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Women's Danger Management Strategies in an Inner-City Housing Project

Author(s): Robin L. Jarrett and Stephanie M. Jefferson

Source: Family Relations, Vol. 53, No. 2, Special Issue on Low-Income and Working-Poor Families
(Mar., 2004), pp. 138-147
Published by: National Council on Family Relations
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Women's DangerManagementStrategiesin an Inner-CityHousing
Robin L. Jarrett** and Stephanie M. Jefferson

The danger management strategies of low-income African American women who live in a public housing communitychar-
acterized by chronic violence are examined. Based on qualitative interviews with 18 single mothers, we explored the violent
communitydangers with which women contend, the nature of this violence, the strategies used to deal with communityviolence,
and their benefitsand costs to family and communitylife. Findings show that multiple types of violence characterizedlife in the
communityand that this violence has specific physical locations, a particular set of actors, and a temporal rhythm.Women's
responses to violence were nonconfrontationalandfamily focused in nature. These efforts were effective in keeping women and
their children safe, but did not reduce the prevalence of violence.

cholarlydiscussionsof impoverishedAfricanAmerican women, and describe how they respond to chronic community
inner-city communities document the chronic violence violence (Popkin etal., 2000; Puntenney, 1997; Wolfer, 2000).
that characterizes these settings. Gang warfare, drug These studies focused on public housing projects where crime
wars, physical assaults,and other forms of interpersonalviolence and violence are intensified in dense and isolated settings, and
are a part of daily life (Popkin, Gwiasda,Olson, Rosenbaum,& they revealed that women use multiple coping strategies to deal
Buron,2000; Puntenney,1997). Neighborhoodeffects models (e.g., with community violence. Nonconfrontational and family
resource, collective socialization,epidemic) derived from demo- focused in nature,key strategiesallow women to maintainviable
graphicdatahave addressedhow particulareconomic (joblessness), family lives in the midst of ongoing violence. Although these
compositional(concentrationof impoverishedresidents),andorgan- studies explored an understudiedarea (Wolfer) and identified
izational (breakdown of informal social controls) features of how women's strategies facilitate viable family life, they have
inner-city communities contribute to crime and violence critical limitations. They did not specifically consider the impli-
(Sampson,2001b;Skogan,1990;Wilson, 1987).Further,proponents cations of their micro-level findings for larger community-level
of neighborhoodeffects models argue that families living in such explanatoryframeworks.Moreover, given the limited numberof
communitiesare impairedin their abilityto create stabledomestic recent qualitative studies, it is unclear how common the
lives (Jencks & Mayer, 1990; Wilson). These models have described coping strategies are.
contributedto our understandingof chronic communityviolence Our purpose was to examine how a group of poor African
becausethey highlightthe contextualunderpinnings of ongoingvio- American women living in a public housing project manage the
lence, shifting away from individualisticexplanations.They also chronic violence that pervadestheir community.We addresseda
suggestthe consequencesof communitycontextfor family life and critical gap in the field: that between community-level and
identifythe processesby whichfamiliesaredestabilized. micro-level explanatory frameworks. Insights gleaned were
We argue that these models are limited in a fundamental used to examine neighborhoodeffects models critically and to
way: Community-levelneighborhoodeffects models are overly contribute to the growing body of qualitative studies of adult
deterministicin their imputationof family instability. They tell coping in response to ongoing violence.
us nothing about the personal strategies that families use to We organizedour discussion aroundseveral issues. First, we
buffer themselves from the real challenges of community vio- review neighborhoodeffects models that detail how economic,
lence (Jarrett,1994, 1997). compositional, and organizational characteristics of inner-city
Several recent qualitativestudies concentrateon the personal African American communities promote chronic violence. We
experiences of poor African American families, specifically also include qualitative studies that describe how women living
in communities characterized by chronic violence cope with
these conditions. Next, we describe our qualitative study that
addresseshow women, despite the often inhospitablesettings in
*Theresearchreportedin this articlewas supportedby a FacultyScholarAwardfromthe
which they live, cope with chronic community violence. We
W. T. Grant Foundationand Hatch and Center for Advanced Studies Funding from the
University of Illinois. Early foundationalwork for the article was supportedby a National present narrativesfrom African American women to illustrate
Science Foundation Award for the Study of Race, Urban Poverty, and Social Policy the types and natureof communityviolence, the multiple coping
(NorthwesternUniversity);a grant from the Social Science Research Council's Programon
the Urban Underclass; and a Visiting Scholar Award from the Russell Sage Foundation. strategiesthat women use to deal with communityviolence, and
Members of the Social Science Research Council's Working Group on Communities and the benefits and costs of these strategies. Finally, we discuss
Neighborhoods,FamilyProcesses,andIndividualDevelopmentand the MacArthurFoundation how our findings can be used to elaborate community-level
Working Group on Successful Pathways throughMiddle Childhood helped stimulate ideas
expressedin this article.With greatculturalcompetencyand sensitivity,VerdaHestercollected explanations and how they contribute to the growing body of
the datareportedhere.Doris Houstonexpertlyassistedwithdataanalysis.Specialappreciationis
extendedto the women who willingly sharedtheirlives with us.
qualitativeresearchon women's coping strategies.

**Addresscorrespondenceto: Dr. RobinJarrett,Departmentof Humanand Community Review of the Literature

Development, University of Illinois, D269 Bevier Hall, MC-180, 905 S Goodwin Avenue,
Urbana,IL 61801.

