|CODE OF THE STREET|
September 21, 1999
DAVID GERGEN: Eli, you spent fours years on the streets of Downtown Philadelphia looking at urban life. What did you see and what did you find?
ELIJAH ANDERSON: I saw a lot. I saw differences in terms of class, race, ethnicity. My book begins as a tour down Germantown Avenue, which is a street that goes...it goes back to colonial days, but it goes right through the heart of Philadelphia from the city and the suburbs in the city all the way through some of the worst neighborhoods of the community. And I saw persistent urban poverty; I saw civility; I saw decency; I saw trust in the law; I saw distrust in the law. It was a very complicated picture. But what struck me most of all, I think, is the alienation at ground zero that so many people feel.
DAVID GERGEN: Where is ground zero?
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Well, ground zero could be 13th and Fitzwater, it could be Southwest Philadelphia, it could be 8th and Butler in Philadelphia. It could be Shelton and Germantown Avenue. And these are places where you see persistent urban poverty, concentrated pockets of poverty, where the wider system in the minds of residents and in the hearts of residents have... the wider system has abdicated its responsibility in terms of employment, in terms of the economy, in terms of law enforcement even.
DAVID GERGEN: You say people there who have joined almost an oppositional culture have formed a code of the street. What is that code?
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Well, the code really is... is a set of do's and don'ts about having to do with getting on in the urban environment, and to put it simply, it's really like the Golden Rule-- do unto others as you would have others do unto you-- but with the added caveat of payback. That is, if you mess with me, if you hurt my family, there will be payback coming not from the police, but from me. And in the community, most of the people even at ground zero are decent and trying to be decent. I would underscore that. But you have a small minority of people who are really committed to the street, who are really committed to the code, but as the "decent people"-- and this is the way they describe it; these are not my labels-- as the wider system has abdicated its responsibilities, so the decent people feel, they are on their own. They're under pressure to deal with assaults, to deal with aggressive people. And in order to deal with aggressive people, they have to act street, or to put on this code, so to speak, and these people often times code-switch. They go back and forth. And this is certainly not wasted on the young people, on the kids.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah, you write in your book that there are two kinds of individuals who are almost a saving grace at ground zero, one decent daddy and the other grandmothers. Can you tell us about that.
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Well, the decent daddy goes way back. In many ways, he is the epitome of the American working class father, and in the manufacturing era, he was quite prevalent in the inner city, black community. In fact, in many of those communities, there were nuclear families, there were mothers and fathers and children, and these men worked in the factories. They were blue-collar workers and they made good money. Back in 1950, such a man could make $5,000, $6,000 a year and buy a house, buy a nice car, take care of the family. In today's money, that is about $38,000 a year, and a man could get that kind of a job with no education, no skills. Today, such a man cannot get that kind of a job with no skills and no education. He's got to have a certain amount of human capital-- skills, education and opportunity basically to do that kind of thing. Well, the decent daddy of old that was a strong figure who took care of his home, who gardened his neighborhood, oftentimes liked to call the shots, we call him Mr. Johnson in the book, Mr. Johnson, and this is really in some ways a kind of metaphor for this type of individual, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the black, the solid black family of the 1950's if you will. And in the inner city neighborhoods, you had many of these individuals. And if there was a single mother with children, oftentimes the male children could look to Mr. Johnson for support.
DAVID GERGEN: Their numbers have greatly diminished.
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Greatly diminished. And Mr. Johnson had this reputation in the community as someone who laughed and talked, but didn't play. You see, he was serious. He was a hard man. He embodied the work ethic. He embodied decency, if you will.
DAVID GERGEN: What about the grandmothers?
ELIJAH ANDERSON: And the grandmother is the same thing. She could have been Mrs. Johnson, and she felt very much responsible for the community, and would be in everybody's business-- stopping fights, chastising children, telling the mothers about them when the mothers returned, that kind of thing. And she could do that in those days. Today such a person can't always do that, and, in fact, given the persistent poverty in some of these areas today, Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson had been replaced by the single poor mother oftentimes, and then the men in the community are loosely connected oftentimes to these women, and this is again at ground zero. As we move away from ground zero, you have more of a Mr. and Mrs. Johnson orientation.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. You wrote about a young man named Rob who broke through this on his own. How did he do that? Tell us about it.
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Well, Rob is a very interesting young man. Rob was involved in drugs at the age of 17. In fact, he was something of a drug enforcer for the gang at 17 and went to jail for aggravated assault. He spent time in prison. He got out. He's 27 now, and he has really worked to reform himself, and I've been helping him in some ways, myself and Herman Rice, who is an activist in the community. And Herman Rice and myself played the role of old heads in the community and we... we look at the problem of poverty and the problem of lack of opportunity, we look it in the face. And we don't blame the victim, but we don't totally blame the system as well. We try to somehow cultivate young men, show them a different way, tell them about opportunities, point the way, show them, and Rob is one of these, and he has turned his life around. He went from selling drugs to selling fruit from a fruit stand that he set up, and from that he became an entrepreneur at a carryout and now he's working in computers. He's learning computers and building for himself a kind of human capital, and one day he'll be a great success I'm sure, but he's... in the minds of people like Herman Rice and some of the old heads in the community, a young man like this who can turn his life around can more effectively play this role of Mr. Johnson as well.
DAVID GERGEN: Briefly, is there a secret to how Rob made that journey?
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Well, I think if there is a secret, it really has to do with a kind of inner grit and having hit himself perhaps ground zero-- having hit it and having learned from his experiences. In fact, he tells me that prison was the best thing that ever happened to him, that he was able to reflect on his life. He read the bible, he read the Koran, he read dictionaries. He had a chance to reflect about who he was and how his life was impacted by the system, but how he himself had been misguided and impacted the system in certain negative ways. He says that at that point in time, he was a model of destruction, but today he's a model of construction, positive construction, if you will, and I think that's... that's what he had to offer, and he sets an example now as a very powerful role model in the community. Young people look up to him and that's the kind of thing we need to do if we're going to resolve some of these issues. True enough, many of these issues are structural in their way. I mean, the causes, we have persistent urban poverty that's very different from the kind of poverty that we saw in the 1950's. Today the jobs have moved out, and the neighborhoods that they used to exist in are now very poor. And when we have that kind of situation, it's hard to blame the victim for the poverty. You have to look at the structure. So the structure is there, but at the same time, there's hope that something can be done and this is what Rob has.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Elijah Anderson, thank you for joining us.
ELIJAH ANDERSON: Thank you.