The Infrastructure of Community

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Coffee shops, churches, libraries, and concert venues are all shared spaces where mingling can take place. Yet the hustle and bustle of modern social life can pose challenges to relationship-building—even in spaces designed for exactly that.

In this episode of How to Talk to People, we analyze how American efficiency culture holds us back from connecting in public, whether social spaces create a culture of interaction, and what it takes to actively participate in a community.

Hosted by Julie Beck, produced by Rebecca Rashid, edited by Jocelyn Frank and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado, and engineering by Rob Smierciak.

Build community with us! … via email. Write to us at howtopodcast@theatlantic.com. To support this podcast, and get unlimited access to all of The Atlantic’s journalism, become a subscriber.

Music by Alexandra Woodward (“A Little Tip”), Arthur Benson (“Charmed Encounter,” “She Is Whimsical,” “Organized Chaos”), Gavin Luke (“Nadir”), Ryan James Carr (“Botanist Boogie Breakdown”), Tellsonic (“The Whistle Funk”), Dust Follows (“Willet”), Auxjack (“Mellow Soul”).

Click here to listen to additional seasons in The Atlantic’s How To series.


Host Julie Beck: I think what I’ve observed in public spaces, especially in my neighborhood, is really just a hustle and bustle. And people are going somewhere specific to do something specific with specific people. They’re sort of on a mission.

Eric Klinenberg: Efficiency is the enemy of social life. What kind of place would allow us to enjoy our lives and enjoy each other more than we do today? What kinds of things would we need to reorient our society around?

Kellie Carter Jackson: You know, people say, like, misery loves company. I don’t think that is true. I think that misery in a lot of ways requires company; it requires kinship. It requires community. So that you are not isolated in your pain.

Klinenberg: What kinds of things would we need to reorient our society around?

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Beck: I’m Julie Beck, senior editor at The Atlantic.

Rebecca Rashid: And I’m Becca Rashid, producer of the How To series.

Beck: This is How to Talk to People.

Rashid: Though I normally am not making a friend at the café, recently there was a girl that was working on her laptop. She noticed I was, too. We started chittin’ and chattin’, and after a few weeks of running into each other so many times at the café, she finally—slightly awkwardly—asked yesterday, “Hey, do you mind if I get your number if you maybe wanted to get a drink?” Very friendly, sweet sort of way of fighting through the awkward.

Beck: I’m so impressed! Of course, people do connect at cafés like you literally just did. And, you know, in Paris or whatever, they may be happy for people to linger and chat all day. But I think the connection that’s happening in those spaces, like, that’s not the purpose of the space; that’s a byproduct. Perhaps a welcome byproduct, but like the point of the space is to make money. The point is to sell you something.

Rashid: It’s a business.

Beck: They’re selling you a coffee; they’re selling you a sandwich. There are several cafés in D.C. that I really like that just don’t offer Wi-Fi, or they give you a ticket where you have like a couple of hours of Wi-Fi after you buy something. And I get why they’re doing that, because they want the customers to cycle through, and they don’t want people taking up tables all day when they could get a fresh paying customer in there.

That may well be good business sense. But if those are the only spaces that you have to maybe just mingle and get to know people that are in your neighborhood, what are the spaces where you can just have friendly mingling, and that’s the point?

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Beck: Eric Klinenberg is a researcher who is really into all of these questions that we’ve been talking about. He’s a professor of sociology at New York University, and he’s an expert on city infrastructure and urban life.

He wrote this book called Palaces for the People in which he talks about this concept called social infrastructure. That is essentially the physical spaces that are available to the public that are designed to facilitate these social connections.

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Klinenberg: If you want to have a transit system like a train, you need an infrastructure to carry the train, right? The rails, for instance, There is also an infrastructure that supports social life: social infrastructure. And when I say social infrastructure, I’m referring to physical places. They can be organizations; they can also be parks. Physical places that shape our capacity to interact.

When you have strong social infrastructure, people have a tendency to come out and linger. And if you live in a poor neighborhood where the social infrastructure is strong, if you’re older, if you’re more frail, if you’re very young, you might spend more time sitting on the stoop in front of your home. You might have a bench that you spend time on, that’s on your street. There might be a diner where you go every day.

And what that means is there are people who are used to seeing you out in those public places on a regular basis. And when it’s dangerous outside, someone might notice that you’re not there. And they might not even know your name. They might just know your face. Maybe they know where you live. They’re used to seeing each other in the public realm.

