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Bridging Racial Divides In 'Cosmopolitan Canopies'

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In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson takes readers on a tour of Philadelphia's Center City, where he says locals interact across racial lines. i

In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson takes readers on a tour of Philadelphia's Center City, where he says locals interact across racial lines. Martha Spanninger /W.W. Norton & Company hide caption

toggle caption Martha Spanninger /W.W. Norton & Company
In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson takes readers on a tour of Philadelphia's Center City, where he says locals interact across racial lines.

In The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson takes readers on a tour of Philadelphia's Center City, where he says locals interact across racial lines.

Martha Spanninger /W.W. Norton & Company
The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race And Civility In Everyday Life
By Elijah Anderson
Hardcover, 318 pages
W.W. Norton & Company
List price: $25.95

In diverse cities across the nation many Americans have adopted a "pervasive wariness" of one another, says sociologist Elijah Anderson. In his book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Every Day Life, Anderson writes that too often, people "divert their gazes, looking up, looking down, or looking away, and feign ignorance of the diverse mix of strangers they encounter."

But in Philadelphia's Center City, Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University, has found a place that offers a respite from that well-ingrained wariness. The city's Reading Terminal, with its bustling multi-ethnic market and busy lunch counters, offers a neutral space where all kinds of people feel comfortable enough to drop their usual defenses and interact with total strangers.

Which is exactly what happened to Anderson one afternoon at Reading Terminal's Down Home Diner, where a man visiting from Sacramento "gets a pancake or two, sits down next to me, and we chat." In a very short time, the man, who was white, told Anderson, who is African-American, that he "has friends who are white supremacists ... And he's amazed at the civility, the diversity, the wide range of different kinds of people he sees, and the civility that is palpable at the Terminal."

Anderson calls these spaces "cosmopolitan canopies," places where diverse people gather, and feel comfortable striking up sometimes surprisingly intimate conversations. "It's really a point of cultural convergence," Anderson tells NPR's Neal Conan, "where all different kinds of people ... call 'time out' on the segregated and sometimes quite contentious areas" outside of those melting pots.

Rittenhouse Square is another Philadelphia location where Anderson says locals transcend the racial divides apparent in other areas of the city. "You have older people gathering together. You have mothers with kids in tow, you have nannies, you have business people, you have black homeboys, you have the homeless," says Anderson. "It's a mixed bag, but the one thing that characterizes this space is civility. Civility across racial lines."

Too often, says Anderson, when Americans discuss urban life, they tend to overemphasize their differences, particularly in segregated cities. Seeing people interact so comfortably in these canopies, says Anderson, can remind us that "blacks and whites and other kinds of people get along more so than we would imagine.

"This is not a panacea for race relations," Anderson acknowledges. "But it ... really is an ethnographic study of how we, as people, as American citizens, get along. And it may well foreshadow the kinds of things that we'll have to do to build a more inclusive and diverse society."

Excerpt: 'The Cosmopolitan Canopy'

Cover of The Cosmopolitan Canopy
W.W. Norton & Company
The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race And Civility In Everyday Life
By Elijah Anderson
Hardcover, 318 pages
W.W. Norton & Company
List price: $25.95

Strongly affected by the forces of industrialism, immigration, and globalization, the American city of today is more racially, ethnically, and socially diverse than ever, with profound cleavages dividing one social group from another.

As anonymous pedestrians actively "see but don't see" one another, skin color becomes a social border that complicates public observations of city life. Today what Wirth described as urbanites' blasé indifference seems to have given way to a pervasive wariness toward strangers, particularly anonymous black males. In places such as bus stations, parking garages, and sidewalks, many pedestrians move about guardedly, dealing with strangers by employing elaborate facial and eye work, replete with smiles, nods, and gestures designed to carve out an impersonal but private zone for themselves. Increasingly, pedestrians are required to contend publicly with the casualties of modern urban society, not just the persistently poor who at times beg aggressively but also homeless people, street criminals, and the mentally disturbed. Fearful of crime, many are prepared to defend themselves or to quickly summon help — if not from fellow pedestrians, then from the police. In navigating such spaces, people often divert their gazes, looking up, looking down, or looking away, and feign ignorance of the diverse mix of strangers they encounter. Defensively, they "look past" or "look through" the next person, distancing themselves from strangers and effectively consigning their counterparts to a form of social oblivion.

