James Duncan “Men Without Property: The Tramp’s Classification and Use of Urban Space”

I was quite intrigued by the way James Duncan described the process that goes into how tramps (homeless vagrants) secure their own spaces within cities. He says areas of cities belong to  different groups, termed host groups, and these host groups control the moral order. The dominant group here makes the rules on how people are required to act within their particular area. For example, in the central business district, the host group is made up of employees and proprietors of the businesses and residences. Here visitors must match the business type appearances and actions of the host group. In residential areas in which the host group consists of homeowners and property owners, one is expected to be law abiding and upkeep their properties and act in accordance with neighbors actions.

Duncan says that tramps pose a problem for society different than that of the poor because they simply do not have any ties or obligations to any one community. Duncan posits that tramps do not really share in the moral order of a particular area because they do not have ties to the community; they do not have relationships with other community members, own property or work. Tramps only own their labor power. However, their labor power is not worth a lot as they are usually unskilled and cannot hold a job.

tramp sign

The actions and order of these tramps are controlled formally through laws and police enforcement and through less formal, indirect attempts made by architects and city planners. Vagrancy laws were introduced in the 14 century to impose moral order on jobless, homeless vagrants in an attempt to keep them out of the business districts where their panhandling and public disorder offended residents and visitors. Through vagrancy laws, tramps could be rounded up and removed from the public eye and taken to jail or to less noticeable areas of the city such as skid row. Skid row is an acceptable place to relocate vagrants as it is an area typically walled off from public sight with structural barriers to prevent ready access to the public spaces of various host groups. Similar to Wilson’s theory in his book, More Than Just Race, public housing projects serve to contain poor, black residents, skid row really serves a collection place for the homeless and jobless population.

skid row 2

Although it is not an optimal living situation, homeless vagrants occupy spaces on skid row as if they were their own homes. City officials sometimes leave these areas alone as long as they stay out of sight and do not cause trouble. I had often wondered why skid row was allowed to persist. I first realized the function behind these areas while researching Memphis and how the city was revitalizing downtown into a sports complex and they were coming up with strategies to get rid of the homeless vagrants and criminals so that they did not detract from the downtown area and scare away the visitors and their money. When the City wants to “clean up” public space they recognize the “no go zones” and they ensure the homeless are sequestered there rather than in prime space locations.

Tramps soon learn the difference between “prime space” and “marginal space” within the city limits. Prime spaces, the more desirable locations, do not allow allow tramps to stay there long before they are relocated. Therefore, tramps need to find the marginal, or less than desirable places where they can go and not be harassed. Marginal spaces include alleys, dumps, spaces under bridges, and areas in the manufacturing district. Pretty much any place that the more affluent host group will not go. Quite a bit of thought and ingenuity goes into surviving on the street. To avoid arrest and still acquire necessities to sustain them, homeless vagrants have to develop alternative methods for surviving, including adopting a low profile so as not to be seen and just skate under the radar. Keeping a low-profile is sometimes hard because most people of this nature do not wear clean clothes or shower frequently and therefore can be quickly identified as vagrant by their appearance. However, if they appear to be homeless, they are more effective at panhandling. Rather than having clean clothes and clean shave them they instead hide in the landscape and find places where they can sleep without being disturbed. One of the people quoted said he would hide half of his body in a trashcan and the other half in the cardboard box and remained out of sight from cops and muggers. Another very ingenious tactic to secure your space so that others can’t take it one man had only two possessions in his doorway living quarters, a broom and broken glass. When he would leave, he would spread the broken glass down on the ground where he slept as to reserve his spot, and when he returned he used the broom to to sweep it up.

The ingenious ways that folks learn to survive is a testament to how humans adapt to our social and economic situations, no matter how detrimental. In reflecting on this reading, i can see similarities to the residents of the Robert Taylor Homes in Venkatesh’s’ account, tramps also developed unorthodox responses to economic and social barriers in order to survive.




James Elliott and Jeremy Pais “Race, class, and Hurricane Katrina: Social differences in human responses to disaster”

James Elliott and Jeremy Pais look at the effects of Hurricane Katrina and whether the effects were different between race and class groups. Building off of research following Hurricane Andrew, their main goal was to investigate the human response to this disaster as it relates to race and class differences. Elliott and Pais found that residents of  “the Gulf South region” differed on how they responded to Hurricane Katrina and responses seem to be influenced by race and class stratification, rather than only one. The long standing sociological debate, is it race or class that influences social inequalities. I think I could argue the side that class trumps race. It is logical to presume that if people are financially more secure they can handle disaster such as Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina more so than the lower class with limited funds.


