Elijah Anderson. Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990
Date: Wed, Feb 2000
Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, by Elijah
Anderson. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990
reviewed by: Clayton Cobb <email@example.com>
Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community by, Elijah
Anderson, was written as his fourteen year (1975-1989) case study in which
he explored the area of Village-Northton, which encompasses two
communities- one Black and low income to very poor, the other racially
mixed, but becoming increasingly middle to upper income and
White. Anderson's focus is on the nature of the street life and public
culture, how this diverse group of people "got it on" or related to one
another in public settings. He explores the dilemma of both Blacks and
Whites, the ghetto poor and the middle class, caught up in a struggle for
comity and equality while living in an urban environment. Anderson deals
with the political and social issues we have discussed in class such as:
public vs private education, gentrification, youth culture, socioeconomics
and the ramifications of poverty, violence and drugs.
The bulk of Streetwise: Race, Class and Change in an Urban Community
focuses on Northton, a low income Black community located in the large
northeastern industrial city of Philadelphia. The logic of racial
oppression has left the Northton area poverty stricken and devoid of middle
class leadership. Highly educated Blacks have abandoned the community in
search of professional opportunities in corporate America and the
realization of the American dream in elite residential suburbs. The Black
residents who remain are locked in a culture of poverty by declining
opportunities for meaningful employment in the economy of the central city.
For many young Blacks, the underground economy appears to be the only
escape from a life of destitution. Drugs have become a threat to health
and safety in the community. Anderson's book contains interviews with
young Black people who are caught up in a world of drugs and violence.
These stories reveal a serious breakdown in relations between "old heads"
(Old Black men) defined by Anderson as "a man of stable means who believed
in hard work, family life, and the church (female old heads, grand motherly
types who were seen as wise and mature figures in the community were
equally important) and "young heads" young Black men. The sense of trust
and confidence that allows old heads to lead young heads to manhood and
instill within in them a sense of purpose has been replaced by alienation
and profound disrespect. For a new role model is emerging and competing
with the traditional old head for the hearts and minds of young boys. He
is young, often the product of the street gang, and indifferent to the law
and traditional values. Anderson points out that young Black men and women
are now forced to live in a different world, one in which their presence on
the street is considered menacing to society. In this world, young women
are addicted to crack and become teenage mothers, and young men drop out of
school and become immersed in a life of crime during the early stages of
their lives. To survive in this world, they learn the laws and etiquette
of the streets.
Young Black males, dressed in the uniforms of jogging suits, expensive
tennis shoes, and heavy gold chains frighten the older Black residents of
the ghetto, the Black middle class and their upper class White counterparts
in the neighboring suburb. They like to walk around looking as mean as
they can, because these young Black males are powerless in the larger world
of wealth and power, they rule the smaller world of street interactions and
Anderson portrays these young men with an urgency to be accepted among
their peers, so they adopt their youth culture and take on the street
mannerisms that, to Whites, label them as dangerous and threatening.
Anderson's account of sex codes and what it is like to be young, Black and
female is equally powerful. Sexually active by the age of twelve, many
girls in the Village-Northton ghetto have their first babies by the age of
fifteen or sixteen. The fathers of these babies wander off with other
males bragging about his sexual exploits (again seen as youth culture),
leaving the girls to turn to her on family and her peer group for
support. The fact of children having children thus becomes an element of
life in the neighborhood, as girls praise each other's babies and give what
support they can to each other. Anderson points out that having babies
becomes the only thing of value in a girl's life, and these young mothers
often feel the need to dress her baby in the latest and most expensive
clothes that fit rather than a size larger that the baby can grow into. As
time goes by the baby, who was once important to the young mothers, becomes
a burden, an obstacle to fun and to further sexual adventure. Young
mothers may tire of the work involved, thus creating a special role for
grandmothers, some of them in their mid-thirties, who may often take on the
responsibility of raising the child as one of their own. Obviously this is
not the case of all families in the Village-Northton ghetto, for there are
stable families in even the most desperate neighborhoods, and not all
fathers will abandon their roles as fathers. But the overall pattern is
one that seems destined to produce infants, who will often reproduce the
despair of their own childhoods, or lack of childhoods.
No other aspect of life in the Village- Northton ghetto is more chilling
than the influence of drugs, particularly crack cocaine. Crack destroys
everything that makes a viable community possible. Friendships and trust
are turned into mechanisms for hooking new addicts. Crack "zombies," in
Anderson's account become more desperate and more dangerous than what used
to be called "junkies," for they approach crime with a new boldness. As
Anderson writes, "They seem to lack a sense of reality and the immediate
consequences of their behavior." The drug crisis has given rise to addicts
who scavenge the area with sad tales, or who aggressively beg for
money. Some even go door to door, alarming residents. These people also
commit a large amount of the local crime, so residents believe. But unlike
ordinary thieves and muggers, crack addicts are desperate people who are
not always sensible, and they make take chances ordinary criminals would
not risk, thus making the streets and public spaces increasingly
dangerous. The old heads and strong women of this community look on in
shock and dismay as crack establishes a new status hierarchy in the community.
