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.
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.