Key Words: African American, coping strategies, family, public housing, violence,
NeighborhoodEffects Models
Community-levelneighborhoodeffects models have identi-
fied how economic, compositional, and organizational condi-
(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 138-147) tions promote deviant activities such as crime and violence in
2004, Vol. 53, No. 2 Family Relations

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inner-city African American communities. Key tenets of these Organizational conditions. Neighborhood effects models
models are based on analyses derived from demographicdata, consider the role of social organization in inner-city African
including census reports of family composition, employment, American communities. A key feature of community social
overall poverty, school participation,unemployment,and crime; organization, social control, is associated with the prevalence
police records of homicides, robbery,and strangerassaults; and of crime and violence (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Sullivan,
survey reports of violent and property victimization (Caughy, 1996). Social control, or the ability of a community to regulate
O'Campo, & Brodsky, 1999; Sampson, Morenoff, & Gannon- itself based on conventional principles, depends on several
Rowley, 2002). Economic, compositional, and organizational factors (Sampson, 2001a; Sampson & Groves, 1989). Shared
features of inner-city communities each facilitate violence in values, high levels of trust among residents, willingness to
specific and interrelatedways. intervene in the deviant behaviors of coresidents, and active
Economic conditions. Research has documenteda relation- community engagement help residents collectively act to main-
ship between high rates of poverty and social problems (Crane, tain social order.All of these conditions are greatly attenuatedin
1991; Jargowsky, 1994; McLanahan& Sandefur, 1994). Social impoverished inner-city communities. Instead, street-oriented
problems such as violence, crime, and incivility are dispropor- values contentiously coexist with conventional ones; neigh-
tionately found in African American communities with high boring relations are typified by mistrust;residents are unwilling
levels of poverty (Freeman, 1995; Patillo, 1998; Sampson, to challenge the criminal or delinquentbehaviors of their neigh-
2001b). Since the mid-1980s,increasingneighborhoodimpoverish- bors; and residents are disengaged from local organizationsand
ment in the inner city has been matched by escalating rates of institutions (Skogan, 1990). In the absence of strong internal
crime and violence (Coulton, 1996; Freeman, 1995; Wilson, controls, crime and violence dominate impoverished inner-city
1987, 1996). communities.
Several critical factors are cited to explain the high levels of In addition to hypothesizing about the economic, composi-
poverty characterizingpoor African American communities and tional, and organizationalfeaturesof inner-citycommunitiesthat
related social problems. They include the decline in entry-level facilitate crime and violence, discussions of neighborhood
jobs, the relocation of jobs away from the inner city, and the effects models outline community impacts on family life.
mismatch between job requirements and employee skills According to neighborhood effects models (e.g., collective
(Jargowsky, 1997; Wilson, 1987, 1996). One of the processes socialization, epidemic), female heads of household, lacking
by which larger structuralchanges in the economy have directly other helping adults, are unable to properly supervise their
impacted inner-citycommunitiesis throughthe creation of local children. Therefore, children are exposed to deviant adults and
economies. They include informal economies characterizedby peers and are likely to engage in delinquent activities (Brooks-
unregulated"off -the-books" work and illegal undergrounddrug Gunn, Duncan, & Aber, 1997; Crane, 1991; Gephart, 1997;
economies that offer residents alternativesources of income in Jencks & Mayer, 1990). Poor African American families are
the midst of widespreadjoblessness and economic insecurity. deficient in other ways in these models. In the absence of
Drug economies in particularhave contributedto high rates of conventional work, welfare-reliant and marginally employed
violence in inner-city communities (Boyum & Kleiman, 1995). parentsfail to acquire skills emphasizedin gainful employment,
Compositional conditions. The internal make up of inner- such as "planfulness,"discipline, organization,and regularized
city African American communities is anotherfactor contribut- routines that are transferredto family life (Wilson, 1987, 1996).
ing to crime and violence. Inner-city communities tend to be Consequently, parents are unable to develop orderly domestic
homogeneous with respect to race and social class (Wilson, practices and other organized patterns of family life. Further,
1987). Unlike European American (and to a lesser degree, adults, like their children,are more likely to engage in streetlife
Latino) communities,African Americancommunitiesare highly that includes exposure to-and in some cases, participationin-
segregated along racial lines. For example, 1990 census data criminal and violent activities.
indicated that non-Hispanic Blacks representedalmost half of
the 8.4 million residentswho lived in high poverty communities
Studies of Coping WithinInner-CityHousing Projects
(those with poverty rates> 40%). When regional areas were
considered, the Midwest (the location of the currentstudy) had In contrast to community-level explanations that hypothe-
the highest concentrationsof African Americansin high-poverty size about the causes and consequences of chronic community
communities (Jargowsky,1997; Massey & Denton, 1993). violence, several recent studies have examined how poor and
Not only are inner-city communities segregatedby race but often single African American women living in public housing
also by social class. Impoverished African American commu- projects respond to chronic community violence. These studies
nities are composed of large numbers of impoverished, often have been conducted with families in Chicago, a city known for
welfare-reliant female-headed households. Working- and its concentration of segregated public housing projects
middle-class families are absent or resident in small numbers (Jargowsky, 1997). In one study of 25 mothers, Wolfer (2000)
(Wilson, 1987). The geographic concentrationof impoverished conducted open-ended interviews with women living in the
African American families in high-poverty areas has implica- Henry HornerHomes (actual name). A high-rise public housing
tions for crime and violence. These communities lack a critical developmentlocated in a semi-industrialarea on Chicago's Near
mass of middle-class families who transmitconventional values West Side, the complex was identified as a high-violence area
and serve as role models for mainstreambehaviors (Jencks & based on police reports of violent interpersonal crimes. The
Mayer, 1990; Wilson, 1987). In the absence of middle-class interview topics covered women's personal experiences with
neighbors, poor families become isolated from conventional violence and witnessing or hearing about violent incidents in
values and behaviors.This vacuum is filled by a predatorystreet the community. Critical strategies identified included avoiding
culture in which deviant behaviors, including crime and dangerous areas, managing interpersonal relationships, and
violence, are endorsed (Reiss, 1986; Wilson, 1987, 1996). psychologically dealing with the aftermath of violent
2004, Vol. 53, No. 2 139

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experiences.Wolfer concludedthat women used coping strategies of communities that contribute to chronic violence (e.g., drug
that were tailored to fit the range of violent experiences in their economies, high concentrationsof impoverished residents, and
lives. attenuatedsocial control). This level of specificity suggests com-
In another study, Popkin and her colleagues (2000) used plex relationshipsand processes that are associated with crime
multiple methods (qualitative interviewing and participant and violence; yet, key problems plague these models. Neigh-
observation)to examine safety, housing, and community issues borhood effects models have narrowly and deterministically
among various residents, including women, who lived in three conceptualized the relationship between neighborhood condi-
public housing projects in Chicago (including Henry Horner tions and family processes and outcomes to include only nega-
Homes). All were dense multistoryunits located in impoverished tive processes and outcomes. Moreover, neighborhood effects
West Side and South Side communities. Rampant gang- and models have failed to include in their formulations personal
drug-relatedcrime and violence threatenedthe largely female strategies that buffer families from the negative impact of
and minor populationsliving in the housing projects.A common chronic community violence.
