In the city you find full battalions of newspaper boxes lined up along them and pizza, hot dog, and roasted nuts vendors. In the suburbs you find kids riding bicycles and bad lemonade for sale. Sidewalks scrape your knees if you fall down.

Sociological study by Mitchell Duneier. Sidewalk examines the interactions and relationships of the men who sell books on the streets of Greenwich Village in New York City. Duneier initiated his study by working the same way those who work on the street do - he started on the ground floor and worked his way up to having a table of his own over the course of two years.

The group of vendors Duneier spent his time with gravitated around the corner of 6th Avenue and 8th Street, a prize location - the Greenwich Village Barnes and Noble location is on that corner, as is Gray's Papaya. The B&N ensures a steady flow of book buyers and the Gray's provides cheap, convenient food and shelter from the rain.

Most of the vendors working the corner are homeless, and knew each other from when they lived together in Penn Station before the city cleaned it up. There is a comfortable rivalry between the vendors and the panhandlers; the vendors look down on the pan-handlers saying they work for their money, while the panhandlers claim they have too much pride to sell people's garbage.

Duneier examines every aspect of their working relationship. He goes with one on his weekly route to find stuff to sell (the vendors know the best places to look, places where building superintendants leave their paper out to be recycled in easy-to-carry plastic bags). He talks to the vendors about their rights - in general it's illegal to sell goods on the streets without a permit but an exception to the rule exists in the case of printed matter; the state found that requiring a permit would violate the first amendment. He even examines the relationships between the vendors and the area's inhabitants by analyzing the lengths of pauses within their natural speech cadences.

What becomes clear is that selling books on the street isn't all that different from working in any other business. A heirarchy exists on the block: there are movers who get the vendor's books out of storage and return them at the end of the day, placeholders who sleep on the street and keep spots safe overnight, table-watchers who do exactly that, and the occasional floaters who do bits and pieces as needed. Pay is usually on a per-job basis and ranges from $5 to $20 depending on the task.

As Duneier became more involved with the workers he started seeing how they work with each other. It's a pretty laid back system and everyone tends to look out for each other, partially because they are dependant on each other to make money, but mostly because they're friends who spend practically every waking moment in each other's company; it's either a comfortable equilibrium or anarchy.

The vendors are joined by a common history; apart from their time in Penn Station most of these guys (and they are universally men who run these tables) ended up on the street because of various drug problems, most notably alcohol and crack cocaine. Even that feeds into the working dynamic: the guys who are mostly clean are the most dependable, have the best spots on the block and make the most money. Those frequently in an altered state of mind occupy the tables farthest from the corner or will never rise above being a mover because, frankly, they can't be trusted.

Duneier went through his study the right way, in my opinion: he was totally up front with the vendors about why he was there and what he was doing and was accepted into their community after a long period of winning their trust. Other studies of this type I've read (most notably Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich) are horribly condescending; Ehrenreich went into her study assuming she would have problems making ends meet, didn't tell anyone she was working with that she was writing a book and wrote from a position of superiority. Her supercilious moment of truth when she realized the people she worked with were sweet and fun and deserving of pity was so revolting to me I was angry for days. Duneier treated the vendors like people, not lab rats, and Sidewalk is written in such a tender way as to focus the reader on the circumstances rather than the people's former downfalls.

But more than anything else, Sidewalk lovingly depicts life in Greenwich Village, fleshing out the passersby with the same care as the vendors themselves. Sidewalk is a portrait of a small group of individuals that mirrors the throbbing humanity of the community surrounding them. Reading this book I could feel the summer heat, hear the street musicans and smell the food.

I'd recommend this one to anybody who's ever even heard of New York City.

This book was also featured in an episode of This American Life devoted to Office Politics, which is how I came across it.

Submitted to Gorgonzola's Social Sciences Quest

Side"walk` (?), n.

A walk for foot passengers at the side of a street or road; a foot pavement.

[U.S.]

 

© Webster 1913.

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