Chapter 6.4: The Community Paradigm



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


The methods for removing the stigma of the inner city are derived from the model of the ideal American community: clean, green and middle class. A schematic of the Community Paradigm is presented in Figure 2.

The Activists, if we were to use Robert K. Merton's often-cited structural paradigm of goals and means, are not "Rebels" but "Conformists."28 In fact, all of the community residents, except the "Unawares," accept the standard American community values, or goals, and the legitimate means for attaining them. Rebels, who reject both community goals and means to attain them, are likely to become hermits. And innovators, who accept the goals but reject the means, tend to set up communes or other alternative community structures.29 Activists, very simply, claim to have the ability to be "normal" in a deviant setting. In the stigmatized community, though, this act, or performance, requires a great deal of skill and effort because the stage is set with ideological booby traps and social discrepancies.30 It is difficult for most people who appraise the "communityness" of the inner city to equate, for example, a rent strike meeting of Puerto Rican welfare mothers, held in a tenement lobby, with our sacred New England Town Hall traditions. It is also difficult for most observers to realize that a poor urban black family has roots in American culture at least as deep as those of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The cherished local American community culture in the inner city is as out of character, as are scenes of Black Santa Clauses singing jingle bells on street-corners, with a calypso beat. Our American community traditions are mom, apple pie and baseball, not day care, bean pies and schoolyard basketball games.

Because of the importance of the Activists to the Lefferts Manor, Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens and neighborhoods like them in other cities, it is necessary to discuss them and their activities in greater depth and at greater length. The material used in this section was gathered via intensive interviews of fifteen community leaders in the greater Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens neighborhood during the early 1970s. Each interview lasted a total of between six and twelve hours, two or more three hour sessions. This time was needed in order to plumb the depths of their feelings about their community, and their motivations for involvement. The effort was well-rewarded. In some cases the interview sessions took on an almost "psychiatric" tone, as subjects freely related their experience in this and other neighborhoods in which they had lived. It is generally understood that "true" community leaders are extremely moralistic, and have deep personal attachment to their homes and their neighborhoods. The interviews confirmed this perception.

In every case of community activism in the inner-city neighborhood some real or imagined decline of the status of the neighborhood seems to have triggered the intense involvement. These same changes also set off the movement of Achievers out of the community. Two female black community leaders, who at one time were "Pioneers" in the area, relate below both their reasons for wanting to move into Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, and subsequently their reasons for community involvement:

Activist 1:

Well, my husband wanted to buy and we went to the real estate people. I didn't care about the schools because my children were in high school and didn't have to go in the area. I was interested in seeing what kinds of people were outside.. .. The apartment house across the street is [was] Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, all kinds. ... I didn't like the house, but my husband said this was something "I really like." So I said "Alright. You don't like it, we can move again, that's all."

Well, first of all it was mixed and at the time it was nice, but what happened was people began to move out. The first time I was there it looked like a community, because it was a mixture, and you could see the beautification, the scenery. The people seemed to be getting along fine. They were friendly. They were sitting outside and when you passed they said "Hello." You could see the families.... at the beginning it was clean. So after we moved in things changed. People began to get careless.

There are several comments that must be made on the reflections of Activist 1. First of all, she, like any other prospective home-buyer, shops around for a suitable neighborhood to live in, and considers all of its obvious good and bad points. For blacks, the selection is severely limited, so it is a choice between a small number of alternatives. Schools in the inner city are generally in horrendous conditions, but the local elementary schools were not important to her because her children were high school age, increasing the number of areas from which to choose. Also, the "appearance" of the area is a significant factor in evaluation of the neighborhood. Her comments on what the area looked like brings to the surface the substructure of American community values. She said, "It looked like a community." It had beauty, greenery and that people seemed friendly, and their pride in the community was expressed through a concern for cleanliness. Although it has been difficult for social scientists to define community, ordinary people simply see and feel it.31

Finally, we should note her interest in the ethnic and racial "mixture" of people in the area, which she saw as one of its positive aspects. We would say that the area was "integrated," but as the experienced sociologist and most ordinary people know, integrated communities eventually become non-white communities. As she noted, "After we moved in things changed." In all of my interviews and conversations with people in city neighborhoods, most blacks and other minority group members saw an "integrated" neighborhood in a positive light, while very few whites felt the same way.

