Chapter 1.5: Symbolic History and Self



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


Considering the great contributions of George Herbert Mead, Charles Coolly and other social psychologists concerning the creation and continuous development of the social self, we should be led to entertain notions of the effects of inhabiting socially meaningful territories on individual and collective psyches.20 To elaborate: how does it affect one's self-conception to be able to say to a "significant other" that I slept in the same house as did George Washington? What does this mean for the people who are like me? What does my act of sleeping there, and the others like me who have done the same, express and communicate to society? Am I better or worse off for the experience? Why should I feel honored to have lain there? How does this occupation of historically meaningful territory influence my personal identity, and by extension the identity of the groups to which I belong? Along these same lines, in recent years, American ethnic groups have been increasingly concerned with their "roots". Many make pilgrimages to the historical sites that are part of their group identity. For example, middle-class blacks take trips to Africa, and also visit slave quarters in the South. For many people the trip to venerated territory, the ethnic Mecca's and Jerusalem's, has an enabling effect. Realizing the social and psychological value of territory and property, one can see how these values become part of the necessarily conspicuous and expressive consumption of urban residences that has been an integral part of all ancient and modern civilizations. Did not the upper classes of Ancient Rome covet the neighborhood of the Palatinate? Do not presidential candidates have a desire, not only to be President but to sleep in the White House? Residences have always had important social meanings. This social reality is not restricted to America and Italy; one need only think of the symbolic values of places like Number 10 Downing Street, the Kremlin, the Tag Mal and Peking.

Neighborhoods and homes are physical and symbolic entities which have both official-objective histories and symbolic-subjective ones as well. The understanding of why and how people move into or out of a neighborhood (or a whole city for that matter) can be only enhanced by information concerning the symbolic meanings of places and their residential histories. Also of importance are the processes by which these meanings are created, discovered, learned and communicated. Such knowledge should help us to understand, and perhaps predict, the future of particular or general types of residential communities.

Consider the common experience of meeting someone who, in the process of identifying himself or herself, proceeds to tell you where they live. The information that their talk conveys to you is much more than simple geographic coordinates. People do not tell each other the longitude and latitude of their home. We live in suburbs, exurbs, cities, small towns, ghettoes, good neighborhoods and bad ones as well. We live near, or with, the notable and the notorious. Why do many people tell others about the famous people who have lived near them? Our surroundings, as a dramatic setting, are believed to "give off" information about ourselves. Our residence attests to, or belies, our claims of particular social status and prestige.21 We may hide negatively meaningful facts, and highlight and advertise positive ones. In sum, we can be stigmatized or celebrated for our address.

One of the foremost examples of especially meaningful urban residential location was provided by President John F. Kennedy in 1960. On a trip to accentuate the United States' political and moral commitment to freedom and the NATO alliance, he chose to deliver his major speech in West Berlin; then widely thought of as a symbolic anti-totalitarian community. His pledge to defend Berlin, which symbolized all American allies, was punctuated by the statement: "Ich bin ein Berliner", and he was resoundingly applauded for the symbolic gesture.

The meanings attached to particular residential areas are shared only by those who also share similar socialization experiences and knowledge. For example, to be "ein Berliner" in Tel Aviv, certainly will not automatically result in crowd appreciation. Within America there are many neighborhood names which have wide symbolic currency; Harlem, The French Quarter of New Orleans, Greenwich Village, the South Side of Chicago and the Gold Coast, as well as Watts, Boston's Roxbury and Hollywood, are a few examples of "familiar" neighborhoods. More abstractly, ethnic neighborhoods are often referred to as "Chinatowns", "Harlems", "Little Italies", and "El Barrios". Not too long ago, most large American cities had areas referred to as "Jewtowns". The economic and subsequent geographic mobility of America's Jewish population seems to have quietly eliminated the term from common usage, only to be replaced by references to Jewish suburban communities as "Gilded Ghettoes".22

There are international symbolically meaningful neighborhoods as well: Paris's Latin Quarter, London's Soho, Tokyo's Ginza and North African Casbahs have meanings that are widely recognized by educated people in all parts of the world. Neighborhoods then are not simply places on maps or on the surface of the earth; they have mental locations as well.23 It is therefore not unreasonable to expect that, if given a choice, knowledgeable people will try to locate themselves in residential settings that they feel will adequately, or more than adequately, compliment and enhance their own ideas about self, and the ideas held by others about them. Naturally, people who think well of themselves will try to convey the most positive information about themselves to "significant others".

