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September 12Community and Neighborhood Recovery at Ground Zero$

Gregory Smithsimon

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814740842

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814740842.001.0001

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(p.248) Appendix B

(p.248) Appendix B

Methods

Source:
September 12
Author(s):

Gregory Smithsimon

Publisher:
NYU Press

I had conducted observations of the public spaces of Battery Park City and the World Trade Center in the spring of 1999 and in August 2001 and had presented that research the month before the World Trade Center was destroyed. I returned to Battery Park City in January 2002 and conducted the bulk of my ethnographic research between then and April 2005, focusing on the area’s public spaces, meetings of community organizations, and neighborhood events. I used three primary forms of field observation: attendance at formal meetings, attendance at community events, and visits in which I was a participant observer in the unplanned life of the public spaces. To obtain a sense of the neighborhood independent of residents’ representations of it, I also conducted less socially engaged observations using repeated observations and quantitative measurements of selected spaces to establish, for instance, who used the public spaces, when, and how.

As part of my observations, I attended two years of Community Board 1 meetings, going to the meetings of several of the subcommittees whenever they might be addressing topics relevant to West Street and community redevelopment projects generally. I also attended the public hearings of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) that were part of environmental impact statements for the West Street project, as well as other LMDC meetings, where Battery Park City residents voiced their opposition to projects like the tunnel plan discussed in chapter 7. I attended the occasional meetings and events of community groups, but community groups often had few physical meetings and did much of their work online, which I followed through e-mail announcements, bulletin board archives, and e-mail lists. In some cases members of the organizations gave me the group’s earlier correspondence or some of their own research, and the manager of an online bulletin board provided me with archives of posts immediately after September 11.

(p.249) Interviews, particularly of residents but also of other key players in Battery Park City, provided rich articulation of residents’ views of their community, neighbors, and values. I interviewed thirty residents, often more than once, as well as others, including Battery Park City Authority employees, private and city-employed urban planners who worked on Battery Park City, and activists from outside the neighborhood who had worked on Battery Park City issues. Respondents were evenly split between men and women and ranged in age from thirty to seventy. Proportional to the two largest racial groups in Battery Park City, more than 15 percent were Asian and the rest were white. Most residents I interviewed had lived in Battery Park City during September 11 and moved back afterwards, though I interviewed some who had left because of September 11 and some who had arrived later, to see if there were differences of opinions between those groups and long-term residents. The choice of interview subjects was biased toward those who were active in Battery Park City’s public, political, and community life, particularly those active in the debates over redevelopment. This group was heavily weighted toward those who had been in Battery Park City for five years or more. About 20 percent of my respondents were less active members of the community whom I sought out using networks unconnected to contacts I had developed in Battery Park City, to compare their views to those of people who were more publicly visible.

Finally, I benefited immensely from several other sources: back issues of the local paper, the Battery Park City Broadsheet, offered not just an overview of community activity but a means to compare activity before and after September 11. Several opinion polls conducted during my research offered quantitative points of comparison to my qualitative findings regarding residents’ attitudes.1

Clearly, residents’ extended debates over the redevelopment of Battery Park City and the World Trade Center represent an exceptional period in the community’s history. But previous research I had done had shown me that understanding the effects of public space and design required examining a community at exceptional moments: most of the time space is a silent social structure, shaping the social landscape without being noticed by those who inhabit it. Only at moments such as this one, when city officials proposed reshaping the space, are residents forced to identify their preferences for the space, the value a design holds for them, and the connection between the spatial design of the neighborhood and their definition of the community.

While this period is in some ways exceptional because redevelopment (p.250) proposals fostered resident mobilization, activism is always periodic.2 Battery Park City residents’ mobilization in this period is comparable to previous activism there to preserve ball fields, mitigate large construction projects, influence park design, and relocate the ferry landing. Further, much of the activism I studied was based in groups formed before September 11. Thus resident activism in response to these redevelopment proposals was similar to that addressing earlier issues and provided an accurate indication of Battery Park City’s community activism at the high point of a cycle.

