Exiled in America - A Review

I was one of the “critics” in an Author Meets Critics session that was part of last week’s annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology held, conveniently, here in Philadelphia. The format is a pretty tried-and-true on at academic conferences: three panelists give our thoughts and critiques about a book, the author responds, and then discussion ensues based upon further questions and comments from the audience I figure if I develop my notes from that session a little further then I could turn this into a review.

The book, which came out last year, is titled Exiled In America. The author, Chris Dum, spent a year as a participant observer at the dilapidated and notorious “Boardwalk Motel,” in a small city somewhere (I’m guessing) in upstate New York. It is the type of motel where guests pay by the day, week or month as an alternative to sleeping in their car or in a homeless shelter. The local welfare office will also send persons on their caseloads there with rental vouchers, and this has led to a steady stream of sex offenders getting placed there, as the Boardwalk’s location fell outside of the strict residency exclusions that limit where this pariah group can live.

Dum puts together a good ethnography, as he writes in a very self-effacing manner in portraying himself as a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student who rents a room at this motel and starts getting to know the people who live there. The motel itself has seen better days, and the impression is that the owner is more interested in milking the business for all the cash he can than he is in keeping up building codes and basic hygienic standards. The residents appear to take Dum in as a benign outsider who can be useful giving rides and the occasional loan, and so he makes a spot for himself in a milieu of poor, down-on-their-luck individuals and couples. Beyond a shared poverty, the motel crowd is diverse and with its share of personalities.

Most of the book is ethnography, which I won’t critique beyond this as at least one fellow critic (Andrea Leverentz) was far better versed on this topic than I (the other panelist was Beth Huebner. The presider, Jamie Fader, missed the session due to illness). Instead I based my comments upon what I have learned from my recent obsession with Skid Row. In the book’s introduction, Dum chronicles the historical antecedents to this residential motel, and as part of this mentions the urban hotels that became the mainstay of skid row neighborhoods in US cities during the mid-20th century. I am in the process of gathering information on the 15 or so hotels that were on Philadelphia’s Skid Row. Rooms in these hotels were 5x7 foot “cages” with chicken wire for a ceiling, and economies of scale and deferred maintenance made the rooms cheap enough so that the near homeless skid row men could usually scrounge the money needed for a night’s flop, while the owner could still pocket a nice income.

To the reader of Exiled this arrangement (minus the cages) will sound very familiar. Change the hotel to a motel, the urban skid row district to a stretch of highway sprawl, and fast forward to another era of homelessness and you have the setting for this book. While many of these details are obviously different, the feel is the same. You have hotels/motels that are well past their heydays, repurposed for, on one hand, maximum profit and, on the other, for a large degree of resident autonomy. Despite the decrepit and squalid condition of this housing, cage hotels were by far the housing of choice for the skid row habitués, just as the Boardwalk was preferred to the shelter options that, while cleaner and more orderly, were also much more structured and restrictive.

Above all, what is common about these two settings are is the unmistakable sense one gets, both from Dum’s book and from reading contemporary accounts of the cage hotels, of slow, inevitable demise. The Boardwalk Hotel is literally decaying under Dum’s and the other resident’s feet, delayed a bit by slapdash repairs and resident’s ad hoc efforts to render bad situations as livable as they can. Both settings are subject to constant raids by code and health inspectors, who regularly threaten to close the place down but for some reason never do. Public outrage is palpable, and both the building and its residents are treated as grave threats by the good burghers and their duly elected representatives. Then, one day, the shutdown becomes real and it is all over, providing a surreal backdrop to residents who must scramble to gather their possessions and find another place of respite.

In this ethnography Dum creates a profile of a residential motel and its inhabitants that is representative of many such places in the US which linger in anonymity and whose collective demise becomes more imminent as they continue to age. In other words, they are both invisible and disappearing, and need to be document in the manner Dum does before they vanish completely. This alone makes this monograph an important work in the homeless literature.

My main quibble with the book is that, in the end, Dum oversteps his data in making grand and at times polemic statements about ending homelessness, the treatment of sex offenders, and other affronts to social justice that are neither empirically grounded nor carefully constructed. This is a disappointing end to an otherwise well-done book.

