The Uptown Kids: Struggle and Hope in the Projects
Williams, Terry and Kornblum, William (1994).
New York: Gorsset/ Putnam; 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN 0399138870.
Black youths are probably America's mostdespised population. In headlines, news programs, and politicaldemagogy they- and their parents- are linked reflexively not just withpoverty but with almost every other ostensible ill, from high taxes tomoral decay. When it comes to black boys and young men, the popularassociation is with street violence.
Confronting these stereotypes has become an imperative for socialscientists, many of whom recognize the need to broaden the context inwhich society views minority youths' behavior and that of theirfamilies. As politicians of both major parties unanimously trumpet“individual responsibility” and dismiss as “big government” any whiffof social reform, researchers who explore these youths' subjectiveworlds must attend also to the nature of the society of which they aremarginally part. This can help to show that they are not alien to “our”way of life, but are embedded in it.
Urban public housing projects are an important part of minoritychildren and youths' social and personal lives. Can these environmentsincubate youths who are “successful” -that is, successful according toboth their own criteria and society's? Terry Williams and WilliamKornblum, in The Uptown Kids: Struggle and Hope in the Projectsdefend public housing in Harlem, New York City against the oppressiveweight of society's prejudices. The projects, they assert at theoutset, should be viewed as centers of neighborhood renewal, islands ofhope.
The book's origin, we are told, is in a seminar some years agoin which Kornblum took strong exception to the blithe characterizationof the projects, by several prominent social scientists present, as“failed social policy.” His objection eventually attracted theattention of MacArthur Foundation officers, who, having being impressedwith Williams and Kornblum's Growing Up Poor(1985), supported the present “sequel.” Kornblum does all thenon-fieldwork tasks (including research design and compiling historicalstatistics) while Williams does nearly all the fieldwork.Significantly, Williams is a young black scholar who lives in Harlem(not in the projects); he teaches at a private college in GreenwichVillage. Kornblum, a generation older than Williams, is a whiteprofessor at the City University of New York. This summary cannotconvey the fascination of their autobiographical statements at thebook's opening.
The vehicle for the book's ethnographic data is the HarlemWriters’ Crew, consisting of youths in their late teens and earlytwenties, led by Williams. The Crew, meeting in Williams' apartmentover nearly four years, in fact had many functions besides encouragingwriting; it served as support group, social gathering and refuge. TheCrew's loose membership was large, although the precise enrollment isunspecified. Five members are the focal point, an emphasis that helpsthe reader recognize individual voices. The idea of the Writers’ Crewitself is a fair and effective data-gathering device: clearly, theinformants want and need to be heard every bit as much as theresearchers want to listen, and so there is little doubt of theirgetting a “fair return” for their participation. The sections in whichthe Crew appear take up by far the bulk of the book.
Kornblum and Williams present the Crew's sections in a clear,uncluttered style, although the third-person voice precludes the senseof engagement one finds in such first-person writers as Jonathan Kozoland Robert Coles. Williams and Kornblum know when to hold back and letthe kids speak, which the kids do in language that is vivid,spontaneous, and highly personal. Tina writes:
The D's, Dad and divorce, lead me searching for a piece of dad fromboys and men who are basically dicks. But then there are the uncles.All of Papa's ace boon coons love and look out since there is no dad inNew York City, I make papa by taking a little piece of everyone andmaking them into one collective dad....
The kids' words come to us in forms other than excerpts from theirwritings, including Williams' dialogues with individual members andheated discussions among the Crew. Thus the method is not apresentation or analysis of these youths' writing but an attempt to seetheir world through their eyes using all available sources. Althoughthis main part of the book uses the Crew's own words, Kornblum andWilliams do not pretend that the book wrote itself; they themselves areobviously the glue that binds the narratives. They use their ownlearning to provide information and to meditate on such topics asalternative interpretive approaches to graffiti and graffiti artists,and the historical origins of rap.
Rap, not surprisingly, is a major theme in these kids' lives,and hence in the book; it is a rallying point for some of the mostheated- and cogent- passages. In talking about rap the kids reflect notonly on the music itself but on the white world's reaction to it, andwhites' exploitation of rap. Another prominent theme is school and GEDclasses: these come across as a prodigious waste of time punctuated attoo-long intervals by inspired and caring teachers, but ultimately areviewed as the only road to success. Other themes include the “po-lice”who hassle youths relentlessly; drugs, which, interestingly, are aswidely condemned as much as they are used (I would have welcomed adescription of whatever feelings- positive or negative -the kids getfrom being high); and sex, which is cast in a rather negative light,associated with confusion and confrontation between the sexes more thanwith growth and pleasure. These are, of course, all fairly well-knownareas in studies of adolescents and young adults, but the Crew'sexpressiveness and the authors' economy make it worthwhile reading.More subtle, and more likely to be new to readers, are the revelationsof the growing interest among Harlem youths in serious reading, as seenin the activity around the 125th Street sidewalk book vendors,recalling the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, and thefascinating if too brief section on “places of peace:”
'The place of peace is where we go to chill out,' Budd says, pullingup the collar of his jacket. 'We smoke blunts [a marijuana cigaretterolled inside Phillies Blunt cigar leaves], drink forties [forty-ouncebeers or malt liquors], and just hang out.' The places of peace are theprojects' version of suburban tree houses, nooks and crannies wherekids avoid adult supervision. 'We have places of peace all over the'jects,' Budd says, ‘cause if we wanna be by ourselves, this is theplace to be. We talk, do rap, we in-tel-lec-tu-al-ize.'
