Using Space: Agency and Identity in a Public–Housing Development

Gotham, K. F., & Brumley, K.

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Gotham, K. F., & Brumley, K. (2002). Using space: Agency and identity in a public-housing development. City & Community, 1(3), 267–289.

Recent critiques of conventional poverty research have highlighted the need to move beyond the conceptual limitations of “neighborhood effects” models and the use of the tropes of “adaptation” or “resistance” to explain the behaviors and actions of the urban poor. We use ethnographic field observations and interviews with public-housing residents to address these limitations in the poverty literature, assess competing explanations of poor people’s agency, and provide insight into the importance of space as a mediating link between macrostructural constraints and locally situated behaviors. We theorize agency and identity as spatial phenomena—with spatial attributes and spatial influences—and examine how different spatial meanings and locations enable or constrain particular forms of social action and behavior. Our ethnographic and interview data depict several strategies by which residents “use space” to provide a measure of security and protection, to designate and avoid areas of criminality and drug activity, and to challenge or support the redevelopment of public housing. From these data we show that urban space is not a residual phenomenon in which social action occurs, but a constitutive dimension of social life that shapes life experiences, social conflict, and action.

Main finding
First, the researchers find that Clara Court residents construct symbolic safe and "hot" spaces within the housing complex. Safe spaces are areas where residents rely on informal surveillance and personal assistance from neighbors. "Hot" spaces are areas of crime and drug use; because these areas are avoided, they limit spatial movement, define networks of access, and impose limits on behavior. Residents pay attention to informal signs, symbols, and behaviors that indicate the condition and use of space, communicating whether or not an area is safe or dangerous. Second, public discussions over redevelopment of the housing complex showcased contested notions of community. Some residents saw redevelopment as an opportunity to improve their living situation, while others feared the costs of the private market as well as the relationships would be left behind. Residents both embraced and disavowed their attachment to public housing as a way of either opposing or supporting redevelopment.

Description of method used in the article
The researchers used an ethnographic approach to conduct participant observations and semi-structured interviews, lasting from 1998 to 2000.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression Gathering/Socializing
Interviews Participant Observation
Physical types
Other Streets
Geographic locations