Urban Conditions and Street Gangs In the United States

Gangs are not a recent phenomenon. Since the late 1700’s, street gangs have grown to become a permanent part of the American landscape. The gang label has been widely applied to various groups including prison inmates, organized criminals, outlaws of the 19th century American west and groups of inner city youths (Alonso 2004).
The sociological study of gangs dates back to Thrasher’s classic study in 1927 in which he attributed the rapid proliferation of gangs to the social conditions of urban cities in nineteenth century United States of America (US). In fact, Thrasher’s seminal work (1927) paved the way for subsequent theories and classic sociological studies on gangs from diverse perspectives. Cohen (1995), for example, pointed out that the emergence of gangs was a result of lower socioeconomic youths who responded to their exclusion from mainstream middle class culture by forming their own gangs. In a similar vein, Miller (1974) argued that criminal activities and gang formation were behavioural manifestations of focal concerns such as excitement, trouble, anxiety and fate.

In recent years, the expansion of the gang problem in the US and to other localities such as the United Kingdom (UK) has led to a renewed academic interest in gangs and gang culture (Covey, Menard and Franzese, 1997). Scholars and academics have adopted a number of theoretical approaches in attempts to understand the formation and development of street gangs in modern society. In particular, they have addressed the relationship between urban conditions and street gangs.
In order to shed some light on gangs in modern society, this paper explores the relationship between urban conditions and street gangs in the US. This paper will first outline the history of gangs in the US since the 1950s, and subsequently address the factors that have been associated with the development of gangs. Following this, the paper will critically analyse different positions and perspectives that link street gangs in the US to urban conditions. The main position of this author will be one of drawing together multiple theoretical approaches and empirical findings to reach a conclusion that highlights the multi-dimensional and complex nature of gangs and their formation.
The history of gang formation in the US dates back to 1783 following the revolutionary war (Bourgois 2003). It has been argued that the main trigger for gang formation was the immigration of various groups into the US. The main entry of immigrants to the United States was New York City’s Ellis Island (Bourgois 2003). The first immigrants to arrive in the early 1600s were the Dutch immigrants who, according to Bourgois (2003), stole Manhattan Island from the native population who resided, hunted and fished in the island. The Lower East Side of the city was also inhabited by the Irish immigrants thereby ensuing political, economic and social disorganization.
On the East coast, street gangs developed in three distinctive phases. The first phase emerged after the revolutionary war of 1783 (Bourgois 2003). These groups of gangs were not seasoned criminals but rather groups of youths fighting over local turf. The more serious gangs emerged in the second phase around 1820, when immigration had begun to pick up in New York City (Bourgois 2003). Gangs constituted members of the same race and ethnicity who joined together for protection purposes and recreation, as well as for financial gain.
The third wave ensued during the 1930s and 1940s as more Black and Latinos continued to arrive in large numbers. Soon, as Gannon (1967) notes, a large percentage of the street gangs in New York had grown to become mainly the Puerto Ricans or Blacks.
Since this third wave of gangs in the 1940s, gangs have grown considerably in numbers in the urban cities in the US. Due to the proliferation of large-scale migration to urban cities, most of the gangs have grown rapidly (Mincie 1999). For example, after the slum clearance project of the 1950s, thousands of African American and Poor Puerto Rican families migrated to high rise public housing in East Harlem making it one of the most concentrated foci of dislocated poverty in New York City (Mincie 1999).
The majority of gang-dominated neighbourhoods in the urban cities of the US are now characterized by a lack of economic opportunities, inadequate city services, poverty and struggling school systems (Alonso 2004). The barrios of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are viewed as the stereotypical homes to these gangs (Alonso 2004). The current climate is one where African American gangs have garnered considerable public attention and has been widely recognized as a prevalent social problem (Alonso 2004).
Researchers have studied the factors involved in gang formation from a number of psychological, sociological and criminological perspectives (Thornberry, Krohm, et al., 2003; Vigil, 1988).
