Chapter 6.2: Achievement and Residential Movement



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


There are other aspects of American culture that are related to the stigmatization of inner-city neighborhoods. American culture is extremely achievementoriented. Residential mobility and location are often used as common-sense indicators of social "success" and "failure." Some of the greatest problems in maintaining the stability of the Lefferts Manor, Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens and other city neighborhoods are the result of generational turnover. In America, it is common for parents, relatives and friends to convince the younger generation that their success in life will, to a great degree, be demonstrated to others by their ability to move out of their home neighborhood, and upward via geographic mobility to a "better" community. For the upwardly mobile middle-class and lower-middle-class whites symbolic relocation has been accomplished in the past by urban to suburban migration. More recently, the growing black middle-class population has begun to participate in this aspect of the "American Dream," by moving to the suburbs which have traditionally been off-limits to them.

For most people, living close to childhood friends is taken as an indication of family, ethnic group, and individual failure. In "mainline" communities, of course, this generalization does not hold. Elite areas are the type that people wish to remain in, and others are trying to get into in order to demonstrate that they have socially and economically "arrived." Also, among the un-Americanized the drive to move out of the neighborhood of birth is not as great as with most other Americans.17 The ethnic neighborhood, of first and second generation people, continues to be an important aspect of their members' social identity and style of life until they become socialized into American community values. The younger generation, more likely to be socialized into American ways often become marginal members of their ethnic community. The ideal of residential mobility in American myth and folklore is a powerful force which affects the distribution of population across the maps of our cities and suburbs. There is little doubt that this pervasive attitude -- holding residential mobility as an index of social worth-is central to the problem of urban blight when viewed from an inter-generational perspective.18

Urban residential communities become more prone to destabilization when homes are no longer seen as places in which to stay, maintain and defend. They are then more likely to be treated as temporary platforms from which to launch one's self and one's children to better positions, and therefore better places in society. It is not surprising that neighborhoods appear to decay at a faster rate once a sizable age-cohort reaches middle-age: children are sent off, those that can, move, and only those that cannot leave remain behind to inhabit second-rate settings.19 Staying behind leads to negative images of self, as transferred from the negatively defined environment of "failure." To residual residents their surroundings are no longer worthy of conscientious care. This change in attitude toward the environment occurs because the "significant others" of community members have passed through, and gone to better residential places. The "shame" of one's residence decreases the desire to invest psychological and economic capital in the neighborhood.

Residual neighborhood residents may begin to see themselves as "inmates" in a place they would rather not be. The "achievers" who have moved but retain local property find it easier, because it is no longer part of their personal identity to do to their ex-home what they would not do before -- to exploit or "mine" their property keeps only its economic value. We might say that this is another side of urban "disenchantment" with the environment. Achievers tend to be little concerned with the resulting deterioration in the area, unless it affects return on investments. They change their definition of the site from a "home" to a "Place of business," and they try to extract as much from their holdings as possible, and give as little as possible to the territory in return.20 To landlords, this is the "proper" course of action, for they feel morally bound to make a profit. In extreme cases, the property is milked dry by non-payment of taxes and other bills that cut into profits. The last resort, available to those who still have insurance coverage, is to "torch" the building and collect the last drop of revenue from the neighborhood in the form of insurance payments. The deserts of American inner-city ghettoes, in essence, were once overgrazed pastures.

Residual neighborhood residents take the destruction of their neighborhoods as fatalistically as Bengali monsoon flood victims; they believe that it is some form of divine justice. They argue that, if successful people deserve their rewards, then failures deserve their punishments. To them this is only logical given the achievement system into which they have been socialized. Where once a single family lived in relative comfort in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, we now can often find two, three or perhaps four families living in the same space. Overcrowded buildings provide the owner of the property with the revenue to maintain his respectable residence in suburban or ex-urban society.

The depersonalization and rationalization of the community by the absentee landlord often proceeds to the creation of real estate management corporations to collect rents and deal with tenants. One tries not to "pollute" oneself by dealing directly with the "harajani" (Hindu untouchable caste) of American society. Inheritors of rental property in ProspectLefferts-Gardens may not be aware of the exact location of their source of revenue. To them it is usually "over there" in the ghetto, where it "used to be a nice neighborhood." "What those people did to that area" is an often heard comment about neighborhoods in which people once lived.

