Chapter 6.1: Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City



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


Brooklyn, as so many other cities, is essentially a collection of residential neighborhoods resting upon larger economic, political and social substructures. The traditional emphasis by urban scientific investigation on the economic plight of urban areas has led us to forget that the survival of most cities depends as much upon the well-being of residential as well as the industrial and business communities of cities. Cities have always been places that people call "home" -- sacred, exalted places that are impregnated by residents with primary, face-to-face meaningfulness.1 Modernization and urbanization have, of course, resulted in what Max Weber termed the "rationalization" of the human environment, and its consequent "disenchantment."2 Although cities might be less "human" and communal than they once were, the urbanites who live within them still strive, as did their primitive counterparts, to impart social meanings to what some may argue are barren urban concrete and asphalt marketplaces, and industrial centers. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a sociological paradigm for understanding the methods by which ordinary people come to individual and collective grips with living in negatively defined urban territories. For the people in the Lefferts Manor, one technique for establishing socio-moral worth has already been outlined, the resort to valued history and traditions. Such legacies, however, are not as easily available to most other urban neighborhood residents, and Manorites must also face the fact that their own venerable history is neither universally known, nor respected by all those familiar with it. Therefore, the personal arks of Manorites float dangerously upon a sea of physically and socially polluted waves.

Urbanologists are constantly searching for concepts that have both theoretical and practical value for the study of the city, and the generation of positive social policies. One sociological concept which has great potential utility for research and practice in negatively defined urban areas is Erving Goffman's "Stigma." He notes that:

The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, originated the term "stigma" to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier.... Today the term is widely used in something like the original sense, but is applied more to the disgrace itself than the bodily evidence of it. (1963:1-2)

A stigma is, then, a negative aspect of personal identity. Although stigmatizing slaves, criminals or traitors through disfigurement -- cutting or burning their flesh -- might have its ancient roots in the Aegean Islands, there is enough of an Anglo-American tradition of branding deviants and human property for us to realize that stigma has a place in American culture.

Goffman mentions three types of stigmata:

(1) physical deformity, (2) blemishes of individual character, and (3) tribal stigma of race, nationality and religion.3 In the inner city we can find many people who carry more than one of these negative signs. Stigma are, however, not limited to people, as is usually thought. The concept of stigma can also be used to analyze places that are inhabited, or used, by different kinds of stigmatized people. The stigma of certain people can be transferred from their persons to the place that they occupy, or are thought to occupy, and alternatively, people can be stigmatized due to their choice of, or coerced residence in, a particular place. Common examples of this reflective relationship between place and self-identity are the leper colony, the ghetto and the prison.

In pre-modern society, lepers were not simply thought of as people with medical afflictions, but those who had been singled out by God, or gods, to be punished for their immoral transgressions.

Similarly, historical and modern ethnic, racial and religious ghettoes are not seen by outsiders merely as places where people of-like minds and needs congregate, but as areas of the city where strange and potentially "evil" people live. The social and psychological handicaps produced by living within the ghetto have most notably been studied by Louis Wirth and Kenneth B. Clark.4 We might also consider that the stigma of an "ex-con" is related more to the fact of his having spent time within a prison, than having been convicted of committing a crime.5

Self-image and community image become integrated via the medium of our "home," and as noted by Clare Cooper, our place of residence is a symbol of our self.6 Essentially, our place of residence attests to, or belies, our claims of any particular social status or amount of prestige. We can be either stigmatized or celebrated for our address.

People want to, and are supposed to, live in a community with others. In modern society, the "Search and Quest" for community has been extensively discussed by Digby Baltzell, Robert A. Nisbet, Roland Warren and many others.7 Nisbet noted:

In the same way that older theatrical problems of change and mobility had behind them, historically and logically moral aspirations to progress, so contemporary theoretical problems are given drive and meaning by moral aspirations toward community. (1953:29)