Activist 2:

I moved into the area because I was informed the area was a strictly static, interracial area. After we were here a while I began to notice more whites moving out, and I became concerned because I was originally from "Bed-Stuy" [Bedford-Stuyvesant], which was a beautiful area, still is, but the minute a black family moved in, a white moved out, or ten moved out. ... And I didn't want to see this happen to this area because we have so much invested in the area to see this happen.

I felt that the only thing we could do was to try to publicize the area and let people know that this area existed, and to try to get young whites to move in who would be interested in preserving the neighborhood and saving it from becoming a ghetto.

Well, I had been going on "house tours" [in brownstone neighborhoods] for about six years prior to moving here, and I noticed the caliber of people who went on house tours. They were young, black and white -- the people who are interested in an area, and who felt that this New York, Brooklyn, was a beautiful place to live in and why see it go down the drain? So that was my main idea -- to get people to preserve an area and build it up.

For one thing, this is a beautiful area, and it convinced people [the house tour did] that it wasn't a decrepit area.. .. we are an interracial community. We are, and still are, stable, middle-class, and of course we have our poor people too.. .. But, the people who did buy into the area, the blacks that buy houses, they have improved on them; which I have been told by whites who have remained -- that they have improved on the houses, inwardly and outwardly.

It is apparent that Activist 2's deja vu of community change stimulated her to get involved in neighborhood projects. Living in the Lefferts manor, she found little support for the "house tours" she was certain would show to outsiders the positive qualities of the neighborhood. When she started, in the late 1960s, Manorites, as always, were very conservative and unwilling to publicly admit their problems. A few defeatists in the community were influential enough in the Manor Association, she said, to prevent her from gaining the support of the organization. Therefore, she extended herself, and the boundaries of her community, by going outside the Manor for collaborators. These activists formed the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens Neighborhood Association and joined with the Brooklyn Brownstone Conference and the New York Brownstone Revival Committee in their back-to-the-city movement activities. Illustration 4 is a design for a house tour poster and is a symbolic expression of neighborhood pride.

Besides the more obvious points made in her interview, there are several which might escape the casual reader's eye. One item is the qualifications that she places on residence of blacks in the neighborhood. Note that statements about blacks proceed almost immediately from the statement about the poor in the community. When speaking of black residents it appears to be necessary to emphasize their positive qualities, as though it would not be taken for granted. Interviewing white residents in other Brooklyn communities undergoing racial change, one frequently runs across these kinds of statements and qualifiers. In middle-class integrated areas, the linguistic form seems to be, "Yes, we have blacks in the area but they are nice people." It appears that the question -- "Do blacks live in your neighborhood?"-implies that "black" means poor or problem people. Also of great interest is the implication by similar statements made by nonwhites about themselves that the reference group for making evaluations is white middle class society. It is very important that white people approve of both the area and the people who live there.

It is this perception of black and other nonwhite accommodations to white American community values that raises the charge of "Uncle Tomism" against some nonwhite community activists. Also, as can be expected, a larger than normal proportion of people involved in the back-to-the-city activities in the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area are white, which brings complaint that these activities are "racist." It is fascinating to this writer that organizations which aim to bring white people into a black neighborhood, or retaining those already there can so easily be labeled "racist," while bringing black families into white communities is seen in liberal circles as "saintly." One thing seems certain: racism and racial issues are the most common component of inner city life in Brooklyn.

It is important to emphasize that both Activists noted above are different community "types." The first Activist was a non-elite person, less cosmopolitan in orientation -- a "routine seeker-to use Gans's typology of the Urban Villagers.32 People like her do not look beyond their immediate environment and resources for solving community problems. The second activist, a resident of the elite Lefferts Manor, found it easier to go outside the community and to join in city-wide and nationwide organizational efforts to preserve city neighborhoods. For example, she and her colleagues quickly joined the National Neighbors organization, which is an association of integrated communities with members in Detroit, Philadelphia and many other American cities.

