Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community

Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community

by Elijah Anderson

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In a powerful, revealing portrait of city life, Anderson explores the dilemma of both blacks and whites, the underclass and the middle class, caught up in the new struggle not only for common ground—prime real estate in a racially changing neighborhood—but for shared moral community. Blacks and whites from a variety of backgrounds speak candidly about their lives, their differences, and their battle for viable communities.

"The sharpness of his observations and the simple clarity of his prose recommend his book far beyond an academic audience. Vivid, unflinching, finely observed, Streetwise is a powerful and intensely frightening picture of the inner city."—Tamar Jacoby, New York Times Book Review

"The book is without peer in the urban sociology literature. . . . A first-rate piece of social science, and a very good read."—Glenn C. Loury, Washington Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226098944
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/09/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 283
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Elijah Anderson is the William K. Lanman Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Yale Urban Ethnography Project at Yale University. He is the author of Code of the Street and Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community

By Elijah Anderson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09894-4


The Village Setting

The Village-Northton area, a community within Eastern City, is a "case study" of an urban neighborhood facing the problems that accompany racial and class transition. Northton is predominantly black, residents range from low income to very poor. The Village is at present racially mixed, but it is becoming increasingly white and middle to upper income. The history of the general area is interwoven with the growth and expansion of Eastern City.

The Village was first settled in the 1800s by well-to-do people who could afford to commute across the Tyler River to the center of Eastern City or to maintain summer homes along the river's west bank. The first landowners built large houses on their estates, but in time these holdings were cut up and additional homes were built there. Neighborhoods developed, with general stores, churches, and schools. During the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, many elaborate Victorian houses were built that remain to this day. Some inhabitants branched out farther west into an area that is still wealthy and suburban.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the land to the north and west of the Village was overtaken by industrial development. Small factories emerged, and homes were built nearby at a rapid pace. One of the most prominent of these working-class neighborhoods was Northton, just north of the Village. In many respects Northton was like a company town, with its small, sooty, close-packed dwellings. The social history of the area is evident in its architecture, the scale of the houses, the size of the lots, and the craftsmanship of the facades. Walking through, one gains the impression that much of Northton was built for a class that worked for, not alongside, the inhabitants of what is now the Village.

One version of community lore says that Northton was settled by newly arrived Irish and German immigrants who were employed in local industries or as servants in the large homes across Bellwether Street and near the town square that once served as a dropping-off point for farmers' produce. In time Bellwether Street became a boundary that separated the working class from the wealthy. During the early twentieth century this boundary was often violated by middle-class Irish and German proprietors of local shops and businesses, who were eager to obtain Village property. The wealthy viewed the up-and-coming Northtonians as invaders, and with each inroad the social definition of the Village was altered.

The steam engine brought even greater change. Rails were laid along the bank of the Tyler River, not far from the Village. Trains left great billows of smoke and soot, and residents had trouble keeping their clothes and houses clean. This invasion of technology, along with the invading lower classes, encouraged the earlier inhabitants of the once pastoral setting to seek a new environment. They left the sooty Village to the middle-class Irish and Germans and to the remnants of their own group who would not move elsewhere.

The Irish and Germans were joined by blacks from the South, who were attracted to Northton during and after World War II when, in search of a better life, many migrated north and settled in similar white working-class areas, often despite strong physical resistance. The blacks eventually succeeded the Irish and Germans and claimed Northton; the whites fled to other parts of the western section of Eastern City and to working-class and middle-class suburbs.

In time the blacks threatened the border areas of the Village, where slumlords found they could make good money by renting them their subdivided mansions and townhouses. The whites of the Village, some of whom by now were refugees from Northton, offered waning resistance. They reluctantly accepted pockets of black settlement within the Village, often on the least desirable blocks. The immediate result was distinct white working-class and middle-class areas coexisting, not always peacefully, with growing enclaves of blacks who had recently migrated from the ghetto of Northton. Moreover, Bellwether Street increasingly became a geographic and social boundary separating races as well as classes; other informal boundaries developed on the edges of the white community. These boundaries were defended, sometimes violently, by white gangs. As one black resident of Northton who remembers the forties and fifties declared:

Yeah, I can remember the time when you had to have a pretty good pair of sneakers [for running] if you wanted to get through the Village. The white [Irish] boys would get you for crossing the line.

What had once separated the lace-curtain Irish from the Irish working class now separated blacks from whites, though the racial boundaries were less permeable than the class boundaries had been.

