Chapter 6.3: The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents



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


What are the possible social and psychological responses of people who live in the inner city to the stigma of their residential location? Goffman notes that:

.. . people who have a particular stigma tend to have similar learning experiences regarding their plight, and similar changes in conception of self -- a similar amoral career" that is both cause and effect of commitment to a similar sequence of personal adjustments. (1963:32)

Goffman also argues that there can be several different moral careers that evolve out of various patterns of adjustment and socialization in regard to the same stigma. Different responses to the same stigma may also come about because people may not have in common other important social characteristics. For example, in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens all share the stigma of living in an inner-city nonwhite neighborhood, but black residents and white residents, young and old, rich and poor, react somewhat differently to their collective social blemish.

Through observing the residents of the Lefferts Manor and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens over several years, at least four general categories of adjustment to the stigma, placed on the neighborhood by insiders and outsiders alike, became crystallized:

(1) Unawares, (2) Failures, (3) Achievers, and (4) Activists. These "Four Moral Careers of Inner

City Residents," I believe, are generalizable to the residents of other neighborhoods which are experiencing now, or have experienced in the past, ethnic change and physical deterioration. Fortunately for the residents of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood and the Lefferts Manor, they have many positive aspects and a large number of Activists and therefore have not entered into the advanced stages of urban blight.

(1) The Unaware

There are many recent immigrants to the United States, and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, who are unaware of their own, and their new neighborhood's stigma. Other immigrants are aware of the stigma, but do not "appreciate" it due to lack of socialization into American community values. To those poorest immigrants from the shanty-towns of the Caribbean or South America, and more recently from the slums of Hong Kong, the rooms they occupy in decaying buildings on the fringe of the neighborhood are, relatively speaking, symbols of upward mobility. The most pitiful of the Unawares are the illegal aliens who not only are grateful for - anyplace to stay, but are immobilized by fear of detection when they realize how dangerous their living conditions are; landlords often threaten to bring them to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Another group of Unawares are the welfare clients -- families and individuals who, in many cases, have lived in slums for most of their lives and have so internalized their personal stigma that it is an unconscious part of their personality. Identity problems arise for them only on those rare occasions when they confront "normals," such as social workers. These people tend to accept their situations and do little to change and improve local conditions. Their low status also limits the number of times they meet outsiders and outside institutions which might motivate them toward self-improvement. Welfare clients are frequently so personally demoralized that they are easily exploited by local landlords.

To a degree, the smiles on the faces of ghetto residents while firemen vainly try to extinguish blazes at "torched" buildings are an indication of vicarious revenge for their ill-treatment. Fire department officials report that many suspicious fires in low-income areas are set by welfare clients seeking relocation and new furniture allotments, in addition to fires set for "revenge." These actions indicate an understandable disaffection for the local environment on the part of the very poor in society. The low-income ghetto resident, and the poor immigrant, are two types of people who dissolve into the masses of the polluted inner-city neighborhood.

Some authors have "romanticized" the neighborhood life of the modern urban poor, as earlier writers have written of the contented European serfs, ghetto Jews, and in our own history, the happy slaves of southern plantations.23 We often hear of the vibrancy and richness of ghetto street life. It should be noted that poor people, as human beings, always try to make their environments as bearable as possible, and that the richness of local social life in ghettoes is not an indication of contentment. Also, the low-income ghetto is furthered stigmatized by the local cultural life that develops because it is viewed by outsiders as "abnormal."

It is difficult for outsiders to appreciate the culturally prescribed activities of low-income people toward their inner-city environments. Unromantically, to the ghetto residents the activities of youths throwing rocks through school windows or the looting of a burned-out liquor store are "appropriate" behaviors supported by local community values and norms. Although we do not find these activities in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens to any great degree, in neighborhoods not too far away such is not the case.