Along with Nisbet many other social scientists have intimated that establishing the existence of community, or community membership in the modern world, is a moral or normative problem. Roland Warren, a major community theorist, has gone so far as to say that community is a normative prescription for social action.8 Each society has standards-values and norms -- for creating its own ideal residential community, and all members of that society are expected to live up to those standards. A critical discussion of the Anglo-American community model has been provided by N. Dennis, in which he attempted to explode some of the working myths of the historically utopian neighborhood community.9 Despite his dissection of the myth of neighborhood life, and my own work on the myth of community,10 ordinary people still feel the pressure to compare their local situations to what we might refer to as the "idealized normal" community settings. Social scientists also continue to treat the theory of community as though it were an historical reality.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to approach the ideal of the American community is not available to many segments of our society. People who live in cities, particularly their inner recesses, minority group members and the poor are especially disadvantaged in the "quest for community." Also, the prevalence of the "anti-urban bias" in Anglo-American culture seems to make stigma an unavoidable feature of most urban neighborhood living.11 An exception to this rule of thumb for city living might be made for those whom Robert K. Merton called "Cosmopolites", people who do not think of themselves as being socially restricted to their immediate environs, but who see themselves as "citizens of the world."12 When the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area became highly urbanized in the 1930s, for example, wealthy Manorites were able to think of their homes as their "town houses" rather than their primary residence.

There are, of course, in all cities "classy" neighborhoods in which upper-class people with their economic and political advantages need not concern themselves with ordinary social stigma; in fact, they may find the "sinful" reputation of the city attractive. These "classy" Gold Coasts, Knob Hills, Beacon Hills and Park Avenues of American cities are essentially the exceptions that prove the rule of urban neighborhood stigmata. For when the rich vacate their posh surroundings, the areas become potential victims of rapid urban blight. Alternately, wherever the wealthy re-congregate the neighborhood changes from stigmatized to celebrated.

Very important aspects of the social reality of community are physical appearances that are imbued with moral qualities by observers. Some of the simplistic, working assumptions about neighborhood community appearances can be stated as relationships such as: cleanliness-godliness, physical order-moral order, and good taste-good upbringing. It may be easy for scientists to scoff at these notions, but they cannot be ignored, for they are part of a common-sense nexus of everyday social explanations and interpretations. These simple formulas are social givens, accepted by people as valid, and are therefore "real" in their subjective experiences. It appears, for example, that activists in any community are inordinately concerned with cleanliness and beauty. In the worst slums of the city, when community organizations are formed they initiate block clean-ups, beautification contests and, invariably, they plant trees or other symbols of the "good community" life. The connection of the ideal version of the American community with middle-class, rustic virtues and accessories is shown in displays of respectability using visual and other sensory cues. Community is, therefore, an aesthetic as well as an ethical accomplishment. The values of community are assumed to be reflected in local physical appearances. A tour of anyone's community is best performed on a warm sunny day.

An example of this overwhelming concern by community activists with neighborhood propriety was demonstrated by the actions and thinking of Mrs. Baker, a local black community leader. She has a charitable conception of community activities, and devotes her time to helping others whom she feels are in need of her assistance. Not surprisingly, her husband is a minister, as was her father in the South, where she had lived prior to moving to New York. In the 1960s, she and her family moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is considered by many as one huge slum.13

When she first moved onto the block, it was "in bad shape." She felt that it was because her neighbors had lost "pride" in themselves and their neighborhood. The streets were dirty, with garbage "all over the place." She firmly believed that it was her "duty" to do her best regardless of the circumstances, and that others would be obliged to follow her good example. In conversations with her and her family it became clear that this moral dictum was, in a sense, their family "guiding light" and a commitment that led them through poverty and racial discrimination to a comfortable, middle-class life style. It should be noted that, in many black inner city neighborhoods, the Baker family is an "ideal type," in the Weberian sense of the term. It is people like the Bakers who form the core of many inner-city grass-roots community organizations that contradict the stereotype of blacks as apathetic to their deteriorating surroundings.

Immediately upon moving into her home, she set out to stimulate her neighbors to make their street the "cleanest, safest and most beautiful block possible." Of course, she tried to influence people by personal example.

You see in the summer evening, when I started with the house and I started cleaning, they would say, "You work for the Sanitation Department?" And I said "Yes." (She wore a blue visiting nurse's uniform.) I had this broom and I said, "This condition is going to stop." iii want it clean." So I started on the porch, and went around the side of the house and swept it out. And I looked across the street and someone was hosing their house, and it hadn't been done before!

So one day a little boy came up to me and asked, He said, "Miss, why you do things like that?" I said, "Do you see that (street-) light up there? That's me."