During this period, the Village was undergoing great changes in density and appearance. As financial depressions took their toll, houses were sold to be subdivided and rented out. The Village went from a neighborhood of upper-income homeowners to one inhabited primarily by working-class and middle-class renters. Landlords bent on earning quick profits from makeshift apartments "ruined" a good number of spacious homes. Ceilings were dropped, rooms were divided, and separate stairs and entrances were added. A living space that had once accommodated one family could now hold two or three, ensuring a nice profit for the landlord. But though the stone mansions and townhouses were gradually turned into multiple-family dwellings, lot sizes remained the same. The towering sycamores still spread a lush canopy over the brick walks. These factors preserved the area's potential to be restored to something approaching its former glory.

The Liberal Era

During the 1950s, when the Korean War was ending and civil rights was becoming a major political issue, a group of liberal and civic-minded Quakers established a cooperative in one of the grand old houses of the Village. They called themselves the Village Friends, and they passionately supported pacifism, racial integration, and economic egalitarianism. The Village Friends invited blacks and others to live in their communal dwellings. They condoned biracial and interethnic marriages among their members. The group even began buying dilapidated buildings, refurbishing them, and renting them out to the "right kind of people," including university students of color and others who had difficulty finding decent housing in the Village or nearby. It was the time of the "Beat generation," and the Village Friends developed their own version of Bohemian values, modified to emphasize their commitment to racial equality and other liberal goals. Because they were especially concerned with brotherhood and equality between the races, their most immediate mission was to develop an integrated and egalitarian community—issues that deeply concern their successors to this day.

Some of their neighbors, particularly the conservative middle-class Irish and German Villagers, looked on the Friends with suspicion, if not outrage, calling them communists and "nigger lovers." One middle-aged white woman who was involved in this movement and remembers the 1950s in the Village said:

The way I saw it happening was the Village Civic Association was so racist and so strong that they talked people into cutting their houses up into apartments rather than selling them because there was no white market for houses at that point. The Irish population was fleeing, and there was no incoming white population. Or things would happen like they would sell the houses to their plumber or carpenter, and he would cut them up. Most of the conversions were just terrible. They were done by mechanics, not by architects. And usually they were people who did work in the neighborhood. And they rented those houses. Probably there was still a white market for renting, and they were renting to whites until the buildings got so run down that they couldn't rent to whites. Then they would rent them to blacks, and of course the blacks were poor. And then came the professional group that was mostly white. Oh, we [the Village Development Association] tried so hard to get black professionals to move into [the Village]. But they wouldn't be caught dead there, ha-ha. It just was not a place where they wanted to live, not that there were that many black professionals to begin with. It just didn't work. Our group grew from Friends Cooperative Houses, and the racist group was called the Village Civic Association, and VDA was formed out of the need for Friendship Co-op to survive. It was a development company that was supported from investments by residents. The board said we needed a civic effort. And they really inspired a new civic organization, Village Neighbors. At that time it was decided not to infiltrate the Civic Association and to take it over but to start a new group, because the Civic Association had such a bad reputation in the black neighborhoods surrounding the area. Apparently, in the thirties they had sound trucks on the streets, admonishing people not to sell to Negroes and not to rent to Negroes. They were infamous in the black community. So we decided that to take over the Civic Association would be to take over an organization with such a negative image that it wouldn't be worth our while, that we'd better start a new organization. So we did, and the racist Village Civic Association just went down the drain. Our group, the Village Development Association, bought at least forty-three properties. We started out on a quota basis, renting and selling to all kinds of people.

Despite the criticism of the conservative Irish and German residents, the Friends adhered to their stated goals: "To keep the Village from becoming a land speculator's paradise" and "to make the Village the kind of place where all different kinds of people can live." Meanwhile, the Bellwether Street boundary was showing signs of weakness. Numbers of poor blacks were concentrated on the periphery of the Village. Slumlords continued to buy run-down buildings, making a minimum of cosmetic repairs and renting them at exorbitant rates to the poorest class of blacks from Northton and other parts of the city. The middleclass Irish and Germans, as well as the Village Friends and some of the blacks themselves, could rally together against this trend, for none wanted the "wrong kind of blacks" for neighbors. As the Friends competed with other whites for control over Village resources, the hidden restrictions in their own conception of the kind of blacks who were to be tolerated became evident. They were most hospitable to educated, "decent" blacks who would contribute to neighborhood stability, thus creating an ambiance of racial integration and harmony.

The Village Development Association, a society of civic-minded and concerned Villagers that included many Friends, emerged. Individuals and families contributed to the association's fund for buying up properties, renovating them, and selling or renting them to desirable tenants, black or white. The association held integrated picnics, parties, and parades to celebrate progressive social attitudes and to attract support from liberal whites and "decent" blacks from around the city. A neighborhood movement of sorts developed as the members attempted to save the Village from the hands of "the racists." One informant explained that some of the Irish "saw what kind of people we were bringing in, and they became tolerant, if not accepting." In time the social and political environment was altered as some of the conservatives moved and others died. In the early 1960s there was some friction with those who remained, but this eventually faded as new issues gained prominence in the neighborhood.