In the Village-Northton area, at least two distinct but overlapping
cultures give the appearance of coexisting in relative peace. The first
comprises the middle class Whites, along with a small number of middle
class Blacks and others. Compared with most of their Black neighbors,
these people appear highly privileged. Some have money, and many are well
educated, having grown up in suburban communities and attended some of the
finest preparatory schools, colleges and universities in the country. Most
residents are liberal on social issues, but the rise in Black-on-White
street crime pushes many toward a more conservative stance, in which racial
intolerance often emerges. Generally, Villagers are concerned with "good"
education for their children, a clean and safe neighborhood, property
values, and intolerance toward people who are different from them or deemed
less fortunate. Thus many people, particularly recently arrived Whites,
see residents of the Black ghetto as desperate and perhaps dangerous and
feel a need to protect themselves. In regards to education, they are
blinded by the assumption that all public schools are inferior, and they
readily send their children to private schools, bypassing important
opportunities for community involvement. Eventually they move to the
suburbs for the schools.
The picture that Anderson paints in Streetwise is not of Black
underdevelopment and misdirection in the Village-Northton ghetto, but of a
pattern of social isolation and racial oppression affecting the social,
economic, and political development of Black communities across
America. The efforts of the government must encourage the private sector
to take the initiative to take an interest in the poverty stricken
inner-city neighborhoods and do things they may normally consider as beyond
the call of duty, and the Black residents of inner cities should look to
better themselves, they should want more than to rule the ghetto, but to
rule the world, for the welfare of our cities is at stake.
Streetwise, Elijah Anderson. University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Elijah Anderson tackles the always familiar, yet always changing concept
of race relations in America in his book, Streetwise. The focus is between
two econonomicly, socially, and racially different communities in the
Philadelphia area, and how the people attempt to co-exist with each other.
The study reflects on the changing faces of each community over time,
between the early 50's up to the beginning of the 1990's. Anderson focuses
upon the communities' variance of opinions toward the impact of drugs, sex
codes and family behavior, as well as the perception of the black male and
his role against his most notable adversary, the police. Rooted within
these differences is the examination of how both areas and their
inhabitants see themselves, and others.
Early in the story, Anderson makes relevant the fact that both communities
are supposedly subjected to the same problems, however, the black community
suffers the most over time. Today, (late 1980's) inhabitants of the
Northton area during its less turbulent times that have moved into the
suburbs face a continual onslaught of negative reaction from their white
counterparts in "The Village"; an area adjacent to Northton becoming
increasing upper class and white. Many of those in the Village that have
seen the deterioration of the Northton area generalize that blacks that
emigrate out of the area into more livable areas also bring their
'baggage'. Village whites believe this baggage, will slowly lower the land
value of their area whilst increasing crime and other community problems.
In this case, many outsiders of Northton are quick to point that "they"
(blacks) are the biggest threat to community safety and financial progress.
However, Anderson asserts that in areas such as Northton, a lack of
educational opportunities, moral values, and hope lead to a general lack of
respect toward people and property by younger generations of blacks. These
issues, along with the constant fear and unprecedented withdrawal by black
and white middle America has helped lead to total isolation of the black
underclass, causing many of the deplorable social and economic conditions
we see in numerous ghettos of urban America.
The political and social aspects of life within both communities is what
Anderson focuses his analyses upon. Northton is a predominantly lower
income African American community, whereas The Village is economically
becoming a completely a white middle and upper class community. In order
for the reader to understand the strife between the areas, Anderson
stresses the opinions of the "street", namely those who live in the
Northton area. The responses of many in the Northton community only
reiterate the idea that America as a whole has given up on them. Without
sufficient opportunities for many to empower themselves, a problematic
cycle emerges in areas that need the most support from the neighboring
communities, as well as others. Black middle class individuals that have
left the area for "greener pastures" in the suburbs create a vacuum to those
that used to live in the black neighborhoods. With no strong black role
models to look up to, many of the Northton youth find themselves going down
the illegitimate path to find respect and stability. Most youth in the
Northton area found their success through drugs and violence. The drug
problem is examined, and the book begins to make firm assertions about why
such issues are evident. The heightened deterioration of the black
community stems from the introduction of crack cocaine in the early 1980's.
Anderson makes the claim that cocaine is the most visible and volatile icon
that has led to greater destruction of the black community. With its
increasing number of addicts, 'crack' causes individuals to "do things they
would never usually do--like steal or even kill family in order to sustain
their addictions. The drug becomes the most important object to the users
and sellers, and only deteriorates the image and vitality of the community
by attracting younger victims. This cycle is what seemingly dooms the black
community more than any other.
However rousing and true, Anderson makes the mistake of making most of his
comments from the view of the black community. This subjectivity makes the
book a bit more frustrating to a black male--such as myself. There are
massive generalizations of "crack whores" and "drug pushers" that the
reader must almost forcibly assume that they are black. We
are perceiving to understand that this is strictly a black problem that
only affects African Americans in predominantly low income black
communities. The fact is that these problems are extremely universal. Mass
media has a tendency to shine the spotlight upon the problems of African
Americans. White America has constantly seen "race relations" as a
"them-us" issue. It never seems to be a "we" issue.
Along with the problem of drugs, the family structure falters as younger
adults that already have no legitimate financial opportunities in their
area resort to those of
the illegal means (drugs, prostitution, wedlock). Biological and surrogate
parents lose a grip upon their children to the streets. In addition, the
older citizens of Northton, that have lived through the progress and the
debacle of the community, are often less respected
and become targets of anger .Families begin to break apart, and the
community loses more continuity.
The remaining chapters of Streetwise show what Northton looks like to the
outsiders. Although he continues to chronicle the issues of violence and
racism between the two communities, the following chapters speak of those
living around Northton, The perception of the black male to others, namely
whites, and the conflict between the police and the black male. Anderson is
able to extract the opinions of many in the white community, and as
expected, man of them are the same. Village whites continually used the
reference that race relations is strictly "them versus us" analogy.
