Brooklyn to move to Austin, Texas. And no surprise here– they picked a house close to a park, hoping to insert themselves into the local dog culture–just like they had in Brooklyn. But, things are…well, different…
TAPE: ANDY SCOTT: [00:12:00] So we found a house to live in for a few months before we find somewhere else to live hopefully also near a park and We basically get here, we wake up on the first day and I’m like, alright, let’s go. We gotta go to the park. And we walk over there, get there and we were literally the only people there.
[00:12:22] Scott_Abdul: How’d that make you feel.
[00:12:25] Scott_Andy-PHONE: It’s just a big hole in my heart. I know that like it’s never going to be the same right? [00:12:34] You never you can’t recreate what happens in one place in another like situations are different and and. You know New York has a really specific culture around the parks as I mentioned, but I guess I just assumed that people would be there because it’s running and you’re going to work and so you like got to give your dog exercise, so you go to the park. I just figured that there would be something [00:13:00] someone even just one other dog. And there were none.
ABDUL VO: Andy’s new to Austin. She and her wife are still exploring their neighborhood and finding their people. And though they’ve found some other great parks and hangouts, nothing has quite matched what they left behind. Andy’s dog park in Brooklyn and the culture that grew up around it is something of an anomaly. Her experience in Austin, unfortunately, is far more common.
Americans are lonelier than we’ve ever been. We’re living alone. Vacationing alone. Eating alone. Working alone. You’re probably listening to this podcast…alone. And that has a big impact on how we feel.
Part of that is because, like Andy in Austin, many of us lack the places that we need to make community.
One study looked at 44 different cities in the US. It measured the relationship between the quantity and accessibility of parks and overall well-being in that city. And guess what? Researchers found that the percentage of a community covered by public park was actually a really good predictor of how well people in those communities said they felt.
We think of our health as something that we – personally – are responsible for. You know, when we eat right and exercise we say we’re “taking care of ourselves.” We buy the healthy snacks, we stay away from soda, we go to yoga, we ride our bikes, we walk – and we monitor it all on our fitness trackers and smartphones.
ARCHIVAL: Montage of fitness commercials, reports, self care, beauty, etc. Equivalent of a Health Magazine in the checkout line at Kroger.
ABDUL VO: But what if “taking care of ourselves” is actually part of the problem. What if staying healthy isn’t something that we can do by ourselves? What if it’s something that we actually have to do together?
Being together means that we need somewhere to go. Like Andy’s dog park. So today, we’re going in search of those places — together, of course.
This is America Dissected with Abdul El-Sayed, I’m your host.
- SERIES TITLE AND THEME
ABDUL VO: You’re probably listening to this podcast on your phone, right? Do something for me? Go ahead and take a look at your Screen Time Tracker, if you’ve got one. What does it say?
Yesterday, mine said 5 hours. 5 fucking hours. That’s 5 hours my ancestors might have been engrossed in a long conversation with a friend, or playing with their kid, or making new kids. Meanwhile, I had my face in my screen, probably rage tweeting about something Trump said.
Don’t get me wrong – the things we can do in this virtual world would have seemed like minor miracles to our ancestors. It’s pretty incredible how small our technology has made the real world feel. And through social media, through gaming, through message boards, and more – some people have found real and lasting connections on the internet.
But it comes with a real cost: We trade breadth for depth.
Because seriously, 280 characters? How meaningful is that communication, really? And Twitter is not a place. You can’t actually be ON twitter. You’re just looking AT twitter.
IRL relationships are hard. Perhaps that’s why we’re so good at avoiding them. The internet enables that. Can you imagine trying to ghost someone before the internet? We avoid depth because we’re afraid of the potential costs– like pain, and heartbreak and frustration.
This isn’t just my opinion– research about social media use is beginning to show that more social media use predicts higher loneliness. One study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh of nearly 1800 young adults between 19 and 32 found that going on social media 50 times a week predicted three times the likelihood of feeling socially isolated – and this bears out on our health in deeper ways, as we’ll get to.
