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.




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

  • December 5, 2015 at 12:36 pm


    Very good analysis of this article. I appreciated how the authors define prime space versus marginalized space. Tramps are very smart in their interactions with space and people which is a method probable unique to this group. Referring both Wilson and Venkatesh was appropriate as they do indeed discuss the containment of the poor within certain space (location). I found it interesting when the authors spoke about how tramps can use props to detract from other’s view. Also, the idea that when a good space is found that tramps will disguise the area to appear unappealing to others to ensure they can return.

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