Man on the street

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

Getting a shoeshine in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market View full image

It is surely a long way from Anderson's birthplace in the desperately poor, racially segregated Mississippi Delta to his spacious Prospect Street office on the northern end of Yale's campus, with its picture windows, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and unpacked boxes of books. On one wall hangs a photograph of Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), a prominent black historian and one of Anderson's role models. His desk is adorned with family snapshots: his wife, Nancy, a writer; his son, Luke, 26, now working on curriculum development for Chicago schools; and his daughter, Caitlin, 28, teaching English in Ecuador.

For all his exceptionality, Anderson's own background encapsulates one major strand of 20th-century black history. Like many in their generation, his parents joined what has been called the Great Migration, fleeing rural Southern poverty in search of better jobs.

When Anderson was born in 1943, the middle child in a family of five, his grandmother was the midwife. His parents were sharecroppers, he says, "picking cotton, chopping cotton, living off the land." But Anderson's father, Leighton, drove a truck in the Army infantry during World War II, and the experience changed him forever. Happy to see American soldiers, "the British were so deferential and respectful," Anderson remembers his father saying. "As a black person who was used to the South, this was an amazing thing. They treated him so well that he used to tell me he almost didn't come back."

Fortunately, opportunity beckoned in the industrial Midwest, in South Bend, Indiana, where two of Anderson's uncles had already settled. With only a fourth-grade education, Anderson's father landed a well-paid job at a Studebaker automobile factory. (When Anderson talks about deindustrialization, he sometimes compares his father's position with the grim employment prospects of uneducated black men today.) Anderson's mother, Carrie, worked as a domestic at first, and later owned a grocery store in the black part of town.

Anderson's precocity was soon apparent. "He wanted to answer all the questions. He was always ready," recalls Edward Myers, Anderson's fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at a predominantly black elementary school. Myers also remembers Anderson's dry sense of humor. During a discussion of religion, when the teacher asked who in the class wanted to go to heaven, only Elijah failed to raise his hand. As Myers recalls the incident: "I said, 'Don't you want to go to heaven when you die?' He said, 'Yes -- but not with this bunch.'"

Anderson, who still cuts a formidably athletic figure, ran track and played football and basketball. And he made the South Bend streets his own. Indulging both his curiosity and an independent streak, "I had the run of the city at an early age," he says. "I was the kind of a kid who just loved the streets." At age ten, Anderson was a paperboy, selling newspapers; a year later, he was setting pins in a downtown bowling alley.

"When I was 12," he says, "I decided to get a real job. So I went around to all the merchants in South Bend and canvassed them for jobs, and Mr. Forbes, the typewriter store owner, hired me. He just said, 'What do you do?' I said, 'I can do whatever these other boys do.'" So, after school and on Saturdays, for 50 cents an hour, Anderson emptied wastebaskets, washed windows, mopped floors, and learned to fix typewriters.

At Indiana University, Anderson majored in sociology and minored in psychology and economics. For graduate school, the University of Chicago was a natural choice. Anderson later followed one of his mentors, Howard Becker, to Northwestern, where he completed his doctorate. To this day he considers himself an acolyte of the famed Chicago School of sociology, which emphasizes urban sociology and ethnography.

Gerald D. Suttles, author of The Social Order of the Slum (1968) and one of Anderson's teachers at Chicago, remembers his student's obsession with Elliott Liebow's Talley's Corner (1967), an account of black street-corner life. While Suttles usually discouraged students from undertaking fieldwork their first year, Anderson was "so enthusiastic and so talkative," he says, "that I couldn't resist him. He was kind of unstoppable."

Anderson began hanging out at a liquor store and bar on Chicago's South Side. He called the place, which reminded him of his father and uncles' old haunts, "Jelly's" in his writings. With the help of a janitor who became his friend and mentor, and his own meticulous field notes, Anderson investigated social identity and status distinctions within Jelly's fluid social group, whose members defined themselves as "regulars," "hoodlums," or "wineheads."

"When you do this work it's a function to some extent of your own background, what you bring to it," Anderson says. "So, for me, the issue seemed to be status and how these men came together again and again, and made and remade their local stratification system. That's what the book deals with, that's what it illuminates -- not just for these black men, but for people more generally." A Place on the Corner, which evolved from his doctoral dissertation, started his career off with a bang. William Julius Wilson, director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard University, calls it "a classic work of urban ethnography."

Anderson's first teaching job was at prestigious Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia. But Penn offered the attractive mix of an urban location and a graduate program. Renee Fox, Penn's sociology department chair at the time, recruited him. At the time, there was, "not untypically, no person of color in the department," Fox says, "and very few persons of African American background throughout the university." Choosing her words carefully, she adds: "Sociologists are oriented to being sensitive to ethnicity and social class and problems of prejudice and discrimination. We study these things. But it took us a long time to invite Eli to become a junior member of our faculty."

Anderson and his future wife made their home near Penn, in Powelton Village, and he quickly turned his curious eye on his neighbors. While ethnographers traditionally have adopted the role of the "participant observer," Anderson says he always has tried to go beyond that -- to be an "observing participant," who, through time and proximity, learns a setting "so well that it becomes second nature."

Like A Place on the Corner, Streetwise is about boundaries and the tensions that erupt there -- in this case, between Powelton Village ("the Village") and the ghetto neighborhood of Mantua ("Northton"). "The book, in a way, is really all about that border, about how do people live in this kind of community that is supposed to be so dangerous," he says. "Well, they become streetwise." The book won the 1991 Robert E. Park Prize, an American Sociological Association award for urban sociology.

In Streetwise, Anderson introduced the dichotomy of "decent" and "street," labels borrowed once again from the people he was studying. "Most people are decent and trying to be decent," says Anderson. It's a phrase he repeats like a mantra. "If it were not that way," he says, "it would be complete chaos."

But, as he would show in Code of the Street, which describes the further deterioration of Philadelphia's inner-city neighborhoods as a result of the drug trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs, "the decent people are under pressure, because decency won't get you much on the street. So if you're going to be decent all the time you become vulnerable. So you have to code-switch and become street, which allows other people to treat you with a certain respect. Because if you're street, you have the right to get ignorant, so to speak -- you can fight back, you can resort to violence."

As Anderson explains, the code has its benefits: "The code of the street is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system -- and in others who would champion one's personal security. . . . The code of the street thus emerges where the influence of the police ends and where personal responsibility for one's safety is felt to begin." Anderson brings to life the environment in which the code dominates, and the costumes and customs that telegraph status: "Now and again a young boy appears, dressed in an expensive athletic suit and white sneakers (usually new; some boys have four or five pair)." Other boys "profile or represent, striking stylized poses, almost always dressed in expensive clothes that belie their unemployed status" and "lead others to the easy conclusion that they 'clock' (work) in the drug trade."

To acquire the details that bring his narratives alive, Anderson has always relied on his own ability to code-switch -- "to speak the language of the community and the language of the wider society," each at the appropriate time. "Growing up," he says, "I would speak one language at home and one language at school, and it's something that followed me throughout."