But our virtual places are easy to get to. Real places are not. And maybe that’s the problem?
[00:16:45] Klinenberg_Erik-Phone: Well, look, I mean it’s certainly easier to engage someone on Twitter but it’s also far less satisfying and and I think the one thing that people around the world are experiencing now is a sense of frustration with [00:17:00] the limitations of life on the screen.
ABDUL VO: Professor Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist at NYU. He studies physical spaces and the impact they have on our society, our culture, and our health.
Klinenberg_Erik-Phone: [00:17:03] I think too many of us have become hooked in a way that we ourselves recognize to be unhealthy and there’s this kind of feeling that social life. I’m online is ultimately saccharine. It’s not satisfying, it’s not nurturing. And so I think increasingly people are using screens and using social media to generate interactions in real life.
ABDUL VO: Klinenberg’s work shows that real physical spaces that catalyze togetherness can actually go so far as to save your life. To understand how, let me take you through an example he wrote about early on in his career.
Come with me to Chicago in 1995.
Archival: Bill Clinton/ TLC / Chicago Bulls, something that evokes the era.
In July of that year…there was a massive heat wave…it hit Chicago and the rest of the Midwest pretty hard, and it lingered. Five days above 100 degrees — and unusually high humidity.
Archival: News reports about the heatwave.
ABDUL VO: Heatwaves kill, especially older folks–and especially older folks in poorer communities, where air conditioning is uncommon. And that year in Chicago –more than 700 people ended up dying during the heatwave. That’s more people dying than if three airliners crashed.
Klinenberg, who grew up in Chicago, set out to analyze the likelihood of death during the 1995 heat wave there – and his findings prompted him to write a book called “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.”
What he discovered tells us a lot about how loneliness can kill.
For one, he found that a disproportionate number of the people who died, died alone. Deaths were particularly common in single-room occupancy units, or SROs. In one community, 16 of the 26 heat-related deaths occurred in an SRO.
TAPE: Klinenberg: [00:26:02] And so the consequence of that is that, you know, people hunkered down at home all the time as a survival strategy. And during the heatwave, they literally wound up baking in their rooms.
Abdul VO: He also found that a disproportionate number of the people who died lived in low-income, segregated communities. But that wasn’t all…
TAPE: Klinenberg: The neighborhoods that were really vulnerable were not just poor and segregated, though they were, they were also depleted of social infrastructure. They they lacked gathering places where [00:26:00] people could go and spend time on a routine basis.
Abdul VO: A lack of social infrastructure – a lack of communal spaces that bring people together – amounted to a greater number of deaths from the heatwave. That finding alone is striking. But what really sealed the deal on the importance of social infrastructure was all in the contrast…
[26:16] There are all these neighborhoods in Chicago that you know demographically look like they should have been very vulnerable. They were poor, they were segregated. They had all kinds of problems. But in fact that they prove to be the most resilient and safest places in the city even even safer than really affluent areas, precisely because they had such a robust social infrastructure because they were they were organized around very accessible public places and people routinely got to know their neighbors so much that during a crisis they knew you know, who was indoors and should have been outdoors and therefore whose door to knock on and how to protect each other.
Abdul VO: This social cohesion–the willingness for people in a community to cooperate with each other–made a big difference during the heatwave, as people were more likely to live and work together–and to check in on each other during a crisis.
And the social infrastructure in a community–like libraries, community centers, and commercial establishments–encouraged older folks, who were most at risk of death, to leave their homes, and saved their lives.
His work on the Chicago Heatwave is what got Eric so interested in studying social infrastructure – these physical spaces where people can gather – in the first place.
TAPE KLINENBERG: [24:52] Building social infrastructure is a direct way to improve Public Health, you know, when you have attractive shared amenities that are accessible, you know, when you have green space and cities when you have Community Gardens when you have Parks when you have playgrounds, you know when you have libraries you create conditions in which people get out more… they move around more they they exercise they have better access to clean air and to go back to my core issues about social integration and isolation. People are better connected.
