On America’s Front Lines

Daniel Traub
An empty lot in North Philadelphia, 2010; photograph by Daniel Traub, whose book, North Philadelphia, has just been published by Kehrer

Twelve years ago, when Alice Goffman was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, she took a job tutoring Aisha, a young black girl who lived in a nearby black neighborhood. She then befriended Aisha’s relatives, including her cousin Ronny, who had just been released from a juvenile detention center and was living with his family in a somewhat better part of the Philadelphia ghetto. Ronny introduced Goffman to his cousin Mike, and she began hanging out with Mike and his friends. When her lease was up, she moved to Aisha’s neighborhood.

Near the end of the school year she asked Mike how he would feel if she were to write her senior thesis about his life. He agreed, and they struck a deal that included disguising both him and his neighborhood, which he christened “6th Street.” Later, several of her other 6th Street friends agreed to let her write about them. After graduating from Penn, Goffman lived in the 6th Street area for another four years, taking notes on everything she saw and heard, while pursuing a doctorate at Princeton. Now she has turned what she learned into a book called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.

On the Run is an engrossing book that should also become an ethnographic classic. It describes the world of young jobless black men who have seldom finished high school. Like most such men, Goffman’s friends had almost all served time in prison; before she left the neighborhood, she visited many of them in prison. This is a world with which few readers of this journal are likely to have had much contact. I certainly haven’t, despite having spent a lifetime writing about social policy. Goffman hadn’t either, until she moved to Aisha’s neighborhood, since she was raised by professional parents in one of white Philadelphia’s upper-middle-class neighborhoods.

On the Run begins by describing the ongoing struggle for control over the streets and homes of the 6th Street area. On one side of this struggle are the Philadelphia police. Like most other big-city police forces, Philadelphia’s police have a political mandate to reduce drug-selling and violent crime by “getting tough” and exhibiting “zero tolerance” for illegal activity. On the other side of the struggle are a fairly small group of young jobless black men, but also many of the neighborhood’s older residents. The older residents’ quarrel with the police is not over the desirability of reducing drug use or violent crime. Most older residents long for both. What they hate is the way the police pursue this goal, which is all sticks and no carrots.

There is a lot of stopping, searching, chasing, and arresting young men, and a lot of breaking into middle-aged adults’ homes, where…

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