Anyone interested in seeing at first hand the contradictions of urban America today would do well to visit Baltimore. Once the prototype of an aging industrial city, Baltimore has done much to reinvent itself. During the 1960s, when I was growing up there, its only visitors seemed to be motorists making a wrong turn off I-95 on their way to New York or Washington. Now tourists make special trips to see Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with its seafood restaurants, grand convention center, and National Aquarium, which, topped by a glass pyramid, juts dramatically into the water. The nearby Orioles Park at Camden Yards, a faux-antique brick-and-girder stadium, attracts baseball fans from around the country, and a new stadium is now going up next to it to house the Ravens (the football team named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, who died in Baltimore). The city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown have been so successful that it now receives a steady stream of city planning experts seeking ideas for their own hometowns.
Yet anyone who walks just twenty blocks west of downtown will come upon a very different Baltimore. Here one sees block after depressing block lined with broken-down rowhouses with shattered windows and peeling paint. The only commercial establishments around are liquor stores and grimy “convenience stores.” On the street corners idle men cluster about, drinking from bottles hidden by brown paper bags. In these largely black neighborhoods, the rates for teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, truancy, and violence are all extremely high, helping to make Baltimore’s inner city one of the grimmest in the nation.
In 1992, David Simon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, became interested in exploring this side of the city. Simon had recently published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, in which he described the daily work of a team of Baltimore homicide detectives. (The book would become the basis for the successful television series.) For his next book, Simon wanted to get to know some of the people who actually lived on the killing streets. He chose a rough, drug-ridden neighborhood in West Baltimore called Franklin Square. As a white man, Simon had a hard time being accepted in the neighborhood; to help him he teamed up with a retired Baltimore policeman, also white, named Edward Burns.
Using a white cop to befriend inner-city blacks might seem odd, but Burns knew the neighborhood from his patrol days and had some ideas about how to get on with the people there. On hot days, the two men handed out iced tea on the street corners they frequented; to prove Simon’s bona fides as a writer, they gave out free copies of Homicide to the people they met. They played basketball with teenagers at a local recreation center. They befriended DeAndre McCullough, a sharp, confident fifteen-year-old who spent most of his time on the street. They also got to know DeAndre’s parents, Gary McCullough and Fran Boyd, as well as a dozen or so other regulars who patronized the drug market at the corner of Mount and Fayette streets. Becoming regulars of a sort themselves, Simon and Burns visited shooting galleries, went along on shoplifting expeditions, accompanied young men and women to court, and watched as one of their subjects gave birth in a delivery room. They describe their findings in The Corner.
In both title and conception, The Corner recalls Tally’s Corner:A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, by Elliot Liebow. Published in 1967, Tally’s Corner has become a classic of urban anthropology, with more than 700,000 copies sold.1 Like Simon and Burns, Liebow spent a year on an inner-city street corner, in his case in Washington, D.C. Like them, Liebow used interviews and firsthand observations to draw broader conclusions about the state of black America and what should be done about it. In their “Author’s Note,” Simon and Burns acknowledge their debt to Liebow. Considered together, the two quite different books can help to answer the much-discussed question of whether and in what ways the overall condition of African-Americans has improved or declined since the 1960s.2
In writing Tally’s Corner, Elliott Liebow felt no need to tell a continuous story or to provide colorful portraits of his characters. Instead, he drew on his many talks with the people he met to describe the world of the street corner. His prose was simple and evocative:
A pickup truck drives slowly down the street. The truck stops as it comes abreast of a man sitting on a cast-iron porch and the white driver calls out, asking if the man wants a day’s work [doing manual labor]. The man shakes his head and the truck moves on up the block, stopping again whenever idling men come within calling distance of the driver. At the Carry-out corner, five men debate the question briefly and shake their heads no to the truck.
This is the beginning of Liebow’s chapter “Men and Jobs,” in which he describes the attitudes of the streetcorner men toward work. From his talks with Tally and his friends, Liebow concluded that their seeming indifference to the offer of a day’s work reflected not a lack of interest in being employed but rather a hard-headed assessment of the menial type of work being offered and of how much (or how little) it was likely to pay. “Aman’s chances for working regularly are good only if he is willing to work for less than he can live on, and sometimes not even then,” Liebow noted with characteristic understatement. “The higher the wage rate, the more difficult it is to get the job, and the less the job security.”
The Corner, by contrast, presents the authors’ detailed descriptions of life in West Baltimore as part of a continuing story with long passages of dialogue: “Fat Curt, up on post, watches them come,” Simon and Burns write of a local “tout,” whose job it is to steer customers to drug sellers:
Year in and year out, he tells it true, steering them away from the trash, hooking them up to whatever will work. As always, he weds his timeworn credibility to some younger soldier’s dope.
