Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chapter 2: Theory of Identity -- Sign and Place

Also incomplete (hmmm, sensing a pattern? Perspective, people! At least it's progress!) but gives a roadmap of where I'm headed and some language.

What can theorists tell us about this thing identity that the North Forth community wants? What are the strategies that can create the signs and symbols of community and those that will create the spaces that support community-building? In looking at the literature in various disciplines, what are the useful definitions that can help uncover potential avenues of action or possible dangers of application?

Several disciplines struggle with describing this intersection of identity and place. In addition to the planning literature, anthropology and geography also wrestle with the terms, with varying levels of emphasis on one or the other side. Anthropology tends to prioritize issues of community identity using the term “culture,” whereas geography emphasizes place. Sociologists and anthropologists both use the term “symbolic communities” in describing the way residents interact with and in place. Throwing sociology into the mix adds an emphasis on the effect on residents of the interaction between residents and a place.

Planners split their loyalty on this one, being interested in both the effects on the residents but also on the place. Community organizing literature prioritizes the residents, while urban design literature focuses on improvements to physical locations. More than the other disciplines, planning attempts to support and engender residents’ agency to effect change, usually by focusing on physical improvements to a place. While community organizing is an important and necessary prerequisite for community development, physical improvements can be a powerful motivating and reflective tool to make visible the organizing efforts of communities. Results are often more visible, immediate, and direct when focusing on specific changes to a place identified and prioritized by residents.

Cultural studies adds a strand of discussion of identity politics that helps to understand how various groups within a neighborhood interact – both in terms of how each individual is a member of multiple groups with multiplex identities and how these identities interact in space. Cultural theorists also add an awareness and explicitness about the differential of power and access that reflects the uneven playing field for different groups. Some have more resources than others and different power factors that improve their ability to assert their identity in space and plan to have spaces that reflect their identity.

While all of these disciplines touch on the elements needed to examine the 4th Street and MontaƱo case, none of them alone offers definitions complete enough or relevant enough to be helpful in setting a course of action. Like a jigsaw puzzle, we must find the definition pieces that help illuminate the issues and put them together in order to see a picture of this place, the people who will use it, and steps toward action. In the end, we need to find a process that will open dialogue with disparate neighbors as they plan physical improvements that provide spaces for social interaction that over time can foster community and the possibility of shared identity through a decision-making process that includes – or at least invites – everyone to participate.

The term identity as used by North Forth residents has multiple conflated meanings that are complicated to parse out but that must be untangled in order to begin thinking of concrete actions to work toward the multiple embedded goals. Only by understanding what residents hope to achieve through “identity” can proposals be made for a process to get them there and outline next steps to take. Their meanings can be loosely categorized into two emphases: 1) identity as sign/symbol or artifact and 2) identity as places that become infused with identity by providing the forum for community interaction. The first emphasis encapsulates visual or interpretive ways that residents and outsiders will be able to “see” community identity. They are the visual artifacts of community than an anthropologist could use to study the community’s culture even if the people themselves were not present to interview. In design terms, communities create this kind of identity through a name or gateways that set off the community as distinct from the areas that surround it. The second emphasis describes identity through places that can encourage interactions among residents and support community activities.

In looking at these separate but necessarily overlapping emphases, several theoretical discourses can be useful. We will use the discussion of “symbolic community” in both anthropology and sociology to look at the sign/symbol element of identity and the social science term “spatial practice” to look at the place emphasis. We will then look to cultural studies’ discussion of “identity politics” to give us a hint as to how multiple cultural groups interact in these spaces and vie for the power to infuse them with representations of culture and use them to support their own cultural activities.

Identity as Symbol

Sociology provides a body of work that looks at how various communities understand the places they live, which one would hope could be reversed and applied in a prescriptive way to form communities where none currently exist. This discussion of “symbolic communities” involves both names and boundaries, which speaks to the first of our emphases of identity.

Sociologist Albert Hunter wrote an important book in the 1970s that explored how residents identify their communities. Specifically, he studied Chicago neighborhoods, which had become the premier example of a city made up of neighborhoods, mostly due to earlier efforts of sociologists from the University of Chicago, Burgess and Robert Park. These sociologists set the theoretical groundwork for what they called “natural” communities. They sent a team of sociologist students out into Chicago’s neighborhoods and performed interviews and surveys about their neighborhoods. Based on the data they collected, Burgess and Park created a map of Chicago that carved it into 75 (a nice, round number) neighborhoods. Every few years, they would send another team of students out to gather data in these neighborhoods again in order to compare it to their previous investigations. Hunter’s contribution to this field was to start the investigation over in order to test whether the same “natural” neighborhoods would emerge. What he found was a much messier picture of Chicago than Burgess and Park’s work ever showed.

In each of the communities, he interviewed 10 residents and asked them to name “their part” of Chicago and describe the boundaries. He also gathered detailed socio-economic information (race, ethnicity, age, occupation, etc.) about those he interviewed. While his work ended up contradicting much of Park and Burgess’ claims of “natural communities,” Hunter was much less concerned with showing up shoddy and unethical sociological methodology as he was in understanding how people understand their community identity. How can anyone tell when a community exists? How can residents tell? How can researchers tell?

While Burgess set out three identifying spheres that played out and sometimes overlapped in a community – one economic, one cultural, and one political, Hunter found that communities could be described with just two dimensions: one socio-cultural and one spatial. For the first dimension, he used the presence or absence of name as his indicator of identity, and for the second, he used residents’ descriptions of boundaries (Hunter 4).