(2) The Failure

The Failure is a person who accepts the stigma of the neighborhood in which he or she lives, appreciates" its cultural content, and aspires to the community ideal, but who is unable to move away to better surroundings. In many ways the Failures are like the "losers" studied by Elliot Liebow in his Tally's Corner (1967) community study. Failures are also frequently psychologically and socially unable to blend into changed or changing communities. The elderly poor are a major component of the residential failures in American cities today. Others are the unemployed, and people who are generally handicapped in their pursuit of the "American Dream."24

Failures can be divided into two relatively dangerous types for the community. One type of Failure aims to destroy only his or her self. The other tries to destroy the neighborhood in which he or she lives. All Failures attempt to dissociate themselves from the "new" community when they feel the area has changed. They try to show through their actions that they are not part of this new community; that they do not "belong" there. In the conversations of these people on the streets and in local stores, they can be heard "talking down" the area and playing up its stigma. They also provide themselves with excuses for being "trapped" such as: "I can't afford to move now" and "I'm only staying here because my rent is so low." The reason for their attempts to symbolically destroy the area is that to them "their" community has already been desecrated. Some engage in self and community flagellation as a way to atone for their sins and to purify the territory.25

The Failures in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens cause community organizations and activists a great deal of trouble. Not only are they unwilling to join in efforts to solve community problems, they are also the constant bearers of bad news about the area, and they seem to "enjoy" spreading hopelessness and despair -- emotions that they see as appropriate for the local situation. They also mock the efforts of their neighbors to maintain local appearances. To the Failure, all efforts toward saving the community, or bringing it back to life, are not futile but also "sacrilegious."

An example of this destructive attitude vis-a-vis the Lefferts Manor is appropriate here. In New York and other cities, there has been a rapid growth of block associations, which are small-scale community organizations, in the inner city. They engage in many activities to promote community spirit and improve physical surroundings. On one street in the Manor, the block association scheduled a-collective effort to sweep the street and clean out basements of accumulated debris. In order to do this, they closed off the street to traffic and had a party afterwards to reward participants. Several Failures on the block complained to police and other authorities that the activity was a "public nuisance" and demanded that it be stopped. They also refused to park their cars on another street during the "sweep-up" so that residents could clean near the curbs.

Some neighborhood Failures are in especially advantageous positions to negatively affect community morale. One woman, who with her husband owned a coffee shop near the Lefferts Manor, constantly complained to her customers about how the neighborhood was "going to the dogs." As time went by, more of her regular customers either died or moved away. As the community became blacker in composition her diatribes about the decline of the area became "coded." She spoke of "welfare" people who were ruining the apartment houses. Her regular customers knew that she was talking about blacks in general; so did local blacks, who avoided her place.

As her patrons diminished, her business subsided until, when she decided to sell the store, it was not doing well enough to attract interested buyers. Several times she had been asked by patrons why, if she did not like the neighborhood, she had not sold it and moved away. She explained that she was sending her son to a medical school in Florida, and that she needed the money. When her son failed out of school, she quickly sold the store for a low price and moved. During the months shortly before she left, she was especially bitter and acerbic about the area, as she punished the community for her own failures. She had earlier complained that her son had difficulty getting into medical school because of "preferences" given to blacks.

One of the natural phenomena that helps a community to change is aging. The old-timers in the Lefferts Manor remember the community in its heyday. As residues of traditional community elites, they comprise a special group of residential failures. Even small changes in the Manor are, to them, symbolically significant. The future prospects for the community are in large part dependent on their attitudes, as it is their homes that are likely to be sold in the near future. People can die either gracefully or ungracefully. Ungracefully, one can view the approach of death as indication of a battle lost -- what Ernest Becker in his Denial of Death (1973) called the failure of the "sui generis project." Friends die off at an increasing rate; no one comes to visit; family members scatter. The world changes and its new shape is unfriendly and frightening. Older people then retreat into themselves and their homes, which can remind them of what they once were.

Some become bitter and self-destructive. They try to destroy themselves and reminders of the past, or they abandon them. They neglect their persons and those things that once were sources of pride. When death is right around the corner, there is no more need to maintain appearances. When you go, the house, the block, the community goes with you. The homes of the defeated elderly mirror their self-image -- old, dilapidated and desperate. Fortunately for the community, few of the aged go through this dehumanizing process at the same time.

Of course, it is possible to react differently to the facts of life and death -- to maintain one's self and home. It is, however, difficult to maintain self-respect for the aged in a youth-oriented culture where people spend thousands of dollars to remove signs of age that once were symbols of dignity and respect. Some old-timers is the neighborhood go overboard in trying to maintain themselves and their property. On one street an elderly white man and black woman sweep the curbs of their block from end to end every morning. Others are exceptionally well groomed and dressed, and keep immaculate homes. These aging "pillars of the community" have not given up in the face of racial change and other symbols of decline. But, behind their exemplary facades they also believe that the neighborhood is "not what it used to be."

