December 19, 2005

The influential 20th century sociologist C. Wright Mills defined sociological imagination as the intersection of personal biography and social history. Mills argued that sociologists had the most to contribute when they had a compelling personal stake in understanding societal events taking place around them. 
Mills' Sociological Imagination remains one of those great works read by undergraduate sociology students and first-year graduate students. Although a veteran sociologist myself, I had not thought of Mills in a good while until I was broadsided by the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans.
In terms of my own family history, New Orleans always has occupied a special status as our Southern urban cultural mecca. Generations of us lived in the vicinity, went to school there or nearby, honeymooned in the French Quarter, entrusted our health to the Ochsner Clinic, enjoyed the most memorable meals of our lives in its environs, shopped Canal Street, visited our first major zoo and rode our first public conveyance on St. Charles. 
Personally, I always will remember New Orleans as the destination of both my children's first road trips. We have a treasured picture of my then-3-year-old daughter helping the Pigeon Man feed the birds in Jackson Square. She now is the mother of a 2-year-old herself. The Pigeon Man, however, is one of the many street people whom I now worry about. 
The Hotel Monteleone was the venue for my first major paper presentation. Years later, I took the gavel there as president of the Southern Sociological Society. The Society is bound and determined to be back at the Monteleone this March as one of the first associations to hold a meeting since the catastrophe. I'll be there, all right, but I fear what I may see firsthand of this city that has meant so much to my family.
Mills was right. It is with this personal lens that I, as a social scientist, interpret the events that began with the storm and continue to unfold. One of the important sociological lessons to be learned is that the inner city of American urban life has not gone away. We may retreat to our suburbs, take our causeways to north shores or shelter in gated communities, but ultimately we will come face-to-face with the social problems that plague the inner city. We have seen that happen in the Louisiana Superdome, the Astrodome, numerous church fellowship halls and any number of other venues. Societal issues impact all of society - no matter where any of us lives.
My colleagues at LSU who studied the propensity of this population to evacuate told FEMA and other agencies years ago that many in New Orleans lacked the physical and socioeconomic resources to leave. I attended meetings at which the Corps of Engineers and various state agencies lamented the lack of support for shoring up the levees, if not completely rebuilding them. As part of my rural sociology assignment, I heard from many small-town mayors and other locals about the uneven quality of the few highways that were paths to higher ground for entire parishes.
While this recipe for disaster developed, I was beginning to study and write about a sociological approach we now refer to as "civic community." It is an intellectual tradition that includes classic works by Alexis de Tocqueville and modern writers such as Robert Putnam. The civic community perspective highlights the beneficial community effects associated with locally oriented businesses and a civically engaged citizenry. 
Armed with this approach, it actually is possible to be optimistic about the rebuilding effort that needs to occur along the coast. Kudos to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for calling in "new urbanism" guru Andres Duany, architect and author of Suburban Nation. The planning and architectural precepts of new urbanism ensure the creation of civic spaces that promote healthy interaction and engagement. The typical features in this approach include front porches, sidewalks, cul de sacs and clusters of small retail and service businesses within easy walking distance. This is the way much of New Orleans' Ninth Ward originally was structured. 
When -- not if -- we rebuild, it is vital that we encourage the civic community that once thrived there. From a professional perspective, I take comfort in knowing that we have a century of sound theory and practice that can be brought to bear on the problem. In so doing, we will hasten that great day when my grandchildren and I sit down at the Café du Monde for their first beignets. Let the powdered sugar fly!

Tolbert, BA '73, MA '75, PhD '80 (University of Georgia, Athens) is chair of the Department of Sociology.