EXCERPT FROM THE DETERMINING SLUM [ JULY 12, 1966 ]
THE FUNCTIONAL IDENTITY OF THE SLUM
Slums are the place of poverty; the envelope delivering failure in many forms and from one generation to the next. Poverty is diversified economic, social and individual debasement, but the slum confers physical form upon this grim diversity. To confine is to intensify disabilities. The slum is therefore more than the sum of its parts. It is a dynamic, magnifying landscape of factors mixed into misfortune: peoples, families, and buildings. The slum is a multiple of squalid proximities and therein, unhappiness degenerates into despair. Factors of poverty are no more separable than the substandard apartment is separable from the substandard life it poorly shelters. Nor is the tenement merely a “multiple dwelling” in a “depressed area.” Both neighborhood and house impose an identity even as they reflect the identity of the tenant. The slum is the place of poverty, and more: It is a means of impoverishing the people who live there. […]
THE PRESERVATION OF FAILURE
The survival of the poor and the survival of the slum (the necessary, continuing use of inadequate shelter) depend on the preservation of human and environmental failure: The poor cannot disappear and the slum cannot be demolished. Together, the people and the place of poverty create an engulfment from which few may escape.
Where you live inevitably determines how you live there. According to Dr. Kenneth B. Clarke, “A house is a concrete symbol of what a man is worth.” Home is the persisting, everyday late and early, intimate, obvious sign of status. Home is the full, physical clue to social identity and a projection of the self. To the outside observer, the poor appear passive and apathetic. In fact, the “apathy” and
“passivity” of the poor are commonsense adaptations to engulfment by failure to the slum. For example: How do you reasonably persuade the slum dwelling mother that it is worthwhile to clean the house, supervise her children and care for the appearance of her family? This woman lives in a building that degrades every inhabitant by its appearance. She keeps house in an apartment subject to faltering plumbing, erratic heat and hot water supply, wavering floors and walls of disintegrating plaster. Members of her household have no privacy and there is no room for happy coexistence; the children leave home for the unsupervised, big house of the street. Her neighbors already have surrendered to verminous infestations which subsequently plague her own domain. It is unreasonable to suggest the maintaining of standards inimical to her circumstance. To the outside observer, then, the woman has given up; she is apathetic in the face of adversity. However, by lowering her standards, the woman has realistically adjusted her aims so as to minimize the possibilities of frustration. She is poor and furthermore, she is victimized by the slum. A useful way to appreciate the distinction between poverty and the slum may be the following: If a man has no money and no work, he is poor. That is a single instance of (economic) poverty. The slum may be visualized as a child watching the men on his stoop watching the men on the street—none of whom have work or money. The place of poverty reinforces the experience of poverty by confronting the resident with a multiplying mirror-image of his personal deprivation. Failure no longer seems a particular experience or a particular misfortune; failure seems to be the general reality—the normal situation. As he accepts reality, the reality of failure embodied by the slum the resident may understandably adopt a passive attitude: Failure cannot inspire success. A damaging psychological cycling consequently begins: I have failed because I was unable to succeed. I am a failure because I cannot overcome my failure: I cannot succeed. Passivity as the behavioral response to such a cycling is the lesser of two evils. Alternatively, the poor may devise illegitimate means to achieve illegitimate success.
DILAPIDATED, CROWDED SHELTER, AND THE CONSEQUENCES
Dilapidated housing means digestive diseases from inadequate toilet facilities, mental duress from noise, respiratory infections from inadequate ventilation and other, repeated events that produce stress. Since it is the poor who live in dilapidated housing, not infrequently, slum residence requires the deflection of money from food purchasing, medical care and clothing expenses to the payment of rent. The slum is not cheap. The poor pay a higher percentage of a much smaller income, for rent. Mere securement of dilapidated shelter may thus produce a worsening of diet which in turn may increase needs for medical care which in turn allows less money for clothing which in turn means a degeneration of appearance which in turn reinforces the look and smell of the slum; the look and the smell of failure.
Crowding is a factor commonly associated with slum life. It is commonly known that crowding impedes efforts at cleanliness discourages home versus street orientation, handicaps the student, and gives rise to a variety of stressful patterns of interaction. Recent investigations into the effects of crowding have disclosed other consequences:
Crowding inculcates an outlook of cynicism; it fosters an impulse to disbelieve. Without privacy there can be few illusions. For instance, the traditional, parental role based on commanding the child to “Do what I say,” is jeopardized by the child’s visual and aural access to what the parent does in contrast to the parent’s teaching.
Crowding is an obstacle to individuality; to the sense of being only one, and valued as one. Coupled with the impulse to disbelieve, the loss of valued individuality affects a man’s willingness to try and “stand on his own two feet.”
Liberation from crowded living quarters usually implies the street. The street functions as cradle, school, and the opportunity for an “extended kinship system” which weakens the sense of family and also, weakens any compulsion to improve the family’s status.
Even if one household is not crowded, the consequences of crowding obtain, for the slum is a physical density of similar, unsolved problems engendered by the necessary preservation of failure.
THE TENEMENT AND THE TENANT
A circling of crises afflicts the tenant and the tenement, equally. The tenement, overdue for demolition and at no time satisfactory shelter of human beings, cannot be permanently improved. Instead, the tenement is periodically propped up by temporary means; cotton fingers in the dike. Children of the slum as well as adults daily witness an ongoing compromise with failure when they witness the short- lived repairs of the substandard dwelling that is home. The physical parallels the personal situation: both are in the process of collapse: He may get temporary work, or some of the children may last the winter without serious illness, or she may have reduced the number of roaches in the household, but the family is close to collapsing: Morale and justified reasons for morale are as fleeting as the thin paint on the ceiling. Between the tenant and the tenement, there is the tragic reinforcement of resemblance.
PASSIVITY, THE POOR AND THE PROBLEM OF CHANGE
The poor own very little. Even the slum belongs to somebody outside their universe. They are unable to do anything that will change their lives. They live without success. Hardship happens to the poor and help is given to them. In either case, the poor are the recipients and not the agents of action. The goal is survival through another 24 hours. Survival depends on safety and safety does not incite much venturing forward into the unfamiliar. And, unless they venture beyond the familiar, the poor cannot succeed. Menaced by the universe of the slum, the poor do not venture; they do not imperil the safety that is the last illusion. To the outside observer, then the poor are characterized by passivity—by vigilance for safety. Inertia induced by fear is difficult to disturb. Yet, until this inertia is disturbed, the future of the poor is their poverty-stricken past. Helpful disturbance of this vigil for safety will have to come from beyond the boundaries of failure. Those who would help the poor will have to hope that the poor will, once more, receive what is given to them.
We have been considering the psychological and social consequences of the slum. Demonstrable correlations between the place of poverty and the behavior/self-regard of the poor have been well established, elsewhere. It is possible to enumerate these correlations and cite the bases for accepting them as valid. But what must be understood is that the burden of these consequences is the death of aspiration. The death of aspiration is the extinguishing of motivation to act. Social change depends absolutely on the motivation to act: The consequences of the slum is the death of aspiration. And for American society, reliant on the participating support, the consequence of the slum is the disaffection of citizens, from legitimate society; disaffection, multiplying subsidies and the perishing of loyalty.