Anderson writes about constant bouts of fear and uncertainty by many
Villagers that must commute through the Northton area. In a move that is no
less ironic, middle class blacks of Northton had also shown the same
sentiment. Sometimes, that sentiment was more aggressive that that of their
white counterparts. It is here that one can understand the burgeoning rift
between that of the black middle class and black underclass. Although the
problems are evident, Anderson stays true to the "streetwise"
interpretations of how things are seen and done by those that live between
In an idea that goes beyond streetwise, the suburban white community has
tried to flee the problems of the ghetto, however increasing numbers of
predominantly young white males and growing numbers of females are grabbing
on to the "ghetto" lifestyle and mentality. Numerous scores of suburban
white males are attempting to identify with what they see as the "hip"
things to them as conversely tragic problems in many black communities. In
this sense, it is beyond streetwise. White males and females see "hustlin",
ballin", and drug usage, among other negative staples of the black
community areas as interesting and compelling. It has provoked a greater
sense of violence and disrespect toward authority in many suburban
households. Pop culture has constantly glorified this image as being cool.
It's almost as if many of them want to portray these images and characters
they only see. One major difference---they only see it on television and
print media, many do not live in such areas. If one looks around any local
mall, especially in the suburbs, it is truly staggering. A problem that
many in the black community are trying to escape is the same one that
suburban america finds hugely entertaining, profitable, and popular. As
the issue becomes more pronounced, it will be interesting to see how
suburban America handles this growing problem in their neighborhoods.
In Streetwise, Anderson chronicles the racially dominant problems in the
paper, such as interaction and social differences in attitudes and actions.
Towards the conclusion of the book, we find that Anderson sheds a racial
'silver lining' across what seems to be a never ending problem to those
living in such areas. Anderson's mission in Streetwise is to show that in
spite of many of us have differing backgrounds and the living conditions,
there exists a medium. That medium is to attain knowledge of those that
live in both areas. This knowledge, helps for each member of Northton and
the Village, among others, to at least make strides to understand the
cries, fears, and issues of each community. Such simple knowledge may help
lead to lessened amounts of white flight, drug usage, and black on black
crime. Seemingly it is a proverbial long shot, but it is a legitimate try.
The message is entrenched in the fact that whites must do a better job of
not withdrawing, but understanding the code of the street. A community is
only as good as its people. Sometimes it takes the help of many areas to
help resurrect one that has fallen by the wayside. The knowledge of being
"streetwise" may not tear all the barriers down between the two races, but
it may provide a firm foundation to build from in the always changing and
highly frustrating issues of race, social and economic relations within
urban and suburban America.
Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community by Elijah Anderson
Every day a number of us walk down a street or into a grocery store and upon
doing this we encounter people. These people are of a mixed race, gender, and
socioeconomic status, but most of them are simply doing the same things we are
doing, going to an appointment or buying a gallon of milk. But many of us take
a mental inventory of these people. We look at their clothes, their shoes,
their faces for signs of similarities or differences, and if we decide there is
something different we may look longer. The question is what are we looking
for? Signs that the person could be a threat or a nuisance is often the
answer. In the Village-Northton community the question is asked often and the
answers are unsettling. The community in question is racially and economically
diversified and the residents living within the communities are learning how to
live with one another in a quickly changing area.
Village-Northton is a fictitious name for an area near a larger, industrial
city that houses universities, factories, corporations, and a large
population. The Village is an area of racially mixed middle to upper class
residents. The Village range from residents of more than twenty years to newly
arrived yuppies that buy cheap and gentrify the areas. Residents of the
Village tend to have mixed feelings about the gentrification of the area. Many
see it as a boon, while others see it as insidious. The area is being cleaned
up and beautified, and property values are rising, but residents that cannot
afford the higher rents and property taxes are being forced out, often into
crime stricken ghettos. Village residents do not see their community as
perfect or crime free, but rather as a fairly safe community in which to raise
On the other hand, Northton is the antithesis of the Village. It is a crime
and poverty ridden area which is home to a large black population. Many of the
residents are working people who simply cannot afford life in the Village or
the suburbs, but are forced to reside in an area which poses a threat to their
well being. Unfortunately, not all residents of Northton are legitimate,
hardworking citizens; the problem of drugs runs rampant on the streets and in
the youth of Northton. Drug dealers can be found with ease, often spotted by
the street “uniform” of Adidas or Fila shoes and clothing, a hat, possibly
jewelry or a large radio. This uniform is the sign of ill-gotten gains and
many of the younger residents of Northton attempt to emulate these drug
dealers, beginning a life of crime that many cannot escape. Other residents of
Northton include welfare mothers, street gangs, and drug addicts, all of which
contribute to the problems of the community.
The problems that face Village-Northton are diverse, but most of the residents
believe the root of the problem is in drugs. Crack cocaine is blamed for
everything from street crime to unwanted pregnancy to unemployment and
justifiably so. Drug dealers look and act in a specific manner which may
either gain respect or disdain from neighbors and many young residents want to
imitate the dealers by dressing as the dealers do and dealing or running
errands for the dealers. The young residents see the dealers as a success
because they wear the proper clothes, wear expensive jewelry, and drive nice
cars and since most of the young people have no other role models, the drug
dealer becomes theirs. Babies and children go hungry because their mothers use
any money she gets to buy crack. Men and women turn to crime and aggressive
begging for money to get their highs. All of this makes Northton an unsafe and
undesirable community in which to live, although thousands live there.
The drug culture of Northton is also considered a threat to the Village.
