Chapter 5.6: Understanding Intricate Urban Problems



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


We can be sure that all Manorites have been exposed to some Lefferts Manor propaganda. Knowledge and appreciation of the positive definitions of the community is the cornerstone of its viability. But, just as positive definitions of community help to preserve it, negative or neutral ones can lead to its accidental or purposeful destruction. Negative and neutral ideas about the Lefferts Manor emanate from many sources, inside and outside of the community. Let us now consider some of these sources, the activities they generate and their resultants which undermine the high value placed on the area.

On one street there are many violations of the Manor's one-family only covenant. Here multi-family and single-room-occupancy dwellings, owned by absentee landlords, have taken over a number of ten- and twelve-room Victorian row houses. An informant on the block alleged that one of the buildings is a veritable "hotel" for West Indian immigrants. Illegal tenants stay for a few weeks as they seek more permanent residences, and employment. Although violations are an "open secret,"2 little has been done about the problem. One neighbor was very upset by the "shameful situation" but was afraid of reprisals if she openly complained, and signing a complaint against the owner would remove any possibility of anonymity. Others have expressed similar reservations, but the most common excuse for inaction is that some "higher authority" should do something about the problem and not ordinary citizens.

This attitude toward local problems is typical in communities of "limited liability," where power is vested in central, supra-community authorities.3 Over the years, even special communities like the Manor have been alienated from the sources of political power in the city. Authorities answer criticism of their inertia by complaining that they cannot do anything of great value without verified citizen complaints, and the willingness of neighbors to sue other neighbors in court. In effect, their inaction creates a stalemate in the community in which people tolerate all but the most obnoxious of violations.

Multiple-family use of Manor homes creates other problems, concrete and symbolic. Many defenders of the covenant are themselves violating the letter of the law. Aging brothers and sisters, as well as other more distant relatives often share houses, segregating themselves by floors or rooms. This is easy to accomplish because Manor homes are so large. Some of the "respectable" deviants go so far as to "actually" violate the covenant by installing an extra kitchen, thereby establishing, officially, the existence of separate households. Most modifications are also obtained without obtaining the mandated city variances and construction permits. As long as the "front" of the building and other "public" aspects of the building are maintained in a single-family style, neighbors simply look the other way.

It is the "virtual" examples of norm violation that are most likely to cause consternation among Manorites, but not the "actual" deviance itself.4 If someone ran a rooming house in which all tenants shared a "family resemblance," and were circumspect about the other rules of the Lefferts Manor social code, no one would be the wiser. Even if neighbors were "wise" to the situation, it would be ignored. This brings to mind a problem of racial perceptions in the area. Given the general inability of whites and nonwhites to recognize each other's physical idiosyncrasies, Manorites of different ethno-racial backgrounds are more likely to see their counterparts as family members -- "they all look alike." In America we generally hear about this problem of perceptual bias as being one exclusively of whites vis-a-vis nonwhites. But, in doing this research, and interviewing people from a wide range of ethno-racial backgrounds, it became clear that "everyone looks alike." For example, one black man, whom I had interviewed and had worked with on several community projects, still mistakes me for another white person. I have brown hair, blue eyes and am generally clean shaven. My Dopplegänger is two inches taller, has black hair, brown eyes and sports a bushy beard that covers most of his face.

This recognition problem can make people feel uneasy in many social situations. Often people do not know that their neighbors, with whom they are "friendly," are not related to one another. Three young black-haired white women on one block are constantly taken for each other by nonwhites, even though they have lived there for over four years. Blacks are differentiated by whites via "light skinned" versus "dark skinned" recognition criteria. Respectively, whites are "fat" or "skinny." If we turn to the proper recognition of children, we find even less visual differentiation. In the community there are "black kids" and "white kids." Given these perceptual problems in heterogeneous neighborhoods, it is no wonder that groups, and not individuals, are blamed for local problems. "Collective guilt" is at least partially due to recognition difficulties.

How would an "outsider" know of a one-family covenant violation? Authorities claim that they cannot act without specific signed complaints, and then an inside inspection of the dwelling unit. Legally they cannot perform the inspection without the permission of the owner, because the house is certified as a one-family building. This puts city authorities in a "Catch-2211 dilemma.

There are other scientifically valid but not legally useful methods of finding violations. One is the "ask the mailman" procedure. Variants of this technique are the "ask the gas man, delivery boy, etc." techniques. All these people are similarly endowed with access to the inside of buildings -- Goffman's "backstage."5 The mailman delivers letters and packages which may be addressed to many different family names. Gas and electric meter readers regularly enter homes, and in particular, have the best view of basements that have been converted to apartments, which are in violation of both health and building codes.

