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Being understood is very important to Dr. Elijah Anderson, the Charles and William L. Day Professor of the Social Sciences and author, most recently, of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. He worries at a question, speaking slowly and thoughtfully, and there is a fairly regular contest in his answers between the concerned individual’s urge toward blanket statement and the responsible scholar’s need to qualify. At the end of a two-and-a-half hour lunch- cum-interview, he says in parting, "Feel free to call me back, because I want to answer every question that you have fully," and the same afternoon he offers to fax over additional material. It is not hard to imagine, as he implies, his publisher practically having to wrest the manuscript of his new book from his arms to get him to stop working on it and have it published.
   
On the page, Anderson’s concern with getting it right translates into a powerful analysis of his subject—one convincing enough to draw book-jacket praise from readers as diverse as the conservative columnist George F. Will and Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman. Anderson sees himself operating in a century-old tradition of ethnography, practiced by W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Philadelphia Negro and associated most closely with the "Chicago School" of sociology at the University of Chicago, where Anderson did his graduate work. "A lot of the classics of sociology were written in this way—by people going out and talking to real people," he says. "I was trained in that tradition and continue it in my work, looking at communities and trying to represent them accurately so that policymakers might be better informed to hopefully do the right thing."—JP


   
Gazette: Where did you do the research for Code of the Street? The book opens with a description of Germantown Avenue, from affluent Chestnut Hill to its end near the Delaware River, where, as you say in the book, "the elevated interstate highway … allows motorists to drive over North Philadelphia rather than through it —thereby ignoring its street life, its inhabitants, and its problems."
    Anderson: The book is about a lot of different spaces in Philadelphia. Coming down Germantown Avenue was a way to move from a well-to-do community and show the code of civility that you see there and how that gives way to the point that you have the problem of how to get along in public when the police and other agencies of the city government have abdicated their responsibilities to the community—at least, if you feel that way, then what do you do? That’s the essence of the code of the street. You feel that you’re on your own, so that means taking matters of personal defense, say, into your own hands, and this is where the decent people put their bodies and their images in the gap, so to speak.
    I call these communities ground zero. Ground zero is the extreme community—8th and Butler, 13th and Fitzwater, 58th and Willows and other areas, too, these pockets of poverty. There is a relationship between the code of the street and persistent urban poverty, especially with this idea that the wider system has abdicated responsibility, which produces a kind of alienation among people.
    Gazette: How does the research process work? How do you find the people you talk to and write about?
    Anderson: I spent about a year or more at 13th and Fitzwater, and I did focus groups with a lot of the young men who live in the housing projects there and hung out there and went to stores there. I befriended people and got to know them, and became something of a fixture there, looking and talking. Another place I studied was Simon Gratz High School. I did focus groups there with students, parents and teachers to really get an understanding of what the world meant to them. But I also spent a lot of time walking the streets, Germantown Avenue and various places, and writing field notes. I’m an ethnographer, which basically is defined as the systematic study of culture, and this is what I’m interested in as an ethnographer, so this is what I try to do there.
   
