Chapter 1.1: Symbolism, Self and Urban Development



List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures


1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
    Residential Succession: How "Losers" Win
    Negro Pioneers and White Flight
    Relative Selectability among Minority Invaders
    Symbolic History and Self
    Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations

2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
    The Social Character of the Manor

3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
    Indians, Geology and Transportation
    Protecting the Community: Covenant and Zoning
    Increasing Community Parameters

4. Invasion and Succession

    Irish and Italian Catholics
    Veterans: Undesirable Heroes
    Blacks and the Special Problems of Nonwhite Invaders
    Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion
    The Invasion Mentality

5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
    Involuntary Change: Aging and Death
    Attidues of Heirs
    Apartment Houses: The Big Change
    The Life of a Tenant and a Building
    Understanding Intricate Urban Problems

6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
    Achievement and Residentia Movement
    The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents
    The Community Paradigm
    Implications and Applications


Ever since the establishment of permanent human settlements, a major concern of communities has been the defense of their territory. As villages and towns grew and their social structures became more complex, the necessity for defense against outside forces also increased, especially as the great cities came to represent competing empires, civilizations and economic interests. From the time of the ancient cities through the Middle Ages, the city was as much a fortress as it was a religious, political and commercial center.1

The advent of the Industrial Revolution and rapid technological advances in warfare shifted the focus of urban defensive postures away from external enemies inward toward the urban populace itself. Although modern cities no longer are encircled by thick walls patrolled by army garrisons, many of the neighborhoods within them are, so to speak, armed to the teeth, and invasions, successions, retreats and advances are quite evident on the urban scene. In many ways American cities, which are socioeconomically, racially and ethnically diverse, continue a tradition of settlement warfare which stretches back to Neolithic times. From Los Angeles to New York City, crosses are burned, school buses are stoned, and houses firebombed in attacks and counterattacks. Many more skirmishes take place in the courts and zoning agencies, but the primary battle zone lies within the minds of local community residents who are fearful of neighborhood change.

There is another kind of social and psycho-logical contest taking place in American cities today the outcome of which may determine whether the specter of Necropolis that hangs over many of our urban areas is to become a reality. In essence, we as a nation must decide for ourselves if our dying and decaying urban centers are worth saving. If the current urban crisis is any indication of our national attitudes towards older cities, and I think it is, the decision has already been made in the negative.

The inner recesses of many older American cities are at present remorselessly tormented places. When we observe the actions of those empowered to maintain the well-being of our urban areas, we see that the methods they employ are like radical surgery, without the use of anesthesia. Over the past few decades whole sections of cities have been obliterated by "urban renewal" without much regard for the once living human landscape.2 Other areas have simply been cauterized by epidemics of arson and neglect. Still others are allowed to fester in anticipation of future treatment, as, for example, the "planned shrinkage" practiced in New York. To some degree the "Anti-Urban Bias" in American middle--class culture helps to explain the triage biases of urban planners, developers and other urban experts toward their city and neighborhood patients.3 Even the current "gentrification" or "displacement" processes that occur are not exceptions to this general rule of symbolic warfare. The middle and upper-middle class gentry who take over select inner city areas may be thought of as the troops that occupy the territory after it has been scorched and purged of undesirables.

It is obvious that the solution to many modern urban problems requires the infusion of vast sums of money, but the source of urban problems, which lies rooted in the minds of people, will not be solved by mere physical reconstruction. Cities, and city neighborhoods, must be seen as villages and small communities are seen, as almost sacred human settlements deserving humanistic treatment. One way to effect change in the cultural perception of cities in America is to provide urbanologists with the conceptual tools for recognizing the positive and negative, but nevertheless "human" nature of the indigenous populations of inner-city neighborhoods. For example, despite the alienation and sophistication of modern society "History" is still venerated, as witnessed by the current concern for the preservation of historical landmarks. Even the most debased of inner-city neighborhoods have histories which can provide a source for renewed vigor and perhaps change the perception of them in the minds of outsiders as simply collections of deteriorating structures.

