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The primary community

Urban neighborhoods

Typologies of urban subpopulations

The changing character of neighborhoods


The neighborhood is ordinarily viewed as a smaller version of the local community. The latter has been conceived of in two distinct ways: first, it has been defined as simply a locality and the people living in it; second, it has been seen as a social fact, a type of group. Both notions have their roots in folk theory. It is common in most cultures to think of spatial collections as units of some importance; and the belief that spatial propinquity leads to social interaction and the development of shared values and action patterns is also widespread.

Social and spatial aspects. Thus the local community is often discussed as a concrete social unit. To it are imputed meaningful social bonds, the generation of social value, and psychological support for the individual. In short, the local community is seen as a primary group. Formalized by Tonnies(1887) as a Gemeinschaft, the notion that the small, spatially defined collective is a primary community has been used in rural sociology to describe the open-country neighborhood and the village. It has also been used in urban sociology to mark out significant subunits within the urban fabric and by city planners to mark out the boundaries of residential enclaves, with the aim of reinforcing the primary-group aspect of the subarea. This last calls attention to the normative aspect of the term: planners and others frequently are concerned with maximizing certain social values through the manipulation of spatial boundaries. The “neighborhood unit” is, for city planners, a form of the selffulfilling prophecy (Dewey 1950).

The more useful approach is to separate the spatial aspect from the social and then to make their relationship problematic. People are concentrated in space for various reasons, and, given a whole, one may subdivide it in any way that suits his purpose. Some ways of subdividing space, however, seem roughly congruent with the boundaries of social groups, including such boundaries as natural obstacles, man-made obstacles, and sharp changes in socially relevant characteristics of the population (Gibbs 1961, part i). The key question then becomes this: In what sense are these populations, so bounded, creating and maintaining group structure? or, in other words, What is the relevant form of group?

Functional interdependence. One way to define a human group is to specify that “a social group is an aggregate of individuals who exist in a state of functional interdependence, from which evolves a flow of communication, and a consequent ordering of behavior” (Greer 1955, p. 18). In what ways, then, and under what circumstances, can the small local community or the neighborhood constitute a social group? What are the grounds for interdependence, the nature of the communication flow, and the mechanisms producing ordered behavior and the patterns resulting from it?

The nature of interdependence among a spatially defined aggregate varies as widely as the human needs which require cooperation for their fulfillment. The spatially defined populations may be interdependent for their polity (protection and the maintenance of order); for their economy (production and distribution of goods); and for their familial structure (mating, reproduction, and assignment of kin rights). Equally important, such populations may be internally dependent for the tasks made necessary by the simple facts of density and propinquity. These include publicly assigned functions, such as education, and publicly created structures, ranging from temples to roads and sewers. The range of bases for interdependence is empirically and theoretically this wide.

The primary community

In the past the organizational scale of societies has gone through cycles of expansion and contraction. Thus the city-state would be greatly augmented through the integration of peasant villages, then would slowly unwind back into its constituent parts, the same villages. Because so many tasks could be and were carried out in the peasant village, it had a greater survival value than the elaborate organizational networks of the state. Even in the classical periods of urban expansion, such as that of Rome in the first century A.D., 90 per cent of the inhabitants of the Mediterranean Basin were illiterate peasant villagers.

The small spatial unit of the village encompassed most of the functions of society, the needs and tasks of men. The intensive interaction of the villagers generated another ground for interdependence—the social process, or interaction as a value in itself (Maclver & Page 1949; Greer 1955). There is, as Homans puts it, a “social surplus” resulting in any working group, and that surplus can be used to create rich and complex meaning. This valued interaction among a constant population, within a common set of norms and a common view of the world, is much of what is meant by the term “primary community” (Homans 1950).

Industrialism and community dependence

Since the widespread introduction of nonhuman energy resources into Western societies, the picture has changed radically. The improvements in agriculture on the one hand and of transportation on the other have allowed vastly increased scope and intensity of interdependence and made the villager anomalous. The urbanization of the great majority of the population in entire nations has resulted. While the local community, bounded by sparsely settled land and trafficking with farmers and ranchers, still exists in these highly developed societies, it has nothing like the autonomy of the peasant village. It is dependent, in almost all respects, upon the larger national system and is in continuous communication with that system.

The remaining cohesive force of the small settlement rests chiefly upon propinquity and the boundaries resulting from an environment of sparsely settled land. A small number of people interacting more with each other than with any outsiders tend to generate some of the differentiated norms and shared values of the archetypal “community” (Withers 1945). But the greater independence of the local system enjoyed by the villager who is also the citizen of a large-scale society critically weakens the community’s control over his behavior.

Boundaries, isolation, and inescapable interdependence are thus the key variables producing “community.” Each varies considerably for the villages and small towns in even so large-scale a society as the United States today; for example, compare the hamlets of the rural South with the small towns on the resort coasts of New England and the West. More important than this variation, however, is the immense difference between the entire range of American towns and the peasant village as portrayed by such authors as Tönnies, Robert Redfield, and Ralph Turner (see Vidich & Bensman 1958).

Urban neighborhoods

The typical inhabitant of a large-scale society, however, does not live in a village, hamlet, or open-country neighborhood. He lives in a differentiated part of an extensive urban complex. The local community is, for him, a more or less differentiated neighborhood with whatever place names and unique characteristics obtain. Such neighborhoods have even less autonomy and functional significance than do the remaining small towns and villages; the neighborhood boundaries are usually blurred, reducing ineluctable interaction. These neighborhoods’ usefulness to the resident may be little more than the provision of a house lot and a way to get to it. Yet here again there is great variation, by subarea, within a metropolis.

Natural areas

The Chicago sociologists of the 1920s and 1930s placed their emphasis upon “natural areas.” These were conceived as neighborhoods or residential enclaves marked off by sharp differences in population characteristics or by physical barriers, which are either geographical (as in the case of Lake Michigan) or man-made (as in the case of the elevated railway). Within such areas they noted homogeneity by social class and ethnic background; between them they noted great diversity. Thus, they carried out “neighborhood ethnography” in the Ghetto, the Gold Coast, the Slum, the Hobohemia, and other exotically named places (see Wirth 1928; Zorbaugh 1929; Anderson 1923).