The elderly Monorites are most offended by community change because of their great psychic investments there. When injured by newcomers, they retaliate by symbolic acts of destruction. Their talk of the Manor is filled with uncomplimentary phrases and comparisons which accentuate the negative aspects of the present and highlight the positive virtues of the past -- before "they" started moving in. They refuse to participate in constructive Association activities, but show up for every meeting which focuses on crime and decay in the area. There, they publicly vent their anger and then insist that "nothing can be done" to save the community. They isolate themselves from newcomers and form coteries of critics which seem to take pleasure in each new flaw and fault in the fabric of the neighborhood. These people also gradually retreat from the Manor social scene; a preparation for eventually selling their homes to real estate brokers who "they know" will not respect the Manor covenant. They want the highest price for their property, regardless of the consequences for the community, because to them it is already "a lost cause." These are the same people who, years earlier, might have complained of one-family zone violations -- people who fought to enter the Lefferts Manor against religious and ethnic discrimination, struggled to maintain the elite character of the area during their productive years. Now, vindictively they try to insure that future Manorites will lose a valuable legacy.

(3) The Achievers

Many of the Achievers in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens are what Herbert Gans termed "middle-class mobiles" -- those who model themselves on middle-class outsiders, and therefore "detach themselves from relatives and old friends and are often rejected by these."26 The Achiever accepts the stigma of the neighborhood, aspires to the community ideal, and has the means to escape to a normal community. The major difference between Failures and Achievers is this ability to leave. The Achievers form the ranks of the mass or staggered flight from changing communities. Generally, it is the more affluent, and the more prominent residents of a neighborhood who are the first to leave. The Achiever is a danger to the community because of their decreased concern with who replaces them, and the general fate of the area. They are also not psychologically tied (trapped) to the community as the Failure; therefore their actions are likely to be less spiteful. The Achiever sees the neighborhood as a "lost cause," but also they seem to have a slight sense of guilt for abandoning it. Often the guilt is demonstrated by secretiveness concerning their impending move, and their reluctance to let neighbors know of their intention to sell their home, or move out of their apartments. As an example, one young professional couple, who had been very active in local community associations for several years, "all of a sudden" stopped attending community meetings and turned down invitations to parties with neighbors. A few months after the cessation of community activity, moving vans were seen in front of their house, and then they were gone. If you can engage then in conversations about the neighborhood, Achievers have very little good to say about the area, and a great deal positive to say about communities elsewhere -- most often in the suburbs. As the time for moving out approaches, statements about the relative merits of neighborhood become exaggerated.27 Achievers are busy rationalizing their decision to change their residence.

As noted, the problems that Achievers create for a neighborhood come from their diminished concern for the area. One man in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens was selling his house on a street just outside of the Lefferts Manor that consisted of small one-family homes occupied by working-class families. His neighbors "knew" that he was planning to sell because they saw "people coming to visit on Saturday mornings." Most people in the area do not have visitors on Saturday mornings unless they are doctors or dentists, with home offices. The owner, however, refused to allow his neighbors, who had prospective buyers for the houses, to contact his real estate broker. The owner was white and most of his neighbors were middle-class blacks, who were afraid that the building would be converted into a rooming house and thereby "ruin" the block.

Selling the house to a speculator, or rooming house operator, might not only bring a higher price for the property, the seller thinks, but such buyers have an easier time gaining money for the purchase price than ordinary people. The reason for this situation is that black or changing communities are invariably red-lined by banks. "Red-lining" means that certain areas are seen by banks and other lending institutions as bad risk areas. (The results of a 1976 New York Public Interest Group Study of red-lining is shown in Map 13.) They therefore refuse to grant mortgage loans to prospective buyers, make the terms of the loan impossible for middle-class people, or limit the life of the loan or the amount of principal. Speculators and other businessmen generally have other sources of funds and do not rely on the normal ways for purchasing property in the inner city. The result of red-lining is that families who would be assets to a neighborhood are prevented from moving in. Inner-city block-busting and red-lining are generally concomitant phenomena.