I grew up in Chicago. And in 1995, just before I was about to start graduate school in sociology, there was a heat wave that hit my hometown and lasted just a couple of days. But the temperatures were quite extreme. It got to about 106 degrees. Chicago did what it always does when there’s a heat wave: It turned on air conditioning everywhere you could go. And the power grid got overwhelmed. And very soon the, you know, electricity went out for thousands of homes.

At the end of this week, in July, Chicago had more than 700 deaths from the heat. And this was the pre-pandemic time. So people dying in a city in a couple of days seemed like an exceptional thing. We hadn’t gotten numb to it yet. I was really curious about what had happened, and the first thing I did was I made these maps to see which people and places in Chicago were hit hardest. And at first blush, the map looked exactly like you would expect it to look. The neighborhoods that were hit the hardest were on the south side and the west side of Chicago. They were the historically segregated Black, poor, ghettoized neighborhoods.

Beck: Right. Chicago’s extremely segregated.

Klinenberg: And when there’s a disaster, you know, poor people living in segregated neighborhoods will fare the worst. So I looked a little more closely at the map, and I noticed something that no one else had seen—which is that there were a bunch of neighborhoods that were located right next to places that were among the deadliest neighborhoods in Chicago. But this other set of places wound up being extraordinarily healthy.

Beck: So these were neighborhoods that were geographically really close to each other and shared a lot of characteristics, but they were having really different outcomes?

Klinenberg: Matching neighborhoods. Like, imagine two neighborhoods separated by one street—same level of poverty, same proportion of older people. The risk factors that we ordinarily look for were equal. But they had wildly disparate outcomes in this heat disaster. That’s the kind of puzzle that you live for when you’re a social scientist.

Klinenberg: And so, what I observed is that the neighborhoods that had really high death rates, they looked depleted. They had lost an enormous proportion of their population in the decades leading up to the heat wave. They had a lot of abandoned buildings. Even the little playgrounds were in terrible shape, not well-maintained.

And across the street in the neighborhoods that did better, the public spaces were much more viable. They didn’t have abandoned homes. They didn’t have empty lots. There were community institutions, grocery shops, coffee shops, a branch library, places that anchored public life.

In those neighborhoods in Chicago, people knocked on the door, and they checked in on each other. And as a consequence, if you lived in one of these poor neighborhoods that had a strong social infrastructure, you were more likely to survive the heat wave. People in the neighborhood across the street, the depleted neighborhood—they were 10 times more likely to die in the heat wave. And that difference was really quite stark.

Beck: So you said when we talk about regular infrastructure, we’re talking about what carries the train, right? So what carries the train of our relationships? What are the actual railroad tracks?

Klinenberg: Think about a playground, for instance. We know that one of the core places that families go to meet other families in their neighborhood is a playground. All kinds of socializing happens when parents or grandparents or caretakers of all kinds are pushing a swing and looking for a companion, someone to talk to.

Those conversations at the swing set often lead to a shared little break together on the bench or maybe to a picnic and then a playdate, and then two families getting to know each other and communities growing. If you took playgrounds out of American cities and suddenly there was no playground, our social lives would be radically different.

We act as if, you know, in the Old Testament, on the fifth day, God said, “Today I give you the playground and the library,” and it’s our birthright to spend time in them. We forget that these are achievements. These are human inventions.

We built giant parks, theaters, art spaces. We created a good society based on a vision of radical inclusion. Not quite radical enough. People have always been left out of our public spaces. There’s no history of this idea that is complete if it doesn’t pay attention to how racial segregation works and how racial violence works and how gender excluded some people from some public realms. All of that stuff is there in the history of public space. I think in the last several decades, we’ve kind of come to take all these places for granted.

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Beck: What is the connection between having places to just hang out and vibe and having a community rally together and support each other in an emergency like a heat wave?

Klinenberg: Well, one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. You can have places where people hang out and vibe and don’t get active and engaged on important civic matters. I generally argue that public spaces and social infrastructure—they’re a necessary condition for having some sense that we’re in it together, and we have some kind of common purpose. But they’re by no means sufficient. And so that has to do with programming; that has to do with design; that has to do with this feeling of being part of a shared project. And some public spaces give us that feeling, and others really don’t.

Beck: Yeah. I’m curious about the mechanics of how that even happens. I feel a bit of a divide, where being in public is for being active and relaxing is for home. And so much of the public space around me is bustling—people are engaging in commerce, or they’re just walking from here to there, and there are no opportunities to slow down and talk to each other. And I don’t know that we would. Does that make sense?

