darkskywatcher (darkskywatcher) wrote,

Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk

This book covers years of fieldwork by a white, Jewish sociologist working with the vendors, panhandlers, and other street people of a few square blocks of Greenwich Village in New York City, during the 90s. As such, I find it extremely difficult to know what to say about it. It didn't strike me as "good", which is to say it wasn't usually something I enjoyed reading, but I didn't hate reading it, either.

Really, the best description I can give of the book is "complex". There are a number of major issues, particularly race relations, that could have been oversimplified one way or another and resulted in something that would have been easy for me to knock on. But the author does an excellent job of dealing with the issues well and not assuming too much or too little potency. Another example is that a fair portion of the book contains the conversations where he asks people questions. He lets the subjects speak for themselves, but doesn't necessarily take what they say at face value.

The big theory points that the author makes are that "people aren't broken windows" and "the broken windows theory gives the community and especially the police way to much discretion to make life difficult for it's most vulnerable members." Both of them refer to a sociological theory which I had, fortunately, previously encountered. The second point is vividly illustrated in one shocking incident involving some NYPD officers.

Both points are interesting to consider in light of my role as a security officer. While it does make a difference that I operate on private property as an extension of that property owner, I do have standing orders to prevent various people such as panhandlers, drunks, etc. from wandering onto or staying on the property. In effect, I do some of the minor work of making sure that windows aren't broken, whatever the detriment to those that I shoo away.

Overall, I think I'd recommend the book only to the sociologically inclined: if you like the sociological fieldwork already, you'll probably get a lot out of this book. If you don't, you won't.

Tags: books

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