Street Life

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April 2000


Street Life

By Amy Waldman


Sidewalk

By Mitchell Duneier
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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Sidewalk examines how societies and subcultures form and regulate themselves. It explores and explains the life of cities, from how public space is controlled, both formally and informally, to how local laws get made and why they get broken. It tells a story---dozens of stories---about how people relate across boundaries of race and class and experience.

It does all of this simply by probing very, very deeply into the world of a small group of men, most of whom are black, that has adopted a stretch of sidewalk in Greenwich Village. There, depending on their proclivities and ambitions, they sell books, magazines, or secondhand goods, or guard the tables or spaces of those who sell, or panhandle, or in some cases, sleep. These are men, one of whom, Hakim Hasan, writes in an afterword to Sidewalk, whose identities "are hidden in public space."

Some of the men in the Village are ex-convicts, for whom the street means a fresh start; others are ex-corporate men, for whom it means liberation. Some of the men are "unhoused," in Mitchell Duneier's preferred term, while others go home to apartments each night. Some are intellectuals selling books specifically about the black experience; others subsist by charging those vendors money to guard their spaces overnight. Some get up and go to work each day; others, occasionally unhinged by drugs or alcohol, live less predictably.

What is significant is that, in one form or another, all of them work as entrepreneurs in the informal economy, and as such, their stories are a tribute to the redemptive, stabilizing, power of work. And what is surprising is how the men have constituted a strangely nurturing network in which newcomers are taught to scavenge and sell by old-timers; rules about social behavior are as much enforced within the group as from outside; and conduct is shaped by a combination of logic, integrity, anger, and the drive for respect.

For them, the sidewalk has become a sustaining habitat, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Some of their small social transgressions, from peeing in public places, to harassing women and bank-goers, to drinking, make many urban dwellers, including some who live in the neighborhood, just wish they would go away. Under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, they have borne the brunt of quality-of-life policing.

The essential question running through the book is whether these men are "public characters" or "broken windows." The term "public character" comes from Jane Jacobs' 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a study of city life based largely in Greenwich Village. Jacobs laid out the concept of "public characters"---those, such as shopkeepers, who serve as benevolent conduits of information and "eyes on the street." When Duneier first meets Hasan, the book vendor who serves as his initial guide, he describes himself as a "public character."

The term "broken window" comes from a theory originally advanced by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling and adopted by elected officials and police chiefs across the country---that to leave behaviors like minor vandalism unchecked leads to more serious crime. Duneier points out that the theory has subsequently been broadened to refer to social behaviors like panhandling.

Duneier concludes that the larger community does not necessarily see the men as public characters. To understand why that is, he spends much of his book examining the barriers of race, class, culture, and behavior that have shaped the relationships between local businesspeople and residents and the vendors.

By the end, he has identified a central contradiction that the city's policies miss: "Many of the men who are succeeding in living a Œbetter' life through their entrepreneurial activity are panhandlers, drunks, addicts, loiterers, and possibly the mentally disturbed, as well as unlicensed vendors."

He continues: "The men working on Sixth Avenue may be viewed as broken windows, but this research shows that most of them have actually become public characters who create a set of expectations, for one another and strangers (including the criminal element---as, indeed, many of them once were), that Œsomeone cares' and that they should strive to live better lives."

In other words, to drive them off the street and away from their livelihoods is far more likely to cause crime than allowing them to exist on the street.

"Tearing down the informal structure carries with it the cost of eradicating positive and inspiring models that are misunderstood for their opposite," Duneier concludes. And the misunderstanding, he argues, results from judging these men simply on the basis of race and class.

Before that conclusion come innumerable rich observations and details. To describe Duneier as obsessed would be an understatement: He spent several years reporting and writing a publication-ready book based on Mr. Hasan, then decided, with Mr. Hasan's urging, that he needed to look at the wider network of vendors on the street, scrapped the original book, went back to the street, worked for magazine vendors, and wrote something new.

He has a relentlessly curious mind---not to mention far better fact-checking skills than most journalists---and, accordingly, Sidewalk ranges far, and rewardingly, from Sixth Avenue, where the men are concentrated.

Duneier tracks down the city councilman who, almost on a fluke, sponsored an ordinance allowing the sale of written material on the streets of New York, which became the men's livelihood. (That same councilman later becomes a lobbyist for business interests and helps pass a law that cuts the space allowed for vending in half, leading to all sorts of fights on the street.) Curious about how the men learned about the ordinance, Duneier discovers that it was the policemen who enforce the law on the streets who passed on---sometimes in garbled form---information about what was now legal and why. He travels to Penn Station, the former habitat for many of the men, to explore how they were literally squeezed out by architectural modifications that deliberately eliminated the spaces where they had gathered.

But mostly, he spends time with the men, observing, interviewing, tape recording, having them tape each other. The book, as a result, often feels like a documentary. The men argue over space, instruct each other on what prices to demand, haggle with customers, harass women, and the like.

Duneier tries to understand why some of the men persist in behaviors, despite the efforts of both society at large and their fellow vendors to reform them. He makes a powerful case that antisocial behavior is often a reaction to a lack of sociability on the part of local businesses and residents.

Consider, for example, the way many of the men pee in the street, in courtyards of buildings, even in cups that they store on a tree. The men do so because they believe that they are not welcome in local restaurants; and public bathrooms are located at such a distance that, to use them, the men must leave their goods untended on the street, where they are likely to be confiscated by the police.

Duneier describes a white Vermont family that comes each year to sell Christmas trees in the Village. They have been embraced by local residents and businesses, given keys to their apartments, invited in to shower, and so on---generosities that have never been extended to the vendors. The difference is not exclusively race, Duneier notes, but that is certainly part of it. Whatever the reasons, the result is that the family members do not have to relieve themselves in cups or on the street. Duneier also aptly points out the usual double standards: A homeless black man peeing on the street is a transgressor; a drunk upper class white man who does so is drunk, and thus forgiven.

The term "humanize" is overused, but it is worth using here only because of the way Duneier accomplishes it---not only by making invisible lives visible, but also by showing the commonalities between these men and those with less pigmentation and more money. Their haggling over prices, for example, is as much about the preservation of "respect"---feeling that no one "got over" on them---as about the money. No different, it seems, from many businessmen.

The only criticism of Duneier is, perhaps, an excess of idealism, or liberalism; in his hope that local residents and businesspeople can somehow overlook the behaviors they do not like in order to focus on the fact that the men are working. Duneier is too optimistic and he may also be asking too much of the neighborhood. For example, shouldn't a woman feel she can walk down the street of her neighborhood and not be harassed?

Still, that is only a small quibble with a remarkable book that brings urban life, and the hidden webs that give structure to it, into focus. These men may be perceived as the weakest among us, but if Sidewalk is any indication, their resilience, and spirit, is more powerful than the drive to eliminate them from view.

Amy Waldman is a reporter for The New York Times

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