Klinenberg: Yeah. I mean, it makes perfect sense, because efficiency is the enemy of social life. You tend to enrich your social life when you stop and linger and waste time.

And in fact, one of the really striking things, I think, for Americans when we travel to other countries is to see the extent to which people all over the world delight in sitting around: the culture of the souk or of the coffee shop or the wine bar or the plaza.

Beck: Oh, yeah, the five-hour dinners in France. Like, you can’t find that waiter to get your check. You know?

Klinenberg: (Laughing.)

Beck: He’s gone.

Klinenberg: Because the point is not to pay the check. The point is to be there. And it’s hard for us to come to terms with just how forcefully the ticking clock shapes our capacity to take pleasure in social life.

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​​Rashid: It’s interesting that you see the no Wi-Fi on the weekends as a way to cycle people out of the space. I thought that was the café or coffee shop making a grand gesture in favor of relationship-building.

Beck: Oh. I guess I’m just more cynical than you. But I think it’s because they need to make money. I go to the public pool with friends. I get books from the library. There is a very hot ticket at our local library, which is like a semi-regular puzzle swap that they do. Oh, and my partner and I, we’re very cool.

We go and we swap puzzles with the community. But I don’t feel like I am really building new relationships or getting to know my neighbors at these places, or even at these events. Like, I love these resources. I don’t want to lose them. I enjoy them, but I just kind of use them by myself or with people I already know.

Rashid: Yeah. And I think the norm of keeping to yourself is only fueled more by things like social media and being able to look away and be on your phone. And it’s interesting how just that shared physical presence with people also doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re closer.

Beck: Yeah, just because you go to the café doesn’t mean you’re going to look up from your phone.

Beck: Do you think that to some degree we’ve replaced our relationship to social infrastructure with social media?

Klinenberg: I think of social media as like a communications infrastructure. It definitely helps us to engage other people. It’s a kind of impoverished social life that it delivers in the end.

Think about how life felt in April of 2020 when we were in the beginning of the pandemic, because we were all in our homes cut off from each other. We were talking to each other all the time, right? But we were physically isolated, and we were miserable. So that’s life where social media is social infrastructure.

Beck: I do wonder whether there is an individualism that is also affecting our living choices and the way that we engage with the social infrastructure.

Klinenberg: I discovered that the United States is a laggard, not a leader, when it comes to living alone. Living alone is far more common in most European societies than it is in the U.S. It’s more common in Japan. It’s more common in France and England. Scandinavian societies have the highest levels of living alone on Earth, and Germany is higher than the United States.

And what I learned about doing this research is that what really is driving living alone is interdependence. When you have a strong welfare state, and you guarantee people the capacity to make ends meet without being tethered to a partner who they might not want to be with.

Beck: Do you think, then, that solo livers rely on social infrastructure more?

Klinenberg: They do. They’re more likely to go out to bars and restaurants and cafés and to gyms, to go to concerts. I just published a paper in a journal called Social Problems with a graduate student named Jenny Leigh, and we interviewed 55 people who were living alone in New York during the first stage of the pandemic.

We talked to them about their experiences. And it was really interesting. Like, they talked very little about social isolation, and they didn’t complain that much about kind of conventional loneliness, like lacking people to talk to. But they felt physically lonely; they felt physically isolated.

And they really missed the kind of familiar strangers we see when we spend time in a neighborhood who just give us a sense of where we are and that we belong. They felt [an] acute kind of pain that was slightly different than the pain of the common conversation we had at the time.

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Klinenberg: One of the problems we have now is most cities, suburbs, towns in America have public libraries there. There’s neighborhood libraries. The building is there. And the buildings are generally not updated there. They need to have new HVACs. They need new bathrooms. They need new furniture, let alone new books.

Some are still not accessible to people in wheelchairs. I mean, there’s all kinds of problems with libraries, just physically, because we’ve underinvested in them. But libraries, unfortunately, have become the place of last resort for everyone who falls through the safety net.

Klinenberg: If you wake up in the morning in an American city and you don’t have a home, you’re told to go to a library. If you wake up in the morning and you’re suffering from an addiction problem, you need a warm place. They’ll send you to a library.

If you need to use a bathroom, you’ll go to a library. If you don’t have childcare for your kid, you might send your kid to a library. If you’re old and you’re alone, you might go to the library. We’ve used the library to try to solve all of these problems that deserve actual treatment.