response for women living in the complexes was to downplay Micro-level qualitativestudies have made considerablecon-
the impact of victimization, sometimes noting how they had tributionsto our understandingof how poor African American
"become conditioned" to the violence. Other strategiesentailed women respond to chronic community violence. Findings from
minding one's business and the using of alcohol and or illegal qualitative studies identify the variety of coping strategies that
drugs to addressfear. women use to overcome the potentially destabilizing impact of
Puntenney (1997) studied the impact of gang violence on chronic community violence on family life. Firsthandaccounts
women's work and child care decisions. The studywas conducted reveal the personal agency exhibited by women despite the
in an unnamedpublichousingprojecton the SouthSide of Chicago constraints that chronic community violence imposes. Further,
and included in-depth interviews with 56 women receiving by exploring the experiences of a contemporary cohort of
welfare. Drug- and gang-relatedviolence characterizeddaily life women, recent qualitative studies address issues that have been
in the largelyfemale-dominatedcomplex.Puntenneyidentifiedkey neglected for over 30 years (for example, see an earlier study,
strategiesthatwomen used to keep themselvessafe: retreatinginto Rainwater, 1970). However, micro-level studies that focus on
the home, distancing from neighbors, withdrawal from some coping strategieshave two majorlimitations.First,recent studies
elements of community life and cautious participationin other of poor African American women's coping strategies within
aspects, and strictattentionand constantoversightof the environ- public housing complexes are few in number. Consequently, it
ment. Otherstrategiesfocused on keeping childrensafe: monitor- is unclear how common the identified coping strategies are.
ing children'sdaily activities,chaperoningyoung childrenon their Second (although clearly recognizing that women's behaviors
rounds in the community, and restrictingchildren's movements are responses to larger community conditions), qualitative stud-
within the local community.Many women rejected employment ies of women's coping strategies have not fully integratedtheir
opportunitiesin order to be available to protect their children. empirical findings with neighborhoodeffects models.
Puntenneyconcluded that although managementstrategieswere In light of the limitations of both community-level explana-
useful for keeping women and their childrensafe, they impeded tory frameworksand micro-level empirical studies, we sought to
women's work efforts and movementout of poverty. integrate community-level explanations on the causes and
In summary, the findings from these recent studies of consequences of chronic community violence with recent quali-
women's coping strategies in Chicago public housing commu- tative data on how poor African Americanwomen cope with this
nities are comparable, despite some differences in substantive violence. By doing so, two goals are accomplished. First, the
foci. In fact, two of the studies were located in the same housing inclusion of women's coping strategies will help better specify
project. They revealed that women's coping behaviors were neighborhood effects models that currently ignore critical
nonconfrontationaland family focused. Explicit in descriptive interveningprocesses. This addition should result in more valid
accounts of women's strategies was the issue of costs and explanatory frameworks. Second, qualitative studies typically
benefits;key strategieshelped to keep women and their children use small samples, and their findings have been criticized for
safe but did little to decrease larger community violence. their lack of generalizability.The inclusion of additionalquali-
tative data from this study will add to the cumulativeknowledge
IntegratingCommunity-and Micro-LevelExplanatory base of qualitative studies of poor African American women's
Frameworks coping strategies.In tandemwith recent studies, our findingscan
begin to identify patternsacross studies.
Community-level frameworks that hypothesize about the
causes and consequences of chronic community violence and Research Design
micro-level qualitative studies that explore individual responses
to chronic community violence have strengths and limitations.
The concentration on the community context of poverty and
Research Focus and Framework
related social problems (such as crime and violence) represents The data came from a study of single African American
a major strength of neighborhood effects models. Replacing women living in a Chicago housing project and examines how
dated models that focused on individualexplanationsof poverty poor women with young children coped with individual and
and social problems, neighborhoodeffects models highlight the neighborhood impoverishment. Using an interpretativeframe-
powerful role of context on social behavior (for examples see work that focuses on the lived experience of women, central
Brooks-Gunn etal., 1997; Caughy etal., 1999; Sampson & importance to individuals' everyday experiences is recognized
Morenoff, 2002; Tienda, 1991). and attentionis given to the meanings that individuals attribute
Neighborhood effects models also have identified inter- to their actions and the logic of their choices (Seccombe, 1999;
related, economic, compositional, and organizational features Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). Although an interpretativeframework
140 Family Relations

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recognizes that daily life is influenced by larger social and of making the Beecher Street housing complex mixed-income
economic forces, it gives primacy to the role of personal agency public housing, impoverishedfamilies dominated the complex.
