An urban ethnographer studies the racial dynamics of semi-public spaces in Philadelphia and finds in them the possibility of a new social civility among city dwellers.
Anderson (Sociology/Yale Univ.; Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, 1999, etc.) takes readers on a revealing tour of Philadelphia’s “urban canopies,” neutral social settings where people of diverse backgrounds encounter one another and go about their business—shopping, eating, hanging about, meeting friends—in an usually calm and pleasant atmosphere. The author’s favorite example is the large Reading Terminal Market, a group of former train sheds transformed into an enclosed public market. This market and other cosmopolitan canopies, such as Rittenhouse Square, a jazz club, an off-track betting parlor and a shopping-mall food court, provide, in Anderson’s view, places where the usual social tensions and wariness of strangers in a largely segregated city give way to a certain civility. Exposure to and close encounters with individuals of different social, racial and ethnic backgrounds may give people familiarity with their fellow human beings, folks they might otherwise view in a stereotypical fashion. People could potentially take this newfound knowledge about others back to their segregated neighborhoods. Anderson also looks outside the cosmopolitan canopies at social situations where the color line dividing black and white still exists and pretenses of tolerance break down. Anecdotes abound, and the author includes excerpts from his own journal of his perambulations and observations, giving his account immediacy and verisimilitude. The writing is generally crisp and clear, free of sociological jargon, and thus accessible to most readers.
People-watching from a scientist with a message.