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Gerald Suttles ’59

Gerald Suttles

Gerald was a pioneer in the study of disadvantaged neighborhoods, gangs, and ethnic conflict—shaping the discipline of urban sociology. He mentored a new generation of scholars in the field, and though the cities he studied may have changed, his insights will endure.

In 1963, as a young sociology graduate student pursuing his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he moved to the rough-and-tumble Addams neighborhood on Chicago’s west side (now part of the Tri-Taylor area), not because the rent was affordable, but because he wanted to study it. The neighborhood was a mix of races and ethnicities, both migrants and native born. By the end of his three-year stay, Gerald had become a local fixture, adopted by an Italian family and talking his way out of a proposed marriage. His study detailed a highly neighborhood-specific code that trumped accepted moral standards of broader society. Five years later, he published The Social Order of the Slum: Ethnicity and Territory in the Inner City, a definitive work on the rules of conduct of the residents. Gerald believed that one of the tasks of urban sociology was to explore how and why slum communities provide their inhabitants with local norms.

Gerry was raised as an only child in the mountains of western North Carolina. During the Korean War, he served in the U.S. Navy, and after the war, at the advice of a navy buddy, he came to Reed. Being in Prof. John Pock’s [sociology 1955–98] classes was not for the faint of heart, but sociology became Gerald’s lifelong passion. He wrote his thesis on “Group Membership and Cognitive Organization: A Study of Interpersonal Influence in Small Groups.” After completing his graduate studies at the University of Illinois, he became a renowned urban sociologist, holding faculty positions in sociology at the University of Michigan, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But he spent the bulk of his career at the University of Chicago, where he helped revitalize the Chicago School of Sociology through his ethnographic research on urban communities, and carved out a reputation with his studies of slums in major U.S. cities.

His subsequent books include The Social Construction of Communities and Poverty and Social Change (coauthored with his wife, Kirsten Grønbjerg, and David P. Street). In 1990, he published The Man-Made City: The Land-Use Confidence Game in Chicago, which cast a critical light on the poor design of Chicago’s public and private projects and received extensive media coverage for its harsh assessment of the driving forces behind the city’s urban planning. In 2010, Suttles published Front Page Economics in which he analyzed press coverage of the economic crashes of 1929 and 1987 to understand how the media normalizes crises.

In retirement, Gerald served as an adjunct professor of sociology at Indiana University, spending the last 20 years of his life working with students. He also devoted quite a bit of time to gardening, and with his wife shared a love of Denmark, nature, music, ballet, and delicious nosh. He retired to Bloomington, Indiana, in 1997, and leaves behind his wife of almost 47 years, Kirsten Grønbjerg.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2017

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