“Who got that Gold Star?”
“Come right here with it.”
“Good as yesterday?”
“Man, that shit’s a bomb.”
By one in the morning, this night is like any other, and Curtis Davis knows that it can never end, that money and desire will not be denied….
This passage, like The Corner generally, resembles other accounts by journalists who try to present real events in the prose of a hard-boiled novel. Like many such works, the book has a fly-on-the-wall narrator who seldom acknowledges his own presence, and a cast of characters who seem constantly on stage, speaking jaunty slang. In some places, The Corner comes across as a less deft Clockers, Richard Price’s 1992 novel about a small-time drug dealer in a New Jersey housing project. In doing research for that book, Price hired a former drug dealer to show him around the drug scene in Jersey City, and his novel provides an unusually close and realistic look at that world. Simon and Burns, describing real-life drug buyers and sellers, write about them as if they were characters in a work of fiction.
The Corner’s semifictional approach works well at times. By taking us inside the world of the McCullough family, for instance, the book captures what it’s like to live in a place like Franklin Square. DeAndre and his eight-year-old brother, DeRodd, sleep with their mother, Fran, in an eight-by-ten room in a three-story rowhouse, called the Dew Drop Inn because of all the dope fiends who come and go. Their cluttered cubicle, Simon and Burns write, is
coated with the acrid tang of Newports and crammed with a single bed, a battered dresser, two chairs that are oozing their stuffing and, of course, the sleepless television. The bed usually goes to DeRodd and DeAndre, with Fran making do on the old sofa in the front room. Some nights, though, the bed mattress is taken by Fran and DeRodd, with DeAndre in a bedroll on the floor.
It’s not the cramped accommodations that bother DeAndre, however, but the vulnerability of his coke stash to the drug users in the house, his mother among them. Not quite old enough to drive, DeAndre is already a serious drug dealer, taking in up to $800 on a good night. He spends it as fast as he earns it, on Nikes and Timberlands, Tommy Hilfigers and Filas, quarter-pounders from McDonald’s and marijuana from a local drug crew, consumed in the form of “blunts” (the cigar leaf of a Phillies blunt emptied of tobacco and filled with weed). On the rare occasions on which DeAndre puts in an appearance in school, it’s usually to show off a smart new outfit.
DeAndre’s father, Gary McCullough, is a full-time junkie, and, in describing him, Simon and Burns give a raw but telling account of the hold addiction can have. “The snake has found Gary McCullough curled on the bed, the soiled sheets twisted around his legs,” they write, describing the start of a typical day. “He’s half-awake and half listening as the clock radio sputters Sunday morning sermons in a dull, metallic whisper.” Gary’s got no money, but, with the snake hissing away in his belly, he puts on his lucky California Angels cap and heads for the street. He runs into an acquaintance who tells him of a store in a mall in Baltimore County that’s an easy target. The two take the bus there, then walk inside the store and coolly throw a half-dozen new steam irons into a large sack. Returning to the city, they unload the irons for $10 apiece—at a bar frequented by off-duty police. Immediately they hit the corner, jumping into the action “like new shooters at a crap table.”
The next day, they’re back at it. This time, though, they’re nabbed, and Gary finds himself in the back of a police wagon on his way to the county lockup. The police discover he’s wanted on a charge in the city, and so he’s transferred to its jail. Thrown in with a stinking mob squeezed around a single metal toilet, Gary swears off dope. “For all that night and the next, he’s singing the redemption song, making plans for the better life to come, promising to wash the sin from his hands,” Simon and Burns write. “He’s still talking like that on the day after, when the bail money is right and he’s gliding out from under the razor wire on Eager Street.” No sooner is Gary back on the street, however, than the snake starts hissing again, and, when a friend offers him a bag, he quickly gets high. No matter how often Gary gets into trouble and decides to stop, the hunger rises, and he inevitably starts up the cycle all over again.
More than anything else, Simon and Burns write, it is drugs that have destroyed the community of West Baltimore. The turning point came in the early and mid-1980s, when the city was flooded with cocaine. Before then, heroin was the ghetto’s main drug of choice, and, while hardly medicinal, it was dealt according to a basic code. Cheating was frowned upon; children were not allowed to buy; most sellers did not use their own product; and violence was used only as a last resort. Cocaine (and later crack) not only greatly enlarged the market for drugs but also removed all inhibitions regarding who used them and how. “More than heroin ever did,” the authors note,
cocaine battered at what had for generations been the rock-hard foundation for the urban black family. Heroin had been claiming its share of West Baltimore men for thirty years, but the cheap cocaine of the 1980s had turned the women out, bringing them to the corner in numbers previously unthinkable. Where once, on Fayette Street, there had been a network of single mothers who managed to get the essentials done, there was now raw anarchy in many homes. And where a discussion of single-parent households once seemed relevant to places like Fayette Street, now there loomed the new specter of children who were, in reality, parentless.