Race classification is an important factor primarily because blacks are most vulnerable, usually the lowest class, therefore with limited economic resources to evacuate. Not to discount racism, as it does play factor but class is purported by these authors to have played a bigger part in the demise of New Orleanians. Although poor white people were also adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina, Elliott and Pais stated that their situation was less obvious because of difficulty accessing other devastated areas, such as St. Bernard Parrish, as well as a no fly zone above. This gave the appearance that white people did not suffer as a result.  Elliott and Pais note that class and race are both very important defining how people react in certain situations but in times of crisis racial differences expand while class differences diminish.

katrina 1

Using data from a post-storm Gallup poll and 2000 census data, Elliot and Pais found that income and race together were factors in determining whether residents evacuated or not and how quickly they recovered following yhe storm. Although many residents evacuated prior to Hurricane Katrina, black people were more than 2.5 times more likely to evacuate after the storm, rather than before.They also found that those residents with a family income of $40,000-$50,000 were almost twice as likely to evacuate New Orleans before the storm and three times as likely to evacuate at all, than those with incomes of $10,000-$20,000; however the people in the lower income bracket were more likely to leave after the storm. The researchers found that low-income blacks were most likely to stay in the city for the duration. Although media outlets reported several reasons why residents stayed (including comically enough, access to government checks), in reviewing data from the post-storm Gallup poll, Elliott and Pais found that many residents (49%) reported the reason for not evacuating early was because they didn’t think the storm would be that bad while 21% said they couldn’t evacuate because they had no transportation. This suggests that income levels predict which residents were able to leave prior to or during the storm.

I was surprised to read that Elliott and Pais stated those New Orleanians who really need assistance in rebuilding were less affluent homeowners. Even in homeownership groups, those with lower incomes were not able to recover as quickly. More affluent homeowners were able to relocate and rebuild while the other group was not able to easily detach from their home mortgages. I do not think focusing on this group is meant to diminish the plight of the people who lost their jobs (the majority of whom were black residents) and who still are living elsewhere in temporary housing.  I understand their statement to mean that these folks are the anchors in the devastated communities and in order for the community to rebuild, they need to get these folks back in town regenerate it. I think in terms of rebuilding and generating economic growth, resources that homeowners bring to their community are needed to start the rebuild.

Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

For generations, black people were not allowed to vote in the United States. Various tactics were used to prevent them from doing so such as laws that prevented slaves from voting, retaliatory attacks by white racist groups, a requirement to pay poll taxes and pass a literacy test. Although these tactics are not common practice today, voting rights are stripped disproportionately from black americans as a consequence of the law that revokes voting rights from convicted felons. The majority of these felons are in fact black males. Their right to vote is denied upon release, a denial similar to those of their ancestors that were denied the right to vote by other various tactics. Mass incarceration of black males are the Jim Crow laws of the 21st Century.

The new Jim Crow laws are not overtly racist, however they are ostensibly racist for the mere fact that African Americans are arrested at far higher rates for the same crimes that their white counterparts commit who actually escape arrest. Since the enactment of the war on drugs in America in the 1980s, and the three strike law and enacted in California in 1990s, the prison system seems to have taken on the role that the fields once occupied in the era of slavery, the role of containing the black race. This form of social control while not blatantly racist, perpetuates a well disguised form of racial discrimination. The US, more than any other nation in history, has developed a large penal system for the primary method of social control. Alexander reported that in the 1970s many expert criminologists expected the prison system to shrink in size and eventually disappear because they were not that effective in deterring crime and in fact helped to create crime.


The war on drugs began in response to the crack epidemic that began in 1980s and was purported to be an epidemic in the black community. The stereotypical crack addict was portrayed as poor black people living in the seedy urban districts. The focus on black people during this crack epidemic made people believe that the government had a conspiratorial agenda to eliminate the black race. I was  astounded to read that the number of imprisoned people rose from 300,000 to over 2 million in less than 30 years. Many of these related to drug offenses. The US now has the highest incarceration rate in the world and the highest rate of imprisoned ethnic minorities. Additional incarceration statistics can be found in the NAACP CRIMINAL JUSTICE FACT SHEET.

Being released from prison is not the end of the journey for these ex-cons because the stigma associated with being an ex convict follows released prisoners the rest of their lives, hindering them from freedoms that most Americans have access to including jobs, the right to vote, and public benefits. This racial caste system that Alexander postis is prevalent in today’s US society, a byproduct as a result of mass incarceration, continues to relegate black prisoners to the lower rungs of society as the Jim Crow laws once did.