The Romantic and Dangerous Stranger

How to Cite

Gendelman, I. (2006). The Romantic and Dangerous Stranger. M/C Journal, 9(3).
Vol. 9 No. 3 (2006): 'street'
Published 2006-07-01

A public sculpture in Seattle’s downtown depicts a cement “hobo” sleeping on a bench. A man sleeps on the sidewalk nearby; a policeman comes by and enforcing the law, tells him to move on. The sculpted hobo, part of the city’s efforts to vitalize downtown, appears innocent and romantic. Meanwhile, the living “hobo” is removed from the street as a sign of disorder in the same attempt to create vital streets. Within the vicinity of one block, the person sleeping on the street is at once romanticized and criminalized. What links the sculpted “hobo” with nostalgia and the real person with nuisance?

The streets are full of repressive mechanisms. Laws, prohibitory signs, architecture, surveillance, are but a few displays of power that serve to discipline subjects in public spaces. Disciplinary communication strategies serve as mechanisms of repression to disqualify certain types of behaviors and people, while at the same time inviting others. Davis explains this in his discussion of what he calls “sadistic street environments” where architecture of the streets is built in such a way as to facilitate the geographic expulsion of the poor (Davis 232). Some public benches are designed, for example, to prevent sitting for long periods of time. This expulsion is closely tied to visions of clean streets in which consumers are protected from contact with the unclean uncertainty of poverty, a social condition that does not fit into the imagined vitality of orderly consumption.

Said wrote that the other and the knowledge about otherness are created through discourse in order to alleviate a fear of the unknown and to justify the need for domination. An identity is formed through something that one “is not,” rather that through something that one “is.” Applying this idea to space, Said described an arbitrary geographical boundary that is drawn, enabling the insiders to label the outsider as the “other” and to separate “ours” from “theirs.” The production of the geographical other takes place through what Said calls poetically endowed meaning, constructed through a limited vocabulary and images that impose and reproduce themselves as reality.

In this way, Said’s conceptualization of othering can be applied to the streets. For example, the term homeless encompasses an imagined geography. Like the term “hobo” (a nomad), a person sleeping on the street is commonly referred to as “homeless.” Someone who is “homeless” has no home, and therefore not within his or her own geographical boundaries. “Homeless” cannot be linked to a specific location, deriving a negative identity, through something that is lacking – a home. This creates a dualism; in that being “homeless” is in direct opposition to being with a home, creating the “insider” identity (attached to place) in relation to the “outsider” (having no place). Carrying out one’s domestic functions (like sleeping) in public is, then, an inappropriate intrusion.

Having no home, however, creates an uncomfortable ambiguity because it limits the production of knowledge that can be identified geographically (i.e. address, consumption patterns and other demographic information) about the subject. Foucault explained the way that the mechanisms of control incite a discourse about the subject and eventually attempt to discipline it through encroaching regulation. In this way, Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Windows Theory has been enthusiastically used in US city revitalization efforts and serves as an example of such discursively produced disciplinary strategies. The authors construct categories, “signs of disorder,” and recommend an eradication of these signs (who in some cases happen to be people). For example, in the following segment of Wilson and Kelling’s thesis (italics are mine); “unattached adults,” “teenagers” and “panhandlers” are defined as disruptive subjects in need of social control.

A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers (Wilson and Kelling 32).

In this narrative, outsiders invade a neighborhood, creating a frightening world for the stable families. The stranger threatens to turn the home into “an inhospitable and frightening jungle,” a terrifying, yet exotic place. Arguably, the lexical choice of “jungle” itself is racialized. The jungle is frightening because it is associated with something unfamiliar, natural and untamed by colonial powers. It is an environment in need of domination. In this discourse, a good neighborhood is set as the polar opposite of a jungle. In opposition to the jungle, a stable neighborhood is hospitable and safe—but to whom? The “unwanted intruders,” who are “confidently frown[ed]” upon by the “stable neighborhood of families” take shape as inebriates, teenagers, unattached adults and panhandlers. Hospitality and safety is not extended to them. The Broken Windows theory neatly defines the subjects and gives the disciplinary powers an easy target. Power can be straightforwardly exercised over drunks, the poor and the teenagers. The focus has been displaced from any possible systemic flaws onto individual subjects who are othered and necessitate domination.

