«A Journal of Policy Development and Research HoPe VI Volume 12, Number 1 • 2010 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy ...»
Although their encounters may appear to be routine and mundane and their relationships may remain informal, the public stage through which they observe each other helps build familiarity (Blokland, 2003; Lofland, 1973, 1998). Although Jocelyn knew the other parents only by face, enough trust and familiarity developed through these repeated encounters to the point where she felt confident that they would watch her son when she sent him to the bus stop alone some mornings. Jocelyn was pleased with this spatial structure of the neighborhood and she valued the privacy it afforded her. Although this same configuration might lead others to feel lonesome
and isolated, for Jocelyn, who had a supportive social network of relatives and friends who lived elsewhere (and with whom she visited regularly by car), her minimal contact with neighbors was sufficient, and she found it a pleasant place to live.
Other voucher holders also recognized the different interaction patterns among neighbors in their new communities and attributed these to the spatial differences of their neighborhoods. Josie, a single woman in her mid-30s, moved with her voucher to an adjacent community just north of Boston. She rented an apartment on the third floor of a three-family house on a residential side street that consisted of mostly other two- and three-family homes. When asked about her new neighbors (whether she had gotten to know them at all, socialized with them, etc.), Josie explained that, because many residents in her new neighborhood own their homes and have their own yards, they do not congregate in public places—outside entrances or in parks—as her old neighbors did at Maverick Gardens. She said, “Since everybody in Chelsea has a house, they tend to stay on their own property and do what they want to do.” In essence, the spatial arrangement of her new neighborhood did not facilitate encounters the way her old public housing community did (see Josie’s comments about the old community earlier in this article). Although she too enjoyed the newfound sense of privacy, she was equally frustrated with the lack of opportunities to get to know her new neighbors.
Shakira, a single mother of three school-age boys who also moved to private-market housing with a voucher, similarly offered a spatial explanation for her lack of knowledge about neighbors in her
You don’t see a lot of people just hanging out [here]. Everybody’s like stays to themselves.
They don’t bother nobody. …I guess when you’re living in the projects, you see a lot of people coming out.
The lower population density in her new community and the arrangement of homes with their individual back porches and yards were in stark contrast to Maverick Gardens, the high-density public housing development she had moved from, where 12 or more households departed and entered from the same entryway every day and where children and mothers frequently gathered on the front steps or on the park benches across the street.
Although many relocatees appreciated the newfound privacy that came with the structure of their new neighborhoods, at the same time, many experienced increased isolation and talked about how the neighborhood spatial arrangements impeded their ability to get to know their neighbors or make new ties. Nilda became lonely and frustrated with her lack of interaction with neighbors in
her new community, and she suggested that the absence of shared public space played a role:
The neighbors here are quiet; they are always inside their apartments. They don’t share.
I don’t like that. Maybe it’s because we don’t have any park around here where we can sit and talk. …Here—I don’t know my neighbors. …Life is very sad here. But people don’t let me get close to them. When I go out I say “hi” and that is it.
Nilda’s comments suggest that without public spaces such as parks, neighbors may have little opportunity to develop public familiarity, meet one another, establish social ties, or build a sense of community. Public spaces and local facilities may be so essential because they enable people who
repeatedly encounter one another to have brief exchanges or more lengthy conversations without the efforts and obligations required of more formal meetings.
Neighborhood Structure: Shaping Interaction and Ties With Outsiders In addition to shaping encounters and relations within a community, neighborhood structure and public space can also influence encounters and relations with people from outside the community.
The distinguishable structure of public housing neighborhoods was cited by residents as severely limiting their interactions with nonresidents—precisely the types of people thought to be lacking from the social worlds of low-income people living in high-poverty neighborhoods—due to the heavy social stigma associated with public housing communities and their residents. Some residents carefully negotiated relations with “outsiders” to avoid revealing their residence in a public housing development and the rejection, embarrassment, and humiliation that could accompany such a revelation. Stephanie, a mother of three children who relocated to a different public housing development, hated the fact that she lived in a community that was so stigmatizing.
She talked about the stark physical image of her current public housing community, a development built in the typical “barracks style” of the 1950s that has an ominous feel both on the interior and exterior. Although Maverick Gardens was similar in its brick superblock construction, this housing development was different because it was located on the edge of a steep hill that had a large cross (50 feet high) rising from a vacant lot (owned by a church) at the edge of the development. “What I don’t like is that it’s up on the hill. I don’t know—it looks like some kind of crazy asylum with the cross like that.” Stephanie went on to explain how her fear of being judged by where she lives
influences her relations with people from the outside:
People see the projects…and there is a prejudgment that comes along with that. And I don’t know—unfortunately, the majority right off the bat consider you to be a piece of shit. So you know, I don’t know which one is gonna be like ‘you know, it’s just lowincome—they just don’t make that kind of money.’ And I don’t know which parents are gonna say like, “piece of shit.” So I know that I try to protect my kids all the way.
