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Duneier, Mitchell (with photographs by Ovie Carter).


New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

383 pp.

ISBN 0-374-52725-3


Sidewalk, a winner of the C. Wright Mills Award, is required for readers interested in old-school urban ethnography and recommended for those concerned with current issues of informal economies, homelessness and civic regulation of "undesirables." In the tradition of participant-observation work like W.F. Whyte's Streetcorner Society, Duneier draws us into a world we do not know, among book and magazine vendors on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, mostly black casualties of racism and the postindustrial economy. Among these people with "identities ... hidden in public space" (319), he explores the "invisible social structure" and "web of interactions that constitutes the ongoing life of the sidewalk" (314, 85).

The cast of characters is led by Hakim, a book-seller who, like Whyte's Doc, was Duneier' s main gatekeeper. Uneasy with Duneier's initial project about "the everyday life of one street vendor" - himself -- "and the people who come to his table to buy and talk about books" (333), Hakim played a key role in Sidewalk's evolution and wrote an "Afterward" for the book that eventually emerged.

After reading the original manuscript ... I concluded that the events and conversations that took place at my book-vending table could not convey, by themselves, the complexity of the social structure that existed on these blocks. I sent Mitch a long, handwritten letter outlining my concerns (322).

Duneier asked Hakim to come to California to help direct an undergraduate seminar about race and the street, a time during which they talked the book was reconceived. Duneier returned to the field to sell and scavenge magazines with a vendor named Marvin and his partner Ron (a position Hakim helped arrange), looking toward the wider world of the sidewalk beyond Hakim's table.

He finds beneath the surface turmoil of the sidewalk a complex social and moral order. An example of the former are men, not vendors, who "have made places for themselves on the street, becoming part of the lifeline" (85).

They perform a number of distinct and recognized roles: the place holder, the table watcher, the mover and the person "who lays shit out." The range of roles demonstrates the many ways that the sidewalk's informal written-matter economy can support a life on the street, and the many ways a person can make something for himself out of nothing (85).

The social rounds of vendors involve competing demands on their time.

[M]ost aspects of Ishmael's day on Sixth Avenue are tightly scheduled .... He knows that the police will walk the beat at certain times, and he must be present at his table during those periods if his belongings are not to be taken. He knows that trash is put out at certain times, so he must be out "hunting" then. He knows that customers will purchase the most magazines at certain other times, so he must be present on the block (169).

The middle-class customers and the neighbourhood residents who daily traverse the street are another component of its social structure. Often, the interaction of vendors and passers-by is cosmopolitan.

Marvin and Ron develop relations with an extraordinarily diverse customer base .... [Their] table is a site for interaction that weakens the social barriers between persons otherwise separated by vast social and economic inequalities (71).

Other times, the confrontation is less benign -- for example, in the case of a few men who direct "interactional vandalism" at middle-class women on the sidewalk, brief verbal "entanglements ... whereby [they] can achieve a limited measure of power" (199, 200).

The latter case raises an example of the moral order of the street.

[T]hose who do behave in this way are challenged by vendors ... who shout out requests to desist [and] tell the entangler that he is stopping them from making money, that he is giving everyone a bad name (2 14-5).

Vendors' efforts to regulate the sidewalk are an ongoing part of daily life.

When some men on the block endanger everyone, the "old heads" or mentors often try to exert social control, before the police come and make life difficult for everyone (95).

In one case, Duneier watches the table while Marvin goes down the block to deal with two men who put out pornographic photographs for sale near a bus shelter; the pictures are off the sidewalk in minutes.

Pricing is another area of informal cooperation.

[The] vendors don't try to undersell one another .... They do not want customers to expect to pay anything less than two dollars for a good domestic magazine. Though they might make more money in the short run by accepting every offer for a sale, it is not clear that this would work to their benefit (67).

Competition for location is a critical area of self-regulation -- setting up tables for business in limited space that became much more constricted after a new bylaw was passed while Duneier was in the field, he describes how the vendors sought to cope, a social fabric adapting to new rules not without tensions and conflicts (231 ff.).

The effect of the new bylaw is one of several examples Duneier cites of how civic efforts to control urban space often have unintended results, which is among the book's subplots. Other recurrent themes are reflections on the "broken window" theory of social control and on Jane Jacobs's discussion of what makes for safe sidewalks, written on the same streets some 40 years earlier. Along the way, there are stories -- how Mudrick came broke to the sidewalk one Sunday morning and, by evening, accumulated $75 hustling three used dressing mirrors and an old computer (97 ff.); about hunting the local trash for magazines early one morning (149 ff.); about the police confiscating Ishmael's belongings and rousting him from his streetcorner one Christmas for no apparent reason than that they had power to do it (253 ff.). Each story has a different clue about the sidewalk's lifeworld.

Marvin and Ron's stories help illustrate a key point Duneier wants to make. Marvin, a Vietnam veteran, ex-convict and once-homeless alcoholic, turned himself around and now got by as a sidewalk businessman. In Ron's case, Duneier observed the process of turning around first-hand. A homeless drug addict when Duneier arrived on the block (though, said Marvin, "one of the best book and magazine vendors in New York"; 46), he reshaped his life. When Duneier returned to the sidewalk after a six months away, "Ron looked very different .... Whereas he'd once had the disheveled appearance of a man who never shaved or showered, now he was clean-cut" (77). He no longer slept in the street but had moved to the Harlem apartment of his elderly aunt for whom he now cared. His comments about holding his sidewalk space after the new bylaw reflected a changed outlook. "Sometimes you gotta look out for you .... I need money to pay bills. I gotta pay rent. I lived on the street for years. I'm not getting ready to go back to it" (249). He and Marvin are men Duneier has in mind when he writes at the book's conclusion,

It is vital to the well-being of cities with extreme poverty that there be opportunities for those on the edge to engage in self-directed entrepreneurial activity. There will always be people who, faced with dispiriting social conditions, give up. The people ... working on Sixth Avenue are persevering. They are trying not to give up (317).

A real strength of Sidewalk are Ovie Carter's photographs -- of vendors, street people, passers-by; of the block's streetscape; of Ron and his aunt, Mudrick with his granddaughter -- that give a reader a much more tangible sense of people and place than words alone might ever accomplish (and draw useful attention to the remarkable way urban ethnography has often blindly ignored possibilities for visual documentation). While it is usually not a problem that the pictures are uncaptioned, because they are mostly carefully placed to correspond with passages of text, in some cases a reader might have liked words providing a clearer sense of a photograph's meaning.

An excellent appendix about how Sidewalk evolved and Duneier's methodology will be a useful case study for talking with students about how fieldwork actually happens.

At one moment in Sidewalk, Keith, a local panhandler, and another man watch Shorty's table when he is away from the block on a day in the late I 990s. Keith browses through automobile advertisements in Shorty's magazines.

Look at this one here .... A Chevy. That's for when you want to just hang out with your friends at the beach. And look at this one: it has a bar and a TV/VCR built into it. It's a dream machine. If I had money, I would spend money on that. That would be my play car. See, my dreams are small! I don't want to own the World Trade Centre. For what? So they can try to blow it up again? .... I don't need that kind of headache (91)!
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Author:Caufield, Jon
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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