Such studies, designed to maximize uniqueness in the individual case and heterogeneity among cases, have been criticized as pictures of the whole, no matter how graphically they illustrated variations in the urban ambit. However, it has been pointed out that most subareas of the city are not “natural areas,” or else they are natural areas far too huge to constitute any kind of local community; these subareas are not, therefore, studied by those who emphasize natural areas, and thus their picture of urban subareas is skewed toward the deviant neighborhood. Further, the relationship between bounded places and distinctive, homogeneous populations is not, usually, a very strong one (Hatt 1945a).

Census tracts. The Chicago school had an important influence on the Bureau of the Census, encouraging the collection of data by small areas. The basic unit used, the census tract, was a rough approximation of what were believed to be natural areas. These units have several advantages for the urban analyst. They are small, including around seven thousand people, and their boundaries remain constant (or can be reconstructed) from one decennial census to the next, allowing comparability. A large body of data on population and housing is collected and reported by census tract. Moreover, data are reported by tracts for the entire metropolitan area, including the central city which gives the area its name, the suburban municipalities, and the unincorporated portion of the urban fringe. The tract unit allows comparison of important characteristics over time and between metropolitan areas for the entire residential population; at the same time it allows the urban whole to be analyzed by meaningful subunits.

Typologies of urban subpopulations

E. Shevky has developed a typology of urban subpopulations based on three indexes which, taken together, account for most of the variation among tracts on the attributes reported by the U.S. census(Shevky & Williams 1949; Shevky & Bell 1955).

These three dimensions are social rank, or social position that is interpreted by the society as social class; ethnicity; and urbanism, or “life style” The first two are readily recognizable; they were major variables in the work of the early Chicago sociologists. “Urbanism,” however, is a new dimension. One may say that it takes Louis Wirth’s ideal type,”;urbanism as a way of life,” and turns it into a variable with values ranging from “high urban” (the apartment dwellers of the center city, childless, houseless, with both adults in the labor force) to “low urban” (the family-centered life of the horizontal suburban neighborhoods). The dimensions have a high degree of independence; thus we can control for two dimensions and study the variable effects of the other (Greer & Kube 1959; Bell & Force 1956).

Each of these dimensions is important in accounting for differences between subareas in the associational patterns within such subareas. With increasing social rank there is increasing likelihood of membership in local voluntary organizations and attention to local news in the small, local community newspaper. Ethnicity indicates not only the likelihood of a variant culture but also differential association with fellow ethnics and, therefore, relatively less involvement outside the ethnic group. With respect to life style, the more “urban” the tract population, the less its average involvement with neighbors, local organizations, and the local news.

Community participation

Another long-term concern of urban analysts has been the identification of distinctive social types concentrated in different sorts of neighborhoods. This began with studies of “social disorganization,” variations in family structure, and the like. Using the Shevky approach, three social types have been identified. The “neighbor” is one who is involved only with the small-scale door-to-door world of the immediate neighborhood, the few adjoining blocks. The “community actor” may or may not be involved with his neighborhood, but he is involved, through voluntary organizations, in the larger enclave, the “local community.” Such local communities are incorporated in the suburban fringe as municipalities, but even when they are subareas of a larger city, they are still named places. Their image is in large part a creation of the local community press, and it is, in turn, a major channel for communication concerning public affairs (Janowitz 1952). The third type, the “local isolate,” is involved at neither the neighborhood nor the local community level.

The proportion of community actors and of local isolates has been found to vary systematically with social rank, ethnicity, and urbanism, and this affects the local polity. Community actors are much more apt to be informed and to participate in local public affairs than either of the other types, and the proportion of the population falling in this category increases as social rank increases and as urbanism decreases. Thus, the local area is most important as a social fact, as the scene for a spatially inclusive social group, in the more prosperous neighborhoods of the family-centered. These are often, but not always, suburban.

The variation in the proportion of neighbors and community actors reflects the importance of the local area as a social system. Where it is important, one can see the functional bases in the necessities for a style of life that are provided by local organizations. Many of the major institutions of American society are administered by small local areas—religion, education, police and fire protection, retail distribution, political participation, and so forth. The organizations carrying out these functions foster the development of auxiliary groups, that is, voluntary organizations such as parent—teacher associations, political clubs, local businessmen’s associations, and church-sponsored clubs for all age ranges. Such organizations focus the interests of the individual householders upon the public business relevant to their household needs. Thus the increase in community actors with the decrease in urbanism reflects the importance of the physical plant and social order (for example, at schools, parks, playgrounds) for a familistic, home-focused and child-focused population. Contrariwise, the extremely “urban” populations (childless apartment dwellers of the central city) have little need for the local community aside from housekeeping chores which are carried out routinely by the municipal bureaucracies.

Increasing social rank is strongly related to increasing community participation only when urbanism is held constant. Thus the population of high social rank but high urbanism participates outside the local area—in metropolis and nation. “Social rank” indicates only that a person possesses more of the economic and cultural resources for organizational participation, while “life style” indicates both the usefulness of such participation at the individual level and opportunities to participate at the collective level (Greer 1962a; 1962b; Greer & Orleans 1962).

The changing character of neighborhoods

Neighborhoods do not retain a given character indefinitely; yet they may last a long time. Change in social character is due to the interaction of two broad classes of factors: housing resources and housing preferences. The former indicates the kind and quantity of housing available, the latter the housing deemed suitable for carrying on a given type of life style [seeHousing, article onSocial aspects]. Thus in the cities of the railway age, the time cost of movement within the city put a high premium on centrality and density of housing for most of the urban population; the result was the great neighborhoods of high-rise tenements and multistoried town houses in the center of most older American cities. Such structures allowed a maximum of privacy, given the necessity for dense land use. With shifts in the time cost of travel brought about by automobiles and trucks, however, neither density nor centrality retained the same high value. Consequently housing could be and was built in dispersed “developments” of singlefamily units, far out on the peripheries of the cities. The preferences of familistic populations could be satisfied through the increasing resources in land made possible by faster transportation. Consequently, many of the older neighborhoods slowly move downward in the preference hierarchy of contemporary Americans. Their declining value and price make them accessible to populations with fewer resources (the poor) and to populations with less access to the free market (the segregated population); thus, we have the “invasion and succession” phenomena underlined by students of urban neighborhoods.

