How Representative are Chicago Ghettos? Organizational Density, Outlier Cities, and Neighborhood Effects

WCPC Seminar Series on Poverty and Policy: Spring 2008

Presented by Mario Luis Small
Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Chicago
Friday, April 25, 2008  12:30 - 2:00 p.m.
Parrington Hall Forum, Room 309
University of Washington
Co-sponsored with UW Department of Sociology and UW Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology


Mario Small is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University (2001) and taught at Princeton University before joining U of C. He's been a visiting scholar at New York University and Columbia University. He is the author of numerous articles including the award-winning "Culture, Cohorts, and Social Organization Theory" (AJS 2002). His book, Villa Victoria (Chicago 2004), was awarded both the C. Wright Mills Book Award and the Robert E. Park Book Award.


One of the most important factors affecting conditions in an urban neighborhood is the number of banks, clinics, grocery stores, recreation centers, and other commercial and nonprofit establishments—i.e., its organizational density. The “deinstitutionalized ghetto” hypothesis, based largely on research in the city of Chicago, has argued that the loss of organizational density is a major consequence of the concentration of poverty at the neighborhood level. The hypothesis, however, has been subject to little empirical scrutiny. This article performs the first comprehensive test across all U.S. cities of the hypothesis that concentrated poverty reduces the density of a wide array of establishments. We find that there is little support for the hypothesis across a remarkable range of organizations; that the special case of Chicago differs from the average city; and that regional location and the general economic climate of a city are the most important predictors of organizational density. Findings suggest moving toward a perspective in which conditions in poor neighborhoods, and by extension “neighborhood effects,” depend systematically on the historical and geographic contingencies of separate regions of the country and on the political economy of the city.