During the sixties, the Village Friends and their neighbors formed coalitions based on their common interests. Through its transactions, which often had to be carried out quietly, the Village Development Association accumulated numerous properties from owners who would not sell to blacks and other minorities. This association constituted an ecological invasion force, helping to change the character of the neighborhood to what it was during the sixties and seventies—culturally diverse, racially mixed, and socially tolerant. As one forty-year-old black artist who lived in the Village through the 1950s and 1960s said proudly, "You know how it was everywhere else during the sixties? Well, it was like that in the Village in the fifties!" Such is the pride with which some longtime Villagers describe the good old days.

With the advent of the Vietnam War and the protests against it, the Village became a magnet for adherents of the youthful counterculture, including some antiwar activists and draft resisters. The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, with headquarters in the Village, attracted young men in need of draft counseling—and their sympathizers. The workers from an underground print shop that specialized in producing phony identification for draft resisters seeking admission to Canada lived and housed clients in the roomy homes and apartments of the Village. An ethos of political radicalism developed, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was reputed to be infiltrating the neighborhood because an act of trespass and destruction on government property had been traced to the Village. A variety of individuals of liberal or radical political persuasion united to defend the Village from what they viewed as harassment by the FBI. As one middle-aged white lawyer who brought a lawsuit against the FBI in defense of the community recalls:

For reasons I never knew—or was never sure were good reasons—the FBI seemed convinced that people living in the Village had done it [destroyed government property]. And they sent over a hundred agents in, some undercover, some not. And they began a whole range of activities.... They would be standing in little groups on corners, and you'd walk by and they'd hassle you. This is the FBI people.

This community [the Village] reacted to the FBI harassment politically. So lawyers—myself and other lawyers—talked about bringing a suit. We did bring a suit, which we eventually won. There was a series of committee meetings, and we decided there would be an early warning system, there would be a list of lawyers who would come any time there was an incident. There were horns, gas-driven horns, and they were put in these four collectives, in the four corners of the Village. And when the FBI was hassling anybody, everybody knew that you could go to any one of these four houses and one of these horns would go off, and everybody would surround the FBI and tell them to stop. Not physically. It was always nonviolent. No one had any intention of fighting with them, or anything like that.

They were knocking people off bicycles—anybody who was on parole or probation, they would be taking them in their cars, threatening to send them back to jail. But just the presence of two hundred people would make them stop pushing around that guy on the bike.

That was a very political conflict with the FBI, which then took on a very countercultural aspect at the street fair. The street fair consisted of a lot of political speeches and stuff ... a series of booths, it was very creative. There was a booth where there was a big glowering picture of J. Edgar Hoover. And this woman would take a polaroid picture of you so you'd have yourself with J. Edgar Hoover. There were pictures of all the undercover FBI people we could get pictures of, and you could throw darts at their pictures. Lots of live rock music, lots of food, painting—body painting, you know—all sixties counterculture stuff. Well, this was a major thing. Nobody had ever that openly challenged the FBI. And we brought a lawsuit. It was all quite incredible. And the other incredible thing is that no one ever talked to them. When they asked questions, they got nowhere. They didn't even get close.

It [political activism] was all a very uplifting thing. It also showed the power of people who individually are real powerless compared to this huge federal agency, and the armed agents all around. But when they got it together and took a stand, it [the confrontation] made the FBI look foolish.

Within the Village, following these developments, important distinctions were being made between conservatives and liberals and radicals, between those who owned their own homes and those who rented, between young and old, and between black and white. But perhaps even more important social and economic distinctions revolved around the issue of "squatting" rights in the crumbling buildings of the East Village, an area bordering the campus of Eastern Technical University. The owners of some of the largest, most dilapidated apartment buildings there were unwilling or unable to keep the premises in repair and rented, so nonpaying occupants squatted in them. Many of the buildings lay vacant while the University and the Eastern City Redevelopment Commission made long-term plans for the area, and when it finally acted and began to demolish the buildings, the squatters protested with direct action, including sit-ins and civil disobedience.


Excerpted from Streetwise by Elijah Anderson. Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. The Village Setting
2. The Northton Community
3. The Impact of Drugs
4. Sex Codes and Family Life among Northton's Youth
5. In the Shadow of the Ghetto
6. The Black Male in Public
7. The Police and the Black Male
8. Street Etiquette and Street Wisdom
Appendix: Characteristics of the Village-Northton Area

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