[27:01] You know, in Brooklyn for instance, I found this thing called the library Lanes bowling league where they literally have a weekly bowling match – virtual bowling – where older patrons of the library will put on jerseys and go to the basement or rec room and and compete against Library teams via an Xbox, you know, and and what happens is all these old people who have every reason to be home and alone and isolated and lonely instead find themselves in the best kind of company that could possibly be in and the kind of smiles the happiness the the exercise brings a level of Vitality and health that no other public programs going to generate so, you know, I simply refuse to say that investing in Social infrastructure comes at the expense of health and happiness and general well-being. It’s precisely what we need to promote those things.
ABDUL VO: Klinenberg is making a deeper point here. As his research illustrates, and as other studies have also shown us – without social infrastructure, we become socially isolated. And when we become socially isolated, bad things happen to our physical and mental health.
TAPE: Klinenberg: 12:28 – Social isolation, we now know is terrifyingly dangerous. It can lead to all variety of health problems, from heart disease to depression and stress and anxiety or worse.
ncluding heart disease, stroke, depression, and cancer.
ABDUL VO: The way that social isolation preys on the body and mind – this is the deeper story here. One meta-analysis, a study of studies in the field, found that social isolation predicted a 60-70 percent higher chance of death over the next seven years.
But how exactly does social isolation get under the skin, so to speak? Let’s break it down.
First, a lot of your body’s functions are guided by hormones. Not the kind you’re thinking of–but the same idea.
Hormones orchestrate many different actions across different parts of the body all at once–like a conductor leading an orchestra. For example, let’s say you were to go hiking in the woods and see a bear. Your adrenal gland would release it’s fight or flight hormone–adrenaline. Adrenaline would signal your heart would start beating fast. And It would signal the body to move blood flow from your internal organs to your muscles, preparing you to GTFO. It would also signal your body to start sweating to cool you down, in anticipation of what you’re about to have to do. The same signal–adrenaline–has many different effects on many different organs, all for the same goal.
One of the body’s most important hormones is called cortisol–it gets the body ready to respond to stressful situations that happen over a longer period of time, unlike trying to run away from a bear. And what science has demonstrated is that social isolation may increase the amount of cortisol in our bodies–because being alone is, well, stressful. This has lots of effects on our bodies, but the most important is that it increases the body’s inflammatory response–and this response increases the risk of all kinds of diseases, from diabetes, to cardiovascular disease, to cancer. So, social isolation kills because your body basically responds to it like it would a long term infection.
The effects of social isolation are so pronounced that former Prime Minister of the UK, Theresa May, proposed a new tool for doctors in tackling this public health crisis: social prescribing. Basically encouraging doctors to prescribe social activities – like cooking classes or walking clubs – instead of medication.
ARCHIVAL – Theresa May?
Building out our social infrastructure fosters the same kind of response– building the antidote to social isolation right into the fabric of our communities. More libraries, parks, and playgrounds–and maybe a little less Twitter? That’s an America I can get behind.
But in a lot of ways, that’s the kind of America we USED TO HAVE. I learned that when I served the city of Detroit as it’s health commissioner. See, I wanted to bring some of these ideas to improving health in Detroit. If we could build out the City’s social infrastructure, perhaps we could improve the city’s health, I thought. But before charting where we wanted to go, I had to learn where we’d been.
And Detroit, it turns out, used to have some incredible social infrastructure. Alright, here’s a hint: swimmobile. Yep.
More on that, after the break.
ABDUL VO: Welcome back to The Vitals with Abdul El-Sayed. Let’s dive right in.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:28:50] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: Yep. Well, you know, the swim mobiles, listen, when they were at their peak. I mean kids absolutely love them. I mean kids like water, you know, you show them [00:29:00] water, a pool, even a little babies, they’re going to gravitate to that thing, and you know back in the old days, you know, the fire department used to come out [00:29:08] and unscrew the top of the fire hydrant, and put one of those little spray jobs on the top of it, and the kids would rally around the fire plug.