More sophisticated, but still relatively simple, means of investigation focus on the use of public and private utilities. Higher than expected gas, water and electric consumption can give clues to excess occupancy. The counting of independent telephone hook-ups on outside poles, or using a reverse telephone directory which lists phone customers by address, can also be helpful in zeroing in on violations.

Violation of the one-family covenant is not merely a symbolic problem. Manorites pay higher real estate taxes for the privilege of the noncommercial protection. Public services to the area are based on official population estimates and projections of need. For example, Manorites have their garbage collected on a schedule based on expectation of volume produced by low-density one-family areas. The "invisible" residents produce visible refuse which slows down the collection process, and leads to the overflowing of garbage onto Manor streets and sidewalks. The stench of rotten garbage is hardly a pleasant experience, but it is even worse for those who have sought refuge in the Manor from more odoriferous neighborhoods.

Police protection for the neighborhood is also planned on the basis of expectations of the amount of crime usually transpiring in single-family community. One-family areas are generally low-crime areas; therefore the Manor is under-patrolled. School construction and educational programs and budgets are planned using estimates of population size, age cohorts, density of the area and types of local households. The invisible population in the community then results in overcrowding at local public schools, and further decreases the willingness of middle-class people to send their children to neighborhood schools, insuring the predominance there of low-income minority children.

The quality of telephone service to the Manor is diminished because of illegal occupancy as old telephone wires are tapped into beyond their capacity. This leads to overloads of calls, busy signals at peak hours, and frequent mechanical breakdowns of ancient equipment. Water supply, gas and electricity are, in a sense, the life sustaining fluids of urban communities. In areas where there are large numbers of uncounted people, the energy and water supplies that are pumped into the community are generally insufficient for local demand. In reference to local water supply, the conduits which carry it were designed for less volume. Over-demand decreases the flow and pressure in pipes and this results in brown, rusty and often unpotable liquid. Main breaks occur more frequently, and residential streets are torn apart to make repairs. Fire protection is diminished as hydrants offer up insufficient amounts to suffocate local blazes. Finally, taking a shower in an illegal three-or-more-family house can be dangerous; if someone decides to flush the toilet at the time you are in the shower stall.

Excess population overtaxes the electric grids that run under city streets. "Blackouts" -- complete loss of electric service -- can result from these overloads. More often local "brownouts" take place -- a reduction in current which can dim lights and overtax electric appliances. The most dangerous times in recent years for outages have been the summer months when air conditioners are in use, especially in the early evening hours when large numbers of people come home from work and switch on their cooling units.

Least dramatic, but most frustrating, of the problems caused by excess population is over-population of local automobiles, which increase at almost the same rate as people. America is a car-dominated society, and even urban dwellers who would do well without a car feel "less than whole" without one. Parking and traffic plans are based on area population estimates. In over-populated neighborhoods problems are a natural outcome of ignorance of actual numbers of residents. Although Manor property lots vary in size, the frontages are generally eighteen to twenty-two feet in width. This space allows for the parking of one American-sized car. The addition of a few extra one- or two-car families on the block can then, produce agony for Manorites who must search the streets several blocks away from their house for a safe place to park their cars. Even Manorites who have garages or driveways are not immune to the problem, as space-hungry drivers block their driveways due to the shortage of legal anchorage. The insult that is added to injury in the Manor results from the neighborhood being treated by the local police as a "favored" area. Patrolmen, and other empowered city agents, ticket illegally parked cars in the Manor with a vengeance due to the high volume of complaints by influential or simply "loud" residents about illegally parked cars.

In recent years, New York City has instituted an "alternate side of the street" parking program, in which every other day one side of the street is off-limits to parked cars. This allows mechanical street sweepers to clear the curbs of accumulated debris, as New Yorkers have retreated from doing it themselves. During half of the week.- then, one-half of the potential parking spaces in the neighborhood are eliminated from eight to eleven o'clock in the morning. The shrinking o f the area for legal parking increases the parameters of the parking space hunt that takes place each evening and early morning.

Many Manorites receive on the average of one parking ticket every other month at fifteen dollars per infraction. It would cost more than fifteen to twenty dollars per month to park at a local parking lot, so taking a chance every day is more economical than avoiding the problem completely by renting a parking space. If one avoids being ticketed, one is not immune to anger at not having a safe place to park a car that is so heavily taxed by local government. Also, the exaggerated concern over parking in the Manor is related to the belief held by Manorites that they have "arrived." Most have celebrated the event by purchasing boat-sized automobiles, or second cars. One must only dwell upon the undignified appearance of a double-parked Cadillac to understand the Manorites' consternation.