In order for history and tradition to have a positive effect, it must be understood and appreciated by neighborhood residents and those others, such as government agencies, who together control the future of urban areas. Toward this end "The Role of Symbols and History in Neighborhood Residential Succession" is emphasized in this work. The central practical argument here is that inner-city neighborhoods can be better maintained and improved by creating, and re-creating, the historically positive definitions and images of those communities.

The approach taken in this work should be referred to as "Symbolic Interactionist." In the past Symbolic Interactionism has been a relatively neglected perspective for research and theory in the study of urban social change.4 As a theoretical perspective it has much to offer because it points out the role of symbolic definitions in the produc-tion of the social and physical decay that often accompanies neighborhood transition.

The process of residential succession, and the problems associated with it, have long been of inter-est to those concerned with the "urban condition." The phenomenon of urban residents symbolically interpreting and evaluating their social and physical environs has also been studied and discussed by many. Major works combining these aspects of urban social life span not only the dimensions of time and space, but also a wide variety of ethnic and social class groupings. Louis Wirth's The Ghetto (1928), Duncan and Duncan's The Negro Population in Chicago (1957), Anselm Strauss's Images of American Cities (1969), Gerald Suttles's Social Order of the Slum (1968), and Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers (1962) are a few of the important contributions to the areas of community transition and community symbolism.5

Despite the fact that an abundant literature on urban social life presents a ready-made opportunity for the development of a Symbolic Interactionist theory of urban deterioration, little has been attempted toward this end. In particular, Walter Firey's pioneering work on "Sentiment and Symbolism" as major factors in the social and economic value of urban real estate in Boston, and Gerald Suttles's concep-tualization of the "defended neighborhood" have not been fully exploited for their potential value.6 One reason for this neglect is the common assumption that symbolic approaches must be limited to monographic, or other purely descriptive tasks. Social policy is not seen as a symbolic matter. As qualitative studies, often employing participant-observation and other "soft" methods, symbolic studies are often matter-of-factly dismissed as sociological novels with more literary than scientific value.7

Symbolic Interactionist, phenomenological or other qualitative approaches to social life are, however, not merely methods to provide access to subjective social worlds for artistic display. The participant-observer is no ordinary voyeur. To the qualitative social scientist, subjective social contents affect and influence larger scale objective events. One of the best arguments for the study of ordinary people's subjective experiences was classically stated by Max Weber:

Sociology is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. In "action" is included all human behavior when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it. Action in this sense may be either overt or purely inward or subjective; it may consist of positive intervention in a situation, or of deliberately refraining from inter-vention in a situation. Action is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes into the account the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course. (1966:88)

Moving out of or into a neighborhood, abandoning an apartment building or setting it afire, vandalizing public and private property, all are "social" acts. The symbolic perspective helps to re-establish the connection between the minds of inner city residents and their environment. Using the perspective in regard to urban policy, one must argue that this connection exists in a causal as well as a philo-sophical way. Often policy experts take the position that knowledge of the subjective experiences of city residents is of little value in explaining urban problems. The micro-social level of life is buried under the weight of macro-social and economic factors responsible for the decline of cities. A more humanistic vision of urban life would show that the ordinary city dweller's experiences and feelings are important sui generis.8 Furthermore, even if the feelings of ordinary people about their local environment are of little value in explaining what has happened to American cities, this situation in itself should be of great interest to urbanologists. What does it mean for a city when the study of the attitudes and values of its residents is a socio-logical waste of time? How is a city structured to account for the practical irrelevance of the opinions of its citizens?