However, it is important to remember that preferences can and do change, as is demonstrated in the cases of central-city neighborhoods that are renovated and move upward to higher values. Resources also change, because of both technological innovation and the steady increase in personal income in most Western societies. These two factors together have produced changes in transportation that make accessible a greater supply of urban land than can be used at present, hence, the difficulty of “rebuilding the central city.” A deterministic theory of neighborhood change, based upon a timebound assessment of a few factors, is apt to be inadequate for either prediction or control.

The general belief is that urban neighborhoods are declining to the point of triviality as social systems. Certainly the major functions of economic production and political control seem to be not just metropolis-wide but nation-wide in their jurisdiction and relevances. Yet other functions of the urban neighborhood seem more important than ever. The household remains a major center for child-rearing, for consumption (including cultural consumption by means of the mass media), and for social gatherings and conversation. The cluster of households with similar functions in the new areas of suburbia tends to produce a rich texture of social interaction through voluntary organizations—usually those relating to school, church, shopping center, and neighborhood maintenance. Furthermore, these suburban enclaves of like-minded people are very frequently incorporated as sep arate municipalities.

Such municipalities conserve the social character of the local communities, based as they are on a consensus concerning the desirable state of things; yet they also prevent governmental integration for the entire metropolis and, therefore, a working consensus on its desirable state. The units flourish at the expense of the whole texture of the metropolis. But as Robert Maclver has pointed out,”;The claims of the smaller and of the greater community have been in antagonism all through history, for history is in large part the record of the widening of community” (1917, p. 254). The problem remains the conservation of autonomous value in the small area at the same time that one reaps the advantages of integration in larger units.

Scott Greer



Anderson, Nels1923 The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Bell, Wendell; and Force, Maryann E T. 1956 Urban Neighborhood Types and Participation in Formal Associations. American Sociological Review 21:25-34.

Cooley, Charles H. (1909) 1956 Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. In Charles H. Cooley,Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.→Each title reprinted with individual title page and pagination. Separate paperback editions were published in 1964 by Schocken. Cooley’s emphasis upon primary groups, the neighborhood, and the primary community had a considerable influence on sociological thought concerning the value of neighborhoods.

Dewey, Richard(1950) 1957 The Neighborhood, Urban Ecology, and City Planners. Pages 783-790 in Paul K. Hatt and Albert J. Reiss, Jr. (editors), Cities and Society: The Revised Reader in Urban Sociology. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → This reader is valuable as background material for the study of the neighborhood.

Dobriner, William M. (editor) 1958 The Suburban Community. New York: Putnam. → Parts 2, 3, and 4 include valuable essays on differentiation in the neighborhoods of the peripheries.

Gans, Herbert(1962)1964 The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans. New York: Free Press. → A detailed study of a working-class ethnic neighborhood in Boston.

Gibbs, Jack P. (editor) 1961 Urban Research Methods. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand. → Includes an excellent discussion of the techniques and rationales for identifying group boundaries in space.

Greer, Scott A. (1955) 1962 Social Organization. New York: Random House. -→ The structure of groups is discussed in chapters 3 and 4.

Greer, Scott A. 1962a The Emerging City: Myth and Reality. New York: Free Press. →Contains an expansion of most topics discussed in this article.

Greer, Scott A. 1962b Governing the Metropolis. New York: Wiley. → The emphasis is upon the relation between social differentiation and social organization in the city, with special attention to urban polity. GREER, SCOTT A. 1962c The Social Structure and Political Process of Suburbia: An Empirical Test. Rural Sociology 27:438-459. -→ An analysis of variations in social and political participation associated with the dimensions of social rank and life style.

Greer, Scott; and Kube, Ella1959 Urbanism and Social Structure: A Los Angeles Study. Pages 93-112 in Marvin B. Sussman (editor), Community Structure and Analysis. New York: Crowell.→A comparison of four census tracts of middle social rank, varying from highly urban to extremely familistic.

Greer, Scott; and Orleans, Peter1962 The Mass Society and the Parapolitical Structure. American Sociological Review 27:634-646.

Hatt, Paul J. 1945a The Relation of Ecological Location of Status Position and Housing of Ethnic Minorities. American Sociological Review 10:481-485.

Hatt, Paul J. 1945a Spatial Patterns in a Polyethnic Area. American Sociological Review 10:352-356.

Hatt, Paul J. 1946 The Concept of Natural Area.American Sociological Review 11:423-427.

Homans, George C. 1950 The Human Group. New York: Harcourt. →A systematic analysis of social groups; the last part takes up the interrelations of functional and spatial groups.

Jacobs, Jane1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House. →A controversial volume arguing for greater “liveliness” in the neighborhoods of the older central city, through different public policies in respect to land use, urban redevelopment, and political structure.

Janowitz, Morris1952 The Community Press in an Urban Setting. Glencoe, III.:Free Press. →A pioneer study in the rediscovery of the urban local community.

Mcelrath, Dennis C. 1962 The Social Areas of Rome:A Comparative Analysis. American Sociological Review 27:376-391. -→ Demonstrates the cross-cultural applicability of the Shevky approach.

Maciver, Rbert M. (1917) 1935 Community: A Sociological Study; Being an Attempt to Set Out the Nature and Fundamental Laws of Social Life. 3d ed. London: Macmillan. →One of the first efforts to develop a systematic theory of the local community and its interrelations with the larger society. Still a valuable work.

Maciver, Robert M.; and PAGE, CHARLES H. (1949)1961 Society: An Introductory Analysis. New York: Holt. -→ Chapter 10 contains a detailed analysis of social groups.

Redfield, Robert1941 The Folk Culture of Yucatan. Univ. of Chicago Press. -→ A major contribution to the comparative study of small-scale and larger-scale communities.

Shevky, Eshref;and Bell, Wendell1955 Social Area Analysis: Theory, Illustrative Application, and Computational Procedures. Stanford Univ. Press. → A discussion of the theory underlying this mode of differentiation, together with a description of techniques and a sample case.

