cover image Sidewalk


Mitchell Duneier. Farrar Straus Giroux, $27 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-374-26355-3

Investigating the complex social ecology of a three-block span of New York's Greenwich Village (a neighborhood that helped shape pioneering urban critic Jane Jacobs's thinking on the structure of cities), Duneier offers a vibrant portrait of a community in the shadows of public life. A white, middle-class sociologist whose Slim's Table won plaudits for its nuanced portrait of urban black men, Duneier infiltrated a stretch of lower Sixth Avenue frequented by scavengers, panhandlers and vendors of used and discounted books and magazines. As participant-observer, he spent months working the vendors' tables, gaining impressive access and insight. He suggests, contrary to Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, that many choose to sleep on the sidewalk even if they have money for a room. He not only observes but experiences arbitrary displays of authority by the police, who tell him to stop selling books and magazines one Christmas. Duneier adroitly explains how disparate policies--such as pressure on the homeless at Penn Station and a law that exempts vendors of written matter from licensing--have redefined life and business conditions in the city streets. He further argues that, despite the apparent disorder created by the vendors, the sidewalk creates an opportunity for income, respect and social support. In a retort to the influential ""broken windows"" theory behind community policing, he concludes that policy makers must do better to distinguish between inanimate signs of decline, such as graffiti, and the vendors or panhandlers who strive for better lives. The dozens of photos interspersed throughout--by Chicago Tribune photographer Carter, a previous collaborator with the author--add depth to a book that achieves a remarkably intimate perspective on life on the margins of New York City. (Oct.)