Code in the Street book cover and author Elijah Anderson headshot

Code of the Street

In the 1990s, a 15-year-old we’ll call Tyree moved from an unstable home in North Philadelphia to his grandmother’s home in Southwest Philadelphia. Her home was stable, but he walked into a new neighborhood with new dynamics. He fought his way into a new group of teenage boys who lived there and suffered violence and intimidation. All along, he had to follow an unwritten code.

In some sense, it’s an old story, as old as the the Roman empire or shogunate Japan, maybe older still. The difference today is this code’s interplay with race, drugs, more powerful weapons and higher expectations for we think the American promise is. This theme and that story are from the 1999 book, “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City,” written by ethnographer and academic Elijah Anderson. (It was published following to surging crime and the proliferation of drugs within cities in the 1990s, and was followed by books like Off the Books focused on the underground economy.)

Earlier that decade, Anderson wrote about similar themes in the Atlantic. The book gives more space to allow it to read almost like an oral history, with lengthy passages from residents.

The book explores the cultural and internal battle between “decent” and “street” life by going deep on several neighborhoods in Philadelphia, especially Germantown in its northwest section. That decent and street divide runs throughout the book. Through an ethnographic study and lengthy direct quotes from residents, Anderson delves into the intricate code of the street, which has developed as a way for residents to replace trust in institutions and instead rely on their own methods of justice and protection.

According to Anderson, the vast majority of residents in these hard hit neighborhoods of the 1990s were “decent” and trying to live a peaceful life, with only a small minority belonging to street families involved in drugs and violence. However, the proliferation of guns has made even small conflicts deadly, and the code of the street dictates that might makes right. Children as young as 10 years old begin to identify with and engage in either a decent or street lifestyle, with a strong cultural belief that toughness is a virtue and humility is not, he writes.

Anderson also writes about the concept of “code switching,” in which individuals alternate between decent and street behavior depending on the situation. The term “code switching” has become much more commonly used to describe how Black Americans navigate white culture, though this use is at least as important and interesting.

Throughout the book, Anderson discusses the role that economic dislocation, drugs, and a lack of opportunities play in the development and adherence to the code of the street. He also touches on the discrimination faced by black men in the job market and the impact of welfare reform on family dynamics. The consequences of the code of the street are severe, with a high rate of incarceration among black men in their 20s and the acceptance of early pregnancy and single motherhood as a way of life.

Overall, “Code of the Street” offers a detailed and nuanced look at the complex issues facing poor urban communities. Tellingly, though almost 25 years ago, the book is still informative, if only as a window into the voices and perspectives in the late 1990s confronting the cultural forces at play. I recommend the book. My notes are below.

My notes:

  • Author also wrote STREETWISE in Rochester, NY
  • Identified as an ethnographic study
  • The internal and cultural battle between “decent” and street life
  • Prevailing belief among parents that gang fights used to clear the air with low-risk fist fights but have now been made lethal with the proliferation of guns
  • Author argues that the far majority of residents are “decent” or trying to be; street families are rarer. Drugs (selling and using) make it all worse
  • Intricate code of the street to replace trust in institutions
  • Might makes right
  • By age 10, street and decent kids are engaging and finding identity
  • “Toughness is a virtue; humility is not “
  • Decent families tend to have more options so adults and children avoid conflict to look beyond neighborhood status
  • Code switching between decent and street
  • Parks and other “staging areas” — corners and carry out stores; business districts that attract across a neighborhood and theaters, malls or other areas that attract kids from across the city
  • Writes about “bols “ pronounced bulls and replace boys or friends (my young bol!)
  • Story of Tyree: dislocated to his grandmother’s in Southwest; 15 years old, escalating fights with neighborhood kids. The code is as old as Roman or shogun but economic dislocation; drugs; stronger weapons and higher expectations for what the American promise is
  • “The young men are very aware of Tyree‘s presence in the neighborhood; they are much more sensitive present interlopers than are at the adults“
  • Excelling Sports or other outlets can sometimes allow people to avoid the code
  • The code is forced on all who live there: “That boy who has been leading a basically decent life can, under trying circumstances, suddenly resort to deadly force.” 92
  • “Central to the issue of manhood is the widespread belief that one of the most effective ways of gaining respect is to manifest nerve.”
  • Death over dishonor throughout
  • Survival in school over thriving academically
  • By 4th grade enough kids choose street life to disrupt school life for all
  • Scarcity breeds jealousy
  • Decent kids are forced to mimic street kids which confuses teachers parents perspective employers and police. They
  • Decent can be seen as acting white
  • Between 5-8, youth seek a way to get “props,” whether it can happen and still be decent is their life’s question
  • Tough neighborhood reputation helps extend a kid’s reputation
  • Story of “decent” kid Lee who gains respect playing basketball and code switches but his dress and timberland boots got him stopped by police several times lookin for drugs. This caused a bitterness
  • 1899 Dubois’s influential Philadelphia Negro: why aren’t blacks better integrated in the north after great migration? The fight of racial prejudice in at the competition the boys found for typologies: the well to do, decent laborers, working poor and “the submerged tenth”
  • White institutions are not taken seriously
  • Black urban culture is contrary to what is seen as white
  • Kirschenman and Neckerman research shows black male employee discrimination
  • Stickup boy and stick up culture (used to mean those who robbed drug dealers but now all robberies)
  • Another rule of street: don’t let anyone chump you without revenge
  • Sentencing Project: 33% of black men in their 20s in some form of incarceration
  • Why more blacks in prison? Blacks were always high in early crime studies but Crack cocaine vs cocaine law set off a wave of knock on effects
  • Black culture of fate may lead to accepting early pregnancy: without jobs black men focus on promiscuity (stature) and women enter adulthood with kids to lure rare men
  • The dynamics are the same but the consequences are worse: guns and teen pregnancy
  • Dad and brothers are said to play a role in how the woman is treated after pregnancy
  • Impact welfare reform had on splitting families, when mothers didn’t and then did want to clarify father: Declining marriage and in wedlock babies
  • Decent daddy eroded by loss of jobs
  • Black grandmother : ties from slavery brought back by a crack epidemic
  • John Turner chapter: he made $1500 a night selling crack cocaine; spent $400 on product, a few hundred on other expenses and walked away with $800+ himself. That could be the equivalent of $1,500 in today’s money or something like $350,000 for the year
  • John Turner relied heavily on author to navigate an attempt at army and work
  • “It is so hard for me to get a job but it’s so easy for me to sell drugs.”
  • John balanced street and decent life and the street life won. He believes racism holds him back so he pursues other ends. He asked author if whether the author was a white professor could he have further helped him, like getting him into the army despite being on probation
  • Loss of manufacturing jobs broke generational relationship: old heads weren’t listened to by younger folks who thought their experiences were too different
  • Author’s lessons from John Turner: we need Head Start; Job training and real jobs
  • Herman Rice a longtime community activist; he influenced Robert “Ruck” (guy who grows into being a new kind of decent daddy like previous chapter on Mr Johnson) in his return from prison
  • Victor Turner: “liminal status” describes how Robert Ruck and friends tried to transition post jail into running a hot dog cart and a fruit cart; struggled with L&I , got extra help from Wharton students; he lost the street respect he once had but didn’t yet build up the social capital in legitimate economy. These folks start from such a deficit that the transition to legit is painful
  • Police are a capricious, inconsistent and impermanent solution to problems; they bring no permanent peace to a block
  • In the previous 15 years, city lost 102,500 jobs, manufacturing down by 53%
  • Author’s interview of teachers: in first grade just 20% of kids are in code of street; by 4th grade it is 3/4
  • “Ghetto economy” is split between low paying jobs, welfare payments, And underground economy
  • “…the code of the street, the kind of adaptation to a lost sense of security…”
  • “only by reestablishing a viable mainstream economy in the inner city, particularly one that provides access to jobs for young inner-city men and women, can we encourage positive sense of the future.”

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