Konch Magazine - Long Shadow on The Corner

Long Shadow on The Corner.pdf
 

through the five years they were in elementary school (1982-1987), half the city's jobs in primary metals, shipbuilding repair, and transportation assembly disappeared (Levine 1987,107). The historic core of Baltimore's industrial might had relocated offshore, to the region's rapidly expanding suburbs and low-wage parts of the country, or simply faded away in favor of the new postindustrial economy. This new economy provides lucra­tive careers for workers in high-end technology and the so-called FIRE industries—finance, insurance, and real estate—but mainly low-wage, low-benefit jobs for those in the expanding service sector (for example, Olson 1997). Ranked eighty-seventh among the nation's hundred largest cities in median income, by 2000 Baltimore had become a poor city in the country's wealthiest state (Walters and Miserendino 2008,3).

Poor, yes, but not uniformly so. Baltimore in fact had become, and is today, "two cities—a city of developers, suburban professionals, and 'back-to-the-city' gentry ... and a city of impoverished blacks and dis­placed manufacturing workers, who continue to suffer from shrinking economic opportunities, declining public services, and neighborhood distress" (Levine 1987, 103). This book is about the children of the second Baltimore, the one largely untouched by the much-touted renaissance redevelopment of the city's Inner Harbor port area away from shipping and manufacturing in favor of tourism and white-collar employment (Levine 1987; Ann LoLordo, "A Smaller, Poorer City in the Future," Baltimore Sun, January 18,1987, p. IE). They are the urban disadvantaged, as explained in the sections that follow.

The Urban Disadvantaged: Who Are They, Who Are They Not?

Who are these children? Disadvantaged families live in the poorest parts of the city. Often these are areas of concentrated poverty, where 20 percent, 40 percent, or more of the residents are poor or jobless or both. In the worst of these, when children leave home they find them­selves in the midst of poverty, crime, and urban decay, and see boarded- up houses and empty businesses lining their streets. Consider Mae's (a pseudonym) account of the West Baltimore neighborhood—low income, African American—where she grew up:

I was living... near like the Pratt Street area, I’ratt anti Baltimore Street, in

between. It was bad, it was real bad. Drug, very hard drug area. Actually, I

seen, like, right in my street where I lived at, I seen somebody die there....

That's how it was for me, you know.

 

Middle-class children might catch a glimpse of this world on the way downtown for a ballgame or to visit a museum, but it is at a far remove, in kind if not distance, from what they experience when out and about. Inviting playgrounds and parks dot their world, with ample green space and the latest equipment, and the daily rhythm to life has people doing ordinary things—going off to work in the morning, or out to shop, or into the yard to garden.

But the ordinary in one setting can be quite extraordinary in another. Adults are visible throughout the day in high-poverty neighborhoods too, but often just hanging out, sometimes sipping from bottles in brown paper bags. Gangs, public drug-dealing, and prostitution can make the playgrounds not all that inviting. Often they are covered with concrete, not grass, with broken bottles and used needles strewn about. William Julius Wilson (1978) tells us that life in low-income urban America was not always this way, but the exodus of jobs, the middle class (whites ini­tially, later followed by African Americans), and stabilizing institutions has left many of them bereft of employment opportunities and good role models for children.
Despite a large scholarly literature on these "ghetto poor," to use Wilson's now preferred characterization (2006), in the popular mind they are still the urban underclass, pejorative connotations and all. Consider Myron Magnet's (1987) characterization from around the time at issue: "What primarily defines them is not so much their poverty or race as their behavior—their chronic lawlessness, drug use, out-of-wedlock births, non-work, welfare dependency and school failure. 'Underclass' describes a state of mind and a way of life."1
We think we know who these people are: angry black men caught up in the swirl of crime and drugs and poorly educated young black women with babies out of wedlock, images that dominate media portrayals of communities like Mae's. The area of West Baltimore where Mae grew up achieved unwelcome notoriety in the book The Corner (Simon and Burns 1997) and then, in 2000, a made-for-teJevision movie based on it.2 A look at the urban underclass as portrayed in The Corner will prove instructive, as its geographic focus and time frame take in some of the children whose lives are chronicled in this volume. Instructive as a neg­ative example, it advances a view of the urban disadvantaged that is widely held, but badly mistaken.