Dealers move into the Village to peddle their goods and recruit young people to
join in the drug culture. Crack houses can be found filled with people who are
selling drugs and their bodies for money or a high. This affects the entire
joined community because problems in one area are certain to ooze into the
other. Residents attempt to control the drug problem with vigilantism and
police involvement, to some avail, but when some see the arrest of a drug
dealer as putting the man out of work, other issues must be encountered.
Although most residents consider the arrest of a drug dealer an improvement in
the drug situation, it is also understood that someone is waiting to take his
place the next day.
Race relations in the Village-Northton area range from neighborly to cordial to
unfriendly and beyond. Anderson, a resident of the village, attempts to
befriend many residents, black and white, as well as observe them from a
distance. He uses these interviews and observations to illustrate the
relations between the residents. He often refers to incidents in which a
single white woman is walking alone at night and she encounters one or several
black men. As a safety measure she will go onto a lit porch or begin walking
faster, and in response, the men will either laugh or assure the women that she
has nothing to fear. This incident is not one uncommon anywhere in America;
often fright will overpower common sense or any street wisdom the woman may
Anderson’s investigation of the Village-Northton area tends to focus most often
on the negative aspects of life. The declining housing opportunities, the
rising drug culture and the rise of other illegal activities contribute to this
unfavorable view, as well as the lack of job opportunities and legitimate role
models. Drug dealers who only care about themselves have replaced the old
heads of the past, the legitimate role models that have steady jobs and a good
family life. Residents of Northton are slowly turning to welfare and crime as
their income, rather than looking for a legitimate job, but the job
opportunities are limited to low paying jobs in fast food or other service
industries. Of course there are other residents of Northton who work long,
hard hours for their status in the community, who work to make life better for
their families and themselves, and those are the people who receive little
exposure. More disclosure should also be given to the old heads who are
attempting to steer the local children in the correct direction, to give them
some guidance when their parents are away or at work. These citizens look
after the kids, but now there is no one new to replace the aging old heads, the
younger men and women have turned to a simpler life of crime and drugs or they
simply do not have the time and energy to put into a local child. As the old
heads die or move, no one is there to replace them, which leads to a bleak
future for the local children.
The interactions between the police and the local black males are also seen in
a bad light. There is a distinction between local police and the city police
and the local police seem to be mostly helpful and aware of the problems in the
Village-Northton area. In this area “a young black male is a suspect until he
proves he is not. The burden of proof is not easily lifted.” (192) In
government classes we learn that a suspect is “innocent until proven guilty”
which is an absolute contradiction to the occurrences in the Village-Northton.
Anderson relates observations of how young, black men are constantly harassed
by the police even though these black men have every right to be where they
are. Also interesting is the way that these young, black men will defer to the
police when they do arrive. The young men will say “sir” and not look them in
the eye, many will abandon their usual type of dress, especially the “gangster
uniform” if he is constantly harassed, in order to gain some reprieve from the
unrelenting harassment. Some of these young men will quit wearing a coat or a
hat because someone else has one that is identical in order to avoid being
confused with someone else in the likelihood that a crime may be committed.
Most of these young, black men try to avoid the police if possible, but
sometimes the police seek out trouble. These officers were called Nazis by the
local people because of their size and attitudes as well as for their
brutality, and are often an unwelcome sight in the community.
Anderson clearly focuses on the largest problems of the Village-Northton
community, the poverty, drugs, lack of trust between blacks and whites, which
is a problem of any large city in America. The working class of America is
often banished to ghetto or low-income areas because the wealthy take their
homes in the name of gentrification. Most of the people of the Village lack
the street wisdom that is necessary to live in the city and especially in this
specific area where contact with people of other races occurs daily. Fear and
uncertainty are poorly hidden behind the faces of these residents who act out
of this fear of blacks rather than attempt to learn the street wisdom that
would enable them to live more comfortably in their community.
By placing some of the blame on the de-industrialization of Eastern City and
some of it on the federal government’s economic plans, Anderson tries to
explain why the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The
lack of low skill, low education jobs has moved away from the city leaving
unskilled, poorly educated workers without real job opportunities. They are
forced to work at fast food restaurants and other low paying jobs that rarely
pay enough to support themselves and not to mention a family. The government’s
discontinuation of many programs also contributes to the decline of the poor.
They no longer can rely on supplemental income from the government, which puts
these people in desperate situations, and they often turn to crime or they try
to leave their neighborhoods in search of better opportunities. The
opportunities of the poor diminish every time a wealthy person moves into the
Village and takes over another home, driving the property costs and property
taxes up and the less affluent residents into the ghettos. The fear that the
white people feel is often unnecessary because they lack the street wisdom to
differentiate between a black man who is going about his business and a black
youth who is looking for trouble. White people tend to group all blacks into
the category of trouble makers or drug dealers when there are so many different
categories of people, not only black, but also white, who are legitimate as
well as trouble causing members of society.
Anderson, a resident of the Village-Northton community, is a black man who
investigates the area by interviewing and observing the day-to-day happenings
of the people and the streets. He encounters drug addicts, police officers,
and “old heads”, all of which present and add interesting accounts to his
observations. Especially interesting is the manner in which these people
conduct themselves on the streets. Anderson labels this conduct either street
etiquette or street wisdom, which he likens to a scalpel and a hatchet by
stating that “one is capable of cutting extremely fine lines between vitally
different organs; the other can only make broader, more brutal strokes. (231)
This street etiquette and wisdom must be learned through experience and over
time, one cannot simply acquire this expertise. Street wisdom is essential if
one is to live and thrive in the Village-Northton community, and Anderson finds
several examples of street wisdom and the less distinctive street etiquette
throughout his years of observation. Both are tools of survival, but street
wisdom could also be a tool of community building and friendship, which is an
important tool in an area such as the Village-Northton where suspicion and
distrust follow many people everywhere they go.
