Think about an urban center. What are those images that strikes our mind first?
Restaurants, malls, theatres.
Have we ever thought about those, who lives at the sidewalks of city?
How do they live in streets? What about their interpersonal relations? How is their social organization? How does they contribute to the society?
“Sidewalk“ written by Mitchell Duneier, an urban sociologist, portrays the lives of people at the sidewalks of cities, including street vendors, magazine scavengers and panhandlers. The ethnographic study conducted at sixth avenue in Greenwich village makes an in-depth understanding of lives of sidewalk people, which is largely constituted by poor black men. Despite being an upper middle class white sociologist, the author carries out participant observation method to be one among them and to carry out a detailed study of his subjects. The work can be considered as a classic in sociology as it combines different subfields of sociology like sociology of culture and urban sociology. The whole study is revolved around the day to day lives and experiences of most disadvantaged and marginalized section in American society, the black men. Unlike the conventional social research studies that starts with a research question, this study begins without any prior assumptions of author, but the entire study is born out from the curiosity of the author to understand the daily affairs of the people around.
The entire book carries out vivid description of a sidewalk at sixth avenue of Greenwich village, which is occupied by vendors, magazine scavengers and panhandlers.It begins with the meeting up of author with a street vendor Hakim and it is through him, the author finds out more details of lives other people and their role in informal economy of a big city.When the author finds out the reasons for people occupying sidewalks of the city, he finds out that, there are many socio-political reasons that pushed men to move to peripheries of cities. Acutepoverty and social problems in neighborhoods are the major reasons that made men to migrate to the cities. Like the author says,
“structural conditions have led a disproportionate black man to the sidewalks of city. AfricanAmerican recruitment networks into low-skilled industries have dried”
However, those who don’t have homes are forced to occupy the sidewalks of city for their survival. However, the author brings out the positive side of this collective lives at the sidewalk. According to him, there is mutual support and cooperation between the people, also, a public character, (who is not supposed to be well versed, but who are always present in the streets and have communication with a a wider circle) like Hakim, is very functional for maintaining peace and order since he has an “eye on the street always” and circulates petitions about local political issues across, thus making their voices heard.
Also, the informal social structure of the sidewalk reduces retreatist behavior of people since, men are able to engage in” legal entrepreneurial activity on the streets that helps them to maintain respect for themselves and others “The author also brings out the inequalities in terms of race in the street. When a black man goesto relieve himself, his table and books are thrown out by the police and it represents the brutality of government against the marginalized. According to the author,
“With the mayor directing the police department to focus on “quality of life” issues, every day the police issue summonses for these codeviolations. The summons requires a vendor to appear before the Environmental Control Board, a civil tribunal. If found guilty, he will be fined”.
The role of police in bringing peace and order in the city has been seen critically by others. According to Jacob, who has studied about the village before Duneier,
“peace at the streets is not maintained by the police, it is kept by an unconscious network of voluntary control and standards among people themselves and enforced by people themselves”.
Thus, the work” sidewalk” is a detailed description of lives of poor black men in the city. The author brings out the characteristics of informal economic system, engaged by the marginalized section of society and the different dimensions of their lifeworld.
After reading the book, one can find the interplay of three different forces that revolve around the lives of black men; deindustrialization, social stratification and social control. Social exclusion on the basis of race, class and caste is present in every society, be it oriental or occidental. Marginalization and social exclusion have a mutual relationship as one effect other. In this book also, one can see this relationship, as black men are marginalized due to the exclusion based on race, however, it is this exclusion that makes them marginalized again and again. A quote from the books fits this” Once you are homeless, always you are homeless”.
The title “sidewalk” can have multiple meanings in the context. It not only represents a portion of the city but it emphasizes the lives of people too. When we talk about globalization and urbanization, there are always some social groups are excluded from the mainstream or the center, who are forced to accommodate at the peripheries. Development of urban areas is not always inclusive since some people are always left out of the process. While analyzing megacities and metropolitan areas, one can easily understand the segregation patterns in the city by race, caste and class. In this context, it is the black man, who have no other option but to be accommodated in the sidewalks. Also, the role of informal economy in accommodating marginalized should be taken into consideration. As we know, formal employment contributes a little share in the workforce, which is largely comprised of middle- and upper-class people. The rest of people, particularly minority, women and marginalized are high in number in informal economy. This trend is clearly depicted by the author in this book.
The “Americandream “was a popular dictum after industrialization, which said that anyone can have material success by hard work. However, the dream is distant for the minority and marginalized sections in society, as their dreams are entangled by their social identity. Even the state, who should create an equal opportunity, has become very oppressive for the marginalized. Under the label of formal social control mechanisms, state forces target the oppressed and in the case of black men, their livelihood means are often destroyed by them to curtail deviance. The author clearly portrays how homeless people are labelled by the state. Thus, the state has been always with the dominant sections in society and like Marxsaid “The ideas of ruling class has become the ruling ideas”.
Also, the work can be considered as a classic in the area of sociology of culture. The creation of public spaces among working class people can be seen from this work. When elite people take over coffee shops and restaurants as public sphere, sidewalks act as a public sphere for poor people. They interpret the books and magazines and carries out discussions at the streets.“The great range in the educational backgrounds of customers who cometo his table to talk about books, and the way this range testifies to this secondary impact of African-American studies. It also illustrates how the verypresence of books on the street tends to prompt discussions about moral andintellectual issues”, the author says.
For the black men, reading books and having discussions has much importance in their lives. Like the author says’
“These books may be geared toward helping people ofAfrican descent understands where they fit in; codifying the achievements ofpeople of African descent; uncovering the history of African Americans, andof white racism; or helping African Americans develop the knowledge andpride necessary to participate in the wider society”.
Thus, there are two important roles of books in the lives of black men.
1: It helps them to get an understanding about themselves and their existence
2: It helps them to have discussions with strangers, thus makes them to sustain in the city.
Thus “sidewalk “can be considered not only as an ethnographical work that contributes to the domain of sociology, but also it instills sociological imagination in us, thereby makes us to think about the multidimensional issues of marginalized section in society. Race- Class inequalities, poverty and migration are a few among many, that are mentioned in the book. In every society, ghettoization has become common, in which poor people live together due to several socio-economic constraints. The living conditions of these people are quite problematic as others consider them as a threat to others. However, in this work, the author goes against the commonsensical understanding of the role of street people and through this work, the author adds much to our existing understanding of lives of marginalized in society,thus giving a chance for their voices to be heard out.
1: Duneier, M., Carter, O., & Hasan, H. (2001). Sidewalk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.