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
Racial difference is a constant, even unremarkable presence in city life — as simple as the way that, as you walk from one neighborhood to another, you’re aware of whether or not you “belong.” Racial differences, though, aren’t always cause for wariness or unease. Often, they’re invigorating. In The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, the Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson writes about those parts of the American city that allow “complete strangers to observe and appreciate one another” across racial barriers. Anderson calls these spaces “cosmopolitan canopies,” and says they let ordinary people become amateur anthropologists, watching and, eventually, reaching out to people of whom they’d be more wary in other places. His broader question: can we encourage the growth of cosmopolitan canopies? Or do they only grow from the bottom up?
President Obama in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.
Anderson’s book is focused on Philadelphia, and starts with a walking tour of that city from a racial point of view: he takes in the Philadelphia equivalents of Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, Faneuil Hall, and South Station. Walking through Philly’s neighborhoods, Anderson writes, often means having “a pervasive wariness towards strangers,” created by the feeling that each neighborhood “belongs” to one group or another. By and large, this proprietary feeling is the rule. But scattered throughout the city there are oases of cosmopolitanism — places characterized by “acceptance of the space as belonging to all kinds of people.”
The Cosmopolitan Canopy
RACE AND CIVILITY IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Elijah Anderson (Author, Yale University)
Overview | Contents | Inside the Book
An acclaimed sociologist illuminates the public life of an American city, offering a major reinterpretation of the racial dynamics in America.
Following his award-winning work on inner-city violence,Code of the Street, sociologist Elijah Anderson introduces the concept of the “cosmopolitan canopy”-the urban island of civility that exists amidst the ghettos, suburbs, and ethnic enclaves where segregation is the norm. Under the cosmopolitan canopy, diverse peoples come together, and for the most part practice getting along. Anderson’s path-breaking study of this setting provides a new understanding of the complexities of present-day race relations and reveals the unique opportunities here for cross-cultural interaction.
Anderson walks us through Center City Philadelphia, revealing and illustrating through his ethnographic fieldwork how city dwellers often interact across racial, ethnic, and social borders. People engage in a distinctive folk ethnography. Canopies operating in close proximity create a synergy that becomes a cosmopolitan zone. In the vibrant atmosphere of these public spaces, civility is the order of the day. However, incidents can arise that threaten and rend the canopy, including scenes of tension involving borders of race, class, sexual preference, and gender. But when they do-assisted by gloss-the resilience of the canopy most often prevails. In this space all kinds of city dwellers-from gentrifiers to the homeless, cabdrivers to doormen-manage to co-exist in the urban environment, gaining local knowledge as they do, which then helps reinforce and spread tolerance through contact and mutual understanding.
With compelling, meticulous descriptions of public spaces such as 30th Street Station, Reading Terminal Market, and Rittenhouse Square, and quasi-public places like the modern-day workplace, Anderson provides a rich narrative account of how blacks and whites relate and redefine the color line in everyday public life. He reveals how eating, shopping, and people-watching under the canopy can ease racial tensions, but also how the spaces in and between canopies can reinforce boundaries. Weaving colorful observations with keen social insight, Anderson shows how the canopy-and its lessons-contributes to the civility of our increasingly diverse cities.