SIDEWALK by Mitchell Duneier


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Sociologist Duneier (Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison; Slim’s Table: Respectability and Masculinity, 1994) constructs a nuanced study of the lives of impoverished street vendors in New York’s Greenwich Village. Any day along Sixth Avenue in the Village, rows of tables congest the sidewalk, piled with reading material for sale—from new books to old magazines retrieved from Dumpsters. The sellers are mostly black men; many are homeless, drug addicts, alcoholics. They often engage in “deviant” behavior, such as public urination and engaging unwilling passersby in conversation. Some in the neighborhood accept them as part of the scene, more view them as a threat to the quality of life of the area and a magnet for crime. As a “participant observer” for a number of years, Duneier has tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the actions of these street vendors. They are not an aimless gathering of down-and-outers, but a complex world of norms and self-regulation, of variegated attitudes and self-images. Most view their work—even if it’s only panhandling and not selling—as honorable in that they are in fact working, not stealing or robbing. Still they rankle and are often the object of police harassment and government sanctions. Why this is so involves an intricate pas de deux between the street people and residents. Because, for example, they assume with good reason they will not be allowed to use public facilities, the street people urinate in the street. Because the street people urinate in the street, local merchants assume they are not the type of people to be allowed into their establishments. And on and on. Underlying all of this, Duneier argues carefully, is the fear of black men in social spaces. His aim is to have us really begin to see such men. In this, he is ably assisted by the numerous photographs by Pulitzer-winner Ovie Carter illustrating the people, places, and predicaments of which Duneier writes. A work that adds much to our understanding of race, poverty, and our reactions to them.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-26355-8
Page count: 388pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999


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