Ordinary people have difficulty in realizing that their personal community problems are shared by others and that problems have a better chance in being solved with collective, organized action. Part of the reluctance to join in large-scale community action stems from the feeling that people have that big organizations "swallow them up." This is part of the general fear of bureaucracy. Large-scale organizations are more likely to be seen by neighborhood residents as causes and not solutions of problems. Community issues are also personal, and organizations tend to overwhelm individuals, as noted in this interview with a community activist (white male) in the Lefferts Manor who dropped out of the back-to-the-city movement after attending several organization meetings:

It was stuffy. The people I thought would go there would be more down to earth .. . but it had a kind of elite sort of atmosphere. They talked about the problems they had with houses and how much money they spent. The people seemed to be quite affluent. At first they may have been a different sort of people, but now I don't see them having any relationship to the grass roots movement now. I don't know why I feel that way. Just the flavor of it.

Community, then, is not only something that ordinary people "see" and "feel"; it is also something that has a distinct "flavor." To most people "community" means smallness, and few people are able to overcome their biases against big organizations and formal procedures. Most community residents prefer small groups and small-scale actions, such as getting the large pothole on the corner fixed, not having all the streets in the city repaved.

We should turn now to a consideration of the white families who moved in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens as a result of the house tours. The people quoted also became active in various neighborhood associations. As we would expect, white families who would move into an integrated community, exhibit the moral career pattern of Activists, as they must personally deal with the social and psychological problems created by their choice of a stigmatized community. This is demonstrated constantly by their concern with how their friends, relatives and other outsiders evaluate their home environment. To outsiders, white Activists in black neighborhoods are the strangest of all creatures.

Activist 3 (white female):

Everything was good [after they moved in]. Although the reactions one gets from Queens [a suburban fringe borough of New York] residents when one says that one is moving to Brooklyn are so horrendous, and so depressing. And ninety percent of them are euphemisms for one thing [blacks]. From the postman to the man in the delicatessen: "Brooklyn? What kind of neighborhood?" "How is it over there?" And just constant, everywhere we went we got that. The guy who took down the lighting fixture: "Is it all right over there?"

[Reactions of friends:] They have all been very impressed and we think we scored a few points. They're impressed with the block. Of course, we made a big issue of showing them the block. And they are impressed obviously with: number one the house, number two the price, number three the block, and number four the fact that our child is in public school, and that the whole neighborhood seems to be working and maybe it isn't quite a blackboard jungle or whatever.

Activist 4 (white male):

[Reactions of friends:] So far only four or five people have given me praise. One of them is a typical suburban couple who now live in the city, but can't wait to move into the suburbs because New York is "so bad," and the suburbs are "so good." So they would never move into the city. Another is the type that would want to live in the Canarsie or Mill Basin areas [two all-white Brooklyn neighborhoods].. .. You know, with flashy furniture and wall-to-wall carpeting and that sort of thing [a conformist] . .. and they would not want to live here because it is not a fancy area or a well known area. A lot of them are afraid. Right away they think that because there are a lot of blacks living here that it has to be full of drug addicts, and dangerous to live here, and automatically they figure that the homes are broken into.
It is clear from these and other interviews of white activists, most of whom live in the Manor, that they are concerned with the perceptions of outsiders, and that the racial composition of the neighborhood is the primary factor used in evaluations. Although most activists in stigmatized areas take rather defensive postures toward their denigration, essentially counter-punching negative comments about the area with positive ones that are not so "obvious" to outsiders, some Activists respond aggressively to assault by attacking the foundation of the ideal of suburban living. As shown in this interview with a Manor Activist (white male), who once lived in a Long Island suburb:
I think this area is probably the finest. In House and Gardens magazine, a psychiatrist was quoted as saying that a row of houses exactly the same is the most beneficial because it provides an opportunity for closeness plus the fact that it offers separateness of having your own home. I find this to be true, because when I lived in Long Island in a ranch style house with all big open spaces and the neighbors everywhere were very cold. Everybody had their own barbecue, and their own driveway, and there was not any sharing whatsoever. In the suburbs people get the feeling that they are living on a separate island. Everybody has their own property. There was no sense of belonging to a group on the block. There was no sense of community spirit. There was nothing uniting anybody except their own lots. Everybody was into cutting their own grass, and into their own house. Very independent. There were no friends -- no neighbors to count on. My concern is a continued development of action among people. There should be community spirit. If this can be done through a square dance or a block party, I think this would be good for community growth. People will feel less afraid to walk down the street because they know everybody on the block, and there's no reason to be afraid.. I think the block association is great. It's like the old New England meetings, where everybody gets together. It is direct .. . a direct responsibility for what is happening on the block.