The Face of Urban Disadvantage in The Corner
Subtitled A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, The Corner is a journalistic account of two neighborhoods on Baltimore's west side brought down by an open-air drug market. It is a truly horrific portrayal of life on the mean streets of the city, a tale of families decimated and lives destroyed by drugs and the drug trade. The publisher, Random House, tells us online that The Corner "examines the sinister realities of inner cities across the country."3 No doubt it does, but the "realities" it portrays are one-sided and incomplete. Two other urban ethnographies from around the same time, Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street (2000) in Philadelphia and Mary Pattillo-McCoy's Black Picket Fences (2000) in Chicago, provide a stark contrast.
All three books have much to say about the tangled web of drugs, crime, and urban decay, but The Corner offers little more: in a book of 535 pages, one is hard pressed to find more than a handful of sympa­thetic characters. In its rendering of life in the big city, there are no car­ing teachers or social workers or ministers or 
store owners or cops or parents or neighbors. The ties that bind, rather, are utterly and unremit­tingly destructive.

Missed in their account is that these communities are not just drug dens; they also are home to many "decent folk" (Anderson 2000), the poor, near-poor, and nonpoor who struggle mightily to forge respect­able lives free of fear. The Long Shadow also is about those living in "inner cities across the country," but our experience offers a different view of these neighborhoods. To correct the distortions perpetrated in popular accounts like The Corner, we turn to two sources: census data on the section of Baltimore profiled in The Corner and our own sampling of children who grew up there.

A Census Profile of The Corner

The Corner is a real place—a map in the front of the book locates it at the in tersection of West Fayette and North Monroe Streets in West Baltimore. This intersection straddles two of the 266 Baltimore Neighborhood Statistical Areas developed by the City Housing Authority from census blocks to approximate authentic neighborhoods, which census tracts do not quite do because their boundaries can be quite arbitrary. They are Penrose-Fayette Street Outreach (PF) on the west side of North Monroe (3,810 residents in 2000) and Franklin Square (FS) on the east side (3,550 residents). Most of The Corner's drama takes place in Franklin Square, the more economically depressed of the two. So who lives in these two neighborhoods, and is The Corner's rendering faithful to their reality?

Using the 2000 Census because it is closest in time to the book's 1997 publication, we find that both neighborhoods are racially segregated and include many female-headed, single-parent households. Against Baltimore City overall and relative to Penrose-Fayette, conditions in Franklin Square are much harsher. Franklin Square has the kind of neighborhood profile one might expect from The Corner, but even that neighborhood defies simple characterization as an underclass ghetto.

Table 1.1 The Comer in 2000 Census Data
Census Characteristics Franklin
Square
Penrose-
Fayette
Baltimore
City
Number of residents 3,550 3,810 651,154
Black residents 95.9 97.8 64.3
Poverty rate      
All families 33.7 12.5 18.8
Families, children under eighteen 40.2 20.5 26.2
Female-headed households, children 44.6 30.4 38.3
under eighteen      
Households with married couples 14.7 23.0 26.7
Households female headed, children 23.0 17.2 13.3
under eighteen      
Households, householder living alone 34.2 24.5 34.9
Residents twenty-five and over with:      
No high school diploma 44.4 42.7 31.6
High school graduate 35.8 30.5 28.2
Some college and above 19.8 26.9 40.2
Bachelor's and above 3.6 5.6 19.1
In labor force 52.4 45.7 56.5
Employed 42.8 37.9 50.4
Unemployed 9.2 7.9 6.0
Income below $10,000 36.4 13.5 18.7
Income $25,000 and above 41.7 55.8 57.2
Income $35,000 and above 25.4 38.7 43.4
 
Source: Authors' compilation based on data from the 2000 Census for Baltimore (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2000).
Note: All numbers except total residents in percentages.
 