(Fine & Weis, 1998). Within the boundaries of social life, Several factors contributedto this pattern.Priority was given to
individuals actively develop purposeful behaviors and attribute families who lived in the complex before it was designated as a
meaning and significance to them. From the perspective of our mixed-income project and to families who lived in other nearby
participants, an interpretative framework considers women's housing projects. Further, working families were limited to 5
concerns about safety, their views about the violence that years of residency. As working families moved out of the
pervadedthe community, and the meaning of the coping strate- complex, they were replaced by low-income families. By the
gies that they used. Thus, an interpretativelens sees women's 1990s, nearly 70% of the families were low income (Chicago
coping strategies as an active, if not creative, response to the Housing Authority, 1992).
dangerouscommunities in which they lived.
Sample In-depth individual interviews. Taped interviews were
The sample included 18 single women who resided in the conducted with the women between the winter of 1997 and the
Beecher Street public housing complex (pseudonym). Selection winter of 1999 by a female African Americanresearchassistant.
criteriawere based on profiles of women who were consideredto Various topics were covered, including participants' life
be at risk for persistent poverty: unmarriedor never-married histories, family routines, neighboring relations, intergenera-
mothers who received public assistance and who lived in a tional relations, household budgets, parentingand childrearing,
high-poverty community in Chicago. Women ranged in age male-female relations,work and welfare histories,residentiallife
from 20 to 40 years of age (M = 30; SD = 7.06). Of the single histories, and neighborhoodresources.Conversationalin nature,
women, four lived with significant other males, and all of the the topically guided, open-ended interviews allowed women to
women had at least one preschool-aged child. Women were discuss what they deemed were the importantdimensions of the
chosen from the Head StartProgramlocated in the public hous- targetedtopics (Burgess, 1984; Spradley, 1979).
ing complex; Head Start programs were used because they Data analysis. The transcribedinterviewswere coded using
served low-income families with young children. Ethnograph (Seidel, 1998), a qualitative data management
program.Initialcodes were based on the topical areasguidingthe
The NeighborhoodSetting researchand were expandedto include otherunexpectedinforma-
tion thatemerged(Taylor& Bogdan, 1998). Key issues andthemes
The housing complex was located in the Southwood were identifiedfor each area following the coding process. Par-
community (pseudonym), an area characterized by severe ticularattentionwas given to similaritiesand differencesbetween
economic and social problems. In 1990, this community was participants.To achieve reliability,threecodersindividuallycoded
99% African American and remained so in 2000. In 1990, the data.Differencesin coding were discussedby the coders as a
unemploymentrates ranged from 55% to 66% yearly. By 2000, group.The datawere recodeduntil intercoderreliabilityreacheda
only 38.3% of the community was employed. In 1990, median minimumof 90% (Miles & Huberman,1994).
family incomes, which were around $5,500, ranked among the The interview data were used to address four specific
lowest in the nation. By 2000, median family incomes were questions that detailed the coping strategies that women used
$10,640-still extremely low in real dollars. The community to manage chronic community violence. Questions included:
was heavily populated by families with children. For example, What are the violent community dangers that women contend
in 1990, almost 50% of the populationwas made up of children with? What is the nature of violence in the community? What
< 18. By 2000, 74.1% of local households had children< 18. strategiesdo women use to deal with communityviolence? What
Impoverished female-headed households dominated the are the benefits and costs to family and community life of the
community. Based on 1990 statistics, almost three-fifthsof the strategiesthat women use?
families were single-parent, female-headed units with chil-
dren< 18; by 2000, that figure increased to 84%. Housing in
the community was characterizedby high vacancy rates, over- Findings
crowding, and a low percentage of owner-occupiedbuildings Based on the four guiding research questions, our findings
(Erbe, 1996; U.S. Census Bureau,2000a, 2000b, 2000c, 2000d). are organized aroundfour key themes that illuminate women's
Because of the povertyand dense housing structures,crime was a strategies for managing violence and the implications of these
majorconcernfor families living there.The firstyear for which an strategies for family and community life.
annualreportprovidedan index of crimes by specific community
area was 1998. For that year, there were 6 murders,15 reported Violence in the Southwood Community
criminal sexual assaults, 63 robberies, 1,777 aggravatedassaults
and battery, 100 burglaries, and 236 thefts in the community Women were clear on the dangersposed to themselves and
(ChicagoPolice Department,1998). their children by living in the high-crime Southwood commu-
nity. When asked about their safety concerns, Estelle and Betty
identified a common danger in the Southwood community:
The Housing Project Setting
shootings. According to Estelle, "I have concerns like some-
The Beecher Streethousingcomplex began as public housing times there be a lot of shooting aroundhere." In a more specific
designed for low-income families. As part of an effort to change manner,Betty identified a shooting that occurredclose to home,
the socioeconomic composition of the complex to include more saying, "The little incidents that's been going on, [like] that boy
workingfamilies, the two 141-unitbuildingswere remodeledand getting shot down there at the gas station... across the street
designatedin 1991 as "mixed-income"housing. Despite the goal from the school, right up there on the corner."
2004, Vol. 53, No. 2 141

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A great deal of communityviolence was attributedto gangs. front lobby of the building monitored all persons entering the
Many of the women mentionedthe ubiquityof gang violence in Beecher Street housing project. Linda indicated that she felt
the community.In fact, they typically describedgang violence as safe in the building relative to outside of the building, stating,
a "war." For example, Dorothy maintainedthat "There's a gang "I feel safe in the building.We have securityin the building. But
war [and] ... the teenagers don't get along here." when I go outside the building I have to worry about what's
Another form of interpersonalviolence concerned abduc- going to happen."Beatrice expandedon Linda's observationsby
tions. Women were concerned that their children would be saying, "[It's safe] inside the building, inside activity ... [It's
kidnapped. According to Beatrice, "There's a lot going on in dangerous] outside of the building, the playgrounds, going to
the neighborhoods... folks grabbingpeople's kids, stuff of that the store."
nature." Drugs were frequently implicated in interpersonal For Elaine, the neighborhood safety-dangerboundary was
violence, including abductions. Anna offered a cogent account separatedonly by a street. She said, "The crime, it's not right
of the characterof drug users and sellers and their propensityfor here on this immediate block." Anna elaborated:
The building I'm in is pretty good. We have tight security.