In light of this and other demonstrations of the neeed for social spaceamong youths, it is dispiriting to find that Williams and Kornblumharbor an unexamined disapproval of the streets, one that makes themsound almost like genteel turn-of-the-century urban reformers or 1950sJD squads. For instance they paraphrase, but do not question, Harlem'sdisapproval: “A good girl is one who stays off the streets; a bad boyis one who stays in them.” Elsewhere they write, “... he is on a routewhich promises a better life beyond the Harlem streets.” In theauthors' narration, the phrase “the streets” is seldom unattended bythe word “temptation” (nor for that matter is the word “sex”). Theauthors repeatedly characterize the tenement and townhouse environmentsjust beyond the projects' borders as blight next to the better-managedprojects. Yet this all seems architecturally backward and sociallypuritanical. A “vibrant street life,” with windows and small businessesflanking streets that are not too wide, is no longer a nostalgicreaction against functional architecture, but an imperative of everyurban bureaucrat and chamber of commerce; it has been recognized asenhancing safety and economic development. Why don't Williams andKornblum at least consider this as being applicable to Harlem? Ofcourse, their thesis is built around the idea that the projects havegotten a bad rap, but it is still apparent that the projects' spatialform leaves much to be desired. Harlem's valued book vendors are, afterall, located not on the projects' grounds but along 125th Street.
In reading about so many aspects of Harlem life, the reader soon knows that Uptown Kidsis trying to do a lot more than evaluate housing environments. Williamsand Kornblum themselves put their emphasis in perspective when theywrite:
uptown kids are thinking, feeling, resourceful young people.. ..Theconsciousness of all these young people is shaped by their encounterswith the city, by their largely negative experiences with school, andby the legacies of racism. Their community may be confined to Harlem,and their immediate neighborhood to a single high-rise project, yet themoral and intellectual quality of their experiences in these locales isfar from stunting.
Thus Uptown Kids is about much more than the originalresearch question because the kids' consciousness is about so much morethan the housing projects. It is they, and not any research agenda,that determine the parameters and content of the book.
Ironically, it is on that strength that the book fails. Uptown Kidsis a sandwich: Williams' superb ethnography is the meat betweenKornblum's rather dry white bread, bread that absorbs no gravy. Thusthe remainder of the book harks back to the introduction, but it bearslittle relationship to the kids' stories. Not only are the conclusionsand speculations found there unrelated to the ethnographic sections,they seem unrelated to present urban sociological knowledge and tocommon sense.
As an example, take the chapter presenting adult communityleaders in the projects. These interesting and constructive people arewithout a doubt important to the community, and their appeal is notdiminished by their rather ordinary social philosophies; one of twoelderly Puerto Rican tenant leaders says, “My boys never stood on nocorners. Three of them are correction officers.” But it is extremelydisappointing then to have the authors echo their homilies (“What[Mrs.] Montana calls old-fashioned values might be referred to asdiscipline. And that is what young people need to make it out of theprojects and into the larger world of possibility”). What these youthsreally “need” may in fact be beyond Mrs. Montana's vision orvocabulary: they need jobs, they need indoor and outdoor space to live,they need good schools. Incidentally, it is also a disservice (makethat simply a “diss”) to the kids themselves- who talk frequently oftheir rivalry with the apparently more privileged local Puerto Ricans-to then showcase Puerto Rican moralizers. But more to the point, thishighlighting of individual accomplishment flies in the face of theauthors' own data; they praise the elders' “hard work, education, anddiscipline,” when obviously a large part of these people's success inmaking their housing habitable consists in qualities not mentioned,such as collective action and the questioning of authority (andespecially of The Authority, that is, the New York City HousingAuthority, Big Brother Landlord). Much of one's sense of communityaction in Harlem seems lost in the authors' attention to individualactivists and not to groups. At the end of this chapter the authorsobserve, with naïve approval, that “real estate speculation abounds”and that this lends to Harlem “an air of stability.” How strange to saythis when, in urban studies, one would be hard pressed to find twoterms as perfectly mutually-exclusive as “real estate speculation” and“stability.”
The book's conclusion- where, one gathers, we leave Williamsand are now Kornblum's audience- reintroduces the discussion of publichousing and urban structure raised in the introduction. But since therehas been no sustained empirical investigation into that area, thereader watches as policy proposals are raised without substantiation.It is asserted, for example, that public housing should return to itsoriginal mandate- that is, of temporary housing for upwardly-mobilefamilies. But upward mobility is not what it was in the 1950s and,besides, the book itself suggests that good projects depend on strongtenant activism, which is in turn well served by longstanding tenants.Another repeated fallacy is that the fortunes of Harlem's workers aretied to a rapidly declining urban manufacturing base; Harlem has infact always suffered from a lack of local employment opportunities.Unmentioned is another employment trend that has dimmed the prospectsof young Harlemites: the decline in civil service hiring, which in thepostwar years provided a tremendous boost to black achievers.
Finally, one is left confused as to Williams and Kornblum'sconcepts of Harlem, its projects, and its people. They trumpet theprojects as solid bases upon which residents can yet forge a strongcommunity, yet they relentlessly define youth's “success” as consistingin their somehow escaping the place. Little is made of youths maturingand remaining in or returning to Harlem in order to serve it. In SpikeLee's film Do the Right Thing,a young black woman declines to join the boycott of a white-ownedbusiness by telling the snarling young agitator, “I'm into doingsomething positive in the community.” Williams and Kornblum apparentlydo not consider either agitation or “positive” community involvement aswithin the parameters of the uptown kids' “success.” Only escape willdo.
Ironically, then, Uptown Kids' weakness is that it isa book and a half. Williams' superb ethnographic description andinterpretation stands by itself, and is worthy of its own volume.Kornblum's desultory speculations on public housing are an empty shellthat needs to be filled by different research for a different book.There is much unfinished work for the MacArthur people to underwrite.