Abdul VO: That’s Charlie Beckham. He’s the grand old man of Detroit city government–serving for over 50 years.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:02:32] I’ve probably run more City departments than just about anybody that’s alive to talk about it. I’ve been at the Water and Sewage Department, Recreation Department, General Services Department. I’ve been the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Administrative Officer, I’ve been Executive Assistant to the Mayor…
Abdul VO: He’s held just about every job there is to hold in Detroit’s city government. He’s retired now, but we worked together when I was serving in Detroit.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:04:00] Beckham_Abdul: are good days. There were good days. So of all the jobs that you had which was your favorite and why?
[00:04:07] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: Well, you know I always say this, and that’s a good question, when I was the Director of Recreation. And of course the…you know, Recreation, the very definition of it is you have fun. I mean, it’s your, you’re all about kids and providing recreational Alternatives and programming for kids. [00:04:28] And so how could you go wrong?
Abdul VO: Yep, the Recreation Department. Made famous by one Leslie Knope.
ARCHIVAL: PARKS AND REC CLIP
Abdul VO: They run the public parks, swimming pools, and recreation centers–like Charlie says, they’re basically the department of fun. But, like Klinenberg would remind us–they’re also a shadow health department–they create the spaces that catalyze the very essence of what it means to make a community–to commune – and to be healthy in body and mind.
And over the years in Detroit, they’ve come up with some crazy ideas. Which brings me to the part you’ve been waiting for: the Swimmobile.
First, some context. Detroit is a HUGE city–like a really huge landmass. You could fit all of Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan in Detroit, and still have room left over. 138 sq miles in total. If you want to provide swimming pools for people that are close to where they are–it’d be really hard to do on a tight budget.
TAPE BECKHAM: Well one day somebody came up with an idea, so let’s just take a big tub of water. Let the kids jump around and play in it. And so that was kind of the genesis of the of the of the swim mobile. [00:29:29]
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:29:29] They were more popular on the East Coast that anywhere else, but we had a few of those indirect Department that they’re still probably in storage somewhere. Are You got this huge tub, and you attach it to the back of a truck, and you haul it out to the middle of particular neighborhood, or put in the middle of a park and let the kids go at it and swim.
Abdul VO: This was back in the 70s and 80s. Charlie wasn’t running the Rec Department then. But he remembers it well. Basically what they had was a pool on wheels.
TAPE RUBY JO: [00:03:55] Tirado_RubyJo: From what I remember. I remember we got up. It was pretty early in the morning [00:04:00] when the truck setup. [00:04:00] It was at the corner of my street. It was on Howard and Campbell.
Abdul VO: Ruby Jo grew up in Detroit.
TAPE RUBY JO: [00:04:00] It was at the corner of my street. It was on Howard and Campbell. We went down there and they started filling the truck from a fire hydrant if I remember correctly and I remember they let us because I couldn’t swim at the time. I was so little they let the littler kids enter the swimmobile first while it was filling up
Abdul VO: She was six at the time, about to start second grade. She was going to a new school that year, and she was nervous. She was hoping to make a new friend before her first day at her new school.
TAPE RUBY JO: [00:06:00] [00:06:01] Tirado_RubyJo: We met at the swimobile. We got down there. We got there when it first started setting up and my mom introduced me to Crystal because of her [00:06:10] mom, her mom knew my mom, first started talking. And then they introduced my mom introduced me to Crystal and told me that Crystal would be going to the same school with me and her mom told her to find me. And after that, our parents our mothers actually got me into the same class as Crystal, so we have the same homeroom and I just stuck with her throughout school after that.
Abdul VO: Ruby and Crystal are still friends.
