Chapter 1.6: Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations



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


Up until this point, I have been occasionally critical of "normal" urban community research, especially that which is ecologically and demographically oriented. There is ample justification for such criticism, but there are also many other good reasons for employing normal methods in this and other studies. The concern I have with the usual techniques of urban community research is not their propensity to err and to misinterpret, but that unless they are combined with other more sensitive data-gathering techniques, and more subjectively oriented disciplines, one can never obtain a complete and useful picture of the urban social reality. This reality, because of its extreme complexity, requires multi-method and multidisciplined approaches.

The general theory of the relationship between self and community, and the particular case of symbolic residential succession presented here, is an example of such a theoretical and methodological marriage. One aspect of this theory of residential succession is that "symbolic history" is often the key to understanding the housing choices of invading groups, who move into contested middle-class areas of the inner city, and the eventual fate of the changed area.

The use of local history in the sociological analysis of urban neighborhoods has a long tradition itself. Robert E. Park, one of the most important figures in urban sociology, stressed in his work that local history and local traditions are necessary components of the definition of urban neighborhoods. He stated in The City that neighborhoods begin as mere geographical units but over time become localities with sentiments, traditions and histories of their own (1966:3).

Relatedly, from an anthropological perspective, the universal relationship between locality and culture is made here by Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball from their Culture and Community:

Communities seem to be basic units of organization and transmission within a culture. They provide, for human beings and their cultural adaptation to nature, the basic minimum of social relations through which survival is assured and the content of culture can be passed on to the next generation. Already pan-animal as ecological units, communities are pan-human as transmission units for human culture. It is their function, in keeping alive the basic inventory of traits and institutions of the minimal personnel of each kind for which culture provides a role and upon which high-culture specialization and acceptance can be built, that makes human communities into cell-like repeated units or organizations within human societies and cultures.

We can rely, then, on this hypothesis for ordering the experience of American communities we will cite. Without defending it further, we must notice at once that it implies that each culture has its characteristic community which serves as such a unit and that each isolatable type of community, as such a unit of cultural organization and transmission, stands for an isolatable culture. We can hypothesize a one-to-one correspondence of some kind between culture and community. (1965:97-98)

Neighborhood communities, then, have general societal as well as particular histories, traditions and cultures. It is within this complex situation that the individual urban neighborhood residence is found, and ultimately must be understood.

Soren Kierkegaard argued that history is no mere collection of facts but the interpretation of events by people who fill those events with meaning.27 In this work I emphasize the duality of objective and symbolic history. To use my earlier example for purpose of discussion, the fact that George Washington slept in a particular place is an historical (objective) event, but the fact that someone is "proud" to sleep in the same place implies that the event has symbolic, and possibly mystical, value. The meaning of an event does not automatically follow from the datum of Washington's choice of lodging. Historical fact and social meaning are separable. The meaning of an historical event, as well as the event itself, can influence the current and future social actions of individuals. Predicting or understanding the action that ensues because of, or in regard to, historical events must be based on accurate knowledge of the symbolic content of the event, and not only on knowledge of the event as a naturalistic occurrence.

To elaborate on the above point, whether or not George Washington actually did sleep in a particular location is less important to understanding social action or psychological feelings regarding that place than is the symbolic meaning of that event as a reasonable "possibility". One might only assume, or have been told by an unscrupulous innkeeper, for example, that he spent the night in this place, when actually he did not. People tend to act on the basis of what is known to them, and not on what is unrevealed. In order to understand the impact of symbolic meanings, and their resultants in action, individual and collective social selves and their store of historical knowledge must be known.

Social selves are the products of largely standardized, collective, socialization processes, but they are also shaped by idiosyncratic socialization events. From people with similar socialization experiences we should expect similar reactions to symbols. We might hypothesize that an under-educated or non-American person would not be eager, or even willing, to spend a larger sum of money to sleep where Washington (it is alleged) had rested his weary head, if offered equally comfortable accommodations. American history buffs and tourists would be most likely to compete for such shelter. They are also the ones most likely to boast of their "meaningful" experience to others who would appreciate it.

Fixed places inherit meaning from hypothetical events, but meaning and symbols are more mobile and transportable than the fixed place, and the restricted temporal setting. The event of Washington's slumber in a particular bed, in a particular house, etc., does not preclude the desirability of sleeping in the same bed in a different room, and so on. One can ask higher prices from appreciating buyers from reproductions of America's first President's furniture, than for those of his contemporaries who are of lesser renown. Whole historical periods and their representations ultimately have meaning and social value. Antique collectors constantly discuss the relative merits of Colonial, Federal and other style periods. Finally, history itself has general value, and is similarly sanctified and mystified.

