Dum (Sociology/Kent State Univ.) debuts with an ethnographic study of a year in the life of a residential motel.
In this revealing, rigorously academic work, the author tells the stories of “social refugees”—marginalized people including the mentally ill, disabled individuals, addicts, and registered sex offenders—living in the Boardwalk Motel, a squalid two-story building located in pseudonymous Dutchland, an affluent white suburban community. Some townspeople call Boardwalk “the pedophile motel.” For residents, arriving from prisons, shelters, and the back seats of cars, it is “a location of last resort for poor individuals in search of affordable housing.” With great courage and empathy, Dum rented a room, hung out in this “dumping ground for those deemed socially unacceptable,” and befriended many residents, observing their daily struggles to survive in a culture centered on substance abuse. He takes pains to describe the stigma and stereotype facing residents; local critics ultimately succeeded in “sanitizing,” or closing, the motel over code violations. “The stigma of the motel was so blinding that they were unable to see residents as human beings,” writes Dum. By giving voice to the residents, the author allows readers to understand their humanity and their surprisingly vibrant culture, with its many moments of sharing, caring, and community. Dum describes the motel’s underground economy, the sometimes strained relations between residents, and how some individuals created unique identities: one man, working on scrap metal in his room, considered himself an entrepreneur; a couple referred to their room as a studio apartment. The author places the painful experiences of these residents in the larger societal context: rising rates of incarceration, foreclosures, evictions, and homelessness have in recent years turned many nonchain motels into shelters for the marginalized.
Dum’s scholarly apparatus is on full display, which will please specialists but should not deter general readers. His exceptional view of what’s happening to the weakest among us deserves a place on the same shelf with Matthew Desmond’s groundbreaking book Evicted (2016).