Looking for a home, these children found it on the corner, where some eventually became dealers. As Simon and Burns note, it was not just the money that drew them there but also the new status they gained when grown men and women came to them begging for what they had to sell. The rites of passage in the ghetto followed a new pattern—hanging out on the street at ten or eleven, having babies at thirteen, dealing at fourteen, dropping out of school at fifteen. With so many hot-headed youths on the corner, and with so many guns around, disputes that in the past would have remained verbal now quickly escalated, often with deadly results.
Compared to all this, the world Elliot Liebow describes sounds almost cozy. Certainly inner-city Washington had its share of problems in the 1960s, including, as Liebow noted, “a high incidence of crowded living quarters, poverty, crime, child neglect, and dependence.” Tally and his friends drank a lot and often brawled. Yet meeting at the Carry-out shop on the corner, they enjoyed a certain camaraderie. “For those who hang out there,” Liebow writes, “the Carry-out offers a wide array of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile experiences which titillate and sometimes assault the five senses.” The air is warmed by smells from the coffee urns and grill; the jukebox plays “lazy rhythms,” while the pinball machine presents “a standing challenge to one’s manipulative skill….” Of the twenty or so regulars hanging out there, Liebow notes,
some are close friends, some do not like others, and still others consider themselves enemies. But each man comes here mainly because he knows others will be here, too. He comes to eat and drink, to enjoy easy talk, to learn what has been going on, to horse around, to look at women and banter with them, to see “what’s happening” and to pass the time.
Thirty years later, the men on the corner have graduated from alcohol to heroin and crack, and their easy sociability has given way, at least in Simon and Burns’s account, to a nightmarish world of all-against-all. Old-timers like Fat Curt look back on the past with nostalgia. “There is,” the authors write, “no longer any joy for him in the everyday life on the corner: The friendships, connectedness, and shared humor that the old code had made possible have been supplanted by bickering and violence and desperation.” West Baltimore, they claim, is “as brutal and unforgiving a ghetto as America ever managed to create.” The decay there “is unremitting, epic….”
Read with Tally’s Corner in mind, then, The Corner suggests that the condition of African-Americans has gotten much worse. And certainly the evidence presented by Simon and Burns seems to back up such a conclusion. Yet, as a closer reading of their book indicates, that is not the whole story.
The Corner aspires to be a serious commentary on the problems of inner-city America. Periodically, the authors break away from their narrative to offer long analyses of issues like crime, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency. In these passages they are almost uniformly pessimistic about the possibility of improving life in the ghetto; the rot, they feel, is simply too deep. In a ten-page essay on the public schools, for instance, they write that
for the children of Fayette Street, the idea of education—the formal education of a classroom, at least—has no meaning. To those who argue that the urban school systems of this nation are underfunded, or understaffed, or poorly managed—and in Baltimore, at least, these are fair accusations, every one—there is this equal and opposing truth: The schools cannot save us.
Algebra, biology, composition—“what does any of it mean to the corner, to the only working economic engine in their lives, to the place where most of them will eventually be consigned?” The authors add: “All those Head Start programs, all those grade-school lectures about civics and drugs and violence, all the alternative curricula and vocational education and Afrocentric esteem-building—in the end, none of it sticks.” Ultimately, “the corners will have them all.”
As for the prospect of closing down the drug dealing on those corners, Simon and Burns are similarly dismissive. Writing scathingly of the limitations of drug enforcement, they say that “thirty years after its inception, the drug war in cities such as Baltimore has become an absurdist nightmare, a statistical charade with no other purpose than to placate a public that wants drug trafficking attacked and vanquished….” They are no less harsh about drug treatment. Even if someone manages to complete a twenty-eight-day program, they ask, “What remains for a thirty-five- or forty-year-old survivor for whom the corner world has been home…?”
Having put the drugs away and turned your back on the corner, you are left to face life. And this is the part of the journey no one mentions when they theorize about drug treatment or recovery or rehabilitation: You weren’t really running to the vials, at least not in the beginning. You were running away from the very same life that you are now challenged to discover and examine….