Shevky, Eshref;and Williams, Marilyn1949 The Social Areas of Los Angeles. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

Theodorson, George A. (editor) 1961 Studies in Human Ecology. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson. -> Includes many of the major works in urban ecology, from the seminal concepts of R. D. McKenzie to social area analysis.

Tönnies, Ferdinand(1887) 1957 Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press. -→First published in German. An important theoretical statement on the primary community. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Turner, Ralph1941 The Great Cultural Traditions:The Foundations of Civilization. New York: McGrawHill. →An intensive analysis of the social structure and culture of the classical empires and the ancient city-states, with an emphasis on how they came about and their limits of development.

Vidich, Arthur J.; and Bensman, Joseph(1958) 1960 Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power and Religion in a Rural Community. Garden City, N.Y.:Doubleday. -→ An analysis of the contemporary small town, emphasizing its inherent dependence on the metropolitan center and the larger society and its weakness as an autonomous community.

Wirth, Louics1928 The Ghetto. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Wirth, Louis1964 Louis Wirth on Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers. Edited by Albert J. Reiss, Jr. Univ. of Chicago Press.→A posthumous collection of seminal essays by a scholar who emphasized the dissolution of the primary community in the city.

[Withers, Carl](1945) 1958 Plainville, U.S.A., by James West [pseud.]. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. →A study of an American small town by the participant-observer method, emphasizing social class and interactions. A paperback edition was published in 1962.

Zorbaugh, Harvey W. 1929 The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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The neighborhood has long been an icon of school quality, local responsiveness, and home/parent centeredness in U.S. education. The mythology of the neighborhood has been heavily reinforced by the deep popularity of the long-running children's television show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. A romantic image of the neighborhood has also often been at the heart of opposition to busing, school closings, redefined attendance areas, or reallocations of personnel. Nostalgia connects the neighborhood school to the old-time schoolhouse a facility remembered as being at the very center of the community, with its potluck suppers, spelling bees, family softball games, and Fourth of July picnics.

Reality, of course, has been a different story. Desegregation policies, population growth, magnet schooling, diversity goals, pairings of schools, and an increasing array of other choice options have reduced significantly the percentage of schools that have an identifiable neighborhood flavor. Nevertheless, at the start of the twenty-first century the significance of the neighborhood is returning to discussions of and inquiry into matters of school improvement.

Among the forces spurring this rediscovery of the neighborhood are: (1) a new appreciation of out-of-school (alongside in-school) learning and development; (2) a return in many communities to neighborhood assignment patterns under renegotiated desegregation agreements; (3) a renewed interest in cultural elements, and matters of cultural diversity, in varied patterns of development among children; and (4) a realization that school-centered learning (typically academic) and neighborhood-based learning (heavily social and emotional) can be, but are not necessarily, effectively linked.

A New Linkages Lexicon

The renewed fascination with the neighborhood has been accompanied by a re-explored lexicon of linkages terminology and neighborhoods-centered theorizing. The most commonly employed term is social capital, which captures the notion that the strengths of families and their surrounding neighborhoods can provide a social foundation of norms, networks, and relationships upon which the schools can build. In pushing the concept of social capital, James Coleman has suggested that, in neighborhoods lacking or weak in social capital, it should be the job of the local school to reach out to families with sets of capital-creating activities.

Other terms gaining an increased frequency of use are: social cohesion, agency, and a sense-of-place. Social cohesion proceeds beyond matters of capital toward an interest in the connective tissues of neighborhoods, as well as between neighborhoods and schools. Connective "webs," collaborative endeavors, and ecological systems are key elementsas are such administrative acts as networking and a building of civic capacity.

Social cohesiveness exists when members of a school community adhere to the understood cultural norms of that community, and when members display tolerance in interactions across social groups. Stephen Heyneman suggests schools perform five essential functions in fostering social cohesion: (1) teach the "rules of the game" (i.e., principles underpinning good citizenship and consequences for not adhering to these principles) through curriculum content; (2) support school and classroom cultures;(3) decrease the distance between individuals of different origins, thus building social capital; (4) provide an equality of opportunity for all students, thus creating the public perception that the available opportunities for education are distributed fairly; and (5) adjudicate disagreements across social groups.

The concept of agency reflects a closer attention to the centeredness of a school within its neighborhood, reflecting a deep cultural embeddedness between school and community, as well as the agency work of the school in both preserving and passing on the values of the community. In like manner, the idea of a sense-of-place includes notions of social and cultural embeddedness, but adds a territorial, or boundary, dimension to the discussionjust what is a central part of each neighborhood, and what is not?

A New Set of Neighborhood Models

To the extent that the neighborhood was "modeled" in past years, the central image was that of an entity of importance in the immediate environment around the school, but not of the school. Important were studies of neighborhood and community structures (e.g., community type, socioeconomic status); distributions of power and specialized interests; the array of concerns and issues in the community; and varying sources of support in the surrounding community (e.g., financial, public opinion). The neighborhood, with its structures, issues, and supports, was regarded as an important context around the work of the school, but it was still external and "outside."

More recent modeling (as with the above lexicon) has emphasized a more interactive set of neighborhood theories. Among these are: (a) an activism, or alliances, approach, (b) community-development modeling, (c) regime theorizing, and (d) a family-preferences, or choice, model. Alliance schools have been under experimentation for some time in the state of Texas. The central concept in the alliance approach has been an in-reach from neighborhood-to-school, rather than the other way around. A mobilization of the resources and strengths of the neighborhood and its institutions (including religious organizations) has been employed in the program to reach into the schools and assist the schools to reach back out to the community.

An initiation of alliances, but starting with the school, is also central to community-development modeling. Neighborhood revitalization has become a front-burner endeavor in many communities across the United States. Lizbeth Schorr, among others, would place the neighborhood school at the heart of the development effort. Indeed, Schorr advises that an improvement of learning opportunities in low-income neighborhoods requires nothing less than a key place for the school "at the table where community reform is being organized" (p. 291). In like fashion, William Boyd, Robert Crowson, and Aaron Gresson have suggested an extended role for the local school as an enterprise school, in which it joins an array of other community institutions in the regeneration of the neighborhood environment.