It also gave me an in to make some suggestions on questions that I thought, while more mid-range in terms of addressing homelessness and related policy questions, offered interesting conundrums to which his data readily spoke.

The first question concerns a topic that Dum is implicitly ambivalent about. At times he laments the loss of the Boardwalk Motel and in other places bids it good riddance. Here he approaches the motel the way the residents did, as near uninhabitable yet preferable to their other options. The policy perspective is similar – as Dum shows it to provide a necessary supply of housing for the homeless and near homeless while, on the other hand, the conditions are so miserable that fire marshals, code inspectors AND health inspectors all have ample reason to shut the place down. In this sense “Dutchtown” faces a common dilemma of downscale lodging; and Dum is in a great position to offer ideas on how to reconcile this.

Also barely mentioned are questions of political economy. One of the redeeming features, in the residents’ eyes, of a place like the Boardwalk Motel is the autonomy that the place affords. It’s a shitty existence, but at least residents can come and go as they please, can stash their stuff, and can get high and fuck and keep pets or do whatever else they want in the rooms. The underpinnings of such autonomy lie in the private ownership. This is a business transaction; pay the rent, don’t tear up the place and no one cares what you do. Paradoxically, the State subsidizes this directly with the rent vouchers that pay for many of the tenants’ stays, and less directly with the income assistance, food stamps and the like that provide subsistence. This arrangement goes all the way back to Skid Row and before, and continues on a grand scale in cities like New York, where HRA pays for entire hotels at exorbitant rates to provide shelter for families. Its an arrangement of financial expedience, and it represents state subsidization of private neglect. Its abhorrent on one level, but necessary on another. Is there a better way? And do these hotels have a place in homelessness policy, especially on a local level?

And there is a different way. The Boardwalk hotel is a direct descendent of the single room occupancy hotels that, along with the cage hotels of Skid Row, were decimated in the 1970s, 80s and 90’s and whose demise been directly linked to the rise of a homeless population during the same time that was more literally destitute and dependent on public shelter accommodations than their forebears in the 1950s and 60s. One of the primary responses to this homelessness has been the rise of permanent supportive housing, which essentially reconconstructs the SROs, albeit with much more humane and sanitary conditions and with supportive services that help tenants maintain their housing and negotiate the considerable challenges that most of them face. But replacing places like the Boardwalk with PSH has been limited and has been expensive. PSH and the Boardwalk Motel seem to be two ends of one continuum – how they further relate to each other involves another set of questions that could be asked.

I have several more questions, but instead I'll wrap this up up by asking “what comes next?” A big concern that kept the Skid Row hotels open, and likely also kept the Boardwalk open, was a concern for where the residents would go. As Dum describes, this wasn’t necessarily done for the sake of the residents but to avoid another Boardwalk Motel from popping up. There is a clear NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) component here, and one related question is whether or not “Dutchtown” would succeed, by closing the Boardwalk, in riding the now homeless and the sex offenders off to another town. New York or Philadelphia are too big to pull this off, but a smaller city like Dutchtown might just get away with it. On the other hand, such a struggle often has the trappings of a guerilla war, where the homeless retreat and then in time entrench themselves in some other inconvenient niche. Dum describes a nearby trailer park, and after having read Matt Desmond’s recent book Evicted, such a park might eventually take on the role of the Boardwalk. Perhaps such a question is too long term for the scope of the book, but it’s an important point that, with homelessness, displacement does not necessarily mean dislodging.

To wrap up, Dum in this book is a much better ethnographer than policy analyst, and I took it as my role on the panel to gently call him out on this. Writing about residential motels is not a grand undertaking, and I advised him (although probably less articulately than I am doing here) that, in identifying and dwelling on the smaller incongruencies in the milieu that he became a part of, he leverage street level insights gained from this and thereby challenge the way we understand and, more importantly, address homelessness.


Postscript: Old motels, while they are undoubtedly disappearing, are still around and beg for more attention from historians, sociologists, policymakers and the like. The Philadelphia history website Hidden City recently did a piece on a motel of the Boardwalk genre that became a work-release facility for the local jail system and now sits empty. It was here that I taught an intro course on criminal justice to mixed class of college students and inmates for a few years. The comments at the end of the article are interesting in that no one, in discussing its repurposing, suggests any affordable housing-related uses.

Stephen MetrauxComment