Gazette: Do you ever wish you studied something wildly different from yourself? Do you get tired of being asked about your relationship, as a black man, to your subject?
    Anderson: As I was coming up, coming of age and [going to] undergraduate school and all that, I wanted to become a sociologist and part of the reason was—for good or bad—to try to set the record straight, to contribute to the discussion of the day with respect to race and poverty. In a sense, my whole academic life has been involved in studying this issue and trying to represent—in a rather accurate way, I like to think—what’s going on.
    I feel that I’ve got to tell the story. In a sense, it’s my own story, because I come from the working class. My father was a factory worker. My mother was a domestic. My father worked at Studebaker, which was a car manufacturer in those days. I was born in the Mississippi Delta, and my family was part of the Great Migration from the South to the North during and after World War II. We settled in South Bend, Indiana, when I was just a baby. I grew up there and attended the public schools, and from there went to Indiana University in Bloomington as an undergraduate. I’ve always been curious about things and sociology just fit right into that. And speaking about the black experience is important to me, so that’s what I do.
    Gazette: Can you talk about the differences between the kind of environment you grew up in and the neighborhoods you write about in the book?
    Anderson: It was a stable situation for us—church, the work ethic, a lot of those things were important for my family. But also, in the 1950s, my dad was making $5,000-6,000 a year, and he had a fourth-grade education. In today’s money, that’s like $38,000-39,000 a year. How many young black men with no education or even a high-school or college degree can get those kinds of jobs making that much money? It was really the heyday for the American working class, of which we were a part. While there was racial caste, it wasn’t a big problem for blacks to feel a part of something and part of the community. This is what my family certainly felt when we were living there.
    It was a much more stable situation compared to what we see today. In the late-1970s and early-1980s, you have the beginnings of deindustrialization, which basically meant that the global economy is coming in, that jobs are leaving these places and becoming more complicated, becoming high tech, becoming automated. The result was that great numbers of black men became marginalized with respect to the working-class economy.
    In Philadelphia, so many of the inner-city poor communities used to have people like my father and my mother living there and working. Today, if you go to the same neighborhoods, you don’t find people like my father living there. You find a young man named Marvin, who I’ve interviewed extensively. Marvin works at a car wash. He has a daughter who is seven years of age. [The mother] gave him the baby because she had three others, and she was on welfare. Marvin lives with his mother and his sister, who help him raise this child. He plaits her hair, he fixes her lunch, he picks her up from school. But Marvin has a checkered past: Marvin was a drug dealer. Marvin works at the car wash sporadically. Marvin is really a poor imitation of my father, so to speak.
    A lot of this, people can argue about whose fault it was—"personal responsibility," what have you—but it’s easier to have personal responsibility when you’ve got manufacturing jobs available. Marvin doesn’t have that. Plus he didn’t have the role models that people like myself had. What we are talking about really is ground zero, and this is where the persistent urban poverty is really seen—grinding poverty, I’m talking about, where the alienation is so thorough that the code of the street is the only way that you go about dealing with life. It’s important to see the distinctions between the communities I’m talking about and ones that exist not very far away where you have more [role models], people that I like to call Mr. Johnson.
    Gazette: Has the improved economy made its way at all into these places?
    Anderson: It has and it hasn’t. A lot of people are working now, but they’re not out of poverty—and that’s the rub. It is kind of calming things down. I think the crime rate’s gone down maybe partly because people are preoccupied with working, and that’s a good thing, but the drug trade is still there. It operates in a way that people don’t always appreciate because it doesn’t make the news, but it’s still there as a way for people who are looking for some other way to make it.
    I think what we need is more in the way of jobs that will give people a leg up and a way out. These jobs are not the kind of jobs that are lifting people out of poverty but a kind of holding action it seems for the time being, and there’s something to be said for that, but it isn’t the panacea that a lot of people are expecting.
   
Gazette: Can a book like this have an impact? The descriptions of people and analysis of their behavior are extremely vivid, but some of the prescriptions for what should be done are the sort of things that have been said before, and it’s fairly clear that they’re not going to get done.
   
Anderson: I don’t want to see this problem as intractable—I resist that—but at the same time it’s important to appreciate the fact that since Reagan, I think, there has been a real diminution of support for the idea of the welfare state. What that means, in a large way, is in doing anything about any of our problems, whether health care or welfare, we’re on our own more and more. I think that really the answer has to do with structural kinds of solutions. We need more investment in Philadelphia and cities all over this country. We need to invest in these areas—people who need jobs and need human capital. We need to be building that up. The whole solution isn’t simply to build up human capital; we need a helping hand from the structure, as well, to bring people in. It’s really a matter of incorporating black people into the system. Simply to provide jobs and opportunity is not going to erase all the other problems that have come about because of this problem, but we have to keep on it and we have to keep making the society better, keep on trying to improve.

 


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