The drug users, the drug sellers ... I don't trustthem kind of We have good management in the building. But, on the
people at all. I don't like them to be aroundkids. You never outside, over on the other side of the street, is a lot of
know what they'll do to kids. They get high off that stuff guys hanging out, selling drugs, shooting craps and what
and they might grab your kids. have you, and just hanging out in the streets all the time at
Both Betty and Estelle were familiar with the many night.
robberiesand thefts that occurredin the Southwood community. Several women identified specific locations beyond the
Reflecting on her own concern with thefts and similar concerns complex that were considered dangerous.For example, Mercer
of other residents, Betty reportedthat "There is some concern Street was viewed as a particularlyviolent area. According to
[about] crimes like stealing and robbery and forced entry into Elaine, "Shootings [happen] more frequently on Mercer
buildings." Estelle's account was similar: "We have had Street...Young children choose to shoot each other and ... kill
incidents aroundhere, getting robbed or something like that." each other over there a lot." Vicky identified the nearby play-
Some community violence was specifically directed at ground as a danger zone:
women. The large numbers of households headed by single
I don't consider the playground on the corner too safe
females made women especially vulnerable to male predation.
because that's where they do most of the shooting and
Carol pointed to the particularisticrelationshipbetween gender
and violence, saying, "You have single women that's coming in fighting... Across the street, over in RichardsPark, I don't
consider that safe over there neither. 'Cause they do all
[the building] at night. You see [men] standing by themselves. kinds of stuff over there.
You might have a rapist over there."
In a frightening story, Linda recounted how she was Beatriceelaboratedby saying, "[Gangbanging],it's not withinthis
harassed by an unknown man as she carried out a domestic area. It's right across from us in the next neighborhood."
errand: Perpetratorsof violence. Women were able to quickly iden-
tify the perpetratorsof community violence. According to some
Saturdaymorning... this car pulled up, but [the guy] ain't of the women, the most violent activities were committed by
saying nothing. He just looked at [me] ... He act like he outsiders. Carol believed that "A lot of people ... come into the
know me. So, I goes to the store. I come back ... So, I'm
neighborhoodand commit crimes." Estelle, who had lived in the
walking ... and this guy pulled up ... He was like "you been
housing project for many years, held a similar view:
dodging me all mother-fuckingyear. Tell me your mother-
fucking name" ... I had got scared... So, I keep going ... So, It's not so much Beecher Street project, this little area we
I come in and tell my boyfriendand I got scared... I had got have right here. It's not the people over here that basically
butterfliesin my stomach. cause the trouble. It's the people that come over here and
What was significantabout some women's accounts of male they cause the trouble with the shooting, the firing. It's not
the people in these buildings. They come aroundhere with
predationwas the link to male views of female "enticement."As this.
noted when she describedthe rapist in the area, Carol was clear
on her lack of provocation,stating, "I know that I'm not doing Even the local gangbangerswere seen as relatively benign
anything wrong to attract anybody." The power of physical by some of the women. For example, Beatricecommentatedthat,
attractionalso was suggested in Katrina's comments: "I don't "Gangbangersnot real bad within this area." Lilly's views
wear tight clothes out in the street. I don't want to entice any- amplified her neighbor's account: "I'm just really concerned
body. I don't flirt with men. I don't engage in conversationtoo about gangbangers coming from the other building to this
much on the street." complex."
Yet, local residentswere not free of blame. Carolwent on to
The Nature of Community Violence explain their role in local violence. She maintainedthat neigh-
bors sometimes brought outsiders into the community: "The
As women identified the types of violent activities that neighborhoodis fine in itself. It's the people that want to bring
occurred in the community, they illuminated its particular the neighborhooddown. But, it's the other people that live here
characteristics.They viewed violent activities as having specific that have friends that come over and want to bring the neighbor-
physicallocations,a particularset of actors,anda temporalrhythm. hood down."
Location of violence. The immediate building was consid- Carol also identified specific categories of people within the
ered relatively safe for many women. A guard located at the building who were perceived as troublesomeand violence prone.
142 Family Relations

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Unsupervised adolescents were identified as a major source of deal with a perceived threat(Wolfer, 2000). Dangermanagement
communityviolence. "They got teenagersrunningaroundin the strategies are a subset of coping behaviors specifically targeted
elevators, drinking, and smoking blunts [marijuana].I would to menacingpeople and risky situationswith the goal of ensuring
bust their funky butts if they truly ask me." personal safety. Danger management strategies included moni-
Timing of violence. Another significant feature of violence toring the environment,dangeravoidance, self-imposed curfews,
in the communitywas its temporalrhythm.Women were know- and cloistering in the home.
ledgeable about the times in the community that were relatively Monitoring the environment. Being aware of community
safe, and the times that were especially dangerous. Vicky dangersthat potentially led to violence was a fundamentalstrat-
described the timing of neighborhood safety and danger by egy that women used. Lilly explained how she maintained an
saying "[It's safe] from sun up to sun down. Once the sun awareness of her environment. She stated, "I always watch
goes down you really can't tell what's gonna' happen. It's not behind me when I'm walking. I familiarize myself with what's
safe. I feel that it's not safe in the nighttime." going on." Similarly, Janice was pointedly watchful of neigh-
Priscilla offered her view on the neighborhoodsafety clock, borhood youth, saying, "I'll watch if there's a whole bunch of
stating, "I think it's safe after 12 in the afternoonuntil 4 or 5 in boys together, a whole bunch of young girls or young guys. I
the evening." watch because that's dangerous." Katrinaexpanded her watch-
According to Janice, the late evening hours were particu- ing techniques to a range of situations.