One's residence is not necessarily a "truthful" representation of individual social worth. People who live in crime-ridden slums are not necessarily "bad" people, but they are nevertheless socially degraded for their address. On the other hand those that occupy city "Silk Stocking" areas are not always respectable and substantial. An example of the use of an address for devious purpose was provided to me by a janitor at a luxury apartment building on Manhattan's Sutton Place, an extremely exclusive neighborhood. He related that often there were several tenants in the building who, in his words, "didn't belong". These were people trying to "make it big" in New York and needed an address that would impress business contacts. Some would lavishly furnish apartments through credit arrangements and also throw expensive parties for impressionable guests. Others had virtually no furniture and simply picked up their mail at the apartment house and answered telephone calls. If these people would fail in their financial dealings, as they usually did, they would "skip town" without paying rent and other bills. The "ethnic" politician who maintains an address in his district while living in the suburbs, or a more luxurious neighborhood, similarly uses residential symbolism in a devious way.

It seems appropriate at this point to provide some general outlines of a theory of the relationship between neighborhood community and self-image. First we ought to be familiar with the common assumptions and propositions of Symbolic Interaction as a theoretical perspective, here provided by Arnold M. Rose:


  1. A human being lives in a symbolic world.
  2. A human being is stimulated and stimulates others with symbols.
  3. A human being learns through symbolic communication.
  4. Symbols and their meanings and values frequently occur in complex clusters such as roles which guide the individual's behavior.
  5. A human being's ability to think permits an assessment of his course of action.


  1. Human beings can predict each other's behavior and adjust their own behavior about their predictions.
  2. Human beings define themselves in relation to other persons and situations. (1962:3-19)24

Georg Simmel, who had a significant impact on the style and direction of American urban sociological enterprise, notes here from his essay, "The Metropolis and Mental Life", the struggle of the urban individual to find meaning for "self" in the confusing urban environment:

Here in the buildings and educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technology, in the foundations of community life, and in the visible institutions of the state, is offered such an overwhelming fullness of crystallized and impersonalized spirit that the personality, so to speak, cannot maintain itself under its impact. On the one hand life is made infinitely easy for the personality in that stimulations, interests, uses of time and consciousness are offered to it from all sides. They carry the person as if in a stream, and one hardly needs to swim for oneself. On the other hand, however, life is composed more and more of those impersonal contents and offerings which tend to displace the genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities. This results in the individual's summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible. (1950:422)

To Simmel's ideas I might add that one's home and one's neighborhood are two of those "personal" elements that urban dwellers can use to express their uniqueness and their distance from others while amid the masses. As stated by Suttles:

Like the family, the neighborhood is largely an ascribed grouping and its members are joined in a common plight whether they like it or not.... Perhaps the most important of these structural elements is the identity of the neighborhood itself. A neighborhood may be known to be snobbish, trashy, tough, exclusive, dangerous, mixed or any number of things. Some neighborhoods may simply be unknown and reference to one's residence may arouse only puzzlement and necessitate one's explaining one's guilt or virtue by residential association. In any case, neighborhood identity remains a stable, judgmental reference against which people are assessed, and although some may be able to evade the allegations thrown their way, they nonetheless find such evasions necessary. (1972:35)

Elaborating on this relationship between self and residential environment, Alvin Schorr has argued that:

To the middle-class reader, the social elements that are involved in identifying himself with his housing may be evident. These are the common coinage of deciding where to live. Who is accepted there? Are they my kind of people? It is a step up or a step down? What will it do for me and my children? Whom shall I meet? The physical elements of self-evaluation may not be so evident. Indeed, it has been suggested that our culture tends to put out of the mind the deep personal significance of what has been called the "nonhuman environment." It is interesting and perhaps also just that psychoanalysts are among the first to bring back to our minds a relationship that more primitive societies understand. (1970: 320-21)25

In an important essay which mixes architecture with Jungian psychology, Clare Cooper has written of the house as a "Symbol of Self" (1974). In this brilliant and insightful piece she describes the relationship between a person's dwelling place and how that individual sees him or herself vis-a-vis others, and a cosmic universe. She emphasizes that this relationship has cultural and political ramifications. For example, she notes that in Anglo-Saxon law, the person and the home are considered to be inviolable entities. This psycho-cultural emphasis on the equation of property with personal rights is carried over into American civil and criminal law as well.