It is interesting to note that the veneration of historical figures and events has today resulted in a growing number of urban activists who cite historical values as sufficient grounds for halting "urban progress," which often comes in the form of demolition of "old" buildings and neighborhood reconstruction. In New York City the efforts to preserve historically valuable structures and neighborhoods are centered in the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Similar agencies exist in other cities and counterparts can be found at stage, regional and national levels. The New York group has the authority to grant "landmark," and other lesser statuses, to buildings and areas of the city that meet their strict criteria for historical or architectural notability. These designations tend to prohibit, or limit, the power of property owners to alter their homes or other physical structures without prior approval of the Commission. The Commission represents the formalization and bureaucratization of urban historical symbolism. The actions of the Commission also represent the particular social values of American society in choosing what is, and what is not, worthy of preservation. Why, for example, do commissions concerned with general historical values tend to preserve the homes of wealthy industrialists, and not those tenements which had cloistered their equally important work forces?28

What does the value of history and sacred meanings have to do with neighborhoods, cities and urban society? Why is it important for the so-called experts of city life to be aware of symbolic history and its relationship of self-identity? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand that an urban neighborhood, as any other kind of human settlement, from tribal village to high-rise apartment house, is not merely a geographic and physical entity. Fustel de Coulanges, in The Ancient City, described the historical and mythical founding of Rome. On the day of the founding a sacrifice is offered. The founders light a fire of brushwood, and leap through the flames. De Coulanges's explanation of this rite is that in order to participate in the act people must be pure, and primitive people thought they could cleanse themselves by jumping through a sacred fire. According to the myth, Romulus then dug a small circular trench and threw a clod of earth brought from the city of Alba into it. Then each of the companions followed his example and threw in some dirt from the place from which they came. The rite reveals the mystical and symbolic ideas of ancient people. Prior to Rome they had lived in other cities such as Alba. In those cities were their own sacred fire and the ground where their fathers had lived and were buried.

Their religion prevented them from leaving the land where their hearth was located, and where their divine ancestors rested. Therefore, each man had to carry with him a clod of earth as a symbol of the sacred soil of his ancestors to which their manes were connected.

This rite had to be accomplished, so that he might say, pointing out the new place he had adopted, This is still the land of my fathers, terra patrum, patria; here is my country, for here are the manes of my family.... When placing in the trench a clod of earth from their former country, they believed they had enclosed there the souls of their ancestors. These souls, reunited there, required a perpetual worship, and kept guard over their descendants. At this same place Romulus set up an altar, and lighted a fire upon it. This was the holy fire of the city.

Around this hearth arose the city, as the houses rise around the domestic hearth; Romulus traced a furrow which marked the enclosure. Here, too, the smallest details were fixed by a ritual.... As the plough turned up clods of earth, they carefully threw them within the enclosure, that no particle of the sacred earth should be on the side of the stranger. This enclosure, traced by religion, was inviolable. Neither stranger nor citizen had the right to cross over it.... But in order that men might enter and live in the city, the furrow was interrupted in certain places. To accomplish this Romulus raised the plow and carried it over; these intervals were called portae; these were the gates of the city. (1975:136-37)

Modern cities and neighborhoods are not less tradition-rich than ancient ones. However, there is the common moral conviction that modern cities are far more profane than sacred, but all human settlements have founders, foundations, rituals, myths and customs. Even the decimated Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville was once a village founded with a vision to provide decent housing for people who would work in nearby factories and shops.29 Modern citizens are perhaps less observant and reverent than were their ancestors, and perhaps the meaningful past is less apparent and less appreciated by the large number of uninformed, desensitized urbanites who inhabit most cities. The majority of the ordinary residents of city neighborhoods have little knowledge of the rich history of their locality, or even of their political urbis. Often those, that are historically informed act as though they were heretics, showing no respect for the past. Irregardless of this common situation there is a great deal of recent, and more distant, history that has had effect and continues to affect the welfare of current city neighborhood communities. Also, people forget that their own contemporary experiences are historical; what happens to them in their life time is inexorably connected to other prior and future events.

In many ways the founding, eventual decline, and desecration of Rome is analogous to the rise and fall. of many of today's urban neighborhood communities.

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Notes to Chapter 1.6

27. See Kierkegaard (1962). For more on existentialism see also Langiulli (1971).

28. This problem of bias toward upper-class and otherwise elite historical landmarks has been taken up by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee, and they are now considering designating monuments, or sites, of working-class contributions to the city. See Gans (1974) for discussion of class and taste.

29. For the early history of Brownsville see Landesman (1970).

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