In public, stereotypically, white skin color is most often associated with respectability, civility, and trust, and black skin color is associated with poverty, danger, and distrust — above all, with regard to anonymous young males. Many ordinary pedestrians feel at ease with others they deem to be most like themselves; the more threatening the "other" is judged to be, the greater the distance displayed. And mainly because of the persistence of what I call the "iconic black ghetto" — the large, "unfathomable but dangerous place" in the city where poor black people are concentrated — black people, especially males, bear close scrutiny by virtually everyone else in public. Black strangers more often greet and otherwise acknowledge other strangers, particularly other blacks. But most other pedestrians, in an effort to remain impersonal, appear simply to follow their noses, at times barely avoiding collisions with other strangers. If they speak at all, they may utter a polite "excuse me" or "I'm sorry," and, if it seems appropriate, they scowl. In effect, people work to shape and guard their own public space.

Yet there are heterogeneous and densely populated bounded public spaces within cities that offer a respite from this wariness, settings where a mix of people can feel comfortable enough to relax their guard and go about their business more casually. In these areas people display a degree of cosmopolitanism, by which I mean acceptance of the space as belonging to all kinds of people. In Philadelphia this cosmopolitan zone is known as Center City. Here we find cosmopolitan canopies where the display of public acceptance by all of all is especially intense, becoming one of the defining characteristics of the place.

Having come to know these cosmopolitan canopies, as well as other spaces that seem to defy this spirit of cosmopolitanism, I invite you to take a virtual walk with me from Philadelphia's eastern border at the Delaware River, along its central axis, Market Street, all the way to the core's western boundary, the Schuylkill River and Thirtieth Street Station, which connects Philadelphia by rail to its surrounding suburbs and the rest of the country.

A good place to begin is Penn's Landing, as it is locally known, which commemorates the arrival of William Penn, Philadelphia's founder, in the late seventeenth century. Today Penn's Landing contains various attractions, including eateries, a concert hall, a floating restaurant, and the Independence Seaport Museum. The area draws large crowds of people who indulge in exotic cuisines, tour the museum, attend a performance, walk their dogs, or simply sit along the banks of the river and watch the boats go by.

As we move west from Penn's Landing, we cross I-95 and reach the beginning of Market Street. Walking up Market, a wide boulevard heading west away from the Delaware River, we encounter buildings and establishments from many periods of Philadelphia's history. Immediately on the right at Second Street is the old Christ Church, where George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers worshipped. Franklin is buried in the graveyard behind the church, and the pew where he used to sit has been roped off. Between Third and Fourth streets along Market is the original brick-and-wood post office, with the site of Franklin's house just behind it.

The area is a hodgepodge now. A few inexpensive stores, left over from the days before outlet malls, sell men's suits and shirts, ladies' accessories, and Army-Navy surplus merchandise. Interspersed among these stores are popular restaurants and watering holes such as the Continental Bar and Restaurant; Fork, an upscale eatery; and Bluezette, a black-oriented nightclub. Some local nightspots offer dancing. These places draw a mix of people, but a young and hip crowd from the city and the suburbs predominates. In the evening, especially on weekends, the area is crowded. It attracts different types of people at different times of the day and the year. Its social neutrality is remarkable. Diverse people converge, defining the setting as belonging to everyone and deemphasizing race and other particularities. No one group claims priority, a hallmark of the cosmopolitan canopy.

Beginning around 5:30 in the evening on weekend nights, the spaces around Second and Market transition to a nightspot. What earlier was a somewhat tame business district serving the local neighborhood changes abruptly. Its more ethnic, even sleepy public face comes alive and turns cosmopolitan. Every other establishment has become a destination for young adults from South Jersey, the Philadelphia suburbs, and local colleges and universities. Here young people dance with all kinds of others, including those from the North Philadelphia ghettos and the river wards of Kensington and Northern Liberties. White, black, Latino, and others from all over the city, and the world, mingle to the sounds of salsa at Cuba Libre.