Not only does this Activist support his claims by referring to personal experience, he also employs an appeal to authority by "footnoting" expert commentary on the situation. The Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens Association has also been on the offensive when it comes to the stigma of the neighborhood by suggesting that an integrated neighborhood is better than an all-white community! Some of those most active in the organization speak of the many benefits of living with many different ethnic and religious groups, such as the exposure of children to multi-cultural environments. Unfortunately, there are very few white Americans for whom an integrated community is a preferred residence. As noted previously, even nonwhites see living side-by-side with whites as a political necessity, and not as an aesthetic preference.

Although there are many things that Activists in the Lefferts Manor and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens engage in that are similar to those of community groups in other less stigmatized locations, because they share a common culture of community, the ultimate goal of community projects here is somewhat different. This is because in the inner city, community and community respectability cannot be taken for granted. Local residents cannot rely on the ability of the casual observer to "see" community in their setting. Practically, the aims of local Activists are to combat the stigma of the area in order to convince stable middle-class families to remain, and to entice suitable replacements for the Achievers who have moved out of the neighborhood.

The ideal, normal American community is organized, clean, beautiful, and has a venerable history. Of course, the ideal American community is also white, but Activists must be content with a minimally integrated community. Activists plan community events -- meetings, street fairs, demonstrations, beautification and garden projects, and other "normal" community happenings. They have a community newspaper to spread the "good news" about the neighborhood as a counter-force to the bad news that is so much a part of city life, and city media. They research the history of the area, and seek out local notable residents to bring about proper recognition of the community. Who would expect that college presidents, professors, lawyers, doctors, city officials and businessmen live in a black neighborhood? All these things they do in the hope that their "significant others" will believe that their self-community is a desirable place to live.

The moral career of the Activist often takes on aspects of what Max Weber denoted as a "calling"; "as a matter of moral obligation."33 When Activists engage in efforts to change the definition of their community from a negative to a positive one, they are put in "double jeopardy." Firstly, they are "discredited" because of their residence, and secondly, they are "discreditable" because they try to create appearances that normals do not expect from the stigmatized.34 Activists' crusades can also create wide gulfs between themselves and those they purport to lead through the creation of "virtual" identities that are "out of character" and thereby convey to their neighbors a personal distaste for shared, "actual" identities.35 In other words, their activities highlight local problems by publicly denigrating and rejecting them.

<< To Ch. 6.3 | To Ch. 6.5 >>

Notes to Chapter 6.4

28. Merton (1968:185-248) encompasses the complete discussion of Merton's paradigm of "Social Structure and Anomie."

29. See Zablocki (1973) for a study of such an alternative community form. See Kephart for text on "Extraordinary Groups" (1976).

30. For a discussion of "traps" as related to Goffman's notions of the "discredited" and the "discreditable" see Goffman (1963:3-5).

31. For examples of the range of definitions and conceptualizations of "community" by "experts" see: Bernard (1973: 3-35), Hillery (1955) and Minar and Greer (1968).

32. See Gans (1962:28-32) for his four major "behavior styles," which include "routine seekers" and "middle-class mobiles."

33. For Weber's "calling" see (1963:33 and 81; 1958:79-92).

34. Goffman defines "appearances" as "those stimuli which function at the time to tell us of the performer's social statuses" (1959:24). For "discredited" and "discreditable" see (1963:3-5).

35. See Goffman (1963:2-3) for definitions of "actual" and "virtual" social identities.

<< To Ch. 6.3 | To Ch. 6.5 >>