larly dangerous. "Between 11 and 2 in the morning, it's when I tend to watch behind me to make sure no one's getting too
they [criminals]out, hanging out, doing whatever." Referringto close to me. Also, I watch for pickpockets on the train.... I
patterns of drug dealing and hanging out, Anna's views were watch people that are watching me too much while I'm on
comparable: "It's real hectic ... At night it can get pretty the train.... I watch other people to see what's wrong with
raggedy." Yet, some of the women, like Tanya, had a less them.
variable view. She said, "On this block there's times when
they come past and shooting ... No time is safe." Katrina'scomments give literal meaning to an often-heardstate-
Elaine added nuance to the community safety-dangerclock. ment, "watch your back." By being hypervigilantof their sur-
It was not merely the time of day or night, but the dangers roundings, women were able to identify potential sources of
associated with periods of darkness.She recalled when she had danger.
to wait for a bus duringthe dark morninghours, saying: Danger avoidance.In large measure,monitoringthe environ-
ment was a cognitive strategythat allowed women to firstidentify
[When I was] working, I had to go to that bus stop at 4.30,
quarterto 5, every morning.It's darkoutside. You got those possible sources of danger. However, awarenessof danger typi-
creeps lit up all night, trying to figure out where they're cally was coupled with active avoidancestrategies.Once women
recognizeda dangeroussituation,they knew what to do. Berniece
going to get their next little thing from. They don't care if
they gotta' bust you in the head or whatever. gave her folk model of what do to when a potentiallydangerous
situationwas detected:
Violence had its seasonalaspects as well. Women considered
the summermonths when residents spent more time outdoorsas If you see somebody that looks suspicious, don't go there,
common sense in a lot of cases. Like you see a confrontation
unusually volatile. During the warm summer days, women and
their children spent a great deal of time on the playground. happen when you're outside.... Instead of waiting on that
However,these activitiesexposed them to danger.Estelle, a long- person to go and get whatever or whoever, you remove
time resident, recounted how gunshots disruptedwomen's and yourself from that situation. Common sense will tell you
that something is getting ready to happen. So, you get up
children's summeractivities on the playground:
and move. You don't wait for that to happen.
It's been plenty of times that I have sat in the playground
with my son and a bunch of other women and they kids. It's Janice used avoidance when she walked in the neighborhood.
basically women out there with they kids. They be so hot in If I see a whole bunch of gangbangersstandingby, I try not
the apartments.They might stay out there in the summer- to walk past them. I probably go aroundor anything.... If
time....There's been a couple of times out there, cracking it's a fight or something, somebody's fighting, I'm staying
up and shooting, and kids on the swings. We all have to run way away. 'Cause when they fighting it might be a gun or
and try to get in the back door, the front door, however you knife. Accidents happen. I don't want to be one of those
could, to try and get your kids to safety. When it gets warm statistics. She was shot because she was standingthere.
out here, it gets real bad.
Other dangerous situations to avoid were described as
As the various examples demonstrate,life in the Southwood uniquely female. Several women believed that becoming too
community was fraught with an array of violent activities. In intimatewith other women in the housing complex led to violent
most aspects of their daily lives, women had to consider the confrontations. For example, Tanya commented, "That's the
possibility of some type of victimization against themselves or beginning of trouble, sitting in women's houses. By you being
their children. It was within this context that women in the there, that person lying that you said it.... I don't have that.
Beecher Street housing project developed strategies to deal Don't sit in peoples' houses, don't have a telephone. I choose
with chronic community violence. not to."
Linda was even more specific about the need to sidestep
sexually compromising situations. She bluntly asserted, "I
Responding to Community Violence don't socialize with the females. I mess with nobody's men. I
Women developed variouscoping strategiesto addresscom- just stay to myself. I go to school. I pick up my kids and I come
munity violence. In general, coping strategies entail efforts to back."
2004, Vol. 53, No. 2 143

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Not all women avoided relations with neighbors. In some their children from the physical violence in the community.
instances,women establisheda few friendshipswith "nice" neigh- During the period in which the interviews were conducted,
bors. For example,Janicesaid, "I basicallytalk to people that are none of the women or their children became direct victims of
nice, keep to themselves."In anotheraccount,Kathydescribedher any violent acts. Women's strategies reduced the likelihood of
relationshipwith Liz and why it remainedharmoniousas "She exposure to victimization.
don't be in no trouble.She don't be in a lot of mess. She stick to Second, women's dangermanagementstrategiesencouraged
herself. She go in and out the building."Distrustand warinessof a sense of efficacy. Women believed that through personal
people outsideof the immediatefamily andsmallfriendshipcircles agency, they could circumvent some of the violence that
were critical in maintainingsocial order in the close quartersin pervadedtheir communities. For example, Elaine stated:
which families lived. Betty's comment revealed the seeming
paradox of women's lives: "I get along with everybody in the Nothing has happenedto me or my kids. But, I don't like the
fact of the shootings.... We done had some days. Fortu-
neighborhood,basically because I keep to myself."
Self-imposedcurfews. Women's general belief that violence nately, my kids weren't down there. But, we have some
happened more frequently during early evening and nighttime days where we get off the street and get out the way.
hours led to a self-imposed curfew. Viewing evening and night- Other women believed that avoiding troublesomerelations with
time hours as overly dangerous,women made sure they were off neighbors accounted for their ability to stay safe in the housing
the streets during these times. Lilly noted that "[I] get home project. For example, Janice stated:
sometime before it's dark," whereas Anna proclaimed, "We
come in at a decent hour. We not on the streets at night." I don't socialize. So, I don't get in no arguments.I keep to
Sheila's strategy was comparable.She said, "If I'm outside in myself. I don't have a gun or knife. But, as long as you mind
front [of the building], it would be before dark. [I] go in the your own business and don't starta mess, you won't have no
house and don't come back out." problem, no matterwhere you stay.