So welcome back to a culture that still hasn’t found a use for you or your kind. This is America, where the West Baltimores exist in social and political isolation, where a good 10 percent of the population is no longer required by the economic engine, where there will always be those for whom not only a modicum of material success, but relevance, is unlikely.
Attributing most of the problems in West Baltimore to structural changes taking place in the US economy, Simon and Burns write that the breakdown in the inner city
is an existential crisis rooted not only in race—which the corner has slowly transcended—but in the unresolved disaster of the American rust-belt, in the slow, seismic shift that is shutting down the assembly lines, devaluing physical labor, and undercutting the union pay scale. Down on the corner, some of the walking wounded used to make steel, but Sparrows Point [the Bethlehem Steel plant] isn’t hiring the way it once did. And some used to load the container ships at Seagirt and Locust Point, but the port isn’t what she used to be either. Others worked at Koppers, American Standard, or Armco, but those plants are gone now.
No doubt such plant closings have affected employment prospects, but, when it comes to the actual characters in The Corner, this analysis often does not apply. Gary McCullough is one example. On the surface, Gary seems a typical dope addict, devoting his every waking hour to getting high. In fact, we learn, he is a curious and thoughtful man. Interested in religion and philosophy, he is reading Thoreau’s Walden, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Karen Armstrong’s History of God. After seeing Schindler’s List, he talks for weeks afterward about the Nazi death camps and the parallels he sees in West Baltimore. As for his past, we learn that Gary comes from a hardworking, churchgoing family and once had a well-paying job. In fact, in the 1970s, he earned $55,000 a year working as a craftsman at Sparrows Point. He supplemented his income by moonlighting as a security guard, and his investments in stocks and bonds brought in an additional $2,000 a month. He bought his wife, Fran, a Mercedes and himself another. Fran, too, had a “good job,” with the phone company downtown. The McCulloughs were doing so well that they thought of buying a house in the suburbs, but in the end they decided against it because Fran could not see herself living there. And so they stayed on Fayette Street.
Eventually, we are told, “the neighborhood began to wear at them the way it wears at everyone.” Fran, a heavy partygoer, got caught up in taking dope and coke, and Gary soon followed. In 1985, the two split up, and “four years after that, all of it—the craftsman’s job at Beth Steel, the second job, the properties, the Mercedes-Benz, the bank accounts, the brokerage account—was gone.” Clearly, Gary does not fit the authors’ thesis that the people in the inner city are doomed by structural economic change.
Nor do many other characters in the book. Of one man who becomes drawn into the drug life after being arrested, we learn that “a year ago, he had a good job cutting meat down at Lexington Market….” Of another we are told that “his last full-time position was as an executive assistant to a vice president at the Urban League—a nice gig until the boss came in after lunch one afternoon and found him drooling on his desk in a twenty-on-the-hype [heroin] nod.” House, a former basketball player and dope addict, signs up to work as a coach at a local recreation center, but in a week he is lost—“not to the corner, but to a job on the night shift at University Hospital,” where he joins the cleaning staff. Three of Gary’s eight brothers and sisters are doing well, and a fourth, who had been involved with drugs, “is now off the corner and doing all right for himself, making money down at the crabhouse [a popular restaurant] and on a second job out at Social Security.”
Many of these jobs pay badly. The crabhouse, where Gary himself gets a job, pays only $6 an hour, compared to the $16 he was earning at Sparrows Point. Yet, as is clear from The Corner, much better paying jobs are available to some of the residents of Franklin Square, and not just on the factory floor. In this respect, Baltimore in the 1990s seems worlds away from the Washington Liebow observed in the 1960s. None of the men Elliot Liebow interviewed was able to get anything other than unskilled labor or menial work, much less take advantage of the kind of opportunities available to Gary McCullough. Then, the black middle class was virtually nonexistent; today, it includes about a third of all African-Americans, and, if the economy remains strong, that proportion seems certain to increase. Viewed from this perspective, the black community seems much better off than it was three decades ago.
Yet, when one reads of the grinding poverty, family breakdown, pervasiveness of drugs, and social anarchy Simon and Burns found in Franklin Square, the black community seems much worse off. Taking The Corner and Tally’s Corner together, one can only conclude that both trends are occurring at once—that the condition of African-Americans is simultaneously improving and deteriorating. In fact, these two trends seem to be feeding each other, with the more ambitious, educated, and determined residents of the inner city prospering and moving away, leaving behind an ever-harder core. The faster the migration out, the more desperate those left behind. Thus urban renewal projects such as Harbor Place coexist with the wasteland of West Baltimore.