These questions, in various forms, should be the central theme in the humanistic study of modern urban society. The tools for analyzing the personal dilemmas of city residents have been provided in the studies of social and psychological alienation by Sigmund Freud, Georg Simmel, Karl Marx and David Riesman, among many others.9 Unfortunately, social scientists today seem to be more concerned with measuring and objectifying alienation of urban residents than with seeking to understand and eliminate it. C. Wright Mills lucidly describes the problem of modern alienation and argues that making sense out of our confusing existence is the goal of the "Sociological Imagination". The persons that Mills describes below are accurate theoretical portraits of inner city residents who try to come to grips with an environment that often seems to be incomprehensibly crumbling around them:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.... Seldom aware of the intricate connec-tions between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary men do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of history--making in which they may take part. They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world. They cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually lie behind them. (1959:3-4)

As in the past, symbolic and related writings today tend to be polemics of the scientific and political dehumanization of modern people. On the one hand, human beings, especially city people, are increasingly being defined in non-human terms (e.g., consumers, producers, etc.), and on the other, the power of ordinary people in cities to have signif-icant impact on their communities has become theoretically and practically problematic. The scientific dehumanization of social subjects has been promoted by the works of Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris and more recently Edward 0. Wilson and Stanley Milgram.10 In urban and neighbor-hood study, human activity in reference to physical space is often equated with the territorial activity of lower forms of animal life, implying that human and animal communities are analogous -- the city is an ant hill, and the ghetto a jungle.

The potential value of symbolic interactionist theory as an antidote to the dehumanizing treatments of urban social worlds comes from the fact that it has a democratic, humanistic, ideological basis. The relationship between its ideology and its theorizing is described here by Leon Shaskolsky:

The writings of the symbolic interactionist are permeated with an exhilarating optimism--expressing itself, on the personal level, in the belief in the uniqueness of each member of society and in his freedom to perform his everyday actions in interrelationship with others unencumbered by either the impinging rules of a structural society or the automatic responses of an uncontrolled personality; and expressing itself on the societal level, in the belief in an evolutionary process of change built into the system. Not for Mead a Sumerian jungle favoring the fittest, but a society undergoing gradual change and held together by the empathetic understanding of interacting individuals.... Mead's accent on the individual was one of respect and understanding -- not the right to forge ahead at the expense of others, but the obligation to have regard for the other in "defining the situation": to take the role of the other in order to determine the other's expectations; to play out, through meaningful gestures in conjunction with others, life's changing situations. (1970:17)

One would have to agree, humanist or not, that modern cities dehumanize people and that citizens are having less and less power to control their own lives and situations. Ultimately, the strongest argument for a symbolic study of urban neighborhood life is the overwhelming power of extra-local, super--community entities to define and control the local scene. Roland Warren defined the social community as "that combination of social units and systems which perform the major social functions having locality relevance. This is another way of saying that by 'community' we mean the organization of social activities that afford people daily access to those broad areas of activity that are necessary for day to day living" (1972:9). By a process of elimination, community study at the local level has become the study of what ordinary people think about what happens to them, and how they successfully, or vainly, strive to psychologically mediate their environment.

Indeed, the power of larger social entities to influence local people even in their personal evaluations of their own neighborhoods is a major problem. The mass media and educational institutions play major roles in this process by conditioning people to compare their local surroundings with American suburban middle -class standards. Anyone familiar with televised or printed advertisements for non-urban residences could not help but to agree on this point. Also, one need only request that an inner-city child draw a picture of "house" to see the pointed roof, chimney, and trees which are part of a cultural, artistic and aesthetic vision of the American "home" and "community". These and other dominant cultural standards of community lead large numbers of inner--city dwellers to negatively define themselves and their environments, which are usually far from aesthetically pleasing. In a related way, Kenneth B. Clark and others have shown how dominant cultural values related to personal appearance have influenced the psychology and self-image of minority group members. This problem is epitomized in Clark's study of black children which showed that they preferred light skins, and thereby demonstrated a degraded view of self.11 Herbert Gans similarly noted in his work, People and Plans (1968), the biases of urban planners and policy makers who evaluate working-class neigh-borhoods according to their own professional middle--class values, often leading to the destruction or disruption of viable urban communities.