TAPE RUBY JO: [00:08:14] Tirado_RubyJo: definitely it was definitely something there was a lot of there wasn’t a whole lot of things that brought the kids in the neighborhood together. [00:08:20] I mean we would grow up together, but it was just the ones that were real close and were close to but after the SwimMobile came, I do remember it’s like a little circle kind of expanded – to a few blocks away, rather than just the street or the next street over.
Abdul VO: That’s what great social infrastructure does–it brings people together – creates bonds that will sustain you for years to come, through good and bad.
Now beloved and weird as it was, the Swim Mobile was short lived in Detroit. I mean, there were…some problems.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:30:00] The problem is that that unsanitary as hell doc, you know it just you know kids are kids and so, you know, they’re doing things in there, a lot more than just swim.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:31:00] Beckham_Abdul: I hear that as a father of a 19 month old I both concur that that children love water and I also concur that sometimes children aren’t as responsible with water as
[00:31:12] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: I mean some kids could help another did it intentionally. [laughs]
Abdul VO: Yeah, as a former health official–it’s probably a good thing that they shut that shit down. Literally. But the legend of the The Swim Mobile lives on. I mean, The Simpsons even featured one! Bart and Lisa have an encounter with one, get hooked on swimming and then beg the shit out of Homer for their own.
ARCHIVAL: SIMPSONS CUT 1:22-1:42:
Lisa: We both agree that getting our own pool is the only way to go. Now before you respond, you must understand that your refusal will result in months and months of…
Bart & Lisa: Can we have a pool, Dad? Can we have a pool, Dad? Can we have a pool, Dad? Can we have a pool, Dad? Can we have a pool, Dad? Can we have a pool, Dad?
Homer: I understand.
Abdul VO: Homer relents, buys them a pool and well, watch the rest of the episode But, getting a pool of your own sorta defeats the whole purpose.
And that’s part of the problem. Think back to Andy, formerly in Brooklyn and now in Austin. In Brooklyn, backyards aren’t that common. In Austin, almost everybody has one. Often, we use public space when we don’t have a private alternative, thinking that the private space – the backyard – is just as good–or better. But we don’t realize that the value isn’t just the space–it’s the people who make that space what it is. If you don’t believe me, just ask Andy.
Andy: [10:10] This park community became like a family… [11:08] I have to say… when we decided to move we did like a weighted pros and cons list and… leaving the park community was… was a 5, which means it was weighted, the the highest… the biggest loss.
Abdul VO: What’s worse, is that when we all choose our own privately owned version, we undermine the public versions. So government stops building them.
The money we spend on public projects – like the Swimmobile – it’s falling. Been falling for a long time. In the 1960s, for example, we spent about three percent of our GDP on public infrastructure. That might not sound like a lot – but it’s way more than we spend now. Today, we spend just about 4/10 of a percent.
As Klinenberg reminds us, the era of the public good – something we all share, provided simply for the good of the community, without a profit motive – seems like a thing of the past.
TAPE: Klinenberg: We once invested a [00:19:00] lot of money and put a lot of ideas into building out things like, you know branch libraries and public parks and transit systems that could be pleasurable for people who are on them. And we once built out an extraordinary set of public schools, you know, both for young children and also public universities and and every state that were the pride of those states. [00:19:26] And that era is over, you know that this concept of the public good, this idea that people in society are better off if everyone around them has an opportunity to make something better of themselves, that has really fallen by the wayside. And we’re squarely in an era where we care about are our private happiness, you know, it’s the Me-me-me presidency that we’re in, and unfortunately, it’s that era of governance as well.
Abdul VO: Public goods–like parks–have come under fire in this era of tax breaks for the rich. Trump’s 2020 budget proposed cutting the US national park service by 481 million dollars. Libraries–funded locally– are also at risk. Klinenberg told us about libraries without working bathrooms, without air conditioning, with broken furniture, that aren’t accessible for those with disabilities. But social infrastructure isn’t failing everywhere. Like everything in the US, it’s just vastly unequal.
