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The Village People
By Mitchell Duneier
A few years ago, the sociologist Mitchell Duneier, the author of Slim's Table, a study of elderly black regulars at a cafeteria in Chicago, moved to Greenwich Village. There, he became interested in the street vendors who clog the sidewalks at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. The vendors, most of whom are black, sell books (everything from old paperbacks to expensive art books), used magazines (ranging from past issues of The New Yorker to the current Paris Vogue), and old clothes, appliances, and home furnishings fetched from the trash. Hanging out there, Duneier became friendly with a bookseller named Hakim Hasan. Impressed by his knowledge of books and his erudite exchanges with his customers, Duneier one day asked him how he saw his role. "I'm a public character," Hasan said. "A what?" Duneier asked. "Have you ever read Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities?" Hasan replied. "You'll find it in there."
Duneier had read Jacobs's 1961 classic but did not recall that particular reference, so when he got home he looked it up. A public character, Jacobs had written, "is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character." Such an individual, she wrote, "need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function.... He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest." In Jacobs's vision, public characters, by having their "eyes upon the street," help ensure its safety--a key component of her prescription for urban vitality.
Duneier was intrigued by Hasan's remark. In her book, Jacobs cited shopkeepers as quintessential public characters. She did not mention street vendors in this connection; they had a less obtrusive presence in her time. Nor did she have to contend with the homeless, unemployed, addicted men and women who today crowd our streets. These people are not generally seen as public characters. Rather, they are seen as "broken windows." This now-famous term, introduced by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 article in The Atlantic Monthly, denotes the theory of criminality that blames low-level street offenders for creating a disorderly atmosphere in which serious crime can flourish. By cracking down on minor disturbances, the theory insists, the police can help prevent larger ones. In New York City today, street vendors, along with squeegee men, drug addicts, and panhandlers, are routinely hounded and harried by the police--part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's campaign to improve the city's quality of life.
Whereas for Jacobs it was shopkeepers who kept the peace, for Giuliani it is the police. The path from The Death and Life of Great American Cities to the idea of broken windows shows how the liberal urban theories of the 1960s have given way to the conservative urban strategies of the 1990s.
Those strategies made Duneier uncomfortable. While probably helping to reduce the crime rate, the "broken windows" approach to crime seemed to sanction an aggressive style of policing that casts all poor people as delinquents who must be contained. Hasan's description of himself as a public character seemed an appealing alternative, and Duneier set out to learn more about him and his fellow vendors. Armed with a tape recorder, he recorded hundreds of exchanges between the vendors and their customers. For several months, he worked as a vendor himself. He went out with the magazine vendors to see how they scavenged their merchandise from the trash. He interviewed panhandlers and the men stationed at the doors of ATM machines. He persuaded twenty vendors to tell him their life stories. In all, Duneier spent five years hanging out on Sixth Avenue, and Sidewalk is the result.
The more Duneier got to know the vendors, however, the more impressed he was. Far from creating disorder, the men seemed to adhere to a set of informal social norms that had an inhibiting effect on their behavior. Some of the older vendors, for instance, acted as mentors to their less socialized colleagues, teaching them the ropes of vending and encouraging them to get their lives together. "One of the most surprising things I learned in hearing the life histories from Sixth Avenue," Duneier writes, "was how many of these men had actually taught one another how to hunt for magazines, how to set up their tables, and how to make 'an honest living.'"
On a good day, Duneier found, a vendor could earn a hundred dollars or more, saving him from having to steal. A vendor named Mudrick, for instance, had once robbed deliverymen and sold drugs to get money, but now he relies on selling magazines. As a society, Duneier writes, "we will improve our well-being by making provision for more persons, not fewer, to engage in informal entrepreneurial activity."
Eventually, Duneier comes to accept Hasan's characterization of his role. "After spending five years on the blocks," he writes, "I would propose that the role of the public character need not be filled by conventionally respectable people. Not only do the vendors and scavengers, often unhoused, abide by codes and norms; but mostly their presence on the street enhances the social order. They keep their eyes upon the street, and the structure of sidewalk life encourages them to support one another. Moreover, many citizens enjoy the presence of the vendors on the sidewalk."
All in all, it's a beguiling vision that Duneier puts forth. But is it realistic? For any city dweller who regularly encounters clusters of homeless, drug-addled men such as the vendors on Sixth Avenue, the notion that they are enhancing the social order seems a bit far-fetched. And, in fact, Duneier unwittingly provides much evidence that contradicts his thesis. While sometimes good-hearted and well intentioned, the vendors seem routinely to engage in obnoxious behavior. Ron, for instance, is a chronic crack and alcohol user who, whenever he has enough money, runs off to get high. "He can be charming," Duneier observes, "but he has gone through periods in the past when he was feared by both local residents and other people working the streets, especially when drunk."
Mudrick, who is known for getting tourists to pay him for directions (through intimidation, perhaps?), drinks St. Ides Malt Liquor for breakfast. And Leo, who is paid by vendors to hold spots of the sidewalk for them, establishes his ownership rights by instilling fear in others. "My psychiatrist told me that when I feel stressed out to scream and holler," he tells Duneier. "Just let it out. So I will run up and down Sixth Avenue screaming and hollering at anybody because I am so angry with myself." Not exactly public-character material.
