Neighborhoods Thrive Throughout America

In his new book, The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop analyzes a half century of demographic data and concludes that Americans, “have clustered in communities of sameness, among people of similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics.”

Bishop contends that modern transportation and technology have made it easier for people to migrate to municipal subdivisions that are populated by people who share their cultural and political views. He points to recent presidential election data to confirm his thesis: In the 2000 Bush-Gore race, 45.3 percent of voters lived in landslide counties “where one party won by 20 percent or more.” In the 2004 Bush v. Kerry, that margin increased to 48.3 percent. In competitive elections from 1948 through 1996, the average was 35 percent. Is this reason for worry? To judge from our history, no.

That Americans seek homogenous neighborhoods should come as no surprise to Catholics familiar with a basic principle of Catholic social thought — subsidiarity. Not so, however, for the author of The Big Sort. Bishop is shocked and appalled with his findings. In his judgment, the “clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart.”

This political segregation, Bishop claims, has lead to “balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible. A growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies but bitter choices between ways of life.”

What Bishop doesn’t get is that elections are always about ways of life.

Historically, most Americans have cast their ballots according to cultural standards determined by their faith. The well-known political analyst, Michael Barone, holds that the person qua person makes a difference in the course of history, that actions based on cultural standards have had substantially greater impact on the political landscape than have economic factors: “The voting bases of the traditional Democratic and Republican parties were primarily cultural; both drew allegiances from Americans who saw them not as promoters of their economic status but as a protector of their way of life.”

By nature we are endowed with an appetite and inclination for social life. We enjoy the company of others with whom we want to share joys and sorrows, and naturally come together socially, educationally, politically and economically in communities.

This tendency helped transform the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago into major urban centers where ethnic groups clustered together – and along the way found a place in national life.

After arriving on America’s shores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of Catholic immigrants turned not to government but to the neighborhood parish – for it was the parish that introduced them to a unified body of believers who could help and comfort them both spiritually and materially.

Due to the tremendous growth in non-English-speaking Catholic immigrants, local bishops implemented policies that permitted the establishment of national-ethnic parishes as opposed to the traditional policy of territorial parishes. Polish, Slovak, Italian, and German parishes sprouted up throughout America’s inner cities. This type of church brought together people of similar language and ethnic cultures. Parishioners were loyal to their local churches, and they identified and introduced themselves to others by simply announcing the names of their parishes.

These parishes provided vital services for immigrants trying to find their way in the new land. The parish school also provided an essential service for immigrant children. The teaching nuns, brothers, and priests taught discipline – both moral and physical. They taught benevolence, forgiveness, and atonement through the Catechism and by marching students to weekly confession. Parish schools instilled a moral compass in hundreds of thousands of first generation children.

The only right way to characterize this is as an instinctive practice of subsidiarity. Catholics were primarily attached to and protective of their neighborhood, of a turf that was often nothing more than a stretch of sidewalk or a tenement stoop.

The neighborhood served as a social harbor where one was accepted for what one was. In New York’s “Little Italy” for instance, relations were so tight that a given block would be inhabited by immigrants who were not just Italian, but often from the same town or village. These people struggled to secure a piece of land they could call their own.

Neighborhoods promoted loyalty. In the meeting places – candy stores, pubs, pool halls – people would stand up for one another. “It is easy to see in this mutuality of obligation,” writes sociologist Andrew Greeley, “a continuation in the urban environment of the old peasant loyalties of village and clan.”

The Catholic immigrant experience proved that homogenous neighborhoods can enhance American urban life – quite a contrast the 1960s big-government social engineers who, in the name of urban renewal, turned many of them into municipal deserts.

Bill Bishop should be celebrating, not lamenting, that so-called parochialism is spreading across America. It may mean that more Americans are becoming attached again to real communities instead of the virtual communities of the media, the universities, and the political demagogues. He should take a look at Michael Novak’s credo: “a politics based on family and neighborhood is far stronger socially and psychologically than a politics based on bureaucracy.”

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.