Sometimes women were unavoidablyout during dangerous Anna and her children cloistered in their apartmentafter
times; yet, these times were infrequent,as Katrina's comment dark, and Anna was not "worried" about community dangers.
reveals: "I don't make it a habitof going out late at night because She said, "Aftera certainhour at night, we not outside nowhere.
I can't see that far and [who is] hiding in bushes and different So, I'm not worried about other stuff." Cloistering had another
things." In other instances, women made compromiseswith the positive aspect. Despite the violence that surroundedthem, some
communitysafety-dangerclock. With her children,Bernieceoften women were able to make the home a meaningful locus of
visited her mother,who lived in anothercommunity.Althoughthey activity. These particular families were strengthened through
traveledto her mother'shouse by car, the family spent the night mundane home activities, such as those described by Lilly:
thereif it became too late. Berniecestated,"I usuallystartheading "We spend time in the house, either watching TV or playing."
home frommy mother'shouse,maybe7.30. If I'm thereat a certain Anna's comments elaborated on the family closeness that
time, I'm usuallynot going home becauseit's gottentoo late." cloistering in the home engenderedfor some families:
Cloistering in the home. Anothersafety strategythat women Like I say, me and my daughter, Keisha, and my son,
used entailed relegatinglarge portionsof family life to the home.
To some extent, the home was the logical locus of family Lamont, we pretty close, real close.... My daughter and
activities given women's domestic and child care responsibil- son have a very nice relationship with each other. They
ities. However, women in the communityimbued home life with talk and they play together and look at TV together and do
a special focus on safety. When asked what she did to keep her a lot of things together.
family safe, Betty replied, "We stay in the house to ourselves." Elaine shared a comparable account on how the mother-
Carol offered a sharedresponse, saying "Most of the time I am child bond was bolstered, stating, "Being in this house, keeping
in the house.... This is what I do to keep my family safe." them together, I be in here and keep a close knit with them."
Elaine, one of the older women in the study, further detailed
the importanceof the home, saying: The Costs of Women's Danger Management
To put it like that, any time is dangerous.So, you try to keep Strategies
a safe environmentin your home. That's the only safe place I
can think of. If you outside, anythingcan happen,anything. Real costs markedwomen's danger managementstrategies.
The strategiesthat women used were largely nonconfrontational
Otherthan churchor the police station,you ain't safe now.
and focused on their own families. Monitoringthe environment,
Like Elaine, Katrinabelieved in the safetythatthe home provided, danger avoidance, self-imposed curfews, and cloistering in the
stating,"Nowadaysyou cannoteven trustthe police.... I'm the one home effectively kept women and their children safe, but they
that looks out for my child's safety. I don't feel thereis no safety underminedcollective efforts against community violence. The
outside my apartment."In light of the many dangersoutside the often-mentioned pattern of "minding my own business" and
home, it was not surprisingthatwomen emphasizedfor themselves refusing to challenge the deviant behaviors of neighbors as
and their childrenlife within the home. In a real sense, the home typified in the comment "I don't say anythingto my neighbors"
was a haven from the dangersof the local community. both reflect the lack of collective community action.
There were logical reasons for women's failure to collec-
The Benefits of Women's Danger Management tively rally against community violence. As single mothers,
women were constrainedin the time that they could invest out-
Strategies side of the domestic domain. Yet, other reasons explained
There were several benefitsto women's dangermanagement women's lack of involvement in collective danger management
strategies. First, women were able to protect themselves and efforts: They believed that informal efforts were ineffective and
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that formal agencies and politicians were negligent. Without The community was markedby the "concentrationof disadvan-
critical support and realistically fearful, women placed little tage," including jobless and drug economies. Significantly,
stock in their own collective abilities. For example, like several women's folk models suggested the relationship between pov-
of the other women, Estelle identifiedthe limits of tenantpatrol: erty, joblessness, and crime and violence. Their accounts also
"I have concerns, like sometimes there be a lot of shooting mirroredcompositionalfeaturesoutlinedin neighborhoodeffects
around here. But, they have tenant patrol. They do the best models: Southwoodwas disproportionately populatedby welfare-
they can.... but they can't stop these people." reliantand marginallyemployed individualsand families and was
Women also noted the impotence of local police. According almost exclusively African American.The communityalso had a
to Janice, "We got CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] police predatorystreetculturethatposed realdangersto the women (and
over here. They still shooting like they crazy." Some of the their children) who were interviewed. At the organizational
women were even more cynical of city police. Elaine's com- level, consistent with the tenets of neighborhood effects
ments were telling. models, women reportedthat street values were in competition
with conventional values; that they were wary of their neigh-
They have police riding aroundhere. They see it [crime],but
bors; that they were reluctant to intervene in the deviant
they don't see it. You got a lot of them sitting arounddoing behaviors of other residents; and that they limited their invol-
nothing.They be shootingand stuff going down aroundthere vement in community activities.
and you looking at a police car sittingout down there.... Why
Women' s descriptions of other social aspects of the South-
hadn'the moved? Then you see him messing with somebody
wood community diverged in critical ways from neighborhood
they don't even have to be messing with when the police could effects models. Althoughlarge numbersof impoverishedresidents
be up therereally tryingto arrestsomebody.It don't make no
lived in the community, they were internally differentiatedby
sense. It's a lot of stuff to be done.