In addition to the gaining of street wisdom is the hope that educational
opportunities will expand and government programs will be re-instated.
Anderson looks to education and skills training as a savior for the poor
residents of this community. The disparity between public schools and private
schools is a growing problem, but most residents are not able to send their
children to private schools, so these children are forced to go to school in
facilities that are old and dilapidated and to learn from teachers who are
inexperienced or out of touch with current educational ideas. These are the
few suggestions he poses on how to improve the Village-Northton situation and
these hold true for nearly any large city.
Review of Street Wise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community;
author, Elijah Anderson; by Erin k. Fennessey
How can the influence of drugs dealers, crack addicts, violent criminals, and abusive police officers on racial tension in an urban atmosphere be addressed ? STREET WISE addresses the problems associated with all of those issues by examining the levels of division and disparity that have emerged between two real communities consisting of a mostly black ghetto, fictitiously labeled Northton, and a mostly white but slightly more diverse neighboring middle class community, labeled the Village. Personal accounts from residents living in Northton and the Village illuminate some of the cultural barriers and harsh economic realities that separate these communities. However, it is the pervasive fear of violence that provides a common bond between these communities. Introduction of the drug economy, and the influence of rapid and extreme social changes in Northton and the Village over the last several decades have resulted in severe alienation between generations, social and economic classes, and racial groups. In an attempt to breach these detrimental divisions on a superficial level, the author, Anderson, proposes a brand of street wisdom that may help new inhabitants of the Village negotiate the menacing streets. In light of the severely crippling dilemmas these communities are faced with on a daily basis, the implementation of “street wise” behavior equates to the application of a Band-Aid on a wound that requires stitching
Anderson spends a great deal of time and effort explaining the dynamics of these two communities. From the early 1800’s to the present day, major social changes based on class and ethnic composition impacted the neighborhood. Every major social movement since the 1950’s left its mark on the attitudes and values espoused by the traditional Villager. Traditional villagers are a mixed lot left over from a society of Quakers, counterculturist from the 70’s, anti-war organizers, college students, professionals, and a working class who have long been committed to the neighborhood. The counterculture of the sixties and seventies is portrayed as an era in the Village when tolerance, individual expression, and relative racial harmony existed. Those values may have carried more weight within certain segments of society at the time, but bitter racism and inequalities have long been a part of the broad scope of American culture. Northton was a byproduct of economic development that resulted in racial segregation. As the Village organized to improve property values, Northton became a separate community composed of black residents who could no longer afford to pay for property upkeep and property taxes within the Village. The exhaustive coverage of the gradual division of a single community into two diametrical societies provides a backdrop for the underlying attitudes that affect the current relationship between the communities. Anderson tried to develop an historical framework that would explain the wide range of backgrounds and attitudes expressed by the different segments of society within the Village. The attempt to incorporate the expansive development of traditional and alternative belief systems within these two communities leaves the reader with a lot of information and very little substantive analysis.
An examination of the traditional relationships and social interaction between the “old heads”, older male role model figures, and the youth culture helps the reader identify with the people of Northton, and begin to understand the forceful impact the current social changes have had on the fabric of their community. Old heads traditionally represented a socializing force, outside of family relationships, responsible for teaching young men values such as, “commitment to honesty, hard work, independence, and family values,” (pp. 70). Strong criticism of today’s youth by old heads within the community is an example of the generation gap that has developed into a chasm between segments of the community. Community values and standard of behavior have ceased to be enforced by the older generation. Many people find themselves adapting to behavior that would otherwise be unacceptable, because they live in a constant state of fear. Drug related violence and petty crime forces people to deal with the young people in their community with fear and trepidation. Miss Porter, an older resident of the community, explains how she used to look out for the young people in the streets around her home. She assumed the responsibility of admonishing, and even on occasion spanking young children that strayed into inappropriate or dangerous behavior (pp. 74-75). Now adults feels inhibited from even speaking a harsh word to unsupervised youngsters causing trouble on their own doorsteps. Old heads in Northton find themselves trapped in the same precarious environment that often defeats the young people of their community. The pervasive use and sale of drugs transforms the casual social interaction that occurs in the course of every day life to become an element vital to survival. A void in the community was created by the breakdown of the role model relationship between working class adults and children. Traditional role models are now readily replaced with the appealing quick material benefits of the drug culture. The former sense of community that bound the people of Northton together deteriorated into estrangement between neighbors. In an attempt to explain this divergence, Anderson sights unemployment, the introduction of the drug economy, and the associated exit of the black middle class which traditionally acted as a, “stabilizing social force,” in the community as the key reasons the community has deteriorated into a ghetto( pp. 57). This very basic analysis identifies some of the key aspects that affect the community but it fails to comprehensively explain the vast discrepancy in values and culture over one or two generations.