Using Real Names

A shift away from anonymity has been under way in sociological ethnography in recent years. Whereas all ethnographies used to change the names of respondents and even alter (albeit unconvincingly) the names of the cities in which the studies were set, many studies today are published using the real names of participants. Researchers are showing the Institutional Review Boards that oversee their work that changing people’s names is neither necessary nor sufficient for conducting ethical research. There are of course situations in which names must be disguised to protect anonymity, for instance when respondents discuss illicit activities such as drug dealing or civil disobedience plans, or when their participation could threaten their job or other relationships. But in many cases the need is less evident. Mitchell Duneier has made the most compelling case for using real names in Sidewalk: “To disclose the place and names of the people I have written about holds me up to a higher standard of evidence. Scholars and journalists may speak with these people, visit the site I have studied, or replicate aspects of my study. So my professional reputation depends on competent description.”3

I adopted Duneier’s convention of using real names. Though I felt strongly that real names should be used, in actuality I had no choice with many of my respondents. There was no disguising the terrorist attack across the street, or disguising the only state-sponsored luxury project nearby. From that point, it would not be difficult to identify the public figures I was studying: the head of the local Community Board, the editor of the local paper, the founder of a prominent opposition group. Doing so, more importantly, kept me honest, and I noted through the process of writing up my research that at several junctures writing with the knowledge that (p.251) people’s real names would be attached to their statements forced me to give those statements in a fuller context and to address their views more seriously and more respectfully than I could have had I simply sought anonymous quotes to support the prefabricated expectations provided me by the existent literature on citadels. In that respect I am confident that the use of real names made my research better.

Both Duneier and William F. Whyte (in a later edition of Whyte’s Street Corner Society that identified the neighborhood and the real names of the primary participants) noted that their informants generally didn’t care much about anonymity. People from the research sites rarely actually read the book, so respondents’ identities were kept unknown whether they wanted this or not.4

Rather than protecting informants, as Duneier writes, “when I have asked myself whom I am protecting by refusing to disclose the names, the answer has always been me.”5 As someone who did earlier research with great anxiety about showing people what I had written about them, this observation of Duneier’s has always resonated with me. Hiding the author from respondents has indeed seemed a tempting feature of using pseudonyms.

That said, the tendency to use real names in ethnographic research has become established enough that I feel comfortable also offering a caution. In looking at my own work and the work of others, I suspect there is a degree of analytical rigor more easily achieved with pseudonyms than with real names. Analyzing a situation, in the way that is one of the fundamental distinctions between ethnography and journalism, happens more readily when respondents have been partially abstracted. Part of what changing a name from Philadelphia to “Eastern City” signifies is that the conclusions about race relations from that study are not simply the idiosyncratic findings of a particular place but more abstract truths generalizable to the race relations of a range of eastern cities, or even the country as a whole. As I noted in the introduction, writing critically about people one becomes close to is difficult, and a critical stance is easier to maintain against more distant, abstracted actors than against closer acquaintances. In the end, I believe I gained more by using real names than I lost, but there is a cost to either choice, between the verisimilitude and honest representation of real names and the trenchant criticism and rhetorical power that can be unleashed against people hidden behind pseudonyms.

There are of course cases when anonymity is preferable or necessary. I certainly hope I have adequately protected my informants, and I have not (p.252) used real names whenever a respondent expressed that preference (I gave them an explicit choice) or when I judged it more judicious not to use a name. But by appearing in these pages as who they are, the residents of Battery Park City present themselves more honestly and provide, I hope, a more unvarnished truth.

Notes:

(1.) Battery Park City United, unpublished data from online poll, 2003 (see ch. 7, n. 4 above); Community Board 1, “Downtown Residential Poll,” 2004; Friends of Community Board 1, “CB1.org Survey,” 2003; J. Trichter and C. Paige, “The Rebuilding of Lower Manhattan: As Plans Progress, Lower Manhattan Residents Evaluate,” Pace Poll Report, Pace University, March 15, 2004.

(2.) Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1978); Verta Taylor, “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance,” American Sociological Review 54 (1989): 761–​75.

(3.) Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 348.

(4.) William Foote Whyte, Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993, 1943). An interesting example of pseudonyms: both Whyte and Elijah Anderson call the city they are researching “Eastern City,” yet Whyte’s is recognizably Boston just as Anderson’s is clearly Philadelphia.