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Walking Thrall

Anthropologist Elijah Anderson explores race and class by traversing Philadelphia

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The Cosmopolitan Canopy

by Elijah Anderson

W. W. Norton & Company, hardcover

Let’s say you start somewhere along the western edge of Patterson Park and walk due west, going all the way over to Fulton Avenue. You would navigate this space with a set of mental maps that give meaning to the terrain and the built environment. As you walked you would perform your identity in relation to those around you, based on your people-watching skills and what was going on in the streets and spaces you traversed. You’d have to put on your mask where people weren’t like you. You’d have to know your routine to read the people you came across who were like you, looked like you. And in the spaces where there were all kinds of different folks you’d have to check yourself, be open to possibilities, figure out how to not draw lines between people—particularly the color line with all its historical weight still marking space all over American cities like Baltimore. In those cosmopolitan urban spaces you can choose to live race differently.

Yale sociologist and director of the Urban Ethnography Project Elijah Anderson begins his important new book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life (W. W. Norton and Co.), with just such a walk. For Anderson, his walk is across Philadelphia’s Center City, from the Delaware River west to the Schuylkill and the 30th Street Station, Philadelphia’s bustling transportation hub. Anderson has been an anthropologist of Philadelphia for more than 30 years, producing classic interpretations of how race is lived in urban America in works such as Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City; Streetwise: Race, Class and Change in an Urban Community; and A Place on the Corner: A Study of Black Street Corner Men. His new work is nothing less than a map for how race could be lived differently.

Anderson’s walk doesn’t find some post-racial America, but rather—more than 50 years beyond the passage of major civil rights legislation, a movement for racial equality, an influx of new immigrants, and profound economic change—specific spaces within contemporary urban America that offer a possibility for a more perfect union. Anderson writes of these spaces where class and race commingle indiscriminately:

The cosmopolitan canopy and its lessons contribute to an increasingly diverse city. The existence of the canopy allows people, whose strong reference point often remains their own social class or ethic group, a chance to encounter others and so work toward a more cosmopolitan appreciation of difference. In this way, new generations may establish new social patterns . . . As canopies proliferate, such neutral territories may become established elements of the city.

Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square and Reading Terminal Market “epitomizes the cosmopolitan canopy,” Anderson writes. Especially at its historic farmer’s market space there is “the great ethnic, racial and class diversity of the city of Philadelphia . . . model[ing] comity and civility for one another, contributing profoundly to the definition of the local situation.”

These canopies exist simultaneously with the persistence of segregation for Anderson. He describes how the Gallery Mall in Center City, for example, has become “the ghetto downtown”—not because of geography or infrastructure but because of how racial identity is performed and how it is interpreted by both blacks and whites. Anderson describes an “iconic black ghetto” that is not so much an actual space but a place in the mind of city residents. He writes: “The most powerfully imagined neighborhood is the ‘iconic black ghetto’ or the ’hood, often associated in the minds of outsiders with poverty, crime and violence. This icon is by definition a figment of the imagination of those with little or no experience or contact with those who live there.”

The historical legacy of American race and caste inequality can produce the “most dangerous and potentially destabilizing” threat to the cosmopolitan canopy for Anderson. The psychic space of that legacy, despite advances for many African-Americans, can produce what Anderson calls “a nigger moment.” He writes: “Too often, the treatment black people receive in public is based on negative assumptions as strangers they encounter fall back on scripts, roles and stereotypes about the black person’s claims to decency and middle-class status.”

Beyond his virtual walking tour, Anderson looks deeply at how race plays out in the workplaces of Center City Philadelphia. Cosmopolitan Canopy—like all his work—is a detailed ethnography with closely rendered descriptions of people and conversations. Here is an anthropologically thick description of the present and future prospect of urban life in America.

Elijah Anderson talks about The Cosmopolitan Canopy at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Brown Lecture Series June 9 at 7 p.m. in the Poe Room.

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