A third model takes the political science term regime as its central idea. From a regime perspective, the essential strengths, and indeed the power, of a neighborhood are to be found in a deeply structural embodiment of the neighborhood's own culture and overall ecology (e.g., its essential lifeways, social institutions, local history, values, norms, expectations, and market forces). While activism and redevelopment are at the heart of the earlier two models, regime theorizing looks more closely at the neighborhood and its various institutions (including the schools) as participants in a sustaining habitat a notion not unlike the centeredness celebrated in agency theorizing or the collective memories built into a sense-of-place. A key role for persons exercising leadership, from this perspective, may be action as a cultural broker who bridges between the lifeways of a community and the institutions that serve it.

Finally, a neighborhood model that is extremely problematic but must be addressed is the effects model, which is based heavily upon the steadily increasing opportunities for choice found in modernday schooling. An argument in favor of choice of schooling (e.g., through magnets, charters, transfer options, or vouchers) is that families are no longer locked in to underperforming neighborhood schools in poverty-stricken settings. A counterargument is that it is usually the families in a neighborhood with the most social capital and greatest intellectual resources and expectations who will avail themselves of choiceleaving the rest of a neighborhood even less empowered and enabled than before. A caveat is that at least these families stay in the neighborhood physically, if not educationally.

Interestingly, there have been comparative analyses of the effects upon neighborhoods when there are large disparities in the availability of community and social service resources (e.g., playgrounds, libraries). There have not yet been comparable studies of the neighborhood effects of differences in the availability of human capital resources at a family-to-family level.

Neighborhoods and the Development of Children

There are still some neighborhoods to be found that can elicit memories of an old-fashioned bonding, familiarity, stoop-sitting, watching-one-another's-children, stopping-to-chat-awhile community. More common in the early twenty-first century, however, are neighborhoods where the streets are considered danger zones rather than playgrounds, where social interaction is minimal, and where there seems to be little sense of communal responsibility for children. Under these altered and less-cohesive conditions of life, it becomes difficult to conceptualize, and more difficult to study, a set of neighborhood effects upon the development of children and their success in school.

Nevertheless, the recognition is that if a new lexicon of linkages and new models of alliances, regimes, and the like are to bear fruit, then attention must be paid to what have been called "connection impacts." There is evidence, for example, that there are connections of significance to be found in the recent cent and rapid expansion of out-of-school connections, or when-school-is-out programming that provides activities for children outside of regular school hours. After-school options (e.g., tutoring, recreation, art and music education) are on the rise nationallywith public libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, youth groups, faith-based organizations, and some private businesses leading the charge. While there is some disagreement regarding the effectiveness of many after-school programs, interest and experimentation has continued to build.

Halpern has observed that it is a lack of old-fashioned connectiveness in neighborhoods that is reflected in the expansion of after-school activities, including a belief that such public spaces as streets and playgrounds are no longer safe, and that it is "stressful and unproductive for children to be left on their own after school" (p. 81). A growing literature on out-of-school connections has identified as key developmental effects progress in identity-building for youngsters, in emotional support and guidance, in helping to bridge and broker cultural challenges for immigrant youth, in overcoming loneliness, and in providing protection against negative neighborhood influences.

A second major category of connections pays attention to the in-school effects of the neighborhood. A 1999 review by Wynn, Meyer, and Richards-Schuster, for example, has explored the steadily growing case-study literature on the in-school developmental effects of partnerships, service relationships, parental involvement, and community volunteerism. Among the specific benefits can be a sense of the village, meaning a broadened arena of support and caring; improved relationships between home and school; enhanced access to such learning-related services as counseling or medical care; increased school attendance; and improved student perceptions of the community's interest in school. In one of the few empirical studies of neighborhood influences, Lee Shumow, Deborah Vandell, and Jill Posner discovered that a broad exposure to positive adult role models throughout a neighborhood can contribute to better academic performance for children in school.


Public schools have often been in but not of their neighborhoods. The late twentieth century saw a re-discovery of the importance of neighborhoodboth as a potentially vital complement to the work of the school and as an important educator in its own right. Linkages between the many components of neighborhoods and between neighborhoods and their schools are receiving new emphasis, including establishing a linkages terminology ranging from concepts of social capital to social cohesion, agency, and sense-of-place. Models of neighborhood involvement are also surfacing anew, including community activism and special alliances, the effects of community revitalization, the idea of regime, and a better understanding of the effects of individual family preferences. Although the notion of neighborhood effects upon the development of children is still an emerging arena for research interest, there are indications that neighborhood connections (both out-of-school and in-school) represent a productive line of inquiry.

See also: Family, School, and Community Connections; Parenting, subentry on High-Risk Neighborhoods; Social Capital and Education; Violence, Children's Exposure to, subentry on Community Violence.


Behrman, Richard E., ed. 1999. "When School Is Out." The Future of Children 9 (2).

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Andrew J. Finch

Robert L. Crowson

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The definition of neighborhood includes a territorially organized population with common ties and social interaction. It is a group of people living within a specific area, sharing common bonds, interacting with one another, and often having a common cultural and historical heritage (Lyon 1999). The amount and quality of the ties and interaction among those living in the neighborhood varies with each community. The basis of the common ties can include family, ethnicity, proximity, school, social class, or religion, yet the depth of these bonds ranges from considerable involvement to disassociation with the neighborhood (Lyon 1999).

Neighborhoods are as varied and different as people, yet throughout the world a common theme can be found with people living in and identifying with the neighborhood. Examples of this can be found in immigrant neighborhoods in the United States (i.e., China Town, Little Italy, Spanish Harlem), inner-city neighborhoods in overcrowded downtown areas, shantytowns in developing countries, wealthy gated communities, and the suburbs. In Mexico, along the U.S.–Mexican border, neighborhoods have sprung up rapidly due to the maquiladoras program—an enterprise area of multinational corporations with factories that employ cheap labor and hope to increase industrial development within the country (Macionis and Parrillo 2001). As the types of neighborhoods are varied, the roles that neighborhoods fulfill also differ.