Incidence of divorce, teenage pregnancy, and single parent families reliant on welfare to make ends meat have also played a detrimental role in the community of Northton. Anderson attributes these rising trends to the impact of poverty. Young men seek to gain as many conquest as possible without getting caught, while young women are left with unplanned and frequently unwanted pregnancies. Sometimes these patterns of behavior stem from a desire on the part of a young girl to provide a home of her own, preferably with the young man as a provider. Young women often find they are unable to convince the young father, or more importantly the fathers mother, to accept the baby. For the young fathers who do accept a baby as their own, the role of parenting is often carried out by infrequent contact, and perhaps intermittent monetary support. While this behavior is not initially acceptable to the young girls family, the addition of a baby into the family is usually accommodated though a support system that allows the mother to continue to engage in social interaction among her peers. Social interaction between young women who have babies has lead to a phenomenon described by Anderson as a, “baby club” ( pp. 123-124). Many young girls treat their babies like dolls dressed in new and expensive clothing which is shown off as a sign of status, even if they are surviving on welfare. The development of this new disjointed family unit tends to contribute to the overall burden of poverty in the community. Most of the children who fall prey to these circumstances are from single parent families themselves. Children raised in strict two parent families have a better chance of getting through their childhood without the complications of unwanted pregnancies, but the lure and availability of drugs in the community can undermine the strongest families desires to protect their children from becoming street kids.
Anderson’s observance of social interaction between these communities emphasizes the treatment of black males by society at large and by the police specifically. In contrast to the sometimes ingenious ways the residents of Northton have contrived to deal with the threat of crime in their community, an increasing majority of Villagers respond to young black males moving about their community with a level of fear that exacerbates the existing problems. When Villagers encounter young black males in their community, their common reactions range from obvious avoidance to wary recognition. Any reported incidence of harassment, mugging, rape, or murder circulates through the community, and leaves in its wake a tangible atmosphere of paranoia. A highly visible presence, and a guaranteed response by the local police tends to assuage the Villager’s rumpled sense of complacency. Local police officers response to crime in the community includes strict observance, and on occasion harassment of any young black males walking through the community. While the local police have established an uneasy working relationship around the young black males within the Village and Northton communities, the same can not be said about the state police force. Anderson interviewed several young men who reported serious instances of misconduct by state troopers visiting the Northton community. The tensions developed between the Village, Northton, and the police force result in cautious and sometimes ambivalent neighborhoods.
The true substance of this book lies in the recognition of grim social trends that have surfaced in some form or another in almost every American community. Anderson’s suggestion that modifying the social aspects of our behavior may help minimize racially based conflict resulting from typical day to day interactions with strangers is laughable. These vivid and insightful accounts of social interaction are valuable only insofar as they bring about reflection, recognition, and understanding of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that must be dealt with by the people of this nation. How many young people in our grade schools and high schools will be directly and indirectly affected by drugs? How many junior high and high school classes can count single parents among their peers? From identifying the new importance of fashions recognizable as “street wear,” to the observance of young women and their babies socializing with peers, the trends observed in these two communities over the last few decades provide snapshots of significant widespread cultural trends in America. Other than a minimal reference to the necessity of action from Washington to resolve some of the problems in the Northton community, no viable solutions are recognized or recommended. Street wisdom may or may not help a few people adapt to urban life without becoming a victim of crime, but the demoralizing forces of racial prejudice, crime, violence, and the influence of the drug culture on lower income urban communities should not be brushed aside without attempting to formulate a meaningful analysis.
Streetwise by Elijah Anderson
Elijah Anderson’s book about the communities of “Northton” and “the Village”
was an interesting take on the problems which face racially mixed urban
communities. Mr. Anderson provided a detailed historical account of the area
and then proceeded to analyze some of the problems that occur in these
communities. These problems, as seen through Anderson’s eyes, include a
growing distrust amongst all of the races, a decreasing amount of role models
for the young black population, and a lack of what Anderson calls “street
etiquette” among the white population. However, Mr. Anderson never gives a
solution to the problems he presents. He never gives any possible answers and
instead seems to place blame on one group.
One of the aspects I found very interesting in Anderson’s analysis of the area
is in his description of the area only twenty, thirty years before the events
he goes into more depth. Before becoming an area full of racial tension,
Anderson describes the area as being racially diverse and harmonious. He
includes interviews from people of all races discussing the openness of the
area. From this environment, through a process of relocation and a series of
events, the area slowly becomes one with growing hostilities amongst the
races. As time moves on, the area changes from one of tolerance to one of
Anderson provides some interesting examples proving how the two races seemed to
separate thus creating tensions between. One such example involved the Village
school. The racial make-up of the school was 60% back, 40% white. These two
races took classes together and as such, tolerance was apparently achieved.
Then the school changed the way it taught their students. They split their
classes into “open” and “traditional” classrooms as education progressed.
However, according to Anderson the black families did not want their children
to fall behind in classwork. Therefore, instead of progressing with the
school, they kept their children in the traditional classrooms. Most white
families did the exact opposite therefore causing a form of unforced
As these children grew up, Anderson discusses the fact that black children
seemed to loose their role models. What Anderson calls “old heads” and “old
hens,” older men and women who would guide the children as they grew up
teaching them how they should behave. They acted as role models for the
younger generations. As drugs and other criminal activities began to encroach
upon the area, the faces of these role models changed. Suddenly, the
hard-working, older generation did not seem as glamorous and secure. Instead,
the flashy clothes, cars and jewelry of the drug dealers seemed better.
Therefore, the younger generation seemed more successful providing a new form
of role models.
Anderson also discusses how white people seem to lack what he calls “street
wisdom” or “street etiquette.” He explains that, “one gains street wisdom
through a long and sometimes arduous process that begins with a certain
‘uptightness’ about the urban environment, with decisions based on stereotypes
and simple rules of public etiquette.” (Anderson, Streetwise, p. 6) This is in
part his solution to the problems of the racial tensions in Northton and the
Village. In a sense, he blames white people for not having more street
wisdom. In the book, he seems to imply that if white people had more street
wisdom, all races would be able to live together with the same level of
tolerance as the area had thirty years ago.