Some of the threats to the symbolic value of the Manor are much more serious than others. Although two or three related families living together in a Lefferts Manor house may seem to an outsider as equivalent to the same number of unrelated families sharing the same quarters, Manorites do not see it that way. They believe that the latter situation is a threat to their individual and collective esteem. Neighbors will complain to authorities about loud illegal bottle clubs, prostitution and the sale or use of drugs by outsiders. They will also bemoan the loud noises and unkempt backyards of illegal residents, but the loud parties, loose sexual practices, private drug use, noisy children, and the sloppiness of legitimate neighbors are all but ignored.

The hesitance of people to react vigorously to attacks on their symbolic territory is not difficult to understand. To complain loudly, openly and energetically is to make public one's collective and personal debasement. People like to keep their community skeletons in the closet. Most people shy away from calling attention to the negative aspects of their self-community. Those who have given up on the community are the most likely persons to be "public" complainers. Some few individuals also receive psychological gratification, a sort of self-flagellation, from exposing community sores. Those who have the greatest egoistic investments in the neighborhood, when they work to solve local problems, do so quietly so as not to arouse publicity. In respectable neighborhoods residents are generally against demonstrations and picketing which to them are synonymous with lower-class communities. In the "better" areas these kinds of community actions are taken only as a last resort.

Commercial vice problems create other kinds of fears in the minds of neighborhood bystanders -- such as fear for personal safety. People are afraid to openly complain, in expectation of retaliation by criminal elements. Most city people have lost confidence in the ability of local law enforcement to protect them from abuse. Logically, they argue that if the police cannot prevent the primary offense, they cannot deter the secondary crimes that could be visited on complainants. Finally, and most effectively, past experience has taught many community members that "nothing can be done," and this message has been carried by the otherwise inefficient intra-community communication network.

On Midwood Street, where the vast majority of brownstones are still one-family, a group of concerned people had tried unsuccessfully for several years to have an after-hours bottle club closed on their street. The club was located in a house that was also an illegal multiple-family unit. The unfortunate side-effect of their frustrating pursuit has been a decrease in the willingness of neighbors to participate in problem-solving activities. After several months of meetings and discussions of the problem only a few diehards, who live nearest to the problem, are left as activists. Those who live near the club suggest, half-jokingly, that perhaps a bomb should be thrown into the building, but this course of action is still unrealistic for Manorites. Other suggestions, such as the slicing of club patrons' tires, or throwing bricks through their windows are more realistic, but equally unlikely to be acted upon. In the city most people are alienated from both the legitimate and the illegitimate means of social control.

Some community activists are certain that the police at the local precinct are "paid off" by the bottle club owners for protection. The regular, almost decennial, reports of New York City Police Department corruption add a great deal of popular support for this theory. Such local suspicions add to the collective lack of self-confidence in grassroots community action as a means of solving problems. One incident that took place just outside the Manor's boundaries, on the other side of the tracks, is instructive as to vigilantism and confidence in local police protection for the community. There had been a rash of burglaries and muggings on a street of working-class homeowners and tenants. The residents were certain that the perpetrators of the crimes "hung around" the corner at a local "dive." Block association pleas to the precinct brought no help. The residents of the block, virtually all of whom were black, had at earlier times lived in black neighborhoods which were racked with crime and knew of police inaction when it came to problems in minority group neighborhoods.

The men from the block called a meeting and decided to "take the law into their own hands." Several armed themselves with baseball bats and other truncheons, and marched en masse around the block to confront their antagonists and "teach them a lesson. “The besieged, alleged criminals ran into their bar home base and refused to come out to face community summary justice. They phoned the local precinct house and asked for help. The police quickly responded to the call and saved them from the wrath of the community. One of the men who participated noted that the arrival of the police was the quickest he had ever seen. This incident seems to point out that the lower the social status of the community residents, the more likely they are to engage in vigilante actions, and that authorities, such as the police, in these communities act not as arms of the community but as mediators between elements within it.

In reference to problems with bottle clubs in residential neighborhoods, even when the police do respond to calls from irate residents, they do little more than ask a few questions and then leave. When pressed about their inaction, police officials respond that they are hampered by a lack of community cooperation. If neighbors complain loudly and frequently enough, the "community relations" officer will reply that he is "working on it." If community protest continues, the precinct might reply that its "hands are tied" by the Supreme Court and the Constitution.