A thought-provoking view of the effect of self and community images is given here by Malcolm X in his Autobiography:

So I went gawking around the neighborhood -the Waumbeck and Humboldt Avenue Hill section of Roxbury, which is something like Harlem's Sugar Hill, where I'd later live. I saw those Roxbury Negroes acting and living differently from any black people I'd ever dreamed of in my life. This was the snooty-black neighborhood; they called themselves the "Four Hundred", and looked down their noses at the Negroes in the black ghetto, or so-called "town" section where Mary, my other half-sister lived.

What I thought I was seeing there in Roxbury were high-class, educated, important Negroes, living well, working in big jobs and positions. Their quiet homes sat back in their mowed lawns. These Negroes walked along the sidewalks looking haughty and dignified, on their way to work, to shop, to visit, to church. I know now, of course, that what I was really seeing was only a big city version of those "successful" Negro bootblacks and janitors back in Lansing. The only difference was that ones in Boston had been brainwashed even more thoroughly. They prided themselves on being incomparably more "cultured," "culti-vated," "dignified," and better off than their black brethren down in the ghetto, which was no further away than you could throw a rock. Under the pitiful misapprehension that it would make them "better," these Hill Negroes were breaking their backs trying to imitate white people. (1964:40)12

There is a definite relationship between the powerlessness of ordinary neighborhood residents, their alienation, their images of self and the images they and others have of their neighborhood. Under-standing these connections may make clearer the frustrations of people involved in inner-city commu-nity organizations. Because local residents have minimal formal authority to control their environment, even when formal organizations develop out of shared sentiments on the local scene the groups are, with few exceptions, ill-prepared and virtually powerless to do more than attempt to delay or quicken the inevitable through what are best seen as cathartic community rituals. Examples of these rituals, that are almost expected in today's cities, are the pathetic demonstrations and community rallies which stand out sharply from the otherwise un-tribal per-formances which take place on the city streets. Planned or spontaneous community performances are analogous to the activities of teenage street gangs who try to defend their "turf" from outside enemies. It should be noted here that the "Amboy Dukes" of Brooklyn's Brownsville were ultimately incapable of keeping their community from being taken over by nonwhites.13 Whereas in the decade of the sixties we saw community protest primarily in minority, low--class areas of the city, analyzed by the Kerner and other commissions,14 we see in the seventies and shall see in the eighties, a growing trend of community-based protest in white middle- and upper--middle income areas. The suburbs are also not immune to protest against changes that affect community definitions, as noted by the hostility toward making low-income housing available in sub-urban areas and the integration of suburban schools. All these community protests, from riot to demonstra-tion, deal in some way with how people define and feel about the neighborhoods in which they live.

It is hoped that some of the discussions in this book will also provide the basis for a better understanding of the tenacity of some urban neighborhood residents to preserve and protect their communities, and conversely the willingness of others to destroy them. This is of particular importance today given the well publicized predictions of the inevitable physical and social deterioration of the nation's cities, which was once limited to North-eastern regions, but now is expected in all areas of the country including the "Sun Belt". The consensus on this point of eventual decay is so broad that by contemporary common-sense definition, inner-city, transitional and decaying neighborhoods are synonymous terms.

A statement which demonstrates this taken-for-granted notion of inner-city hopelessness was given in 1967 by Eleanor Wolf and Charles Lebeaux but is just as relevant today. Not only did they see the inevitable devastation of inner cities, but suggested strategies for combating it as well.

By now everyone is aware of those changes in the population of the central city which have combined with a number of other factors to create the current concern about American urban life. In the pages that follow we will examine two kinds of responses to the so-called "crisis of the city". First, we will consider the efforts to halt, reverse, or otherwise exercise some control over the population trends of the city so that it will not become overwhelmingly the abode of disadvantaged people. We might describe these as efforts to affect the spatial distribution of "haves" and "have nots". Second, we will examine some of the present trends in our efforts to improve the situation of the poor, especially those efforts usually categorized under the heading of social welfare programs, but including education. (1967:99)

It is not difficult to understand how this widely accepted vision of the present and future lives of cities is instrumental in the society-wide, self-fulfilling prophecy of urban decay. one primary element in this vision is the equation of nonwhite habitation with urban deterioration.15

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Notes to Chapter 1.1

1. For the social and physical structure of cities in history see:de Coulanges (1975), Mumford (1961), Pirenne (1956), Sjoberg (1960), Adna Weber (1963) and Max Weber (1958).