Subsequent research by a professor from Columbia, Sudhir Venkatesh, uncovered evidence that Burgess and Park’s “natural” communities were not natural at all. The communities were defined based on easily extractable data and boundaries that allowed easy study in subsequent years. The communities were as much an artifact of sociological methodologies as they were residents’ perceptions, if not more. Further, Venkatesh showed that the persistent identity of these communities was a result of a protracted campaign by the researchers in the interest of long-term study. After they carved Chicago up into neighborhoods, the sociologists approached city officials and business directories to lobby them to use the neighborhood names in their study. Their efforts were successful. Even to the present day, the Chicago white pages are organized by neighborhood, many with the original Park and Burgess names, although the boundaries have shifted somewhat. In addition, the sociologies approached the U.S. Census Bureau and lobbied that it collect information according to their boundaries, effectively institutionalizing their work and providing an on-going source for data and comparison across time (Venkatesh 2001).

Taken together, in addition to cementing Chicago as the birthplace of neighborhood study in sociology, Park and Burgess’ efforts literally changed the political landscape of Chicago. Politicians had neighborhood interests to represent where literally no recognized neighborhoods existed before. Not only were these neighborhoods made up of real people whose interests were consolidated into a name – sometimes names chosen for them by Park or Burgess – but they had regularly collected data attached to them that could be used to show progress or decline. Depending on the circumstance, this could be used to the advantage of residents, politicians, or business interests.




(Discussion of relevance to 4th and Montano case)

If we put boundaries into place with gateways or other physical design measures, does that mean they work to create place? Create community where none exists? Or is fractured?

And if not, or if it's too problematic or too disparate from goals that are really more about place than identity, what if we start with a focus on PLACE?

Identity as Place

The seminal theorists in this discussion are French social scientists interested in space, culture, and how the two interact. Foucault, de Certeau, Lefebvre, and Bourdieu lay the theoretical groundwork to look at how communities interact in space to form culture, reflect culture, fight for power, and make meaning. In Lefebvre’s terms, “spatial practices” are the individual and cultural way residents use spaces. In a very real sense, spaces are only as real as the interactions that happen in them. A sidewalk isn’t really a sidewalk if no one can or does walk on it. A parking lot is working as something other than a parking lot if community festivals take place there – festivals that simultaneously build community in an active way and also reflect community that already exists. The two emphases of identity noted above match Lefebvre’s distinction between “representations of space” and “spaces of representation.” Representations of space would be gateways or names for an area that signify the community they reference. Spaces of representation are the places that allow for dialogue about community and the interaction that constitutes it.

A huge body of work comes from this theoretical foundation, including the work of geographers, Edward Soja primary among them. In planning, one thread of theoretic discourse centers on the term “spatial practice,” including Helen Liggitt and David Perry.

While these theorists do talk about power, and therefore it should be possible to apply their discussion to real-world situations, in which various cultural groups within a community have various levels of power in terms of political access, economic resources, cultural resources, traditions of community interaction and discussion, education, and racial stratification, how that actually plays out on the ground and in the design process for physical spaces is more difficult to discern. To explore how various cultural groups exert and contest power and representation in community spaces we will need to look to cultural studies’ discussion of identity politics, although again, this discussion tends to be analytical and not prescriptive. We will hope that the analysis can be applied in the 4th Street case to ensure that multiple identities can engage in a process that recognizes multiplex identities, cultural identities, and place identities as part of an active dialogue and design program.


The whole argument rails against modernist conception of representation of space but then can only stay in the realm of the academic. Get out of the academic and into specifics, where these relations are actually happening! As opposed to in the purely intellectual realm, where they’re NOT. Modernism is in the head on the paper. Postmodernism as presented here should start in the street. And if it’s still a paper theory only, then fuck it. Not useful!

One of the primary issues in evaluating their process and action plan is who’s been represented so far, and who will be represented in the future? How can you assure you’ll speak to the people who have access to that history/culture you want to “celebrate”?

How can you plan to represent a culture in a place moving forward?

§ Identity politics readings—space for identity can be made. Space is cultural. But the hole in the reading is don’t talk about what it looks like on the ground. Need a combo of anthropology/geography for that.

For physical aspect, we do have designers like New Urbanists that do certain things well. But universalist in their “humanism” that leaves out identity politics. Gendered, cultural spaces don’t factor in. Everyone will like it! Pedestrian friendly, but for whose feet? Tends to be agist and classist. Youthful yuppies, yes. Poor minority folks? not so much.

§ Successful/legitimate will be– cultural practices, community centers and meeting spaces, art spaces for LOCAL artists)

What are the dangers of trying to represent culture in physical space? (i.e. how will you know you’re doing it wrong?)

§ Disneyfication.

§ Valuing exterior more than interior (what these people will like)

§ Co-optation

§ Cultural appropriation (would involvement mitigate this?)

How will you know when you did it/doing it right?

§ Involvement. Know who there is to BE involved and then decide on an appropriate/acceptable measure

§ Spaces for cultural practices – know what people want and that there is space to accommodate. Don’t forget the NEW/ONGOING cultural development of this place as a community

§ Imagability. People from outside can recognize it. Distinguished from surrounding. Distinctive in the way you want it to be.

§ Community Use. Place works well for community. People like it. Use it. Walk on the streets. Know more of their neighbors. Have community events.

§ Lively Economy. Place works well to support level and types of business you want. 4th Street is as lively as you want it to be and filled with people accessing it the way you want.

How do you do it?

§ Community Design Process – explain

What are some things that might come up?

§ Common things done?

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