The first models of gang formation emerged from the followers of the Chicago school of thought in the 1920s and rely on cultural ecological models (Thrasher, 1927). These models posited that the formation of street gangs was a direct result of a environmental and social factors in which gangs were much more likely to form in parts of the city which were characterized as more geographically and socially interstitial and areas that experienced social disorganization such as deteriorating homes and high numbers of immigrants. In these contexts and conditions, Thrasher (1927) argued that the competition, isolation and conflicts occurring between individuals result in the formation of gangs. In other words, environmental factors emanating from the urban landscape play a key factor in the formation of gangs.
On the other hand, Wilson’s (1987) “underclass” theory argues that individuals who come from income deprived families and those that lack legal employment opportunities are more likely to turn to illegal or deviant activities. In the US, for example, the transition from a manufacturing to a service based economy in US during the 1970s led to drastic changes on the economic conditions, reducing the demand for low skilled workers in the service oriented industry and restricting their access to labour market, thereby blocking their upward mobility which resulted in the new “underclass” (Alonso 2004). In response, members of the underclass relied on gangs for protection of welfare and for financial gain. Undeniably, there seems to be a strong correlation between urban conditions in the US and gang formations.
Another school of thought suggests that other factors are at play in the formation of gangs. Debarbieux and Baya (2008) for example, suggested that gangs emerge from high concentrations of highly rebellious students from difficult schools. In this approach, gangs are formed when rebellious and anti-social students are excluded from school for disciplinary reasons. It is the suspension or exclusion that then allows the gang formation to be strengthened. A related approach sees peer factors as playing the strongest role in gang formation. Battin et.al (1998), in their study of stable and transient gangs in the US, revealed that the combination of a high level of interaction with delinquent peers in an unsupervised fashion leads to gang formation. Support for this position has emerged from early studies that have demonstrated that gang formation grows out of interaction and subsequent conflict among groups of young adolescents (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960).
Opposing schools of thought and perspectives on the factors involved in gang formation have led some researchers to adopt a “multiple marginality perspective” (Vigil, 1988) in which there is no single factor that leads to gang formation but a complex interaction between a host of factors that include Thrasher’s environmental and social factors, peer factors, school factors and other factors such as low-income and mother-centered homes. It is with such a multi-dimensional perspective that this essay now critically examines the relationship between urban conditions and street gangs in the US.
There is a large body of evidence and theoretical statements that point to a clear relationship between urban conditions in the US and street gangs. The earliest evidence can be traced to Thrasher’s (1927) aforementioned observations on urban conditions and street gangs that have been preceded by further empirical research and statistics. For example, more than three fourths of cities surveyed by Howell (1998) reported proliferation of youth gangs in urban areas. The highest level of gang activity was reported in the larger cities which accounted for 74%, followed by the suburban counties with 57%, while the small cities and rural counties reported 34% and 25% of gang activity (Howell 1998). Moreover, several scholars such as Sullivan (1989), Drecker (1996) and Bursik & Grasmick (1993) have agreed that postindustrial urban conditions are largely responsible for gang development.
In fact, the image of gang youths in America has traditionally been characterized by urban economic marginalization and social disorganization. The urban poor ghetto, the slum dwellers, the economically deprived, the “underclass” neighbourhood and “socially isolated” inner city are some of the common phrases that have become popular in the discourse on urbanism and gang formation in US as well as in media portrayals (Alonso 2004). Street gang activity is widely depicted as a signature attribute of ghetto life.
Whilst the majority of gang activity is said to occur in the urban areas, it must be noted that the distribution of such gangs in capital cities varies greatly. Youth gangs are especially more common in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago. Chicago was estimated to have nearly 132 gangs with estimated gang members of between 30,000 and 50,000 in 1996 (Howell 1998). The four largest and criminally active gangs in Chicago were mainly: the Latin Disciples, the Black Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings (Howell 1998). These groups of gangsters accounted for more than two thirds of all gang crimes in Chicago. In Los Angeles, it was estimated that more than 58,000 gang members thrived in the city, making it the largest city in US with the largest number of gang members (Howell 1998). The recent estimates of 2007 indicate that Los Angeles have nearly 1,350 street gangs with more than 175,000 gang members (Annual report 2007). Nevertheless, gang manifestation in the US is indeed an urban condition.
