Saturday, October 15, 2011

Who Would Hear Me Scream?

Posted by Sarah Jacobson, PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Riding the train through Philadelphia (and in most American cities) I am often transfixed by the presence of neighborhoods with dilapidated and vacant structures.  I grew up in (and have returned to live in) a mid-sized urban area (now the poorest city in America), so I am no stranger to living in or traveling through such neighborhoods.  In fact, the juxtaposition of areas like this with the presence of homelessness was one of the first issues that sparked my interest in urban sociology.  Upon my entry into a PhD program, I decided to spend more time in these neighborhoods.  I became interested in documenting how residents incorporated abandoned buildings into their everyday routines of living, and I’ve found the stories about how women navigate these spaces particularly interesting.

The 'stray' chairs are one place men gather and accost women passing by.  Women express anger at how the chairs seem to mark the men’s “ownership” of that space.
 Women have told me stories about their increased fear of sexual violence around these areas – fears ranging from sexual harassment to assault – and about their strategies for dealing with these threats.  For example, they have described vacant land and abandoned properties as areas where men are likely to congregate and “shout out” at women passing by.  One woman told me that “It doesn’t even matter what season it is.  They’ll have coats out there chillin'and drinking.   A lot of their friends, they just get belligerent.  And you’re walking this way – you’re across the street and they’ll shout out at you.  They’re like ‘Yo, look at that ass’ or something.”  Another, responding to her, says “Right.  It’s always something.  It’s always something.  And they know I hate them, so they say it more.  And it’s like, you know, yeah, I could go a different way, but you know, it’s like this is the fastest way!” 

There is trash everywhere, and who knows what's in it.
These constant “shout outs” contribute to women’s increased fear of being physically or sexually assaulted by men in these areas.  In addition to hanging out on sidewalks near abandoned buildings or vacant lots, men gather on the stoops of vacant buildings, and some may also be involved in black market economic activities such as drug dealing or pimping.  The abandoned buildings and lots provide an available space for these activities.  Women are especially wary of large stretches of abandonment, whether a heavy concentration of vacant houses in a block or a vacant lot.  They fear that the decreased presence of residents and businesses with their accompanying foot traffic marks these areas as places of increased vulnerability for them.  As one woman told me, “If I was getting attacked, I would scream and nobody would hear me.  It’s just so vacant and vast.”

The vast stretches of abandonment make women feel especially vulnerable.

I was very interested to learn about the safety strategies of these women.  Many told me about some very remarkable approaches.  In particular, the adoption of a hardened attitude and appearance is crucial, they say, for their feelings of safety:
Lauren:  …sometimes I have to put the bus face on. 
Me:  What’s the bus face?
Lauren:  The bus face is like when you’re on SEPTA and you just don’t want to be bothered.  And you don’t want no one to sit next to you.  And you have a straight face, which is like dead serious.  Stone-cold, I’m so angry right now, please don’t sit here.  And they won’t even bother, cuz it’s like, teeth are clenched together, eyes are looking straight ahead.  Or looking the person up and down with a solid, you know, expression face.  Sometimes, mostly at night, I put that face on.  I put the bus face on.  I have to put Lauren away for a minute.  In my pocket.  It’s kinda hard to smile sometimes too… Sometimes there’s not a whole lot down there to make you smile.  You’re like ‘Ugh.  Same motherfuckers as yesterday.’
In addition to facial expressions, this woman told me that she mumbles poetry in an effort to appear to be mentally ill while another woman, a graffiti artist, reported even walking with a limp and mumbling to herself in an effort to appear less attractive when she does her art in areas with lots of abandonment “where I really do not belong.”
You just never know what's going to come out of there.

Finally, women with children are very concerned about how the physical space their children are growing up in is affecting them.  In particular, mothers know that these areas put their children in a state of hypervigilance that is “not normal” or healthy.  “If you’re coming home and you’re walking past an abandoned house, especially a child, your antennas go up.  You have to be aware all the time.  You’re not really relaxed… you don’t know if dogs are gonna come out the house, cats, raccoons, or who’s gonna come out that house.  So you have to be…  Anything could come outside that house.  From humans to animals."

Sarah Jacobson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department at Temple University. You can learn more about her research at Sarah can be contacted at 

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