Friday, July 27, 2007

The Power of Place

The Power of Place by Winifred Gallagher (ISBN 9780061233357)
Rating: 6/10

This is a very intriguing book about the power of context and environment on our psyches. The subtitle is How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. There's a good bit of the book which discusses Alaska and the effect of light on the psyche (all night or all day, every day). It dips into the psychological issues which impact people in these areas. Personally, I wouldn't do well in Alaska - I'd be depressed six months of the year with no sunlight to speak of. Different people react differently to the stimuli - some people have problems with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which would make the endless night so hard to deal with. Interesting also is the discussion of the all-day summers. These are the most productive parts of the year, where people work a lot more, and their social drive is kicked into high gear.

Then there's temperature. Some people are born cold and some are born hot, with all the gradations in between. That much be the reason why it's so damn cold in my office - the evil mastermind who sets the temperature was born a hot person. Some people naturally feel more awake and alive when it's cold, or when it's hot. And when it's the opposite, they can get a kind of seasonal affective disorder also, or just not feel quite right.

She also gets into discussions about the environment of the womb and the effect of outside stimuli (Mozart, anyone?) on a fetus. An interesting aspect of this discussion is her discussion of premies, how they are overstimulated in the NICU, they hear tons of noise around them, yet there is no visual stimuli to go with the noise, so they don't learn to associate noise with action (for example, someone says something, and you turn and look at them talking).

One of her most interesting topics is about territoriality and the power of community. When people in a community are invested in their surroundings, upkeep their area, interact with neighbors, etc, there tends to be a much lower crime rate. Take, for instance, the small town where everybody knows everyone else. It's much harder to get away with anything in a town like that, because there are more social pressures to conform because there are more personalized interactions between neighbors.

In a city, however, this becomes more difficult. The author stipulates that in areas with people of different financial means (lower class and middle class together, in an area which may be gentrifying, or on the other hand, going downhill), it can be much harder to create a sense of territory. She points to homogeneous societies (like Tokyo and Hong Kong) that she says run fairly smoothly, whereas melting pots like New York, Chicago and LA have a much bigger crime problem. Having never been to either of those Asian cities, I can't speak to the veracity of that. Any idea whether this is actually the case? What could be other factors which could make Hong Kong and Tokyo less crime-filled? Japan, at least, definitely has a culture founded politeness and respect, and because everyone comes from the same culture, perhaps this encourages lawfulness. America was founded on rebellion and encourages free-thinking and independence. This can be a positive thing in many respects, but perhaps also leads itself to more crime.

She points out the snowball effect - one person has a broken window and it creates a sense of disrepair and lack of care for the territory. So perhaps someone else doesn't have the cash (or the time or the inclination) to paint their house and it starts peeling. Fairly soon, the street starts to look more run down. And crimes moves in. On the flip side, on a run down street, one neighbor might put out a flower box, another clean up their garden. And fairly soon it starts looking more cared for and less like a forgotten street where crime won't be noticed.

It was a very interesting book - a bit slow to read, but with many thought-provoking ideas. I'm glad that I read it, though it wasn't as much of a page turner as, say, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics or Blink.


Gopi Rajaseharan said...

I remember one Indian movie where the hero, playing an orphan, feels "something" awakening in him whenever he hears a certain song being played (in a restaurant, wherever). It turns out that his mother that he finally locates toward the end of the movie had sung that song...while she had been pregnant with him many years ago! This was not a dramatic movie but an "actioner". Still...sickeningly sentimental :)

As for crime and how it relates to a city, I would think that whatever the statistics are, they are usually a effect of the long-term economical state of the region surrounding that city.

The Lethological Reader said...

Sentimental, true, and unlikely to boot that he'd remember the song...but it's definitely a nice idea :)

The economic status of the neighborhood or the township definitely has a major impact on the crime rate - in St Louis, one of the most economically depressed areas is East St Louis, and it also has one of the highest rates of crime in the country.