The neighborhood plays an important role in the lives of families and children. A neighborhood that has strong ties and a supportive system can benefit the family, while a neighborhood without a network system, connection to others, or available programs can be detrimental to the family. The ecological model of human development (Bronfenbrenner 1977) is an approach that focuses on families' and children's behavior within a social context. This model examines the design of physical space, the roles and relationships of other people to the family and children in the setting, and the activities in which the family and child are involved in the neighborhood. The overall level of organization within a neighborhood and community directly affects the level of integration of families and the stress levels of family life. The neighborhoods can have a powerful role in serving as a family support system, relieving the stress of social isolation, reinforcing group values, providing resources, and even connecting families to professionals and referrals to programs (Garbarino and Kostelny 1992). Although the role of the neighborhood is integral to the well being of families and children, some have experienced a loss of neighborhood connections.

Loss of the Neighborhood

The idea that Western societies lose connection to their neighborhoods as they modernize has been a continuing theme in sociology. Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, Louis Wirth, and, to a lesser degree, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber all concluded that, on balance, the quantity and quality of the neighborhood and community is reduced when a society becomes more urban, more industrial, with fewer connections. Simmel's famous observation that "one nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd" illustrates a common theme of alienation and lost community in classic social theory. Often, then, assessments of modern and even postmodern societies include the "loss of" community and neighborhood (Lyon 1999). The loss of community and loss of connection to the neighborhood can be harmful to the family and children.

Although only a few attempts have been made to measure the decline of relationships and connections to the neighborhood in the United States and other Western societies, there is nonetheless a wide acceptance of this decline. Thus, when sociologists speak of the "loss" of neighborhood and community, two distinct meanings arise. The psychological meaning focuses on the social interaction dimension of the neighborhood and analyzes the alienation that can come from the loss of neighborhood. The territorial meaning focuses more on the specific area and identification of components of the neighborhood definition, with analysis of the economic dependence and political impotence of the local community. Both meanings are related in that they see the same primary source for the loss of neighborhood—the urban, industrial mass society—and both describe similar problems—excessive individualism, alienation, and a resultant lower quality of life for the family (Bateman and Lyon 2000).

Although the two types of neighborhoods that are "lost" can be conceptually distinct and are treated as separate phenomena in most literature, they are, nonetheless, closely related. Robert Nisbet (1976) relates the decline in identification with the place and the territorial neighborhood to the more psychological alienation from close, personal interaction. In short, the decline in the relevance of and identification with the territorial neighborhood is related to the decline in interpersonal relations; both reinforce one another, and both are seen as symptoms of a modern society and the problems of families.

The observation that isolating, alienating, individualism is replacing neighborhood communities typically receives broad popular acceptance. According to Robert Bellah (1996), many of the ills of society result from too great an emphasis on individualism and too weak a commitment to the neighborhood. As individualism, selfishness, and greed in the United States have grown, civic commitment and a sense of responsibility to society have declined. Participation in the neighborhood will reduce alienation and allow neighbors to belong and contribute to the community (Bellah 1996).

Robert Putnam (2000) claims that a decline in the traditions of civic engagement is weakening U.S. society and sense of community and neighborhoods. Putnam documents the noticeable absence of Americans' involvement in voluntary associations and the reduced patterns of political participation. Thus, Putnam (2000) concludes that Americans are less trusting, and the social capital of society is eroding.

Robert Wuthnow (1998) states that neighborhood-mindedness is eroding, civic involvement is indeed declining in voluntary clubs, and "loose connections" now tend to suit people in the United States. People are still connected to some extent, but in different ways. Organizational membership is not necessarily decreasing, but rather shifting from traditional voluntary organizations to new types of groups. A rise in support groups and specialized hobby groups demonstrates that these have become a poor substitute for traditional neighborhoods and the loose connections that define them (Wuthnow 1998).

Ties to the Neighborhood

Barry Wellman's (1979) "community saved" argument maintains that neighborhoods have survived despite urbanization, industrialization, and technological advances. Residents still have a sense of local ties for social support and sociability. The local neighborhood serves various functions for its residents; it provides primary relationships, social support, organizations, and numerous facilities and services near their place of residence. According to Wellman (1979), the thesis of the saved community includes heavy involvement of residents in a single neighborhood; strong network ties; extensive networks that are densely knit; solidarity of activities and sentiments; and the mobilization of assistance.

New emphasis is being given to geographically located, neighborhood-based interactions influenced by issues of locally defined power groups, social organizations, and neighborhood improvement efforts to weave the fabric of the community. Research shows that communities still exist in which residents identify with an area, known as the neighborhood, and personal interactions may still be examined within the boundaries of the neighborhood (Chaskin 1997). Residents who define the neighborhood in terms of network interactions and personal relationships tend to identify with the geographic unit compared with those considering the neighborhood in terms of the institutions and facilities.

The neighborhood community provides families with a way to deal with large-scale, urban institutions. Community theories stress the importance of preserving existing neighborhoods against the destructive effects of urban growth. Neighborhood residents committed to combating the problems of urban society have been forming local groups at a high rate. Neighborhood improvement associations seek to protect the quality of life in the local community. Membership and participation in these neighborhood associations develop a bond among the residents and attachment to the community (Oropesa 1992).

Neighborhood sentiment is often dependent on the social integration of the residents and in turn, the social integration has a significant impact on the attachment to the neighborhood for the family (Austin and Baba 1990). Various factors, such as social statuses and "who you know," will influence the level of involvement and attachment to the neighborhood (Oropesa 1992), but it is usually argued that whenever social involvement can be enhanced, it is beneficial to the residents, families, and children as well as the neighborhood. In sum, neighborhoods remain the place for meaningful social interaction, important political organization, and significant psychological attachment for families and children.

Effects of Violent Neighborhoods

Violent or disorganized neighborhoods can negatively affect children and families. The level of disorganization may produce both economic stress for families and abusive behavior in some situations. Families within these violent neighborhoods do not have adequate support or the resources to help alleviate familial problems. The combination of poverty with neighborhood violence exacerbates the problems of the family. More children are being maltreated in urban communities of highly concentrated poverty due to lack of resources and support (Garbarino and Kostelny 1992).

According to James Garbarino (1996), children who experience extreme and chronic danger are more likely to be psychologically damaged. However, the effect of parental buffering was shown to be significant in the development of a healthy psyche. In his observations, Garbarino found that there is a general "contagion effect" with regard to danger and violence in the neighborhood. Aggression breeds further aggression among youth. Finally, children exposed to violence and danger within their community were more likely to have more fears of violence (Garbarino 1996). Violence, danger, and trauma in the neighborhood can increase the stress levels of families and the difficulties of childhood. One solution to combating violent neighborhoods is through effective program, policies, and community development.