However, whilst there is no doubt that urban conditions in the US do play a role in street gangs and early studies have provided a rich source of evidence, studies that have followed the Chicago school of thought have often failed to probe deeper into the issues of street gangs. Although urban conditions have been discussed in detail, there has been a failure to understand how factors such as race and gender may be important. For example, in the former, whilst researchers observed the extreme conditions of poverty in Chicago, there were few attempts to link racism and discriminatory practices to the formation of gangs (Alonso, 2004). Similarly, in the latter case of gender, there have been few systematic studies that have investigated the formation and development of female gangs despite their increase in recent years. Recent survey research has indicated, for example, that one third of youth street gang members are girls (Esbensen and Winfree, 1998) and that girls who join gangs are in search of a critical “peer familial group” (Giordano, 1978; Harris, 1988). Taken together, it seems that one of the major shortcomings of an overemphasis on urban conditions is the risk of ignoring the role of other factors. Moreover, there are also methodological issues associated with many studies focusing on urban conditions. For example, general surveys that examine youth gangs have a tendency to be limited to specific locations that do not have diverse and representative populations, such has the longitudinal studies by Thornberry et al, 1993, and often do not take into account the presence of gangs in rural areas (Winfree, Vigil-Backstrom and Mays, 1994). In addition, few studies have focused on identifying more detailed knowledge on gangs such as Battin-Pearson and colleagues (1997) who differentiated between “transient” gangs (members for 1 year or less) and “stable” gangs (members for 2 or more years)
In regards to Wilson’s “underclass” theory, Miller (1974) provided evidence of an association between street gangs in the US with individuals from the urban lower class. In a similar vein, Spergel (1995) associated youth gangs with the urban lower class, but with an important caveat. Spergel (1995) argued that, while contemporary youth gangs in the US were mainly located in lower-class, slum ghetto; it was not clear that poverty, class, race, culture or ethnicity primarily accounted for the rising gang problems. In other words,
Despite the fact that gang formation in the US is primarily seen as a result of a postindustrial urban conditions characterized by the urban poor ghetto, the slum dwellers, the economically deprived, and the “underclass” neighbourhood, this is not the entire picture. For example, according to Klein (1995), there are 77 variables that distinguish gang members from the general population. Urban conditions therefore represent only a minority of a host of factors. For example, gangs often form as a result of the characteristics of individual members rather than urban conditions. The overarching influence of peers may result in a number of youths joining youth gangs as evidenced by findings that the strongest predictors of gang affiliation are the levels of interaction with antisocial peers (Battin-Pearson, 1997). Research has also indicated that compared to non-gang members, gang members suffer from lower self-esteem and are more likely to hold anti-social beliefs (Maxson, Whitlock and Klein, 1998; Moffitt, 1993).
These personal factors belong to the group of “risk factors” that play an important role in gang formation and development and are largely ignored by hypotheses of urban conditions. Other risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of joining a gang include alcohol and drug use (Huzinga and Lovegrove, 2009; Thorberry, Krohn et al, 2003), mental health problems such as conduct disorder and depression (Howell and Egley, 2005), and negative life events (Thornberry, Krohn et al, 2003). Although these risk factors do not directly cause gang formation or crime, they are likely to cumulatively increase probabilities.
Due to the wide variety of causal and risk factors that have been proposed for gang formation in the US, one major limitation of research on gangs in the US lies in the ability to extrapolate findings to other countries facing increasing gang crime such as the UK. However, it is interesting to note that following the rioting and gang crime in the UK last year, David Cameron brought in high profile experts in American gang crime because many see the Americanized gang culture as having set the precedence for other countries (Guardian 2011). Future research should therefore focus on more cross-cultural areas of enquiry so that universal initiatives can be developed and applied across the globe.
Over the course of this essay, it has become apparent that the dynamics of gang formation are complex and that there are numerous risk and causal factors that contribute to gang formation. Although there is considerable evidence in favour of urban conditions and socially disorganised conditions being responsible for gang formation, it is important to highlight that gang membership is not exclusively an urban poor phenomenon and that many other factors come into play. It may therefore, be argued that adopting a multi-perspective approach such as Vigil’s (1988) “multiple marginality perspective” is the way forward for theory, policy and most importantly, practice.
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