And how many times have you talked to someone who said, like, it’s basically a homeless shelter. What’s happened is we’ve stigmatized our public spaces, because we’ve done so little to address core problems that we’ve turned them into spaces of last resort for people who need a hand. And as we do that, we send another message to affluent, middle-class Americans, and that is: If you want a gathering place, build your own in the private sector. So we have a lot of work to do.

Beck: It’s really interesting to me to hear about the ways our environment either encourages or discourages interaction and community-building, because I think on some level I’ve always felt like if I don’t have that ideal sense of community that I really want, then it’s my fault for not trying hard enough. How much of this is just on the government? And there’s not much we can do besides, like, pestering aldermen.

Klinenberg: I think it’s on us to build the political institutions that we want and also to build the public places that we need. So, one of the miracles of American life is that we have these public libraries in every neighborhood.

Nobody would support the idea of a library if we didn’t already have it. It’s like a utopian socialist fantasy, the library. And the miracle is that we have them. If you think about the American public-park system, the public schools, like: We built all these things.

The reason so many of us feel like it’s so hard to hang out and enjoy the companionship of other people is because the signals we get from each other and from the state and from the corporate world tell us that we’re freakish and weird if we want that kind of collective experience. Everybody knows happiness is in your phone. It’s at the $22 cocktail bar. It’s at the $9 coffee shop, the $14 ice-cream cone. Those are the things that are supposed to give us pleasure.

And I think we need to start to imagine what a different kind of society might look like and how to rebuild public spaces that are the 21st-century version of the 20th-century library. What are the kinds of places we’d like to design so that we could be with each other differently?

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Beck: Another important piece—back to actually finding community in these spaces—is people acting on the opportunity to connect that they present. It’s hard if I’m going to the puzzle swap, and no one’s talking to each other. I mean, I’m guilty of going in and grabbing my puzzles and getting out and not really making a big effort to chitchat and make a new relationship there.

And it’s hard to feel like you’re just taking that on yourself to try to make that happen. It’s also: Do you see people welcoming you? Do you feel comfortable going up to someone to strike up a conversation? Do you see other people mingling? The design of a place can totally encourage or discourage interactions, but obviously so can the behavior of the people in the place.

Rashid: Right. Like, the friend I made at the café is kind of a rare occurrence, because normally people in the café are working, reading, or, as you’ve said before, with people they already know.

Beck: And the social norms of a café are going to be different than the social norms of a public pool or a local sports team or a church. In a café, everyone kind of has different agendas, like Becca’s out there making a friend. But, like, some people are just reading a book by themselves or having that one-on-one lunch with somebody. But in a church, for instance, like generally speaking, there’s a norm that we want to be in community with each other. We have shared values, and we’re here to connect.

Jackson: My church has been everything to me, because those relationships have just been so transformative and so deep. Every single highlight of my life, although like the church, my church has been there for me.

Beck: Kellie Carter Jackson is a historian and a professor from Wellesley College, and we recently spoke about the culture of care in her community. So in her life, she’s found that places like the church and her kids’ school have smoothed that path to building those deep relationships of support, because both the spaces themselves and the people in them have been welcoming.

Beck: Do you feel like finding a church in the new places where you’ve moved to? Has that helped in getting to those deep relationships quickly?

Jackson: Yes, absolutely. I will say that when we lived in North Dakota, almost all of my friendships either came from the military or the church that we were going to. People were just so warm and so kind. And, you know, you would join like a Bible study group or a mommy-and-me group, and those became fast friendships.

When my husband was going through extensive training, he was in Memphis. He was out of town for like three months. And I was overwhelmed by three kids. They did a meal train and just brought—I hate cooking! [Laughter.] And so my church small group was like, “Hey, how can we take off some of the burdens since Nathaniel’s gone? What can we do?” And so, just to know that people would go the extra mile for you when you’re really taxed is huge.

Beck: Yeah. I guess I see, you know, church as sort of a natural gathering place because it has those kind of communal values built into the institution. How does your faith sort of influence your approach to community with your neighbors?

Jackson: I think that I have always tried to model what it means to be a good neighbor regardless of my neighbors’ religious affiliations. I grew up in the church, so my parents modeled for me hospitality. We always had people over at our house all the time. We have a big family; I’m one of seven. So it’s like, what’s one more? What’s six more? What’s 10 more?

(Laughter.)

Beck: Just bring ’em on in.

Jackson: Bring them on in. That is how I show my friendship, show my love, show my care. It is by making you feel welcome and by giving you a place to rest. And it does not always extend to people we know. Like, when I think of neighbors, I think that extends even into my kids’ school. So my six-year-old had a real hard time because not only had my mother-in-law passed away, but her great-grandmother had died as well. So we had like two big losses—a mother and a grandmother—in about a three-month period.