 
In it, as well as in Penrose-Fayette, the vast majority of residents are not poor, nor are they unmarried mothers with dependent children (see table 1.1).
These neighborhoods are diverse in other respects as well. In both PF and FS, many residents age twenty-five and older do not have high school degrees, but the majority do—some by way of the general edu­cational development certificate (GED)—and many attended college: 20 percent in FS and 26.9 percent PF, of whom 3.6 percent and 5.6 per­cent, respectively, completed a bachelor's degree.
As would be expected, unemployment rates in these communities are high, but roughly half their residents are in the labor force.4 Most are employed, and in a perhaps surprising array of jobs. In Franklin Square in 2000, 15 percent are in management and professional posi­tions and another 25 percent in sales and office occupations, categories of employment outside the service sector and laborer categories (not reported in table 1.1, but from the same source). Additionally, Franklin Square is not unusual in that these two occupational sectors account for 47 percent of all jobs in Penrose-Fayette.
In 2000, the poverty cutoff nationally for a family of four was $17,050. Many residents of FS and PF had incomes that low or lower, but 42 per­cent of FS households had incomes over $25,000 and 25 percent were over $35,000; PF incomes were higher still, 56 percent over $25,000 and 39 percent over $35,000. So while these two communities indeed are home to many poor and near-poor residents, the people who live there are not all destitute. Some are in fact comfortably well off.
Too often, journalistic accounts of the urban poor portray them in stereotyped, monolithic terms, and this is especially true of the black poor. The problems in these communities are real and severe and The Corner no doubt faithfully captures one facet of life in them. But one facet is not the whole.

The Corner Through the Lived Experience of Its Children
We now consider these two communities from a rather different van­tage point. For almost twenty-five years, we tracked the life progress of 790 children who began first grade in the fall of 1982 in twenty Baltimore public elementary schools. This book is about their journey from child­hood into young adulthood. It happens that one of these schools, the poorest of the twenty, is located in a neighborhood that borders the two depicted in The Corner. To characterize that school as high need would be an understatement—90 percent of its children received reduced price or free meals at school, marking them low income.5 Our random sample of first graders from that school includes twenty-two African American males, almost all of whom as first graders lived in Franklin Square. We last spoke with eighteen of the twenty-two in 2005. Their average age at the time was twenty-eight—first graders no longer. Though but a small sampling of the area's residents, their numbers are ample to establish that not all The Comer's children follow the path anticipated for them in that volume. By extension, the same can be said of children in Baltimore's other low-income communities.
Seven of the eighteen interviews were conducted in lockups and sev­enteen of the eighteen had been arrested at some point in their lives, all but one leading to a conviction. Their arrests mostly were drug related (using and distributing), often paired with other offenses, including pos­session of a firearm, assault, domestic violence, and attempted murder. Fifteen of the eighteen acknowledged using drugs, mainly marijuana, but cocaine as well in one instance and in two others another substance not identified.6 Ten told of other users in the family, six mentioning their fathers, three their mothers, and two each brothers and sisters.7
The book seems a lot like The Corner to this point, but the young people whose lives are chronicled in The Corner blur together. They are individuals, of course, but in matters of consequence, the unfolding scripts of their lives are much the same. Not so for the youth in The Long Shadow. Seven had dropped out of high school (one later completed the GED). The rest graduated and six went on to obtain postsecond­ary certification: one an associate's degree, one a bachelor's degree, and four technical school certificates. That kind of educational dis­tribution might not be expected of young people growing up in the shadow of The Corner's drug markets and drug culture.
Their work histories also are instructive. When interviewed at age twenty-eight, of the eleven not incarcerated, nine were employed full time, mostly in the construction trades, but one was a barber and one a correctional officer. Over the longer term, five of the eighteen were employed full time for the entire preceding twenty-four months and two worked full time more than 90 percent of the time since high school. Their earnings on the whole were modest, but the exceptions are note­worthy: two earned above $50,000, and five others between $25,000 and $35,000. These are young black men from The Corner working steadily and drawing a decent paycheck.
Here is how one young man who survived The Corner reflects on his experience as a young adult. When we spoke with him, Floyd was employed, and though he had attended community college for two years, family obligations kept him from finishing:
It was a lot of drugs, drug activity, lot of, you know, shooting and homi­cide, stuff like that going on. I made up my mind, though, that Г wasn't going to let myself be subjected to, you know, all the negativity around me. You know, I felt for myself, you know, I had things in mind. T became a father at a young age, so that helped me to, you know, want more for myself, to try to do better.
I mean, to me, success coming out of the neighborhood that I came out of, and doing what I'm doing, I think I've succeeded in what [ wanted to do. To not become a statistic. To not be on a corner selling drugs, not be out there getting high. To be able to live, say that I have things that are mine. 1 think 1 will be completely successful, like I said,... once 1 become comfortable with living.
This reflection on the meaning of success is not an account one likely would hear from someone a half dozen years out of college who grew