Neighborhood Programs and Policies

Although community development and neighborhood improvement projects are traditionally associated with attempts to modernize U.S. communities and Third World villages, a more recent trend has been combating the effects of modernization in the small towns and urban neighborhoods in the United States. During the 1960s, community development models were created to battle the effects of modernization by transforming socially isolated, politically powerless individuals into organized, territorially based neighborhoods pursuing common goals, thus empowering the family to make positive changes in the community.

A primary reason for the relative success of famed community organizer Saul Alinsky (1971) was his recognition that local neighborhoods retained important elements of a socially organized community. The ghetto or slum was not devoid of a neighborhood and was not a disorganized community. Alinsky's strategies for community development are usually viewed as among the most successful attempts ever made at practical neighborhood organization (Reitzes and Reitzes 1982), and a key to his success was the recognition of existing community organization and the ability to combine and build upon these local organizations. Still, Alinsky's strategies are difficult to put into effect. They require vigorous, time-consuming, and continuous efforts on the part of shrewd community organizers, and even then their success is limited.

Garbarino (1996) advocates policies with organized service delivery that allocate the scarce resources and intervene in the high-risk areas. Policies need to be based on a family-communitygovernment relationship of joint responsibility that develops informal networks aimed at resource exchange. Successful policies need to strengthen networks and interdependence that empower the community as a family support system (Garbarino 1996).


The idea that nonspatial voluntary organizations can replace the territorial community as the primary basis for the psychological feelings of community is questionable. A base level of community rises naturally from living in proximity to one another. Although professional associations, labor unions, religious groups, and other voluntary organizations can provide a measure of the sense of neighborhood, the territorial neighborhood seems certain to remain a primary basis for the psychological community. Benjamin Zablocki (1979) maintains that when people live near one another, a level of interaction and common identification is naturally forced upon them. Voluntary organizations can and do supplement the territorial neighborhood, but it is difficult to foresee a time when neighborhood relationships are no longer associated with the territorial place.

Communities still exist in which residents identify with the territorial area, often known as the neighborhood, and personal interactions are still important within the boundaries of the neighborhood. Overall, both the territorial and psychological versions of the neighborhood are still relevant and still matter (Bateman and Lyon 2000). Neighborhoods continue to evolve as the traditional memberships in voluntary associations shift, yet the territorial neighborhood continues to provide the basis for much psychological community for families.

See also:Gangs; Human Ecology Theory; Intergenerational Programming; Juvenile Delinquency; Poverty; Social Networks; Urbanization


alinsky, s. d. (1971). rules for radicals. new york: random house.

austin, d. m., and baba, y. (1990). "social determinants of neighborhood attachment." sociological spectrum 10:59–78.

bateman, r., and lyon, l. (2000). "losing and finding community: the quest for territorial and psychological community from the neighborhood to cyberspace." in research in community sociology, vol. 10, ed. d. chekki. stamford, ct: jai press.

bellah, r. (1996). habits of the heart: individualism andcommitment in american life. berkeley: university of california press.

bronfenbrenner, u. (1977). "toward an experimental ecology of human development." american psychologist 32:513–531.

chaskin, r. j. (1997). "perspectives on neighborhood and community: a review of the literature." social service review (december):521–545.

garbarino, j. (1996). "youth in dangerous environments: coping with the consequences." in social problems and social contexts in adolescence: perspectives across boundaries, ed. k. hurrelmann and s. hamilton. new york: aldine de gruyter.

garbarino, j., and kostelny, k. (1992). "child maltreatment as a community problem." child abuse and neglect 16(4):455–464.

lyon, l. (1999). the community in urban society. prospect heights, il: waveland press.

macionis, j., and parrillo, v. (2001). cities and urban life, 2nd edition. upper saddle river, nj: prentice hall.

nisbet, r. (1976). the quest for community. new york: the free press.

oropesa, r. s. (1992). "social structure, social solidarity and involvement in neighborhood improvement associations." sociological inquiry 62(1):108–117.

putnam, r. d. (2000). bowling alone: the collapse andrevival of american community. new york: simon and schuster.

reitzes, d. c. and reitzes, d. c. (1982). "alinsky reconsidered: a reluctant community theorist." social science quarterly 63(2):256–79.

wellman, b. (1979). "the community question: the intimate network of east yorkers." american journal of sociology 84 (march):1201–31.

wuthnow, r. (1998). loose connections: joining together in america's fragmented communities. cambridge: harvard university press.

zablocki, b. (1979). "communes, encounter groups, and the search for community." in search for community, ed. k. black. boulder, co: westview press.


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The concept of neighborhood is widely used throughout the social sciences as a geographical unit of analysis, and internationally as a planning concept. Neighborhoods can be diverse, containing a mix of ethnic and socioeconomic status groups; or they can be extremely homogenous, ranging from low-income minority areas to gated communities denying entry to undesired visitors.

Neighborhoods are residential districts located in urban areas. Historically, neighborhoods tended to have developed in an unplanned fashion. Throughout the twentieth century there have been increasing efforts to plan neighborhoods as cohesive residential areas that contain basic services, parks, shops, schools, and other amenities. Although the term neighborhood is typically used to identify self-contained or socially cohesive areas, it is often difficult to determine neighborhood boundaries for the purposes of research. Residents themselves often harbor very different ideas about the precise boundaries of their neighborhood, and the character of their neighborhood. In the U.S. and Canadian census, units that approximate neighborhoods are called census tracts.

Much contemporary thinking about neighborhoods in the social sciences is shaped by and offers criticism of the Chicago school, a group of sociologists who worked at the University of Chicago during the early twentieth century; earlier work, by Friedrich Engels (1892 [1845]) on working-class slums in England, has also been influential. In North America social scientists have traditionally focused on the segregation between neighborhoods according to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In 1988 the sociologists Nancy A. Denton and Douglas S. Massey illustrated that segregation can be statistically measured across five different dimensions: evenness, exposure, concentration, centralization, and clustering. Each dimension emphasizes a different characteristic of segregation. Today, countless international studies exist that examine segregation across neighborhoods by race, ethnicity, class, language, religion, and other categories.