2. For Criticism of urban renewal and related programs see:Frieden and Morris (1968), Gans (1968), Greer (1965), Lupo et al. (1971), Norwood (1974), Piven and Cloward (1971) and Bellush and Hausknecht (1971).

3. For an interesting discussion of the roots of the "anti-urban bias" in Victorian England (which had a great impact on American urban planning) see:Glass (1968). See also Gist and Fava (1975:573-95) for negative images of city, as well as Spengler (1928:85-186).

4. For a good start on a re-emphasis on the social-psychology of urban life see Karp et al. (1971). See also Douglas (1970).

5. Other succession, and ethnic urban dweller studies are:Conot (1974), Cayton and Drake (1945), Glazer and Moynihan (1963), Grodzins (1958), Handlin (1959), Hoover and Vernon (1959:Chapt. 9), Kramer and Leventman (1961), Northwood and Barth (1965) and Strauss (1970).

6. Firey (1947) and Suttles (1972:Chapt. 2). See also Hunter (1974), Lynch (1960) and Strauss (1969) for important ideas on the symbolic basis of city life.

7. For generally unfavorable discussions of qualitative studies and methodology see:Huber (1973), Lazarsfeld and Barton (1955), and Lofland (1974). For criticism of modern sociology's over-reliance on quantitative methods see:Coser (1975) and Timasheff (1955:321). See Phillips (1973) for criticism of over-reliance on methodology in social science, and Glazer and Strauss for innovative qualitative methods.

8. For examples, and discussion, of micro-sociology in various forms see:Birenbaum and Sagarin (1973), Douglas (1970), Garfinkle (1967), Mehan and Wood (1975) and Psathas (1973). Lyman and Scott argue in their Sociology of the Absurd:"The term 'absurd' captures the fundamental assumption of this new wave:The world is essentially without meaning. In contrast to that sociology which seeks to discover the real meaning of action--a sociological reality, such as the functional meaning of social behavior--this new sociology asserts that all systems of belief, including that of the conventional sociologist, is arbitrary. The problems previously supposed to be those of the sociologists are in fact the everyday problems of the ordinary man. It is he that must carve out meanings in a world that is meaningless. Alienation and insecurity are fundamental conditions of life--though they are experienced differently by individuals and groups--an the regular re-humanization of man is everyman's task" (1970:1).

9. For alienation in the modern world and urban environment see:Baltzell (1969), Faris and Dunham (1939), Freud (1930), Fromm (1941), Durkheim (1947, 1951), Janowitz (1952), Lofland (1973), Marx (1964:167-77), Packard (1972), Reich (1970), Riesman (1950), Simmel (1950:402-24), Stein (1960) and Weber (1964).

10. For interesting discussions of the relationship between biological and cultural forces in social life see:Van den Berghe (1974) and Suttles (1972:16-18). Suttles (1972:chaps. 5,6 and 7) provides criticism of these approaches to the social, but Gould (1974) is most devastating. For basis of bio-social approach see:Ardrey (1961), Hall (1966), Lorenz (1966), Lyman and Scott (1967), Morris (1967, 1969) and Wilson (1975). Relatedly see:Milgram (1974) and Skinner (1972).

11. Clark (1947, 1950, 1965). See also Fanon (1967).

12. For more on black community life see:Du Bois (1899), razier (1957), Johnson (1968) and Osofsky (1966).

13. For a novel on the Amboy Dukes of Brownsville in the 1940s see Schulman (1950). See also Yablonski (1963) and Thrasher (1927) for sociological discussions of gangs and turf.

14. Bellush and David (1971), Connery (1968), Conot (1967), Hayden (1967) and Oppenheimer (1969) are excellent additions to Kerner (1968) and Skolnick (1969) on riots.

15. See especially Banfield (1974) and Grodzins (1959).

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