 
up in one of the city's wealthier neighborhoods, or from one of The Corner's urban underclass, for that matter. This young man never did drugs growing up. Although he did have a problem encounter with the law, he was not convicted and never served time. His story has no high-paying job or fancy car; his standard of success is more substantial.
Floyd's account is one departure from The Corner's negative portrayal of the urban disadvantaged. Another is that they are not all African American. This particular school drew from six surrounding neigh­borhoods. Two were low-income white, but apart from their racial makeup (95 percent and 80 percent white, according to the 1980 Census) are practically interchangeable with the five African American commu­nities: for example, 40.2 percent poverty in the African American and 39.9 percent in the white, both well above the 22.9 percent citywide rate (table 1.2). In terms of deep poverty (below 75 percent of the poverty level) and near poverty (below 200 percent of the poverty level), the fig­ures likewise are similar. Although occupational profiles in the white communities are somewhat more favorable, the picture in fact is mixed: white median family income is lower and the white poverty rate for chil­dren living in female-headed households is higher (see table 1.2).8
That poor whites live side by side with poor blacks in one of the most distressed sections of Baltimore would not be anticipated from The Corner, nor, for that matter, from most academic accounts of urban disadvantage (for example, Anderson 2008). Partly it is because we tend to think of black and white poverty differently. Sandra Ba rnes (2005,17), citing census data from 2000, notes that "75 percent of all impoverished are white," but also that (taken from Flanagan 1999): "poverty among whites appears to be less expected, less recognized, less stigmatized, and less often the focus of research and commentary." Andrew Hacker (1995,100) adds that:
Neither sociologists nor journalists have shown much interest in depict­ing poor whites as a "class." In large measure the reason is racial. For whites, poverty tends to be viewed as atypical or accidental. Among blacks, it comes close to being seen as a natural outgrowth of their history and culture.
Nationally in 2011, poor whites exceeded the poor African American total by roughly eight million: 19,171,000 versus 10,929,000. Because the white population base is so much larger, however, the African American poverty rate was and is vastly higher: 27.6 percent versus 9.8 percent (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, and Smith 2012, 14). In 1982, the first grade year for members of the Beginning School Study Youth Panel (BSSYP, or Youth Panel), the nation's central cities were home to 6.8 million poor whites, 14.5 percent of the white population and an increase of 42 per­cent from the 1969 total (Wilson and Aponte 1985, 239).“ In that light, it ought not to surprise that a sampling of schoolchildren from some of Baltimore's neediest neighborhoods would include low-income whites; the surprise is that the presence of whites in these kinds of communities has received so little attention.
When they were twenty-eight, we interviewed fourteen of the sev­enteen white men originally sampled as first graders. At the outset, their family background and neighborhood census profiles were barely distinguishable from those of their black classmates, but what of later? Six had dropped out of high school and eight had arrest records, four resulting in convictions. Most of their offenses were drug related, paired with auto theft, assault, robbery, and shoplifting. Eleven acknowledged drug use, including cocaine (six) and prescription drugs (three); half told of other users in the family. Among blacks, marijuana was the drug of choice; among whites, the list was more expansive. As regards school­ing, here too the experience is fairly similar: three of the six dropouts had GEDs; four others had attended college—one had a bachelor's degree, one a master's degree, and the others had begun but did not finish associate's programs.
Differences do begin to show up in these young men's work expe­rience: thirteen of the whites were working full time when we spoke with them, ten continuously over the preceding two years. Like their black counterparts, many were working in construction, but their num­ber also included a graphic designer, a social science researcher, and a catering company manager. Two also reported earnings over $50,000, but the white earnings distribution was more favorable overall, nine earning between $25,000 and $40,000.
Such differences in the adult standing of whites and blacks who began life in similar distressed conditions are not peculiar to the chil­dren of Baltimore's high-poverty West Side, but how similar in fact were those conditions growing up? Viewed through the lens of census data on neighborhood poverty levels and the like, all these neighbor­hoods appear to be distressed, but impressions from the inside can be different. Consider Alice's fond reminiscence of her low-income white West Side neighborhood, a part of the city outsiders are advised to avoid:
For me, back when I was growing up, it was fine. I mean, you had the fights and all, but what neighborhood doesn't? And, but, I mean, it was fine, I mean, we got along with everybody. We, like a lot of the neighbors would have like sometimes block parties, and stuff like that, and we just, the neighbors would get close, have cookouts, and stuff like that, and just have fun.
It is commonly thought that high-poverty neighborhoods are socially fragmented and suffer a weak sense of community, but that is mistaken (see, for example, Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002). Apropos of the point, we see in chapter 3 that these segregated black and white high-poverty neighborhoods are quite different in other per­tinent respects: crime rates in the white communities were much lower and their sense of neighborliness much higher.
When low-income whites and blacks live in close proximity, one might think race the great divide, but here too, impressions can be mis­leading. Consider Clyde's account:
it ain't like I see on TV. It's a lotta different things like .. . like a lotta blacks live like in the inner city and the whites are like higher up and it's different. Down by us . . . down in the . . . uh . . . economically depressed area, it like we all together. That says we all live together.