Social scientists have mixed perspectives on segregation. Ceris Peach (1996), for example, uses the terms good and bad segregation to distinguish between processes of discrimination and violence against minorities, and voluntary residential association. On the one hand, discrimination by real estate agents and financial institutions can segregate minorities into neighborhoods with inferior schools, housing stock, infrastructure, public services, and shopping opportunities. In addition, more affluent residents and members of the majority population sometimes decide to move out of the neighborhood once a critical mass of minority population has moved ina phenomenon known in the United States as white flight. The so-called spatial mismatch hypothesis further suggests that living in inner-city neighborhoods denies many members of racial minorities access to an increasingly suburban job market, resulting in high levels of unemployment. On the other hand, their concentration in particular neighborhoods can offer social and emotional support for minorities, facilitating the establishment of ethnic and institutional networks. Sometimes these positive developments are the result of people, living in segregated conditions, making the best of those circumstances. Compared to the classical model described by the Chicago school, segregation of African American and Latino minorities in the United States after around 1950 tends to be more permanent. In the case of newly arriving immigrants, spatial concentrations can help newcomers integrate into society. In North American cities of the twentieth century such immigrant reception areas were typically located in inner cities. Today, an increasing number of immigrant neighborhoods are located in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas.

In North American cities, neighborhoods tend to undergo a typical life cycle. When initially established they contain new housing stock, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and high-level services, and are inhabited by relatively well-off families. As housing stock and infrastructure age, the socioeconomic status of neighborhoods also declines. At the low point of the cycle there is severe decay and property abandonment, at which point some neighborhoods gentrify, that is, they regenerate through the investments made by relatively affluent groups. Gentrification usually is initiated by individuals (often artists) who renovate cheap housing stock, give their neighborhood a fashionable image, and thereby attract more wealthy groups. Recent scholarship has recognized, however, that gentrification is not part of a natural cycle, as implied by some research that followed the Chicago school, but rather a social process. Over the last few decades, governments and development agencies have attempted to actively facilitate and plan the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods. A consequence of gentrification can be the displacement of poorer residents, the homeless, and other vulnerable groups. Processes of gentrification also assume very different characteristics and have different social and economic consequences in different parts of the world.

A body of research suggests that the social contexts of neighborhoods themselves shape the behavioral norms and attitudes of the residents. These so-called neighborhood effects are responsible for the persistence of inner-city social problems, including crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school, and poor labor-market performance among youths. Researchers theorize that negative neighborhood effects operate through three distinct mechanisms: local teenage peer groups, negative adult role models, and local schools and other institutions that fail to provide adequate support to residents. To diminish negative neighborhood effects, social scientists have advocated mixed-income housing and housing-dispersal policies, which enable poor and minority families to locate outside of segregated neighborhoods. However, the neighborhood effects theory has been criticized for neglecting processes of social and cultural exclusion that affect individuals and neighborhoods alike. It may be that dispersal and mixed-income policies diminish social isolation only because they stimulate social assimilation to mainstream cultural practices. In addition, quantitative research on neighborhood effects has been criticized for making speculative inferences of causality based on statistical correlations, whereas qualitative research has been criticized for making unsubstantiated cultural claims based on specific cases and few actors.

Recent work by social scientists has emphasized the cultural construction of neighborhood identity. Kay Andersons pathbreaking work Vancouvers Chinatown (1991) illustrates how that neighborhood has assumed different cultural identities throughout history based on the changing role and status of the Chinese minority in Canadian society. Contemporary research shows how struggles between social groups over the space and the aesthetical appearance of a neighborhood can facilitate the racialization of social groups and inflame ethnic tension and social conflict. Cultural representations of neighborhoods can also lead to the social exclusion or privileging of residents. According to this research, the construction of race, ethnicity, and other cultural identities are deeply entangled with neighborhood processes.

SEE ALSO Lewis, Oscar


Anderson, Kay. 1991. Vancouvers Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 18751980. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Denton, Nancy A., and Douglas S. Massey. 1988. Residential Segregation of Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians by Socioeconomic Status and Generation. Social Science Quarterly 69 (4): 797817.

Engels, Friedrich. [1845] 1892. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. London: Swan Sonnenschein.

Peach, Ceris. 1996. Good Segregation, Bad Segregation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 21: 216235.

Harald Bauder

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neigh·bor·hood / ˈnābərˌhoŏd/ (Brit. neigh·bour·hood) • n. a district, esp. one forming a community within a town or city: she lived in a wealthy neighborhood of Boston. ∎  the people of such a district: the party disturbed the whole neighborhood. ∎  neighborly feeling or conduct: the importance of neighborhood to old people. ∎  the area surrounding a particular place, person, or object: he was reluctant to leave the neighborhood of Butte. ∎  Math. the set of points whose distance from a given point is less than (or less than or equal to) some value. PHRASES: in the neighborhood of approximately; about: the cost would be in the neighborhood of three billion.

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neighborhoodcould, good, hood, Likud, misunderstood, pud, should, stood, understood, withstood, wood, would •Gielgud • manhood • maidenhood •nationhood • statehood • sainthood •priesthood • kinghood • babyhood •likelihood • livelihood • puppyhood •childhood • wifehood • knighthood •falsehood • widowhood • boyhood •cousinhood • adulthood •neighbourhood (US neighborhood) •husbandhood • bachelorhood •toddlerhood • womanhood •parenthood • sisterhood •spinsterhood • fatherhood •brotherhood, motherhood •girlhood • Talmud • Malamud •matchwood • Dagwood • Blackwood •sandalwood • sapwood • basswood •Atwood •Harewood, Larwood •hardwood • lancewood • heartwood •redwood • Wedgwood • Elmwood •bentwood • Hailwood • lacewood •beechwood • greenwood • Eastwood •cheesewood • driftwood • stinkwood •Littlewood • giltwood • Hollywood •satinwood • plywood • wildwood •pinewood • whitewood • softwood •dogwood, logwood •cottonwood • coachwood • rosewood •fruitwood • Goodwood • brushwood •firewood • ironwood • underwood •Isherwood • wormwood

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