Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Home or Office? the Homeless and Atlanta's Downtown Park

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Home or Office? the Homeless and Atlanta's Downtown Park

Article excerpt

In this study, we apply symbolic interactionism to explore the ways that homeless men and women who regularly use a downtown park are active participants in the dynamic social construction of a public space. The case study suggests that as a general use space, the homeless did not identify the park as "home," but did use it for their private purposes. Further, as a public place, there were persistent tensions between park officials and the homeless. Among the homeless men and women, those who used the park for their private purposes more regularly and had greater place attachment were more likely to adapt and less likely to persist or exit when confronted with park authorities. As a general public place, the park is becoming a vibrant and exciting locale for everyday, unscripted encounters.

In the afternoon on a March weekday, the downtown park is filled with people. Along the south side plaza, regulars engage in lively games of chess and cards in the presence of admiring spectators. The smell of smoke is heavy here. College students pass by on their way to a nearby classroom building... . Over at the north end, Preacher Man is playing his guitar for an audience of two. A park employee is sweeping up an area with tables and chairs set aside for reading and eating lunch.

A park (hereafter, The Park) located in downtown Atlanta offers the setting for us to apply symbolic interactionism to investigate the premise that people do not just act in response to the physical and material characteristics of an object (or setting), but rather to its shared social meanings. Thomas Gieryn (2000) pulled together an expansive literature on the sociology of space and place from a wide variety of sources, including work in cognitive sociology and the sociology of culture and identity, as well as traditional urban sociology and symbolic interaction theory. He suggests that in addition to referring to a geographic location and physical form, the sociological understanding of place also includes the naming, identification, and representation of a place. A spot becomes a place "only when it ensconces history or utopia, danger or security, identity or memory," and the meanings of a place are variable. 'The meanings or value of the same place is labile-flexible in the hands of different people or cultures, malleable over time, and inevitably contested" (Gieryn 2000:465). Indeed, a recurring theme in empirical investigations of public spaces has been the clash between an exclusive and inclusive vision of public spaces. Zukin (1995) contrasts an earlier, more inclusive normative picture of public places as sites for mingling with strangers, derived, in part, from a public culture of civility, security, and tact, with newer, more exclusive sets of meanings based on fear of strangers and anxiety for physical safety.

The very presence of the homeless in downtown districts and public spaces communicates their "out of place" status and their "otherness" (Wright 1997:40). Duneier and Molotch (1999) found that homeless men did occasionally engage in confrontational interactions with middleclass women. However, even when the homeless do not actively undermine norms of urban civility, their mere presence in public places may convey the symbolic message to the domiciled that social controls have broken down, creating for them a sense of urban uneasiness (Blomley 2007). In his account of the push in Seattle to close a city-run hygiene center, Gibson (2004) demonstrated the extent of fear and anxieties engendered by the homeless, who were perceived as threatening the image of downtown vitality and the perception of it as a safe and attractive place to shop and visit. Similarly, Lee and Farrell (2003:300) found that government officials and business leaders think panhandlers, who may or may not be homeless, have a harmful impact on the local economy because they scare tourists, conventioneers, and shoppers away from public locations where requests for handouts are numerous. …

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