Thus, neighborhood physical structures are not neutral, because people attribute meanings to them. Stephanie’s comments illustrate how the physical structure of public housing projects, by carrying such a strong negative stigma, results in prejudice toward the individuals residing there and can have a negative effect on their access to social capital (that is, by shaping their encounters and ties with others). She alludes to the different uses of public spaces in these communities
contributing to the negative image and social stigma attached to all its residents:
… And the ones that I see hanging out [in public spaces], they’re drinking, they’re swearing, they’re smoking. And what I don’t like is there is a place and time to do that;
go to the bar. Get your drink over there. But that’s part of living here. And then it makes me look ignorant when company comes. …when you’re hanging out and you’re drinking with Christmas lights and there is a barbecue out front and I bring somebody over or my kids bring someone over—we’re not only looking poor—because you can clearly tell what the projects look like. You automatically know my income when you see the building. So I hate that there is no lying about it.
In public housing communities, where density is high and private space is severely limited (that is, large households living in small apartments where meals are sometimes eaten in shifts due to limited seating or table space), residents are more likely to engage in “private” behaviors in public spaces (Sánchez-Jankowski, 2008). Although the activities Stephanie described might be acceptable if undertaken in the private backyards of the middle-class, these same activities and behaviors are viewed differently for the poor who must display them in shared spaces. Because of these different uses (or misuses) of public spaces in her public housing community and its discernible neighborhood structure, Stephanie manages her relationships and her children’s relationships with outsiders to avoid the disclosure of information regarding their place of residence. In the past, such disclosure had produced a significant amount of embarrassment and was pivotal in marking the end of establishing relationships. One tactic she used was forbidding her daughter from inviting classmates to her house after school (although she allowed her daughter to play at others’ homes) and not allowing her daughter to accept rides home from her schoolmates’ parents so as not to reveal that they lived in “the projects.” This pattern of avoidance is consistent with Goffman’s theory of stigma: “…the tendency for a stigma to spread from the stigmatized individual to his close connections provides a reason why such relations tend either to be avoided or to be terminated” (Goffman, 1963: 30).
Another woman, Gianna, who moved to the same public housing neighborhood as Stephanie, thought that the physical characteristics of the area affected her contact with her preexisting network of friends and family. Gianna’s ties described her community as “the dungeons,” in part, because it is a bleak-looking community and quite isolated from transportation, stores, facilities,
and other conveniences. She explained:
Well, it [relocation] changed my life because over there [at Maverick]… I had like close friendships with people. When I moved here, I lost contact with all the people from Maverick. …For some people that I used to see over there, they think I moved so much further away. I don’t know why. …My nieces and them, they used to get off at the train and just walk down. But nobody likes getting off [here] and walking up. Even the ones that drive, they feel like I am living in the dungeons.
Although Maverick Gardens also stood out in its stark appearance, Gianna’s family and friends were willing to visit because it was near the train—and not isolated on top of a hill. Gianna’s and Stephanie’s experiences indicate that the physical structure of a neighborhood, its spatial arrangements, facilities, and public spaces can have implications not only for interactions with coresidents but also for interactions with outsiders. Therefore, by shaping social networks, and thus access to social capital, stigmatization can play an important role in the social reproduction of inequalities.24 The findings indicate that the structural arrangements of high-density public housing communities can enhance social interactions with coresidents, which can lead to the development of social capital. The social capital accessed through ties to low-income neighbors, however, may be more See Sampson (2009) for a discussion of how perceptions of disorder, because they are largely shaped by social context and perceptions of disorder among others, play an important role in a cyclical process that reinforces societal stigmas based on racial prejudices and contributes to the reproduction of inequalities.
of the supportive type that helps people “get by” in life rather than the leveraging type of social capital that helps people “get ahead” (Briggs, 1998). At the same time, the same neighborhood structure, combined with a high concentration of resource-poor residents, can lead to the development of draining social ties, which can hinder the development of both supportive and leveraging social capital. The question raised by this study is whether relocation out of such communities can improve residents’ access to social capital. Most relocatees in this study had formed very few social ties within their new neighborhoods during the 2 to 3 years following their relocation. Thus, residents’ access to social capital was not obviously improved through relocation to different types of neighborhoods. The findings suggest, however, that particular neighborhood attributes were important for the development of social trust and public familiarity in the neighborhood, which are important foundations of social capital and could lead to the development of social ties over a longer period of time.