Urban Readers Series to explore what makes a scene on Jan. 31

Even the slushy chill of January in Chicago doesn’t stop Terry Nichols Clark, professor of sociology, from getting outside as often as he can to soak up the city’s sights and sounds.

Hyde Park where he teaches, Bronzeville where he lives, and Chicago’s many other neighborhoods are all part of Clark’s work to understand the increasing power of social scenes. Clark and an international group of colleagues have analyzed hundreds of neighborhoods—from their yoga studios to their places of worship—to determine what makes a local scene and how those scenes affect today’s economy, residential patterns and political elections.

Clark will discuss the work featured in his new book, Scenescapes: How Qualities of Place Shape Social Life, as part of the Urban Readers Series on Jan. 31. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore and UChicago Urban launched the series last fall to give people from throughout Chicago the opportunity to hear from scholars and connect with each other on issues affecting cities. All books featured in the series are written by UChicago faculty, alumni and other members of the community.

Shortly after joining UChicago Urban, executive director Anne Dodge remembered being struck by the number and breadth of books connected to the University and on topics related to cities that weren’t being celebrated. The series was a natural step for UChicago Urban, which fosters collaboration among scholars and partnerships with communities around the most complex questions facing cities.

“Often these authors had spent years, maybe even a decade, thinking and writing and doing research to advance their field,” Dodge said. “But in academic publishing, there usually isn’t much focus on engaging readers beyond other scholars in the field, even though these books, as we’ve found out, can really interest the public.”

For Scenescapes, co-authors Daniel Aaron Silver, AM’03, PhD’08, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, and Clark employed large-scale data collection to yield new tools for widening the scope of social and urban development research, which traditionally focuses on race, class, gender and national origin. Their aim was to include lifestyle and cultural factors, which are increasingly relevant in a post-industrial world.

“We wanted to insert scenes into academic and policy discussions about the drivers of income and job growth, residential patterns and partisan voting,” Clark said. “More and more these factor into crucial decisions: about where to live and work, where to open a business, and what political causes to support.”

Scenescapes grew out of research spearheaded by The Scenes Project. After analyzing the types of businesses and cultural amenities in ZIP codes across the United States, Clark, Silver and fellow researchers created 15 different scenes “dimensions” or values, such as neighborliness, local authenticity, self-expression, transgression and tradition. They wanted to capture the range and combinations of cultural meanings in different localities to help show how and why cities and communities are changing. They also added a host of mini case studies, several on Chicago and Toronto.

Clark said the 12-year ongoing project is very much a group effort, involving UChicago students in classes and Wednesday evening meetings. Here they and international visitors discuss revising past theories, assembling comparable data, debating interpretations and testing new approaches. Some 70 students have done papers on scenes. Similarly, The Scenes Project held a Neubauer Collegium-sponsored conference in 2016, featuring collaborators publishing nine books about scenes from China to France to Poland.

For the Urban Readers Series, Loyola University urban historian Timothy J. Gilfoyle will join Clark. Dodge expects Gilfoyle will provide rich context by drawing from his own work in Chicago, likely fueling discussion on how Millennium Park helped create a new Chicago scenescape.

The series employs a unique format in which each author invites an outside expert to lead a question-and-answer session to ensure the series remains accessible and dynamic. In November, when Niall Atkinson, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Art History and the College, talked about his book, The Noisy Renaissance: Sound, Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life, his conversation partner was Sarah Geis, artistic director for Third Coast International Audio Festival. She shared her own take on what sound means, Dodge said, and helped tease out broader implications of the work.

“There definitely is an audience of readers, myself included, who aren’t academics but consider themselves ‘armchair academics’ and enjoy learning about topics they may not know much about,” said Colin McDonald, the Seminary Co-op’s assistant manager for marketing and events. “It’s great to be led by these renowned scholars and have the chance to join the conversation and ask questions.”