Anderson provides several examples of what street wisdom is. For example,
owning a dog is a form of street wisdom. Because, as he states, black people
are afraid of dogs, if a white person wants to keep away from trouble, he walks
a dog whenever he walks around the neighborhood. He keeps a dog at home to
ward away those who would rob his home. He does these things and in doing so,
decreases his risk of becoming a victim.
Another example would be altering the route you take when travelling to a
destination such as a store, bank, or bus stop. Anderson provides an anecdote
about an elderly woman who now walks with a cane and has altered her route
based on a time when she was mugged while walking to a grocery store. This
woman has taken an incident and learned from it. She has altered her route and
carries a cane making her less of a victim. Therefore, she has become more
A third example of what one does to become more streetwise is always carrying
some money in one’s wallet or purse. By doing so, when one is mugged, they
have some money to give to the attackers, therefore decreasing the chance that
any other sort of harm would come to him or her. One becomes more streetwise
when one learns to take these different sorts of protective measures.
Everything from owning a dog, altering your walking route, and carrying money
in case you were to be mugged are examples Anderson uses to prove one’s street
wisdom. However, Anderson seems to miss a major point here.
Anderson refers to the times gone by when the races live in harmony many times
throughout the book. Yet the “wise” white people who are providing the
examples Anderson uses are not promoting the same things. Anderson states
that, “the central strategy in maintaining safety on the streets is to avoid
strange black males.” (Anderson, p. 208) This is not the same feel for the
area in the past that Anderson gives. On one end, he seems to be aiming for
that as an ideal, yet he seems to promote further segregation of the races.
When the white man walks his dog as protection from the black man, he is
further pushing the two races apart. The same is true for the woman who
changes her route in order to avoid the black man who may be down one street.
When the man carries money for the sole purpose of being mugged, he is implying
that the black men are going to do this and therefore drives yet another wedge
between the two races.
As I read the book, I could not help but get a sense that nobody in this area
had a sense of having something of their own. Because of the racial borders
that seemed to divide Northton, blacks in the area seemed not to have a sense
of ownership in the area. There is not a sense that they feel as though they
belong there. They seem to be very protective of what they feel they may
loose. In addition to this, the white people of the area do not seem
comfortable there either. They seem to be afraid and always living in fear.
They seem to be afraid of the black people in the area just as the black people
in the area seem to be afraid of the whites.
Overall, I found this book interesting. I felt as though Anderson provided an
interesting perspective on the area. I appreciated the history of the area,
but was glad when he began to actually analyze the current relations. I did
not like the conclusion about white people being streetwise. I feel as though
there were other solutions to the racial tensions that existed. It seemed to
me as though he blamed one race for the entire problem and I disagree with this
aspect of his analysis.
Erin Fennessey's review of Streetwise is a well-written overview of key themes to Anderson's book. Simultaneously this review seems to synthesize several central concepts pervading the discussions of POS 334 thus far. The two communities of Northton and the village both suffered the results of poor economic and community development. As with the story of Canarsie, these communities became areas of facial polarization, largely affected by segregation resulting from poorly integrated development plans. The sense of community deteriorated in most of these stories after the 70's. The fact that so many of these communities have suffered from the disintegration of social relations and a lack of civic capacity demonstrates a theme pervading many American communities. It is possible that unemployment, as well as the presence of the drug economy have influenced this disintegration of community relations. However, blaming this on the exit of the black middle class from the communities in Streetwise, or in any other US community seems ridiculous. Middle class neighborhoods throughout the country are suffering from the disintegration of community; this seems to be an unfortunate theme American society as of late, rather than a problem of black lower class neighborhoods. The middle class is not stabilizing force that many of these books have portrayed them to be. The author of Slim's Table attempted to demonstrate that the lower or working class blacks share a set of values. Clearly the lower classes are capable of maintaining a community on their own if they are able to combine unity with support services from developers and such.
Along with the themes of ethnic conflicts, and racial and class segregation, Fennessey points out the lack of solutions being offered. Both Canarsie, and There Are No Children Here, fail to offer a solution as well. It seems that even the intense conflict among members of this class in terms of solutions represents the lack of feasible remedies being proposed by the larger society, let alone congress, or developers.
-Laurie Beth Hartzell
Elijah Anderson Streetwise.
reviewed by Melanie McGowan
Crime, drugs, unemployment, and lack of role models plague the neighborhood
of Northton. This has drastically affected the neighboring community that
Elijah Anderson calls the Village in his Ethnography Streetwise.
In Streetwise , Anderson describes the unique history of these two
Neighborhoods and the ways that they influence each other. Northton and the
Village are presumably parts of the city of Philadelphia (Anderson never
specifically identifies the city as Philadelphia). The communities in
Streetwise experienced many of the problems of large cities in the 1970's
and 1980's. Some of the problems resulted from factories moving to areas
where they could operate cheaper, with fewer regulations. This leads to
unemployment. Other problems include the emergence of drug cultures and
specifically a new powerful drug, crack. The problems go much deeper than
simply crime and poverty; racism and informal segregation have also resulted.
Anderson describes the Village as a community that had been committed to
diversity. In the 1950's groups such as The Village Friends and The Village
Development Committee actively encouraged blacks to join their community.