It ain't like a all-black neighborhood here and they don't like us cause we're a all-white neighborhood. Everybody . . . we all live together down there. It's more blacks around our way. But. . . everybody gets along with everybody.

Idealized perhaps, but from this young man's perspective, the big clash locally was with the "uppity class people" in a neighborhood some distance off—those he calls "the rock 'n roll type":

it ain't like the black and white thing. It's like inner city. That's where we live at. And we used to fight them. Ain't like we fought em cause they're white. It just they used to act different. They used to sit and talk about us like we were stupid and everything like that. It's just they would talk about us, white and black and like Hispanic kids was down there. Cause, you know, it wasn't cause of the race. It was like cause they're different. Different. . . um . . . economic class.

Clyde is working-class white, a high school dropout who completed high school by way of the GED.

This excursion into the area of Baltimore made infamous in The Comer reminds us that no single template can do justice to life in the "inner cit­ies across the country"; nor do all of the urban disadvantaged fit the underclass profile. The point of most immediate relevance is that urban disadvantaged and urban underclass are not the same. The under­class are, under most constructions of the term, a small minority of the nation's poor, and that includes the poor who reside in high-poverty communities (see Jencks 1991). Indeed, by some estimates they are a declining minority (see Jargowsky and Sawhill 2006), though whether that reversal still holds owing to the recent deep recession remains to be seen.

This book is not a journalist account of the urban underclass, but rather a social-scientific inquiry into the lives of the urban disadvan­taged. The Corner's characterization of life on the "mean streets" of Baltimore is recognizable in some of the youth who are the focus of this volume, but The Long Shadow also tells of the successes of those who recover from a misstep along the way. Our goal is to present a picture of the whole range of urban disadvantage over a long enough time frame to gain perspective on some of the considerations that move them along different life paths. From this glimpse of inner-city children grown up, we have already learned that:

not all disadvantaged youth follow the same path;

many who slip along the way manage to recover;

urban disadvantage is not color coded as is commonly thought; and

neighborhoods that appear similar to the casual observer can be quite dissimilar in ways that bear on children's later life prospects.
 