The area just north of this section of Market, called Old City in an effort to appeal to tourists, is the heart of the local art scene. In order to draw a crowd, most galleries coordinate their openings on the first Friday of each month. The galleries attract an upscale but laid-back and mature clientele that adds a certain mix to the nightlife. The site of much recent investment and new and rehabbed construction, the neighborhood has become vibrant, even "hot," drawing many young students, professionals, families and singles alike. In nice weather a festive atmosphere prevails on first Fridays as crowds wander from one gallery to another, sharing the sidewalks with informal outdoor exhibits and the occasional street performer or musician playing for tips.

Not everyone, however, is welcome there. I have seen black vendors spread out their wares of incense, bootleg music and videos, ties and scarves, as well as African beads, statuettes, and other ornamental items in this area, only to have a policeman come along and tell them they must leave. These street vendors are tolerated farther up Market, but not on Second Street. The black vendor here is viewed as "out of place," a renegade and not an artist, and a potential danger, a threat. If he didn't know it before, he is quickly made aware that he does not belong.

As we walk up Market and approach Fourth Street, the Bourse is on the left. Opened in 1895, this commodities exchange, modeled after a mercantile exchange in the German port city of Hamburg, was the first in the United States. The building was strikingly modern in its time, with its steel frame, multilevel design, and skylights; now a mall, it still seems contemporary. Originally it housed grain dealers, export agents, steamship lines, and telephone and telegraph companies, as well as the commercial, maritime, and stock exchanges. From its inception it was a kind of canopy, facilitating cooperation among its business tenants and allowing customers to feel enclosed in its open interior. Today the Bourse holds retail and food stores, as well as dozens of other types of small businesses. It is still an urban gathering place where people come to do business, shop, and people watch.

Continuing west along Market, we cross Independence Mall, with its view of Carpenters' Hall, where the first Continental Congress met. Nearby is the site of George Washington's house, which served as his office and residence through the 1790s, while the new nation's capital was under construction. Although Pennsylvania had passed a gradual emancipation law in 1780, the president and his family were attended by at least eight slaves they brought from Mount Vernon. Two managed to escape to freedom. Years later John Adams, an opponent of slavery, occupied the same dwelling. When the site for the new Liberty Bell Center was being excavated in 2006, archaeologists discovered remains of the slave quarters behind the stables, and controversy swirled about how Washington's slaves should be represented here. Facing the mall is the Federal District courthouse, and a few blocks up sits the house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. And in the distance is Congress Hall, the relatively small building, still intact and open to visitors, that housed the Constitutional Convention.

We continue our tour up Market to Ninth Street. Anchored by the Gallery, an urban mall built in the 1970s that currently includes a Big Kmart and a Burlington Coat Factory as its major tenants, this area has been home to discount stores for decades. A downtown destination for people from the city's poorer neighborhoods, particularly blacks and other people of color, the Gallery gives serious pause to members of the typical suburban crowd. The grand main entrance is at Ninth and Market streets, where a large sign above wide steps leads directly to the lower level. All sorts of decidedly nonsuburban people occupy the stairs; homeboys, young black men in their twenties, and other black, brown, and white members of the underemployed and working poor are scattered around. The Gallery sits near the bus and subway transit lines that connect several black ghetto communities to this part of the city, providing the black poor with a degree of access that enables them to congregate here. Here they shop, hang out, or gather to socialize, talking and laughing out loud among their friends, their presence staking a claim on the Gallery and advertising what is to be encountered inside.

By noon on warm summer days, black religious proselytizers in front of the building often preach on a microphone and offer fliers to passersby, many of whom try to ignore them. There is always a certain hustle and bustle throughout the day, although at midmorning it is relatively quiet. To enter the Gallery, we must make our way past this phalanx of people and descend the steps, which is rather daunting to would-be shoppers from the suburban middle class.

From The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life by Elijah Anderson. Copyright 2011 by Elijah Anderson. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

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