How to Become Cosmopolitan in Urban Public Space
by Stéphane Tonnelat
An ethnography of Philadelphia takes up a problem rarely addressed by the social sciences: how to account for events that do not take place? In his latest opus, sociologist Elijah Anderson examines the absence of discrimination in a city market and looks at the conditions of possibility of cosmopolitanism.
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The social sciences have a difficult time identifying and studying positive trends affecting our urban society. And a city like Philadelphia, the setting for the book under review, seems particularly ill-suited to the task. The white middle class and businesses have long fled the inner city, encouraged by a federal policy which favored suburban development. Since the 1950s, the poor, mostly African Americans, have been left stranded in a city plagued by shrunken fiscal revenues. Today, Philadelphia is still suffering from deindustrialization and the current economic crisis is taking its toll. The social upward mobility of lower class people, again mostly African Americans, is severely impaired by poor public services (education, public transportation…) and a lack of blue-collar employment opportunities (see the Pew Report (2009) cited by Anderson).
Elijah Anderson, an African American sociologist formerly at the University of Pennsylvania and now at Yale University, has built his sociological career in the steps of W. E. B. Du Bois (1899), documenting, in excruciating detail, in several landmark books (Anderson 1976, 1990; 1999; 2008), the struggles of everyday life in poor black inner city neighborhoods. In these areas, plagued by intractable economic conditions and institutionalized racism, violent behavior comes to dominate the streets and social relations. This not only reinforces the stigmatization of African Americans in the larger society, but also participates in establishing a self-reproducing “code of the street” within the community.Anderson has been one of the leaders of the renaissance of urban ethnography in the last twenty years, reviving and improving, with many others, the fieldwork tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology (Anderson 2009). Having refined both inductive and deductive scientific analysis, thanks to debates within the discipline (see for example the discussion in the American Journal of Sociology launched by Wacquant about the work of Anderson and two other ethnographers (Wacquant 2002; Duneier 2002; Newman 2002; Anderson 2002), ethnographers have gained a new respectability in sociology, which allows them to reach an audience beyond their academic turf and to explore new concepts. (more…)
In diverse cities across the nation many Americans have adopted a “pervasive wariness” of one another, says sociologist Elijah Anderson. In his book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Every Day Life, Anderson writes that too often, people “divert their gazes, looking up, looking down, or looking away, and feign ignorance of the diverse mix of strangers they encounter.”
But in Philadelphia’s Center City, Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University, has found a place that offers a respite from that well-ingrained wariness. The city’s Reading Terminal, with its bustling multi-ethnic market and busy lunch counters, offers a neutral space where all kinds of people feel comfortable enough to drop their usual defenses and interact with total strangers.
Which is exactly what happened to Anderson one afternoon at Reading Terminal’s Down Home Diner, where a man visiting from Sacramento “gets a pancake or two, sits down next to me, and we chat.” In a very short time, the man, who was white, told Anderson, who is African-American, that he “has friends who are white supremacists … And he’s amazed at the civility, the diversity, the wide range of different kinds of people he sees, and the civility that is palpable at the Terminal.”
It’s a mixed bag, but the one thing that characterizes this space is civility. Civility across racial lines. – Elijah Anderson, sociologist
Elijah Anderson’s new book points up an identity crisis.
In the late 1980s, I fell in love with the discipline of sociology by reading books written by patient, perceptive observers like Elijah Anderson. As I told my father excitedly during my sophomore year in college, these scholars helped me see my immigrant anxieties as “normal” and a signature American experience. Concepts like identity and ethnicity let me express sentiments that until then had been inchoate and threatening. Going deep into the pockets of American society and hanging out at length, sociologists could draw on the human ballet to examine our cherished beliefs and institutions as well as our stereotypes and misguided social policies. This seemed to me to be a great magic trick, taking us into foreign, seemingly impenetrable worlds and emerging with useful insights.
For over a century, sociologists were some of our country’s influential truth-tellers. They gravitated to those issues—race relations, social inequality, and the workings of government—that were part of the American experiment to build an open, free democracy. Think of battles to end school segregation, ensure fair housing policy, and promote public sector accountability. A data-carrying sociologist—St. Clair Drake, Herbert Gans, James Coleman—was often at hand, gathering evidence, providing analysis, writing intelligibly for the citizenry. Anderson’s own ideas shaped criminal justice, welfare, and urban development policy. The sociologists may not have been household names, but they were important cogs in the civic wheel.