According to Mrs. Baker, her efforts also had an effect on the city sanitation-men who had been less than conscientious about servicing the street. After the residents kept the street cleaner, the sanitation men began to "respect" her and her friends, according to Mrs. Baker. This is an interesting observation, in that a common complaint of inner city nonwhites is the neglect by city employees and agencies of their neighborhoods.

Having observed city sanitation men in black neighborhoods in New York City, I can attest to the fact that they often leave the block in worse condition than they found it -- spilling garbage from cans and not sweeping up after themselves as they are officially required to do. During my research I have spoken with local garbage-men, and overheard their conversations in the coffee shops they frequent on their numerous "breaks." These men, black and white, are in a "status-income dilemma" as they perform their jobs. Ray Gold, in a study of janitor-tenant relations in apartment houses, noted that one of the compensations for the lower status of the janitor is the higher status of the clients he serves.14 The low-status worker is less humiliated by serving those he or she admires. The bias against nonwhites and inner city residents is well documented.15 New York City sanitation men, most of whom are white, all of whom earn good salaries, and many of whom reside in the suburbs are especially humiliated by having to serve blacks.

Characteristically, the sanitation men blamed inner city deterioration completely on the personal habits of blacks and other nonwhites who occupied the areas. As in the case of Mrs. Baker's block, where people extended themselves to keep it clean, they remarked on those streets and the people who took "good care" of the block. For example, they referred to the "pigs" in some neighborhoods who do not put their refuse in bags or cans, but merely piled it up outside their buildings on the sidewalks, and compared them to the people in "good" areas who put out their garbage only on assigned days, neatly wrapped and not overflowing onto the ground. The example of Mrs. Baker, and the conversations of sanitation men, although by no means overwhelming, is evidence that people often communicate to each other via the medium of their environment, although they may not communicate with each other verbally.

Urban neighborhoods can be defined in terms of their physical attributes -- buildings and streets. We can speak of their objective histories and their demographic characteristics. Another, and perhaps more fruitful, analysis of urban neighborhoods could be made by converting these attributes into symbolic terms. We could try to provide accounts of neighborhoods without obliterating, through objectification, the contexts and meanings assigned to those attributes by the members of the community itself, and those who come into direct contact with the area through the course of time. For example, we know that Bedford-Stuyvesant is now a predominately "black" community, but we should be interested as to why so many people assume, knowing little more about the area than this "fact," that it is also a "bad neighborhood." What people "think" they know about a community is often more dangerous to it than those conditions which actually exist.

Even the "fact" that Bedford-Stuyvesant is a black area has an interesting symbolic history. It is not so important that an area, objectively outlined and named Bedford-Stuyvesant, contains a majority of people who can be classified as black. Originally in Brooklyn, there were two separate communities, Bedford and Stuyvesant. In the 1950s, when blacks started to move into these communities in large numbers, the media responded by naming the black community "Bedford-Stuyvesant." Blacks had actually lived for many years in these two communities. There were also several small "black towns" in this part of Brooklyn during the early 1800s. When the area was later urbanized, the local black population was at first overwhelmed by white migrants to the areas recently built brownstones and apartment houses. Then, when the area began its decline, in the 1950s, blacks began replacing whites who fled to the suburbs and other parts of Brooklyn. Subsequently, as blacks spilled over the limited Bedford-Stuyvesant boundaries into nearby neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant grew to mean any place in Brooklyn in which blacks dominated. This is similar to the symbolic meaning of the name "Harlem" for all of Manhattan's black population. The phenomenon of changing mental maps of ethnic communities supports the contention that neighborhoods are symbolic as well as geographical areas.

A common image of the inner city is that of a pathological environment. To most people the term "inner city" conjures up scenes of crime, violence and dirt, and deterioration. Although there are certainly many parts of the nation's central cities that deserve such a description, inner cities are by no means homogeneous disaster areas. However, because of this general perception of the central cities, public and private agencies find greatest support for drives to "redevelop" these segments of urban society. Programs to "preserve" an inner city community are almost unheard of. "Redevelopment" means the demolition and then the reconstruction of the inner city to fit predefined criteria of social acceptability. In the main, this optimum environment is based upon an historically, architecturally and otherwise culturally biased model of community.

