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I read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to return to it for insight into several aspects of politics as I’ve experienced them here in British Columbia. True, Bishop writes about the US, and BC isn’t the US, and, true, Canada has three big parties, not just two. But in my province it’s really all about just two parties, the BC Liberals and the BC NDP (and our first-past-the-post electoral system ensures that third parties have a nearly impossible row to hoe). Where I live, people do “sort” themselves in ways that are practically as pernicious as US counties sorted into all-blue or all-red group-think ideological camps.

But more on that some other time…


Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens


First, some observations on sorting and urban form…

Recently, the offspring and I were talking about All in the Family, which I watched often growing up, since it was a favorite show of my father’s. Thanks to YouTube, salient bits of it are instantly available to younger viewers.

Last night I heard laughter coming from my son’s room – he had just finished watching Jeff Rubin talking about how our oil-dependent economy will have to change radically. In the talk, Rubin conjured an image of Archie Bunker and Al Gore together in bed, based on the new paradigm we’re heading into. So of course my son had to research (ahem) All in the Family, and he was watching excerpt after excerpt on YouTube (hence the howls of laughter – I initially worried that he thought Rubin was funny, but no, it was the Bunkers).

The Bunkers

The Bunkers

Mostly, aside from marveling at how Archie could spew his sometimes vicious opinions without the PC police censoring him, my son was struck by how impossible it was for Archie to avoid the objects of his prejudice. Everywhere Archie Bunker turned, he ran into “coloreds,” “communists,” “Polacks,” “homos,” and so on through the entire unsorted bin of …well, of what?

Of a mixed urban neighborhood – versus neighborhoods sorted almost exclusively through (upward) economic choice or (downward) economic non-choice.

Without New York City and its population-packed boroughs (in the Bunkers’s case, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens), Archie could have become isolated (sorted), and found affirmation in a like-minded tract development. But in that more urban environment, which isn’t upscale enough to maintain homogeneity and therefore has to accept newcomers constantly, he has to accept neighbors whose views he dislikes. Because Archie himself isn’t rich enough to move, he has to mingle. Because real estate and rents are so dear in densely built-up areas that have easy access to the downtown core, no one has the luxury of living on his own hectare, at a distance. In fact, Archie has to put up in his own four walls with the “Meathead” (Michael, his Polish-American, social-work studying, non-laboring son-in-law with hippie roots). Rents are too expensive for the Bunker daughter Gloria, newly married to Michael, to move out. So the lucky couple gets to live with her parents.

Which brings us to how the tendency to sort, as described by Bill Bishop, even finds expression at the domestic level, in house architecture.

Since the seventies when All in the Family was produced, it has become unexceptional for each kid to have his or her own bedroom. It’s expected that parents have an “en-suite” – a full bathroom of their own, off the “master” bedroom (oh, those feudal aspirations!, sovereigns all, we parents are loosey-goosey in our permissiveness, but masters of our own domains, with hot and cold pulsating showers to warm our cold clean hearts, and Jacuzzi tubs for all that stress, of course!).

It’s not unusual for the kids to have either their own (shared) bathroom, or possibly even have en-suites of their own. We’ve become a bit antiseptic in how we provision for privacy within our own homes, and we sort in our own four walls.

Since the days of All in the Family, it’s normal for a family member to go off to his or her own domain (senior masters and junior masters-in-training) for entertainment. A TV in a kid’s room isn’t unusual, I hear…

Within Archie Bunker’s economic class and in his Queens neighborhood, that sort of domestic sorting was impossible: the houses weren’t built for it. And the social sorting proved equally impossible for the same reasons. If you were lucky, you might climb into Queens (economically), but it was harder to climb “above” Queens and still stay within spitting distance of the city. Unless you struck it insanely and unusally filthy rich (as The Jeffersons did, the Bunkers’s African-American neighbors who moved to Manhattan), you had to forsake the urban if you wanted to climb out of the Queenses of most older American cities. Hie thee to an ex-urb and sort yourself! Stay in Queens and be ready to rub up against people.

It’s kind of strange to think that television had to beam Archie Bunker’s discomforting vitriol into the already-sorting 1970s living rooms of low-density suburbs, where people were replicating in their domestic living arrangements the social sorting they preferred in their neighborhoods.

Even Archie noted that it’s natural for people to be “among their own kind” (which for him meant blue-collar bigots). He was just lucky enough not to be able to afford it.

A fluke: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archies lair

(A fluke encounter: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archie's lair, er, chair)


  1. Great post! Oddly, last night when I was in downtown Oakland in the SF Bay Area and asked the waitress if she knew of a bookstore nearby that would be open around 7 pm or so, she said sadly no. Nothing was open in the area, except for a few restaurants, it seems. When we drove on to Berkeley (where I knew the story was different), I was struck by how Broadway (the street) had a look of New York about it, only totally emptied of life.

    Comment by maria — February 3, 2010 #

  2. I wonder if you remember “Archie Bunker’s Place”, the spinoff where widower Archie runs a bar/restaurant? His edgy corners were knocked off (he even had a Jewish business partner). Maybe the suburbs finally mellowed him?

    Comment by Robert Randall — February 3, 2010 #

  3. Thanks, Maria! Lots of people on a street really make or break the vibe, don’t they? The times I’ve been in Berkeley (not often), I found the streets packed – but that was in long days summer and not in the darker months of what still is winter according to our calendars. Still, interesting to ponder why there wouldn’t be more people about. Isn’t Berkeley densely populated? I thought it would be, even if Berkeley is highly sorted by income bracket (ah, to be able to afford to live there!).

    Here in Victoria, the downtown streets atrophy at night as all the bureaucrats scurry home and the stores shut. The students pile in on weekends for the obligatory brain-destroying binge-drinking followed by public urinating & puking, but that does not a vibrant city make. Vancouver has way more going on, in terms of street life, but again, mostly on those “strips” (like Robson Street) that are known for attracting the flâneur. Of course, in the winter they don’t stroll, they splish…

    Before you go to Oakland next time, try connecting with Fritinancy (aka Nancy Friedman), a wordsmith and name-adviserdeveloper. I bet she could name every bookstore worth visiting in Oakland. Actually, you should connect with her in any case, follow her on Twitter, etc., since she’s such an interesting writer – as you are, too!

    Comment by Yule — February 3, 2010 #

  4. I never saw “Archie’s Place,” Rob, although I heard about it. Not sure I want to see Archie with his corners knocked off, sounds too sadly Hollywood! 😉

    Comment by Yule — February 3, 2010 #

  5. Oops, I didn’t make it clear that Broadway was in Oakland, and the emptiness I was referring to characterized the part of Oakland, not Berkeley, which, as usual, was hopping… I probably will be in Oakland weekly for the next while, so thanks for the suggestion!

    Comment by maria — February 3, 2010 #

  6. Oh, ok, that makes more sense, I guess. I don’t know Oakland at all, so have nothing to add as to why its streets would be empty. Glad to hear that Berkeley isn’t!

    Comment by Yule — February 3, 2010 #

  7. @yule, i agree your comment.

    Comment by Multiwp — February 7, 2010 #

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