This image, from San Francisco, courtesy of Flickr user Ken Walton under a Creative Commons license.

Americans are pulling apart. We're pulling apart from each other in general. And, in particular, we're pulling apart from people who differ from us.

The evidence on this idea is varied, broad and often weird.

We are, as Robert Putnam famously put it, less likely to join community bowling leagues.

We're more likely, as I mentioned yesterday after a police confrontation with a group of black teens at a private swimming pool, to swim in seclusion, in gated community clubs and backyard pools that have taken the place of public pools.

We're more likely to spend time isolated in our cars, making what was historically a communal experience — the commute to work — a private one. In 1960, 63 percent of American commuters got to work in a private car.

Now, 85 percent of us do. And three-quarters of us are riding in that car alone.

Within large metropolitan areas, we live more spread out, more distant, from each other than we once did. The population density in central cities plummeted by half after the 1950s, as many residents left for the suburbs.

As a result, writes economist Joseph Cortright in a new City Observatory report, in metropolitan America we now have fewer neighbors, on average, and we live farther from them than we did five decades ago.

It's little wonder, then, that we now socialize with them less often, too.


Add up all of these seemingly disconnected facts, and here you are: "There is compelling evidence," Cortright writes in the new report, "that the connective tissue that binds us together is coming apart."

The shared experiences and communal spaces where our lives intersect — even if just for a ride to a work, or a monthly PTA meeting — have grown seemingly more sparse. And all of this isolation means that the wealthy have little idea what the lives of the poor look like, that people who count on private resources shy away from spending on public ones, that misconceptions about groups unlike ourselves are broadly held.

Cortright's underlying point is the same as Putnam's 20 years ago. We're receding from the public realm in ways that could undermine communities and the will that arises when people within them know and trust each other.


We're even living further apart from each other within our own homes. As our houses have gotten bigger — and the size of the average household has declined — we're a lot less likely today in America to share bedrooms. A particularly curious data point Cortright unearths: In 1960, 3.5 percent of U.S. households lived in a home where bedrooms outnumbered occupants. Today, 44 percent of households do.

Here's another: We no longer even share the same experience of public safety. In the 1970s, Cortright points out that there were about 40 percent more private security officers in this country than public law enforcement officers. By the 1990s, there were twice as many. And their presence — monitoring gated communities, private clubs, quasi-public spaces like shopping malls — marks a kind of "anti-social capital." It implies that private guards must manage communities where that missing "connective tissue" can't.

When we retreat into these private spaces and separate enclaves, now increasingly sorted by income, too, we have less and less in common. And when we have little left in common, it's hard to imagine how we'll agree on fixes to big problems, or how we'll empathize with the people touched by them.

This familiar argument  is particularly relevant now to many of the bitter debates we're having around racial unrest and even poverty. If rich and poor, black and white, don't share the same commons — if they attend separate schools, live in separate neighborhoods, swim in separate pools, rely on separate transportation — then there's little reason for them to mutually invest in any of these resources.

Historically in American cities, the ghetto didn't just separate black homes from white ones. It ensured that the rest of the city would never share in the concerns — shoddy trash pickup, weak policing, meager public investments — of the people who lived there.

The relationships that run between social capital, trust and the public realm, as Cortright writes, are complicated (likely even more so by modern technology). But they feel tremendously relevant today.

"Arguably," he writes, "the decline in social capital is both a cause and an effect of the decline of the public realm: people exhibit less trust because they have fewer interactions; we have fewer interactions, so we have lower levels of trust and less willingness to invest in the public realm that supports it."