TAPE: Klinenberg: Now interestingly, many of our most affluent suburbs in the United States, you know places that we might think don’t care about social infrastructure because they’re all about private comfort. [00:20:45] They actually do invest in things like libraries and athletic fields and schools, and the social infrastructure in these places can be quite glorious, but that’s not really something that’s shared equally and democratically.
Charlie saw this firsthand at parks & rec in Detroit.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:06:43] One of the worst jobs–or assignments I had when I was in Recreation is on the Kilpatrick administration because of budget constraints. We had to start closing rec centers. And so. I literally closed half of the rec centers we had and I tell you there’s still some people in neighborhoods that are mad at me [00:07:00] today for closing some of those centers, but we didn’t have a choice. [00:07:03] But but what it was was people felt their Community was dying.
[00:07:21] Beckham_Abdul: So those places that? [00:07:22] That people can come together and make Community. You know, when you had to shut those recreation centers down. Did you see an impact on the community after?
[00:07:30] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: no question. You know we the city was in in a tough spot then doc. You know, we were we just didn’t have the money. We were rapidly sliding down the ramp to bankruptcy back in those days and we were trying to stem the tide I give Kilpatrick is the credit for that. [00:07:49] I mean we started cutting. When we first saw the signs rather than waiting till it was too late. But as I said, I mean those were some some really really tough Community [00:08:00] meetings and I had when I had to come to those meetings and explain to people why we were going to close their rec center in three or four months. [00:08:07] It definitely had an impact what it did was it forced them to have to go further for their recreational needs and for the meetings and Community meetings Etc because we tried to to move a lot of those. Folks to the closest centers that were still available that would be open but you know people were used to it being down the street and two blocks away and you know, their kids could walk there and walk back and I’ll walk past it on their way to school. [00:08:32] So it was a definite impact and it was a sign of things to come for Detroit as we were really starting to shut down City operations. And you know, it’s one of those things that you don’t miss until you don’t have it. So people took rec center for granted and. For granted we even had to shut down some parks.
[00:08:53] And so we started to live the reality of that and and Detroit took a huge hit [00:09:00] and we’re just now starting to come out of that. We’ve opened up some new rec centers, we’re taking care of all the parks. And so we’re coming back up out of that, but it was a big hit no.
Abdul VO: In 1950, Detroit was the 5th largest city in the country, with 1.8 million residents. By 2010, it had lost 61% of its population. The economy was a huge driver…built on the back of the auto industry, Detroit relied on automotive giants like GM and Chrysler. When they moved their factories out of town, they took jobs and people with them. It accelerated White flight to the suburbs. Mostly low-income, Black Detroiters marginalized through racism and racist public policy, were left to fund the municipal government on a far smaller tax base.
The City was forced to make deeeep cuts. For years, the street lights were just out. In 2012, when the city was facing bankruptcy, they axed their health department–which I was hired to rebuild in 2015.
It also meant deep cuts to parks and rec.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:19:07] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: Yeah, you know and it’s a it’s a those are tough decisions most mayor’s around the country reluctant to do those because you you’re taking away thing. You’re right that people really feel attached to IE Parks schools, you know Recreation Center. But those things are very expensive. I mean as an example typical Rec Center cost about 800,000 to a million dollars a year for operations and maintenance of it and that doesn’t include upgrading Capital when you’ve got some budget constraint staring in the face.
[00:19:45] I mean, you can’t have 30 of those around for what may be serving 45 to 50 people a week. You know all of a sudden the numbers don’t work for you and so they don’t work [00:20:00] number wise, but they do work from a standpoint of feeling of somebody’s neighborhood. So they’re always tough decisions, but good Municipal Executives have to make those hard decisions.
[00:20:11] And so you’re right and I used to complain about that when budget time would come around. I was in the recreation department and you know the mayor would look to me to take the biggest hit,
Abdul VO: But Detroit has since emerged from bankruptcy, and city government is beginning to turn the corner. And as the city was on the mend, Charlie took a new job–creating the city’s new Department of Neighborhoods, affectionately called “The Don.” It was the DON’s job to rebuild that neighborhood network, that social cohesion that had shriveled in all the city’s disruption.