She goes on to note that people tend to choose homes, and to decorate them (exterior and interior), in fashions and styles that the inhabitants feel adequately display their individual and collective identities. This psychological process, according to Cooper, takes place at both conscious and unconscious levels. The unconscious aspect of these residential choices, she finds, can be shown in an analysis of dreams of occupants. In support of her propositions, Carl Wertheim in a study of housing choices, concluded that many people bought houses which they felt would bolster their self-image both as a unique person, and as an occupant of a certain status position in society (1974:132).

If we combine Cooper's psychoanalytic notions of self-home with Vance Packard's research on American cultural norms regarding social mobility, reported in A Nation of Strangers (1972), it is easier to understand the social pressure that people feel to make their neighborhood surroundings conform with the estimates they have of their own social worth. Packard also found that status seeking promotes a great deal of residential movement in America, which can result in a reduction of the strong traditional ties to any particular place. On the other hand, this striving also increases the concern of residents about the social value of their community. Residences, as jewelry, clothing, cars and school ties, are symbols of relative prestige.

In reference to changing urban neighborhoods we should expect that when any area suffers a reduction in its symbolic social value, or when its historically sacred meaning is lost or tainted, then people who live in them will seek out other settings in which to locate themselves. These settings would more adequately reflect their image of self. Alternately, people will be attracted to, or remain within, communities that they believe have high symbolic social value. People who are forced to remain, or who simply have no opportunity to move out of "profaned" community settings will subsequently suffer a concomitant loss of self-esteem. Those that choose to remain in a defiled neighborhood setting will experience social and psychological conflict between self and community images, and may feel compelled to engage in activities which would reduce in some way this cognitive imbalance.26 This dilemma is cogently and ironically demonstrated by the comic strip segment of Motley's Crew in Illustration 1.

<< To Ch. 1.4 | To Ch. 1.6 >>

Notes to Chapter 1.5

20. For important works on the social self see: Deutsch and Krauss (1965:173‑216), Cooley (1956), Lindesmith and Strauss (1977), Mead (1934), Reynolds (1970) and Rose (1972). Two good steps in the direction of bringing together the self and the environment are Bell and Tyrwhitt (1972) and Proshansky et al. (1970). See also Zeisel (1975).

21. See Goffman (1959) for ideas on human activity as "performances" which will be employed throughout this work. See also Goffman (1963).

22. For more on ethnic neighborhoods and social mobility and assimilation see: Feldstein (1974), Cans (1962), Ianni (1957), Keller (1968), Liebow (1967), Lewis (1966), Kramer and Leventman (1961), Podhertz (1967), Reis (1968), Smith (1943), Schoenfeld (1969), Suttles (1968), Ware (1965) and Wirth (1928). See also Berry and Horton (1974:chap. 11).

23. Suttles uses cognitive maps in reference to the total city: "There is the cognitive map which residents have for describing, not only what their city is like but what they think it ought to be like. This cognitive map of the city need not necessarily correspond closely with the actual physical structure" (1972:22). Anselm Strauss, similarly, and previously, discussed the cognitive structure of the city. In his work he used the term "orbits." The term refers to meanings assigned to space, which have an effect on social and economic activity (1969). See also: Lee (1968), Lynch and Rivkin (1970), Gould and White (1974), Proshansky (1970) and Von Uexkuell (1957).

24. See also Blumer (1969) for basics of Symbolic Interaction approach, as well as Hewitt (1976).

25. For housing mobility studies related to status see: Back (1962), Rossi (1955) and Rubin et al. (1969).

26. For basis of idea of cognitive balance and dissonance see Festinger (1962) and Helder (1946, 1958). Cognitive balance and dissonance are particularly important concepts in understanding the pressure to adjust one's self and community image in order for them to "fit" each other.

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