lifestyle. The women in our study lived a family-orientedlife-
Carol, who became visibly angered during the interview, style that was in sharp contrast to the street-orientedlifestyle
blamed the local alderpersonfor the violence in the Southwood (e.g., gangbanging) that also existed. Relatedly, as women's
community. accounts revealed, not all of Southwood's residents were
I would like to see her treatthis neighborhoodas well as she involved in criminal and violent activities simply because they
treats the other [middle-class neighborhood] up ahead.... were poor, exposed to deviant neighbors,and had relatively few
How come she can't send the police down this way every working- and middle-class neighbors. Women's accounts also
added nuance to our understandingof the community context
day and keep the people out from the building and comers? itself. Not all segments of the communitywere characterizedby
It gets deep when you come with this.... I'm not kissing
crime and violence. Instead, there were safe locations or
nobody's ass. As long as I can come into my house, don't "niches" within the larger community.
nobody bother me, fine. The identification of women's danger management strat-
Janice provided an even more insightful assessment of the egies challenges the assertion found in neighborhood effects
multifaceted nature of the problem of chronic violence and a models that families living in communities characterizedby
solution that was equally complex. She said: poverty and chronic violence are invariably destabilized. Some
I would love a police station... more police car patrol.... We families, such as those described here, were able, albeit with
was talkingabouta center,you know, a YMCA.... Jobs, they great effort, to buffer themselves and their childrenfrom the real
supposed to have jobs for the people in the community. dangersthat existed in the community.In summary,our findings
help better specify neighborhoodeffects models. When women's
[Alderperson]Miller, I think that's her name, oh please.
coping strategies are included in theoretical formulations,they
They put her in office and she said all this stuff she was
representinterveningprocesses that mediate the effects of com-
gonna' do. She was gonna' get jobs for Blacks in the Black
munity conditions on family outcomes.
communityand it never happened.... People need help with
child care.We wanthouses too. Give us some kind of aid that
will help us get us a house.... We don't ask for much. All we Contributionsto Existing QualitativeStudies
ask for is to be happyand comfortableand safe.
The data enhance our understandingof women's coping
strategies in critical ways. The types of violent acts that
Discussion women confronted in the Southwood community and the
Beecher Street housing project, as well as the nature of that
Our goal was to explore how a group of low-income women
violence, were identified.In response,women generatedmultiple
living in a public housing complex managedthe chronicviolence
that dominated their communities. We were interested speci- danger management strategies to deal with community perils.
Nonconfrontational in nature, monitoring, avoidance, self-
fically in how the data from our interviews contributedto an
imposed curfews, and cloisteringin the home all reflectedefforts
expanded understandingof neighborhood effects models and to evade and not directly confront violence. In many cases,
findings from recent qualitative studies. We consider our key women were unable to physically or directly challenge the
perpetrators(e.g., men, gangs of youth) who committed much
of the violence within the community. Danger management
Contributionsto NeighborhoodEffects Models strategiesalso were family focused in nature.They were enacted
Findings from our qualitative data paralleled the key com- in the service of the family and not the community. As
ponents of neighborhood effects models. Women's accounts such, participants' strategies helped to keep women and their
revealed that economic conditions in the Southwoodcommunity children safe, but they did little to decrease larger community
were similar to those specified in neighborhoodeffects models. violence.
2004, Vol. 53, No. 2 145

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To a large extent, our findings are consistent with existing limited economic, social, and institutionalresources.Moreover,
findings despite some differences in substantivefoci. This study although inner-city communities are broadly stigmatized as
revealed strategies that were similar to those described in other dangerous places, it is importantto recognize that most of the
studies (e.g., avoidance, managing interpersonalrelationships, residents are not involved in violent activities. Indeed, law-
minding one's business, monitoringthe environment,cloistering abiding residents are the ones who bear the bruntof community
in the home). Significantly, this study and the other studies violence.
specified both the family benefits and community costs of In light of these three issues, practitionerscan adapta two-
women's strategies. The similarity in findings is not surprising prongedapproachthat (a) facilitates the developmentof informal
given that the housing projects were comparablewith respect to groupings of women with common concerns and (b) helps
city location, populationcharacteristics,poverty levels, and pre- women to connect to larger agencies outside of the community.
valence of gang and drug violence. However, our explication of Practitionerscan help women to identify shared concerns as a
cloistering in the home extended the notion of the home as a way to build trust, the foundation for any collective effort.
haven. The home was not simply a place to be safe, but it was a Practitionersalso will want to encourage women to share how
place to create a meaningful, cohesive, and viable family life. they have successfully employed danger managementstrategies
Further, our findings expanded those of others by explicitly as a way to demonstrateefficacy and to use this sense of efficacy
identifying some women's beliefs about sexual attractiveness as the building block for broadercollective efforts.
and predation. Practitioners who work with women confronting chronic
The common findings across studies, including ours, neighborhood violence can help women develop stronger
contributeto the cumulativeknowledge base concerning danger collaborations with formal social control agents, such as the
management strategies and community context. They suggest police and alderpersons.It will be importantto emphasize that
that particulardanger managementstrategies are likely to exist law-abiding citizens in all communities are entitled to a safe
in particular neighborhood climates, such as housing project place to live and that the police and political officers are accoun-
communities. A broad generalizationculled from these studies table to local residents. Greater involvement in tenant patrols
suggests that nonconfrontationaland family-based responses to within the building, reportingviolent activities, and challenging
chronic violence are more likely to prevailin communitysettings perpetratorsof violent acts will be viewed as reasonable activ-
typified by high rates of poverty, low levels of social control, ities, if women believe their efforts will be supportedand that
lifestyle heterogeneity, large numbers of single women and they (and their children) will not be placed in jeopardy. Until
minor children, and dense living arrangements.Although the women have this type of support,it is unlikely that they will risk
common findings suggest their generalizability to Chicago, getting involved in collective social control efforts.
they raise a critical question for larger generalizations beyond
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