Not only are the physical arrangements of the inner city neighborhood rejected, e.g., the grid pattern of streets common to most American cities, but also the types of social activities performed in these settings are often defined as culturally aberrant. Even the old-fashioned white-ethnic neighborhood, somewhat idealized in American folklore, is viewed as only a transitory phase in the process of full Americanization. Their value as "curiosities" is highlighted in cities -with important tourist industries. In these cities, there is some effort to preserve the "Chinatowns" and "Little Italies," not because they are culturally desirable, but because they are economic assets to the tourist trade.

Numerous social agencies are involved in the planned modification of inner-city life styles. To many of them the spontaneous and "disorganized" street life of central city communities is viewed as a deviant version of American culture, a culture which contains a distinct preference for a more organized, stable community organization. The street life observed in low-income black and Hispanic areas of the city is culturally shocking to white middle-class Americans. Herbert Gans and Jane Jacobs have extensively discussed these cultural biases of city planners and others who try to impose their views of "proper" local community life on inner-city residents.16

The pressures for inner-city neighborhood modification come not only from seemingly sinister, monolithic agencies of social engineering; pressure for change and the negative view of most city living is generated from other, more subtle sources. For example, through documentary and fictional accounts presented in the mass media, we are presented daily with a preferred vision of local social life. Also, the media in commercials and advertisements, emphasize the distinction between "normal" (ideal) and deviant or stigmatized communities -- basically suburbs and inner city respectively.

There is an intervening twist to the view of the happy, healthy people, living in detached homes surrounded by trees and the crime and violence that invariable is set in the central city during television shows. During the 1960s, when black communities across the country erupted as a response to racial oppression and the death of Martin Luther King, viewers were treated by scenes of Harlem, Newark and Detroit, and saw "ghettoes" as they expected them to be-citified. Yet the scenes of Watts in Los Angeles, where one of the worst urban riots occurred, clearly had a major dramaturgical flaw. The Watts community is in many ways suburban in appearance, with block upon block of detached homes, and lawn yards. Many people could not understand that "those people" were rioting about because "from the pictures" it looked like a "good community." -Poverty and oppression, crime and violence are associated in the minds of people with dense urban environments. Given this common perception of the inner city, it is not surprising that local people reject their own situations after they hold up their own neighborhood and compare it to the template of the ideal, and find it lacking.

Along with the projected pathological character of the urban neighborhood, there are special stigma that are connected to particular attributes of local areas within urban systems. First among them in a racially conscious society, such as our own, is the decreased moral value and increased pathological expectations for areas within cities that have large nonwhite populations. A foreigner who studied the literature on cities in the United States would, through no fault of his own, assume that a necessary characteristic of nonwhite communities are severe social problems in the form of crime, drug addiction, family disorganization and political apathy. If we consider the native American looking for accounts of, let us say, black neighborhoods in the more popular literature, it is obvious why so many people carry negative images of these urban neighborhoods. According to the stereotype many urban communities are burdened by nonwhite "sappers."

<< To Ch. 5.6 | To Ch. 6.2 >>

Notes to Chapter 6.1

1. See Schutz (1964:107-11) for a discussion of the relationship between home and community of space, intimacy and face-to-face interaction.

2. Weber (1964:123).

3. Goffman (1963:4).

4. Wirth (1928) and Clark (1965).

5. Irwin (1970) analyzes the impact of the prison environ of the self-identity of criminals.

6. Cooper (1974). For self-residential -relations see also: Form and Stone (1957), Schorr (1970:320--32) and Suttles (1972: 35), as well as Wertheim (1968).

7. Baltzell (.1967), Nisbet (1953) and Warren (1971).

8. Warren (-1971:247).

9. Dennis (1968). See also Schrag (1975).

10. Krase (1973, 1974).

11. See Glass (,1968) for discussion of anti-urban bias.

12. Merton (1968:441-74).

13. For studies of Bedford-Stuyvesant see Connolly (,1977) and Manoni (1973).

14. Gold (.1952).

15. Every year in New York City, civil rights and other organizations issue reports demonstrating the neglect of nonwhite areas. For discussions of New York's problems see also: Bellush and David (1971), Connery and Caraley (1969) and Gottehrer (1965).

16. For biases of planners, see especially Gans (1968) and Jacobs C1961).

<< To Ch. 5.6 | To Ch. 6.2 >>