Jojo is my middle child’s name. Jojo was just distraught by it. Like, she cried for 30 minutes, and I couldn’t calm her down. I sent her teacher an email, and I said, “Hey, Jojo’s having a really hard time. I sent her to school with a picture of her grandmothers. She might keep it in her backpack; she might take it out. But I just want you to know, like, this is what’s going on.”

Beck: Yeah.

Jackson: And her teacher did something—gosh, sorry I’m getting emotional …

Beck: Aw.

Jackson: Her teacher saw her with the picture … and she said, “Jojo, do you want to share that with the classroom?” And so she got up in front of the classroom, and she talked about her grandmothers and just who they were. And the fact that her teacher gave her space to do that—it just meant, like, I don’t know her teacher very well, but I know that she loves my kid. And I know that she created space for my kid when she was having a hard time emotionally, and that she would do that for any kid. I am always overwhelmed by just the goodness of neighbors, and people’s capacity to provide comfort during hard times.

Beck: I mean, I think there’s so much go-it-alone-ness, um, in our culture a lot of the time. And like, sometimes you can get by with that. Like, it seems lonely, but like, you can do it, and—

Jackson: Can, but should you?

Beck: Yeah. But when you are in such a place of intense grief, like, it becomes very clear that you can’t.

Jackson: You can’t, and you shouldn’t. I mean,If I hear one more person say “God won’t give you more than you can bear,” I will want to punch them. But I think that we have these clichés that are so empty. You know, just giving people the freedom to feel what they feel, to act upon those feelings without feeling judged, to be heard. You know, most people just want to be heard.

You know, I think in the Black community, we care for one another. There is this idea of kinship. This idea that whether you are blood related or not, this is your auntie, this is your uncle, this is your cousin, this is your fam. That we see each other, that we recognize each other’s humanity, that we show up for each other. There is something about that familiarity of Blackness that connects people, that is both spiritual and cultural. And so, if you grew up in the church, I think those ideas are fortified for you of how you should show up and care for other people.

Beck: I mean, how do you get to that place with neighbors and people in your community without a church?

Jackson: I think it’s tough.

Beck: It is tough.

Jackson: I think it’s not impossible. I mean, there is something about a shared set of values sometimes that comes from the church, that allows making friendships to be a little bit easier. But if you don’t have that, sometimes I think that trust can be an issue. Like, I’ve had to let people know who are outside of my faith: You can depend on me; you can trust me. I’m not going to judge you. That our home is welcome to anyone, of all backgrounds.

Because I think people can sometimes be skittish around people that they think are religious. And I never wanted anyone that I connected with to feel like that.

I had a friend who was in graduate school whose mother passed away, and I remember reaching out to her, sending her food or a gift card—like, how are you doing? How are you feeling? You know, here’s some literature that helped me, because my siblings had passed away maybe about a year before. And she was a little startled, actually, by my response, I think. Because she said, you know, I grew up in a community of atheists. She said, we just don’t have a practice or tradition. That the idea of bringing food or, you know, sort of like ongoing care was not something that was a part of her tradition.

So regardless of people’s faith, my job as a good neighbor is to help shoulder some of that weight, so you don’t have to carry it all on your own. So I try to remember important dates. I try to remember names, which is why when I meet new people, “Oh, man! Okay, give me more capacity!”

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Rashid: So, Julie, where do you go to build community, or at least feel this sense of community in a shared space?

Beck: I don’t feel like just sitting out on my front porch, if I had one, or going to a café or going to a specific place is going to make community come to me.

I feel like talking with both Eric and Kellie kind of made me realize that you need both the design of a place and the intentions and the values of the people who are using that space.

The sort of post-college secular world particularly doesn’t feel set up for just spontaneous, easy connection in the same way. If you just have an impeccably designed space where people don’t want to connect, then, like, I guess what you have is the Apple store. And if people really want to connect, and they don’t have anywhere to go to do that, then they’re going to struggle as well.

And even though this is kind of a frustrating takeaway, honestly, it feels to me like if you want that deep, interconnected sense of community outside of a church or a college or an institution that’s built to help you find it, you kind of have to swim against the current a little bit—and find a way to make it for yourself.

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This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and hosted by Julie Beck. Managing Editor Andrea Valdez. Editing by Jocelyn Frank and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Our engineer is Rob Smierciak.

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