Heard It Through the Grapevine
Chatting over the backyard fence is the key to building community, a major USC study shows.
FROM HER DECK in Cheviot Hills, Sandra Ball-Rokeach watched the fires from the 1994 riot spread through inner-city Los Angeles, fueled by mistrust, hostility and confusion.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m a communications scholar. I’m a sociologist. I’m supposed to understand these things,’” she recalls. “Everyone always says that communication is the problem and, therefore, communication must be the solution.”
After the flames had died, the USC professor remained fired up over that conundrum. “I wanted to get at the base of the problem,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference, or at least to try.”
So Ball-Rokeach launched a massive investigation of the communication behaviors and patterns of 1,800 people living in seven historically significant Los Angeles neighborhoods. The initial results of that investigation – dubbed the Metamorphosis Project – were released in May, the first two of 13 planned white papers.
Angelenos, the research shows, feel they belong to a community in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend talking to their neighbors. “The chat over the backyard fence or on the apartment stoop is the fastest and strongest path to a sense of belonging to a community,” says Ball-Rokeach, who has joint appointments in communication and sociology.

HER RESEARCH TEAM used telephone surveys, focus groups, interviews and geo-spatial mapping to examine the city’s communication patterns. The neighborhoods/ethnic groups studied were East Los Angeles (Mexican origin); greater Crenshaw (African-American); greater Koreatown (Korean origin); greater Monterey Park/Alhambra (Chinese origin); Pico-Union (Central American origin); South Pasadena (Caucasian/Protestant); and Westside (Caucasian/Jewish).
The first white paper, titled “Belonging in the 21st Century: The Case of Los Angeles,” reports wide variations in a sense of belonging – ranging from the highest, among African-American residents of greater Crenshaw, to the lowest, among Chinese-American residents of greater Monterey Park/Alhambra.
The second white paper, “The Globalization of Everyday Life: Vision and Reality,” examined how global communication technologies affect everyday lives.
Some of the key findings and recommendations:
Community organizations have a strategic role as “conversation starters.”
In most cases, exposure to mainstream TV programming hurts people’s sense of community.
News stories that typify certain neighborhoods as crime-ridden or unsafe work against efforts to improve an area.
Newer immigrants use the Internet to keep up with their home-lands; longtime residents use the Internet locally and regionally.
Those who take pride in Los Angeles are more likely to have a sense of belonging to their own resi-dential neighborhoods.
Ball-Rokeach sums up the significance of the data: “We find that the revitalization of urban residential areas is not folly,” she concludes.
“Neighborhoods remain central in people’s everyday lives. Moreover, we
conclude that communication infrastructures play a greater role in community building than economic or physical infrastructures.”

THE METAMORPHOSIS Project will release another 11 white papers over the next couple of years. These will explore cohesiveness and communication in immigrant communities both old and new; uses of the Internet versus interpersonal communication; community media in immigrant communities; the strength of community organizations; and new and changing means of communicating within urban populations. The project is largely funded by the USC Annenberg Center for Communication.

– Sharon Stewart

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Illustration by A.J. Garces

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