The way that bottle clubs are operated makes it difficult to close them down. It is illegal to sell alcoholic beverages in a private home. Bottle clubs can only sell "set-ups" (mixers, etc.) for drinks, as they lack a liquor license. The local zoning ordinances, however, prohibit even these sales. The patron of the club buys a ticket for a "party" from a friend, co-worker or solicitor on the street. Patrons can also pay at the door, which is discouraged as it increases the possibility that unwanted people, like the police, will gain entrance. The ticket entitles the bearer to a set-up, refreshments such as pretzels and potato chips, and the privilege to listen to the invariably loud music that blasts inside semi-dark rooms, and to bask in moving colored lights. If an undercover policeman cannot buy a drink, a verifiable ticket to an "amusement," or otherwise find evidence of illegal activities on the premises, he can do no more than enjoy himself for a while and then leave. Perhaps he will give a warning to the proprietor about the loud noises.

Other versions of "clubs" are the "rent party" and the "mortgage party" which are not uncommon in more ordinary city neighborhoods. Historically, city people who have found themselves short of cash at the end of the month have resorted to fund-raising parties to come up quickly with the needed rent. For the Lefferts Manor this sort of behavior is "out of character." Manorites feel that if you cannot afford to live in a Manor house, you should not be here.

It is difficult to convince one's self that you have "made it" in the world, when a few doors down from you a constant stream of semi-intoxicated people are disembarking from cars and cabs, creating a traffic jam of honking autos on your otherwise sedate block. The elite image of your community is even more difficult to maintain when the patrons of the club seek relief on a hot summer's night from the stale, smoky club air and spill out onto the street. The sacrilege occurs when the revelers relieve their bladders on the azalea bush that some Manorite planted last spring because it gave the home a dignified appearance.

An example of the peculiar views of Manorites toward the commercial use of Manor property is the "selective inattention" they display toward the residences of practicing doctors, dentists and other professionals. Professionals often have offices in their homes from which they conduct business, and receive clients. They generally convert the ground floor of their homes into offices and work space. Extra bathrooms and kitchen facilities, with partitions for separate quarters, are also installed. This makes the floor into a self-contained unit -- an apartment. Although these modifications are violations of the covenant and zoning codes, they are all but ignored by most Manorites -- "After all, they are professionals." If, however, a local entrepreneur were to convert a floor, or basement, of a Manor house for use as a day-care center, carpentry or auto repair shop, the reaction of most Manorites would be outrage. Different types of social and economic activities have varying social meanings attached to them.

Unfortunately, when professionals sell their homes, it is very tempting to buyers to allow the violations to remain intact, and to exploit them. Often it is suggested to the buyer that the property has a higher value because of the potential moneymaking uses. Once a newcomer turned a large dentist's office into a day-care center in the Lefferts Manor. The residents on the block never complained about the dental practice, but were adamant about the removal of the center, which they thought was a "danger to the block." One doctor, who himself violated the covenant, complained that he was thinking of selling his house on the block because the day-care center would "ruin the neighborhood." In all likelihood the doctor will sell his house without reservation to another opportunist. Once the street is defined by someone as already destroyed symbolically, it becomes easier for them to add another straw to the community's growing burden.

A serious threat to any city neighborhood occurs each time property is transferred. About four percent of Manor homes are sold, or otherwise passed on to new owners each year. Many first enter into estates that become the focus of time-consuming settlements. During that time the property lies dormant and may slowly deteriorate because of lack of maintenance. At each "closing" the one-family covenant stands as the legal protector of the community, but alone it stands little chance of guaranteeing the integrity of the Lefferts Manor. Without collective moral backing, no legal restriction can be effective. Two-family homes sell for more than single-family ones. To some buyers a multi-family home is a must. Often lawyers for estates, interested in seeing that the property is sold as quickly as possible, neglect to tell their clients of the restrictions on use of property, as it may reduce interest in the sale.

I was told that one Manor landlord receives twenty-five dollars per week for each of the thirteen furnished rooms that he rents (this was 1975 rent), a gross of $16,900 per year. With operating expenses of between $4,000 and $5,000, this works out to a profit of about $10,000 per year on an initial investment of perhaps $30,000. Initial investments can be much lower, and if the owner decides not to pay real estate taxes, and skips on a mortgage; besides skimping on maintenance and utilities, profits can reach astronomical proportions. In this particular building, the approximately twenty tenants share one large, and one small kitchen, and one large and one small bathroom. Some of the tenants share rooms on a "shift" basis -- one rental partner works from eight to four during the day and the other from twelve midnight to eight in the morning. Although these illegal tenants are hardworking, quiet people they do present a danger to the community -- most obvious are health and safety problems caused by overcrowding. There are also no fire escapes on the building -- they would be visible, and are also illegal. Less obvious dangers are the excessive use of the building's interior structure and overloading of electrical wiring which increases the chance of fire.