The owner of the house in question, convinced that the area was already on the decline, thought only of his own financial needs and sold his house to an agent who promptly converted it to a rooming house. Actions, such as these, accelerate physical deterioration and help along the self-fulfilling prophecy of the inevitable decay of changing neighborhoods. Racism and racial fears make it possible to correlate decline with white to nonwhite racial change. Few people, including many blacks themselves, discriminate between classes and types of nonwhite residents. Urban blight is often "explained" by estimates of minority group influx into a community. These explanations support the argument that nonwhite people in America are not viewed as members of ethnic or class groups, but of "castes." In white single-family home areas of cities across the country, people assume that any black home-buyer automatically will convert the home for multiple-family use in order to afford to keep it.

The awareness of this bias and the repugnance of the nonwhite community stigma make it easy to facilitate panic selling of homes. The block-busting real estate agent is a good social-psychologist; that agent knows what makes people worry and what induces them to move. Panic selling by whites in some sections of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens in the 1960s, not only resulted in the loss of irreplaceable good housing for the seller, but also the distrust of nonwhites in the community toward whites who remained. Blacks tend to see local whites as people who are "ready to move." Psychologically, some of the black professionals in the area felt extremely "insulted" when, after living in the community for a few years, it became predominately black. When they moved in, they heard that their neighbors were "afraid of them." The personal slight of the black middle class is further enhanced by the fact that many of those who moved away were working-class white ethnics, Italians and Irishmen, who lived a few blocks away from the Lefferts Manor.

The idea that working class whites fled from the presence of successful black lawyers and doctors is personally upsetting, given the belief of many socially mobile blacks that occupational prestige helps to overcome racial stigma. Upper-middle-class black Manorites seem to compensate for their racial stigma by being extraordinarily "class conscious." Few allow their children to play with working-class black children in the area, or to attend local schools which are filled with nonwhite and Hispanic pupils.

The problems created by Achievers for the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood does not end when they move away. Some Achievers come back periodically to visit friends and relatives who remain in the area. On these occasions they are quick to point out how much worse the area has become since they were last there. They invariably ask those they visit why they are still in the neighborhood, and how nice their own new neighborhood is compared to "here." Frequent statements which are made: "In my neighborhood, I'm not afraid to send my kids to public school"; "My wife can walk on the streets after dark"; "We can leave our door unlocked"; and "I don't have to worry about finding a parking space." Most of the Achievers who return to visit ignore the good things about the old neighborhood which still exist, and focus on those things they know are "wrong." They seem to obtain a great deal of pleasure from invidious comparisons and making their hosts feel uncomfortable in their presence. Their "captive" hosts find it easier to agree with them about the relative merits of their respective communities, and offer the usual mea culpas for their sins such as: "I wish I could afford a house like yours." Achievers find it difficult to find fault with the Lefferts Manor; therefore they focus on less fortunate parts of the community for their comments.

(4) The Activists

Not everyone in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens simply passively accepts its stigma, and adds to its problems. The Activist responds to the stigma by trying to upgrade the community. Although it may at first seem inconsistent, Activists accept the stigma of the area, appreciate it, agree with the ideal version of the American community, and, except for blacks, and members of racially integrated families, have the ability to move to just about any community they wish. They differ from other community members in their efforts to prove that the stigma is inaccurate, unjustified, or they try to change and improve the community in ways that bring it up to the standard of the "normal." They use emotional appeals to insiders and outsiders to help prevent destruction of their stigmatized community and engage in preventative and rehabilitative projects. Individual efforts are inspiring, but it is the organized efforts of community groups that hold out the greatest prospects for the survival of inner-city neighborhoods. In the past, there have been many examples of people who held out on their own in changing neighborhoods; they can best be described as "the last persons to leave."

<< To Ch. 6.2 | To Ch. 6.4 >>

Notes to Chapter 6.3

23. See Oppenheimer (1969:54-55) for a discussion of the idealization of peasant life by intellectuals.

24. See Chinoy (1955) for an often referred to treatment of the American Dream. See also Sennett and Cobb (1972) for the reaction of working-class people to the realization of their "failure" in American society.

25. Self-flagellation has a long history among religious fanatics, who feel that self-punishment and self-denial are ways to atone for past and future transgressions. My own observations seem to indicate that self-abuse (verbal) is almost "expected" of social failures.

26. Gans (1962:31).

27. People whom I have observed moving out of the neighborhood are as enthusiastic about their new home as are religious converts about their new religion.

<< To Ch. 6.2 | To Ch. 6.4 >>