This poetically endowed meaning is perpetuated by mass media that have tapped into, dramatized and reinforced an existing collective paranoia of urban crime (Garland 158). As the American public have become increasingly reliant on media systems for information the spiral of fear and a desire to be protected from the dangerous streets are cultivated by the media. Gerbner’s study of cultivation (1998) demonstrated a relationship between increased exposure to violent television programs and an increased fear of the outdoors. Violence on television cultivates a perception of a “mean world” outside of the home. The home, then, becomes a guarded frontier and fear is embodied in the outsider. In turn, a solution for protection is readily offered through increased social control and the consumption of surveillance and security systems.

At the same time, the outsider remains an exotic subject. This exoticism can be used to increase the economic capital of the disciplinary forces. As Said described in Orientalism, while the “other” needs to be disciplined, it has something to be possessed. The subject is undesirable and desired at the same time. In addition to being unfamiliar and fearsome, its representational form is both eccentric and quaint.

As cities compete in global economies, to attract people requires continuous work in cultural production (Urry 193). One way that this is achieved is through visual consumption, which produces an aestheticized social life appealing to the tourist gaze. One type of this tourist gaze is what Urry calls a romantic gaze, which seeks to consume the “natural” and “authentic” object (150). The image of the sculpted hobo evokes the sentimental nostalgia of the way cities and hobos “used to be,” benevolent and innocent respectively. Such romanticized representation creates a symbolic capital necessary for the production of globally competitive cities. The discourse of preserving history, for example, allows developers to “reclaim” downtown and it is this “reclamation of history” that enhances the cultural and economic value of a neighborhood. Zukin argued that cultural claim to urban space has given developers new legitimacy to take over the management of the streets. The sculpture of a sleeping hobo helps produce a sense of place through whimsical art and a reference to an imagined idyllic past where hobos were safe and the public, compassionate.

In this way, the exoticized and nostalgic representation of the “hobo” has become more real than the subject that is being depicted (Said 94). The life-sized sculpture rests on a bench as art, detached from the real subject, it becomes the “authentic hobo,” the nomad of the past, the romantic and tragic clown such as the one often depicted by Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. While such imagery is used to produce an urban aesthetic, the actual people tend to be treated with much less sympathy as they are cleaned off the streets. Benches are constructed to prevent lengthy repose and laws prohibit sitting on sidewalks as an alternative. Discussions of the living poor are commonly framed in terms of signs of disorder that need to be eradicated for the benefit of urban vitality.

The idea that people inhabiting the streets need to be removed as a sign of disorder is a misguided effort in attempts to create vital streets. Nor will visual aesthetic be enough to save the streets. The spectacle of crowds and sittable spaces are some of the key factors that attract people to public spaces and make those spaces come to life (Whyte). In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs famously argued that no one single element in the urban environment can generate a vital city. The perceptions of safety come from such regulating factors as the natural surveillance of eyes on the street and the public characters as described in Duneier’s ethnography of New York’s scavengers, panhandlers and street vendors. In an intricate dance, streets bring strangers together in casual contact with one another and cultivate the knowledge that difference exists and that it does not have to create a frightening world. Being in public builds trust, while impersonal city streets turn anonymous people into dangerous strangers. Jacobs wrote, “when people say that a city, or a part of it is dangerous or is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they do not feel safe on the sidewalks” (37). “A well used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted street is apt to be unsafe” (44). A place where diverse public presence is cultivated would reduce the fear of the streets and perhaps bring compassion back from the past.

Author Biography

Irina Gendelman