And they’ve come up with something called the 20-minute neighborhood.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:15:02] Beckham_Abdul: How do you define a neighborhood and what makes it stick together? Do you think neighborhoods each have their own identity?
[00:15:10] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: Well they do but but you know a neighborhood starts with it people, and you build from there. And and you build from there now, you’re right Eastsiders and Detroit are different than westsiders are different than the North End and different people in south west but it starts with the people and and you build from there. And so every neighborhoods got a school.[00:15:31] And so you deal with the school you got recreation centers, you need a place to shop and to relax in a park. And so it’s a it’s a it’s a small city is what it. Is an you want people through either their Association of block club whatever it is to know who they are know who your neighbor is and that’s tends to be what builds a neighborhood, you know, the neighbor, you know their kids they’ve grown up together and we’ve got a lot of that in Detroit.
TAPE BECKHAM: [00:16:52] Beckham_Abdul: And how important do you think public places our public infrastructure parks and rec centers are to being able [00:17:00] to help a community and neighborhood a city Define itself and build that kind of cohesion that you’re talking about.
[00:17:08] Beckham_Charlie-PHONE: Yeah, you you got to have them. I mean, you know doc. That’s the that’s the glue of a neighborhood man. I mean when I grew up and I grew up over and Russell Woods in the near west side and Russell was Park which is still there today. I mean that was three blocks away from me so I can walk down to the park. [00:17:25] We could go down there and play and walk back. We could we could shop there Dexter and Davison Dexter Fullerton all of that up in there. And so, you know, it’s what now is being developed and called a 20-minute neighborhood
TAPE BECKHAM: [17:42] … where within 20 minutes you can walk to just about anything and everything you need – you can walk to school, you can walk to church, you can walk to the barbershop, to the beauty salon, to the grocery store. We’re starting to get back to that and so… we’re rebuilding walkable neighborhoods all around the city.
Abdul VO: That idea of a 20-minute neighborhood–a place that’s got all the things you’d need in a usual week–within 20 minutes walking–that’s the kind of community that reinforces itself, keeps people constantly together as they live and work and pray and play. And that’s the kind of community that fosters good health for its residents.
Like Charlie reminds us, government can and must play a role. It can mean life or death in the case of Chicago, and also life or death for countless people struggling with serious diseases we can’t always see, like depression or anxiety.
We’ve made huge headway on diseases like cholera and pneumonia that killed people way before their prime in the past. And today, we’re finding that the diseases that kills us now – that kill us while we’re young – tend to be mental – depression, anxiety, hopelessness – that drive drug addiction and suicide. And just like public investments were made to build the infrastructure for clean drinking water and better sanitation in the past – now what we need is public investment in our social infrastructure – the resources that bring us together, make us feel a sense of belonging. Make us feel – well, human.
If you want to read more of Eric Klinenberg’s work, check out his most recent book “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civil Life.”
America Dissected is a production of Crooked Media. Our producers are Austin Fisher, Cary Junior II, and Katie Long. Andrea B. Scott is our story editor. Our sound designer is Daniel Ramirez. Production support from Alison Falzetta (Fall-ZET-ta), Elisa (AY-lisa) Gutierrez, Kara (CARE-ah) Hart, Daniel Porcerelli (PORE-sir-el-ee), and Tara Terpstra. Fact-checking by Dr. Nicole Aiello (aye-YELL-low). The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa (TAAK-ah Yaas-oo-ZAH-wah) and Alex Sugiura (SOO-ghee-er-ah). Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer (GUISE-mer) and Mukta Mohan (MO-haan). Special thanks to Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tanya Somanader (SOW-men-ay-der) and Tommy Vietor. And I’m your host Dr Abdul El-Sayed. Thanks for listening.