Thursday, May 6, 2010

Tania Damiano - Book Report - "Sidewalk" by Mitchell Duneier

“I am thinking about the sidewalk. Thank goodness for the sidewalk.” (80)

Mitchell Duneier spent years studying the sidewalk, but not much the physical sidewalk, that is, the pavement and the cracks in it, but how people move and act on it. He tells the story of how the men and women he studied looked at him with suspicious eyes, worried and ‘weirded out’ (for a lack of a better term) but soon let Duneier into their lifestyle as he tells their story.
First off, he tells the story of an African American book vender named Hakim Hasan who was feeling a bit uneasy to have Duneier observing his every move. He is sells what he calls “black books” from a small stand (well, table) on Sixth Avenue. As he approached Hakim to ask him what his role in on the street, Hakim kindly answered that he is “a public character" (6). I couldn’t hold in my laughter at the conversation that followed as Duneier was confused at what that meant and Hakim mentioned Jane Jacobs' “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” I found it funny because it sounded like Hakim was frustrated with a man not knowing such a famous phrase and book. It is important to know that during Duneier’s first encounter with Hakim, he immediately assumed that he was unhoused and uneducated for he thought that “many of the African-American men selling things on the block lived right there on the sidewalk.” Interesting how we assumed things for no absolute reason or conscious thought.
Thanks to Hakim and one of his NYU colleagues he coincidentally found while walking down the street (21), he was able to observe and found out more about the lives of other venders along Sixth Avenue. All of them, however, were not the uneducated, ‘losers’ Duneier once assumed they were, but he saw them as “innovators - earning a living, striving for self-respect, establishing good relations with fellow citizens, providing support for each other" (79). Many of the citizens were thankful to have these men out here for they were of great help, which helped the venders stay in business. Duneier states that most of these men, now venders, were at some point on drugs or other illegal activities, and being “innovators- earning a living” by selling books or others down sixth avenue was what kept them out of trouble. After much research and observation, furthermore, Duneier noticed that these amazing men “worked directly in an unplanned way to bring this particular habitat into being” (154). This ‘habitat’ he refers to is sidewalk where "complementary sustaining elements were brought together in a working system" (154).
Much of this book, especially the conversation Duneier has at the beginning of it, is in conversation with Jane Jacobs’ mentioned book. He mentions that "Sidewalk life today is different from how it was when Jacobs was writing" and that “her account of sidewalk life is different not simply because the sidewalk was different but because the lens of the sidewalk was different” (192). Jacobs’ main argument on sidewalk safety was that, besides police officers and other government officials that worked for the public directly, the ones that kept the streets safe were its daily users- that is, if anyone were to be in danger, others would directly jump in to help or at least call for help. Yet Duneier argues that Jacobs’ observations ended in the 1960s and that years after that, the view and life of the sidewalk had changed dramatically. On page 157, Duneier says that just in the 80’s, the sidewalk was seen “as a kind of struggle” because people had changed and the contact between them had changed. Life, mainly in New York City is continually changing; the city’s sidewalk needed new eyes to keep it safe.
Another important issue is the theory embraced by Mayor Guiliani of “Broken windows.” His theory sees all kind of disorder in the city, not referring simply to cracked or broken windows but to any type of crime and illegal activity occurring in the city. Yet, Duneier looks at the bright side of the situation and proposed the “fixed windows” theory which is the exact opposite of the “broken windows.” He believes that when the government finally “abdicate its responsibility to help persons who come out of prison to find homes and jobs, such persons are left to their own devices if they are to transform themselves into persons that make a contribution to society” (315)- this is, men that will improve the city. As I mentioned earlier, these book vendors attempting to make “an honest living” (315) are well liked by the citizens that pass by Sixth Avenue, everyday and especially by Duneier’s NYU classmate who gets his reading materials from Hakim.
And well, I don’t want to sound obvious but this book has EVERYTHING to do with the class. The study of people and their behavior is clearly depicted in Sidewalk. The way people interact, how the sidewalk life is and how the street venders have become their own “family” as they daily meet at the same spot hoping for a better life than what they most likely had before. It also connects to the class because Sidewalk has a lot of influence and input from The Death and Life of Great American Cities which we discussed a lot in Urban Studies. I enjoyed Duneier’s writing even more than Jacobs’. Probably because it’s more current and I could relate to it more, but also because of his writing and the way he presents city life.

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