Urban Disadvantage, Materially Construed
For us, and in this volume, the long shadow of family background is cast by material conditions of family life, along with opportunities stratified along lines of race and gender. Today's high technology, knowledge- based economy increasingly favors those with a college degree. In 2002, compared with men without a high school education, those age twenty- five to thirty-four with some college earned 20 percent more and those with bachelor's degrees earned 65 percent more, up from premiums of 5 percent and 19 percent, respectively, in 1980.1(1 This is hardly a recent phenomenon. Smoothing over the ups and downs of the business cycle, the earnings premium that today attaches to a college degree appears to be an historic high.11
A shortfall of credentialed skills leaves many behind, and African American men are the hardest hit: among high school dropouts in the 2004-2005 school year, the earnings of black men ages twenty to twenty-eight averaged $2,038, against median earnings of $15,288 among Hispanics and $14,269 among non-Hispanic whites (Sum et al. 2007). Indeed, for men like these simply finding work is a challenge, and hanging onto it another. According to Andrew Sum and his col­leagues (2007, 2-3), "only 1 of every 3 young black male high school dropouts was able to obtain any type of employment during the aver­age month in 2005" and just 23 percent worked full time. That so few African American dropouts find any kind of work explains how their annual earnings can be so low—an excess of zero earnings drives down the average. Wilson (2008,58, figure 4.1) adds that the black-white employment gap widens as one descends the education ladder, from 86 percent versus 88 percent among male college graduates in 2005, to 57 percent versus 73 percent among high school graduates, to 33 per­cent versus 54 percent among high school dropouts.12 The so-called feminization of poverty is gendered urban disadvan tage in another guise. The phrase was coined by Diane Pearce (1978 to spotlight the doubling of poverty levels in female-headed house holds between 1950 and 1974. Pearce implicated escalating divorce rates, but those rates since have leveled, displaced by a rapid rise ii out-of-wedlock and never-married childbearing as the driving force: behind increases in the feminization of poverty (Cherlin 2005, 36). Ir 1960, never-married mothers accounted for fewer than 5 percent о the children of single mothers; by 2006, they accounted for 43 percen (Thibos, Lavin-Loucks, and Martin 2007, 6). African American womei find themselves especially challenged by the burdens associated witl single parenting: today more than 70 percent of black children are borr outside marriage, against 29 percent of non-Hispanic white birth: (Martin et al. 2012, 45).13
Many of these households are mired in poverty—for example, ir 2007, compared with 8.5 percent of children in married couple house holds, 43 percent of children in female-headed households fell below the poverty line. Again, a bad situation overall is worse among Africar Americans: more than half the children in African American single mother households live in poverty but only just under a third of while children do (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistic; 2009,115; see also Thibos, Lavin-Loucks, and Martin 2007).
These figures establish what is well understood: family circumstance; and a depressed economy in places like Baltimore put many children a risk, but at risk for what? That risk is best defined by the challenges the) overcome: in the short term, to stay on a positive path—to stay in school avoid trouble, and find work in a tough economy; in the longer term to achieve upward mobility, financial stability, and a fulfilling persona life. As statistics like those recounted remind us, many of the urbar disadvantaged—low-income, black and white, men and women—fal short. This book shows that it is wrong to generalize broadly from sue! statistical profiles.
Family conditions early in life cast a long shadow. That principle holds broadly, but with exceptions, and in this context they are numerous. The literature on so-called resilient youth shows that many who grow up ir disadvantaged circumstances succeed in overcoming often daunting challenges (for example, Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, and Morgan 1987 Masten, Best, and Garmezy 1991; Haggerty et al. 1996). Perhaps, as Frank, a black male from a poor family with a high school diploma anc a strong work history, told us, "It's not where you live, it's how you live and the things you make up your mind to do."
Is it really that simple to will oneself to success? Frank's view that we create our destiny is widely shared. Certainly as a society we treasure