How Low-Income Neighborhoods Stabilize

by Randy Shaw on August 21, 2008

A common stereotype about low-income neighborhoods is that they are disorganized, and lack a distinct set of moral and cultural values. UC Berkeley Professor Martin Sanchez-Jankowski challenges this thesis, and has written a book that describes how such institutions as the neighborhood grocery store, the barbershop, the hair salon, the public housing project, the local high school, and the juvenile gang create order and continuity in distressed communities. There are not many books that speak to the merits of public housing or youth gangs, nor to the corner store, which is viewed negatively due to its liquor sales. But Sanchez-Jankowski calls it as he sees it, and spent nine years observing five low-income communities (two in the Bronx, two in Los Angeles, one in Brooklyn) before completing Cracks in the Pavement. Although the author is clearly on the political left, his analysis is also likely to trouble progressives, particularly regarding the causes of low achievement in inner-city schools. Meanwhile, his defense of public housing and youth gangs will raise hackles across political lines.

Writing about low-income communities has never been more difficult. Not only are such neighborhoods less static than in the past—so that thesis-altering demographic shifts can occur mid-book—but ideas offered and conclusions reached are invariably subject to those with specific political agendas. I was repeatedly reminded of the politicization of poverty studies while reading Cracks in the Pavement, because the author reaches many controversial conclusions that do not fit prevailing views of the right or left. And Sanchez-Jankowski reached his findings not by emotional or moral arguments, but by nine years of observation in the low-income communities he describes.

That’s quite a commitment. And it gives the author the authority for reaching conclusions that would assist policymakers, if only more elected officials and others were open to assessing evidence independent of the political fallout.

For example, public housing was viewed as such a disaster by a bipartisan consensus that over 100,000 units have been demolished since the 1990’s, and less than half replaced with low-income units. But Sanchez-Jankowski shows how the projects helped forge the personal identities of residents, “creating an internal identification and status system that was not dependent on the general society, allowing the local residents to avoid issues concerning personal inadequacy.” Conventional wisdom is that living in public housing impairs one’s self esteem; Sanchez-Jankowski found that, to the contrary, it provides the support network necessary for the poor to survive in a difficult world.

Similarly, the author has a surprisingly positive view of youth gangs. He disputes the common view that gangs act as parasites in their neighborhoods, and quotes mothers saying how their daughters feel safer walking home from school because of the gangs. Based on the author’s observation, gangs “are one of the social groups least likely to prey on the residents of their own neighborhood.”

Sanchez-Jankowski views gangs as providing important social and economic benefits to neighborhood residents, and have an institutional legitimacy in the community that they lack in the larger society. I am not an expert on the studies of gangs, and do not know how much Sanchez-Jankowski is breaking new ground. But his analysis is rarely if ever heard in the debates over gang injunctions, gang task-forces, and amidst the widely promulgated claim that gangs are the leading problem in poor communities.

Less interesting is the book’s overly long analysis of barbershops and hair salons, designed to show their role as important social institutions in poor neighborhoods. It is likely that Sanchez-Jankowski began his personal observations of conversations in both types of business before Ice Cubes’ 2002 mega-hit movie, “Barbershop.” The film’s success exposed the idea that the barbershop was the place to find out what was happening in the black community, so the book’s observation of this fact is no revelation. The author does note that he has done the first sociological analysis of the female hair salon, but while conversation topics differ, most readers will already recognize their broader social purpose.

The Schools Crisis

Sanchez-Jankowski’s analysis of high schools in poor neighborhoods is the most compelling and controversial portion of the book. Simply put, his observations of five schools portray a scene that was almost perfectly portrayed in season four of The Wire.

The author’s thesis is that students seek to maintain their local school as a neighborhood, rather than state, institution. This means that in the many poor neighborhoods with a value orientation that stresses immediate excitement over delayed gratification, that students will resist homework and academic workloads that interfere with their desire to have fun.

The author does not flinch from concluding that over the nine years of his research and observation, that all of the schools were maintained in a way that was consistent with the comfort level of a majority of students. This meant that teachers hoping to inspire students toward greater learning and achievement meant strong resistance and soon left, and the showing of films in class became a common strategy for teachers to adjust to what their students wanted from school. Sanchez-Jankowski notes that “a casualty” of the preservation of an environment that met students desires “was the development of human capital that could have provided them with greater opportunity for economic mobility.”

The author’s point is not to blame the victim or to attribute school failure to a “culture of poverty.” He is simply noting how besieged communities cope with poverty, and that these coping mechanisms are not necessarily those that advance economic mobility. It is a nuanced analysis that deserves a far greater level of attention that it is likely to get in a political environment where the obscene underfunding of schools puts most other issues on the back burner.

I wish Cracks in the Pavement was a less academic book, and that the school section were lengthened and the barbershop/hair salon sections sharply reduced. There is much to be learned from this perceptive and thoughtful book, and it would be unfortunate if the author’s hard-earned insights did not impact public policies. Overall, Sanchez-Jankowski has written a flawed, but intellectually courageous book that deserves broad attention.

Randy Shaw is the editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the upcoming, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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