Simon and Burns see only one way to change this pattern—a national reconstruction effort on the scale of the New Deal or the Great Society. Such a program, they write,
would imply a continuing commitment to making places like Fayette Street a legitimate part of the American landscape. It would demand prolonged energy and will and a connectedness between classes and races that no longer exists and may never have existed. It would require, too, the expenditure of billions more than we have ever dreamed of giving to our urban poor…. To take a Fran Boyd or a Curt Davis across the chasm, to restore them to the mainstream of the American experience—this is Herculean. To create a process that begins to break down the corner dialectic, to offer a viable and practical argument against the drug economy, would mark a new national beginning.
Yet, here, too, Simon and Burns’s reporting undermines their own analysis. Consider, for example, the experience of Fran Boyd, Gary McCullough’s wife. After fifteen years of nonstop drug taking, which left her weighing only ninety-five pounds, she grew tired enough of her habit to seek admission to the Baltimore Recovery Center, a twenty-eight-day publicly funded program. The wait for a bed was six to eight weeks, and Fran had to call every Tuesday to keep her name on the list. Eventually she was accepted, and, despite some initial withdrawal pains, managed to stay the course, leaving ten pounds heavier and “with all the faith of the newly converted.”
In addition to attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings at a nearby church, Fran enrolls in courses at a local community college, using a $1,400 Pell Grant to help defray the cost. Staying clean is a constant struggle, however, and Fran eventually relapses. After a few months on dope, though, she again tires of the junkie life, and again calls up the recovery center. The wait is now up to four months, but Fran, persevering, reenters the program and again completes it. Seeking to flee West Baltimore and find a place where the corners are simply intersections, she finds a government-subsidized apartment several miles away in Baltimore County. Fran goes to work as a volunteer at the recovery center, and she is eventually given a paying job there until she is laid off a year later. Rather than fall back into drugs, however, she finds part-time work at a residential program for troubled teenagers. In the epilogue, we learn, Fran “is beating the streets, looking for something better. She also is coming up on two years clean….”
Fran’s escape from the corner was not a dramatic event. It required neither the opening of new factories nor the launching of a national crusade. Rather, she had more modest kinds of help—a bed in a treatment center, a subsidized apartment, a tuition grant. Reading of her experience, one wonders how many more people might be rescued from the corner if the government made more such services available—if, for instance, it created enough treatment beds so that addicts did not have to wait four months to get one, and if it provided more job training and placement programs to help them once they got out. I found the story of Fran’s efforts to get help, and of the obstacles she faced in finding it, to be among the most moving and revealing sections of The Corner. Unfortunately Simon and Burns have overlooked its significance.
The Corner is marked throughout by a curious disjunction between its reporting and its analysis. The personal stories it tells demonstrate the value of specific government interventions—more summer jobs, better access to housing, more after-school programs, expanded drug treatment. Yet, over and over, the authors insist that nothing short of a large-scale national “crusade” can make any real difference. At times, the book takes on a soapbox quality: “Cursed as we are with a permanent urban underclass, an unremitting and increasingly futile drug war, and Third World conditions in the hearts of our cities, the American experiment seems, at the millennium, to have found a limit.” The corners, the authors claim,
now constitute a world apart, a rock-hard subculture formed in the crucible of lost America. Fayette Street and places like it are no longer accidents of race, or geography, or poverty. By generations, they have become all of those things and more, so that simple, seemingly reasoned changes in government policy or economic priority no longer achieve the intended result—or, in many cases, any result at all.
The notion that the underclass makes up an alien, unalterable subculture, without hope and impervious to the values and efforts of the larger society, seems unsupported by the evidence Simon and Burns supply in their book. In Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow took specific aim at such thinking. When one takes the man on the corner and attempts to see him “as he sees himself,” Liebow wrote, his world
does not appear as a self-contained, self-generating, self-sustaining system or even subsystem with clear boundaries marking it off from the larger world around it. It is in continuous, intimate contact with the larger society—indeed, it is an integral part of it—and is no more impervious to the values, sentiments and beliefs of the larger society than it is to the blue welfare checks or to the agents of the larger society, such as the policeman, the police informer, the case worker, the landlord, the dope pusher, the Tupperware demonstrator, the numbers backer or the anthropologist.
Once one grasps this, Liebow observed, the problems of the inner city appear much more manageable. Thirty years later, his message seems more convincing than ever.
December 18, 1997
See my article “Hanging Out,” The New York Review, May 25, 1995. ↩
See George M. Fredrickson, “America’s Caste System: Will It Change?” The New York Review, October 23, 1997. ↩