Some owners of property may not have a generational tie to the community, and so they find it easier to see their property in purely economic terms. To these, a whorehouse, pornographic bookstore or drug clinic -- which carry great social stigma -- are rational possibilities. "Who lives in the inner city?" they may ask. The answers they hear are invariable: no one, nobodies, renters, welfare clients who move from place to place going nowhere, and old people on pensions and social security, or new immigrants who are looking for "anyplace" to live. The poor move from one residential dropping to another -- places that were once homes and neighborhoods, that became launching pads, holdings and eventually slums.

The gestation of a slum, which generally takes several generations, is essentially the result of defections from community ideals. As a place becomes less of a community it correspondingly becomes more of a slum. The neighborhood community is produced in many ways. Most often we think of it as a set of local institutions and a resident population with certain socioeconomic characteristics. Symbolically, as a "performance," it can be acted out by following appropriate rules of conduct on a "-proper" stage. Community can also be created in retrospect by describing and explaining past events. Community activists and organizers try to create contemporary community realities. The elderly tell stories of the "good old days" in the same area. All methods for creating community demand that people assign meanings and intentions to observable or fantasized phenomena, and that community proponents search for symbols of community which will be appreciated by their audiences. For example, meanings and intentions can be assigned to streets and buildings which can affect the "possibility" of community in any particular location; a whorehouse or a fire-gutted building are not community-like objects, while tree-lined streets and well-kept homes are.

Mrs. Baker created community by performing acts that conformed to the community expectations of both her neighbors and their garbage-men. People and things in an area might be thought of as "appearances" that form an experiential matrix for assessing the reality of community.21 Talk, physical objects, gestures, skin colors, etc., are signs in the urban environment that are transformed into symbols as they are experienced, interpreted, and given meanings and intentions by observers.22

The existence of community as a social reality is problematic in the inner city, even when it is taken-for-granted by local residents. This is because the production of community is the result of a continuous and retrospective process -- a sort of constant comparative analysis undertaken by ordinary people in their environments. The process is best seen when community, as a possibility, is threatened. It then becomes necessary for those who wish to maintain it to "prove it," by accentuating local appearances which are thought to lead to confirmation by audiences. The opposite is also true: those who wish to destroy a community will highlight those facts which are inconsistent with the cultural ideal of the "normal" community.

Very simply, in America the small town, rural or suburban neighborhood is the idealized normal. The inner-city neighborhood is the stigmatized deviant, and if the area features minority group members and other culturally defined negative attributes, such as large apartment houses, it is super-stigmatized. This definition of the inner-city neighborhood, which is an objective description laced with culturally prescribed valuations, then becomes part of the social identity of the neighborhood and of its residents.

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Notes to Chapter 6.2

17. Some of the reasons for the persistence of traditional ethnic neighborhoods have been noted by: Gans (1962), Suttles (1972), Bradburn et al. (1971), Hunter (1974) and Wirth (1928).

18. For the un-Americanized ethnic, the neighborhood of birth continues to be focal, and reference, point for social and cultural life. In many ethnic communities the first and second generation continue to use English as the "Second" language, although fluency in English has been reached.

19. My own observations of many Brooklyn neighborhoods indicate that a missing cohort in changing neighborhoods is the 19-25 age group. New communities tend to be young; deteriorated neighborhoods have a high proportion of elderly; and changing neighborhoods are, so to speak, middle-aged. For a poignant essay on being "Left Behind in Brooklyn" see Levine (1972).

20. Since the mid-1960s the arsonist profile has changed from that of a psychopath to either a landlord or a tenant. Both set fires for economic gain. See Barracato and Michelmore (1976) for extensive discussion of arson.

21. See: Clark and Cadwallader (1973), Helmer and Eddington (1970), Hershberger (1974), Lewin (1951), Lee (1970), Lynch (1970), Proshansky (1970), Schorr (1970) and Strauss (1970).

22. For a basic discussion of signs and symbols see Lindesmith and Strauss (1956:53-58). Most social-psychologists argue that a symbol is a sign that has a meaning arrived at by convention.

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