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.
Continue reading Code of the Street