When they need to relieve themselves, the vendors usually go in the immediate vicinity. A popular location is the Washington Court Condominium, the walls of which have crevices that make for convenient urinals. One vendor shows Duneier how he is able to pee into a paper cup while pretending he is hailing a cab. Another man shows how he unlocks a Dumpster and defecates in it (giving new meaning to that trade name). Duneier finds nothing unusual here. While "indecent" from the standpoint of "mainstream society," he writes, such behavior "can, of course, be compared with the behavior of wealthier, white men." Duneier writes that he has heard from "a friend who plays golf at the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills that it is not uncommon to see men urinate on the golf course, despite the restrooms scattered throughout the tract." Duneier adds: "In all socioeconomic classes, the male act of urinating in public seems to be common, though those who work the streets seem to have fewer options as to where to go." Restrooms in New York City are notoriously scarce, but, to anyone who has had the experience of returning to his or her apartment building to find a homeless person urinating on it, Duneier's effort to explain away the vendors' behavior will seem small comfort.
In another section, Duneier describes the vendors' habit of verbally accosting women--especially well-off white women--as they walk by. "Hi, pretty," says one in a typical comment recorded by Duneier. "You look so nice. I don't see no ring on your finger. When you want to get married?" When the woman doesn't respond, the man becomes more insistent. Devoting a full chapter to these encounters, Duneier dissects them according to an abstruse academic discipline called conversation analysis, which attempts to find hidden cues in the lulls and inflections of everyday conversation. In the end, Duneier writes, the men's behavior is unsettling not because "any real threat is present" but "because practical conversational ethics are being betrayed in a search for power and dignity." Perhaps so, but the women feel hassled nonetheless.
To Duneier, the state of being homeless is itself nothing out of the ordinary. Many of the vendors, he insists, are homeless by choice. "For some of these men," he writes, "sleeping in a bed no longer feels natural. Although most Americans take sleeping in a bed as basic to decency, the conventional bed is not a physical necessity but a cultural artifact; many people of the world regard a bed as less healthy for sleeping than a hard surface." Duneier is so eager to normalize the behavior of his subjects that he refuses to apply the word "homeless" to them, preferring the term "unhoused."
In Sidewalk, Duneier provides a running commentary on his research techniques. In a twenty-nine-page appendix on his methodology, he writes, "I regard myself as an urban sociologist working in the traditions of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology of the 1920s." Citing as his "intellectual forebears" people like W.E.B. Du Bois, Robert E. Park, Elliot Liebow, and Herbert Gans, Duneier writes that "my primary goal as a scholar is to carry on some of their traditions in order to illuminate issues of race and/or poverty as found in American cities in the current era."
Unlike most of those forebears, however, Duneier makes no attempt to fade into the background of his research. He is forever referring to himself, his thoughts, his tape recorder. In one three-sentence paragraph, the pronoun I appears four times. When the police one day attempt to shut down the vendors' operations, Duneier, incensed, gets into a confrontation with them. And when the vendors are denied access to the bathroom in a fast-food restaurant, he asks for the key in an effort to prove discrimination.
As such actions suggest, Duneier strongly identifies with his subjects. While this helps him appreciate the injustices they must frequently endure, it blinds him to the sentiments of those who must share the sidewalk with them. Duneier says that he interviewed fifty "apartment dwellers," but their views rarely creep into his text. One customer he does visit in her apartment tells him, "My husband is a First Amendment lawyer and Marvin [a vendor] is doing First Amendment work. And I think it's great that he is out there." The woman, who has a photograph of Fidel Castro on her wall, happens to be the publisher of Covert Action Quarterly, a radical journal dedicated to exposing the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency. Even by Village standards, she does not seem representative.
Occasionally, other, more negative views do leak through Duneier's sieve. The manager of a convenience store near Sixth Avenue says of the panhandlers and scavengers that "aside from the nuisance they create, they sometimes don't look presentable. They sometimes smell bad. They sometimes smoke drugs or urinate. Right in front! Without any regards for law or anything!" In the book's most dramatic scene, the owner of a local bookstore angrily accuses Hasan of selling copies of a novel (Push) stolen from her store. When Hasan objects, the owner shows him the signature of the author (Sapphire) inside--put there, she says, in her store. The encounter leads Duneier to investigate whether the books sold on the sidewalk have been stolen. He concludes that up to 40 percent of Hakim's books have been, not by him but by his sources, who include individual scavengers, professional fences who specialize in best-sellers, and employees at the publishing houses themselves. After a long and convoluted discussion, however, Duneier characteristically excuses these facts by claiming that legitimate bookstores sell stolen books as well.
In his conclusion, Duneier urges the adoption of a "new social-control strategy" for dealing with the vendors on the sidewalk:
At its core can be unrelenting demands for responsible behavior, but there could also be new kinds of enlightened understanding from the citizenry, leading to greater tolerance and respect for people working the sidewalk.
More bluntly, Duneier cites Mudrick's remark about the unsettling comments he makes to women on the street: "They gotta deal with it." Like the vendors or not, Duneier believes, we had better get used to having them around.
But New Yorkers are not willing to get used to having them around. That's why Giuliani was elected, and reelected. And it's why mayors across the country are emulating aspects of his quality-of-life campaign. American city dwellers want to be able to use their sidewalks without being hassled, without having to dodge pools of urine, without seeing glassy-eyed men yelling wildly in the street.
At the same time, many New Yorkers are beginning to rebel against the "broken windows" strategy and the excesses it has engendered. The herding of homeless people off the street, the mass roundups of drug addicts, the constant hounding of minority youths, the brazen aggressiveness of the police--all have fed a growing backlash against the Giuliani approach. Thus we have the central challenge of urban politics today: how to make our streets safe for law-abiding citizens while treating everyone with fairness and justice. By seeing the sidewalk only through the eyes of the vendors, Duneier is oblivious to this tension. We still await our modern-day Jane Jacobs.
Michael Massing is an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the author of The Fix: A Study of the Nation's Drug Problem Since the 1960s