This liberal attitude held through the 1960's when the Village was open to
liberals and political radicals. The late 70's and early 80's brought about
a change in the village, when "Yuppies" started buying the old Victorian
homes as an investment. The more conservative element caused the Village to
lose some of its sense of community. The Village was also greatly affected
by the changing community of Northton, which spilled over into the Village.
In the 1950's, Northton had been a community of lower and middle class
blacks. As time progressed, the middle class and professionals started to
leave Northton in favor of the suburbs. This left an absence of role
models. Northton had community leaders called "old heads", both male and
female that gave guidance to the youths of Northton. These too became fewer
in the 1970's and 80's. The guidance of the "old heads" is no longer sought
after by the youths of Northton. The work ethic that the "old heads" once
taught seems to be irrelevant with the absence of jobs. A new type of role
model has replaced the "old heads". He is a young man who appears to be
successful by the clothes he wears and the car he drives. He is in fact a
drug dealer, and the easy, glamorous life that he leads is tempting to the
While drugs have long been a problem in many large cities, the crack
epidemic escalated this problem greatly. Anderson describes the difference
between the crack addict and other drug addicts, "One important difference
is the new boldness with which pipers and zombies (crack addicts) approach
criminal activity; they seem to lack a sense of reality and the immediate
consequences of their behavior. In their agitated state, zombies do things
even other drug addicts would think twice about and perhaps
resist."(Anderson p.88). This has lead to an increase in crime, which
affects both Northton and the Village. Besides the obvious problems of
crime in the streets it has created other problems for members of the
Village community; for example, the distrust of young black males.
To be "streetwise" in the Village in part means being leery of unknown black
males. Black residents in the Village are all too aware of this fact by the
way that whites react to them and their frequent questioning by the police.
Anderson writes, "When young black men appear, women (especially white
women) sometimes clutch their pocketbooks. They may edge up against their
companions or begin walking stiffly and deliberately. On spotting black
males from a distance, other pedestrians often cross the street or give them
a wide berth as they pass." (Anderson p.164). For a young black male,
people in his community assume the worst about him simply because of his
skin color and his age. He is a source of fear for many in his own
community, and Anderson believes that he must then work harder to earn the
trust of others in his community. Anderson further describes being
"Streetwise" as the manner in which the middle-class whites and middle-class
blacks conduct themselves in public. This also adds to not only the racial
divisions, but the class divisions as well. Anderson describes that
avoidance of young unknown blacks; "whites and middle-class blacks are
skilled in the art of avoidance, using their eyes, ears, and bodies they
navigate safely. Although this seems to work for the residents, however, it
vitiates comity between the races. One class of people is conditioned to
see itself as law-abiding and culturally superior while viewing the other as
a socially bruised underclass inclined to criminality." (Anderson p.9).
The police in the Village also see race and age as cause for suspicion.
Anderson relayed an interview with a seventeen-year-old black male that he
had observed being questioned by the police. The police officer wanted his
name, address, and information on tough guys in the neighborhood, and then
the officer searched him and let him go. The man told Anderson that he was
not in a gang and he did not have an arrest record. He said of the
questioning, "I guess he stopped me on principle, 'cause I'm black."
(Anderson p.195). This type of harassment is less frequent as the black male
gets older, as is stated by a twenty-seven- year old black professional that
Anderson interviewed; "when I was younger, they could just stop me carte
blanche, any old time. Name taken, searched, and this went on endlessly.
From the time I was about twelve until I was sixteen or seventeen,
endlessly, endlessly --If it happened to me today, now that I'm older, I
would really be upset. In the old days when I was younger, I didn't know
any better. You just expected it, you knew it was going to happen, Cops
would come up, ' what are you doing, where are you coming from?' Say things
to you. They might even call you nigger." Anderson p.197). The stories of
the police range from just harassment in the Village to intimidation and
violence in Northton. In the Village, the young black male is made aware at
an early age that he is under more scrutiny than his white neighbors are
from the police as well as other members of the community.
Another social problem that has resulted from the deterioration of Northton
is the increasing number of young single mothers. While this problem is not
exclusive to poor urban communities, it is particularly problematic due to
the sense of hopelessness that many youths in Northton experience. Anderson
writes; "many Northton adolescents see no future to derail-no hope for a
tomorrow much different from today-hence they see little to lose by having a
child out of wedlock."(Anderson p.113). In addition to the belief that they
have little to lose by having a child, the problem of teenage, single
mothers is furthered by the other social attitudes in Northton. Males gain
status by engaging in sex with a large number of females. Females are under
the illusion that having a baby will better their lives because the father
will take care of them. According to Anderson, this is often not the case,
and the father abandons the woman and baby.
In the conclusion of Streetwise Anderson offers some solutions to the crime
and division of classes in the Village-Northton area. Anderson sees
improvements in education as essential to help correct the problems. He
also believes that drug treatment programs need to be made available, and
that the government should offer incentives to corporations to invest in
poverty- stricken areas like Northton. These are very general solutions to
the problems of the community. The lack of adequate education is certainly
a big problem in many urban areas in the United States. Not only is it a
problem to obtain the money to correct the educational system, but it is
also difficult to find good teachers who are willing to work in schools in
high-crime areas. Anderson acknowledges that there is a high rate of burn
out among teachers in Northton, but offers only that the schools need to be
restructured as a solution.
These solutions are necessary to help rebuild the community, but Anderson's
recommendations are obvious cures to the ills of any urban community.
Anderson presents a great deal of insight into the problems of urban
communities, but does not offer any substantive solutions to the problems.