Newcomers, who have taken over properties that were once rooming houses, tell of the extensive damage to the insides of homes and the great costs of making the homes "livable" again. After only a few years of over-use by large numbers of tenants, the interiors of Manor homes can be reduced to the condition of hovels. Exteriors of buildings take a longer period of time to fall apart. Also, even Manor homes in poor interior condition are generally structurally sound due to their excellent construction. Landlords try to "dump" their "goldmines" when the physical condition of the interior is so bad that they no longer can attract enough tenants to make "working them" profitable. Property may be semi-abandoned, as one or two floors remain habitable, and therefore rentable to hard-pressed minority group workers. The landlord tries to keep the property until the house is almost totally deteriorated. A few houses in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens have been taken over by the city for non-payment of taxes, but this is rare because homes classified as one-family do not pay commercial tax rates. The use of single-family homes as rooming houses in the Manor is rare, but the problem in nearby neighborhoods is sometimes acute. The over-use of buildings is a danger to all neighborhoods, elite or not.

The shortage of adequate housing, particularly for nonwhites, in the city creates an enticing and lucrative opportunity for enterprising landlords. An additional factor -- the large number of illegal aliens in the city -- further aggravates the problem. Some people estimate that there are one million undocumented workers in New York City, the plurality of which live in Brooklyn. These people must lose themselves in nonwhite neighborhoods, such as Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, and become grateful for any place in which to stay.

There are other threats to good neighborhoods, with or without covenants and protective zoning. A few years ago there were a number of sensational stories written in newspapers about extensive corruption in the Federal Housing Administration's program for urban areas. Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens and the Manor has been affected by this nationwide real estate "rip-off." In the schemes, poor people were sold deteriorated homes in inner city neighborhoods with the help of FHA loans, illegally obtained for them by real estate professionals, often in collusion with FHA workers.

Basically the "racket" operated this way: abandoned property and homes in run-down areas were collected by brokerage houses, who also engaged in the illegitimate sales. The brokers falsified applications for FHA mortgages by simple methods such as inflating the value of the house and the ability of the client to carry to the loan, and underestimating carrying charges and utilities. Frequently, "phantom" renovations were listed as improvements to the property in order to justify higher appraisals. Unsuspecting, and uninformed buyers then took over houses that they could not afford to maintain. Some resorted to renting rooms or used the property in other commercial ventures to meet expenses. Most failed in their attempts to maintain ownership and the property was re-abandoned. The broker did not lose anything in this process, as he was paid off the top by the FHA loan. The lending institution was paid by insurance. The poor owner lost the down payment, closing costs, tax payments and a "home." The Federal Government lost the loan money and inherited a piece of unsalable property. As an aside, it must be noted that often the property was re-used in repeats of the fraudulent real estate scheme.

One house in the Lefferts Manor, on a very respectable block, became a casualty of FHA incompetence. The mortgage went into default, and the property passed into FHA receivership. The tree lined street had a new addition, a three-story brownstone with galvanized iron sheets draped over the windows and doors. Tacked over the front door was a small sign which read in part: "FBI. Anyone entering upon or defacing this property will be subject to prosecution." The sign was white with red lettering. Many residents of the block interpreted the sign as an indication of pending urban blight. Several people were interested in buying the building and maintaining it as a single-family home. They knew that the house would be a "good buy." They first contacted the New York City Housing and Development Administration, who referred them to... who referred them to.... etc. After several months of searching, the interested buyers located a suburban finance company which held title to the property. The company's representative was quite surprised that a middle-class, white person would be interested in buying the house. The corporation had included the Manor home in a package of "ghetto" homes to be renovated for low-income family occupation. He said that he thought the building was located in Brownsville-East New York -- two blighted neighborhoods that are miles away from the Lefferts Manor geographically, and further away economically, socially and symbolically to those who would be knowledgeable about the city. The one thing that the Manor shared with those urban low-income ghettoes was that they were both predominately black neighborhoods.

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Notes to Chapter 5.6

2. See Goffman (1959:142-65) for analyses of various types of secrets. The "open" secret in Goffman's schema can become a "dark" secret when disclosure would heavily damage the holder. For example, Manor covenant violations are "open" secrets in the company of other Manorites, but "dark" in the presence of outsiders.

3. See Janowitz (1952) for origination of the concept of "limited liability." See also Greer (1962).

4. For a discussion of "virtual" versus "actual" .identities see Goffman (1963:f-40).

5. The "backstage," according to Goffman, is the area in which players can be themselves, because it is out of the view of audiences. The backstage is also the place where planning of performances and routines takes place (1959:112).

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