Bridging Racial Divides In 'Cosmopolitan Canopies' Every day, Americans of different races pass on sidewalks, barely acknowledging one another. But Elijah Anderson, author of Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, says even highly segregated cities harbor spaces that enable all kinds of people to interact.

Bridging Racial Divides In 'Cosmopolitan Canopies'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A young black man named Oscar got home disgusted and angry after a visit to Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, when he found his wallet gone. It wasn't so much his 20 bucks or even the credit cards - the wallet was special, a gift from his sister.

A couple of weeks later, a package arrived - the wallet, with everything intact. Whoever found it, and Oscar believes it was a white man, mailed it back with no return address.

Of course that made Oscar feel great, but Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson notes that just as important is the fact that Oscar repeats that story every time the subject of Reading Terminal comes up.

Acts of goodwill, writes Anderson, propagate through such stories and reverberate through the city, and he argues that neutral spaces like Reading Terminal make all kinds of people comfortable enough to drop their usual defenses and interact with total strangers in what he calls anonymous intimacy.

Call and tell us where you spoke openly with a stranger. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's Mike Pesca from Houston on the NCAA men's and women's basketball finals. But first, Elijah Anderson joins us from Yale University in New Haven, where he directs the Urban Ethnography Project. His new book is called "The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life." Thanks so much for being with us today.

Professor ELIJAH ANDERSON (Yale University): It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you to tell us another story from Reading Terminal. You're there at a restaurant, the Down Home Diner, and a guy sits next to you at the counter, a guy who's there in for a convention from Sacramento.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, yes. He's a - he has a club in Sacramento. He has a show at the convention center. He's a manufacturer. He hires Mexican illegal immigrants sometimes. And he has friends who are white supremacists.

But he comes in to the Terminal, which is adjacent to the convention center, and spends time, gets a pancake or two, and sits down next to me, and we chat.

And he's amazed at the civility, the diversity, the wide ranges and different kinds of people that he sees and the civility that is palpable at the Terminal.

Now, I call these spaces cosmopolitan canopies, and the canopy is a type of place where all different kinds of people gather, congregate. It's really a point of cultural convergence where all different kinds of people - black, white, Asian, Italian, Jewish, Arab - all kinds of people come and eat one another's foods. And they call time out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ANDERSON: And the segregated and sometimes quite contentious areas beyond these canopies...

CONAN: Well, some...

Prof. ANDERSON: ...a canopy's kind of like a place of civility. It's like this island of civility in our major cities. And it's - what I found and what I studied there revealed to me this interesting new dynamic, maybe, of American race relations.

CONAN: Should we be surprised that a man would come in to a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia and engage a black man in conversation and mention that he has friends who are white supremacists?

Prof. ANDERSON: Well, I think the issue here is that this goes on so much, that you find all kinds of people here (unintelligible) they also watch people eavesdrop. They do a kind of folk ethnography. They people-watch, which has become a fine art.

And they take what they learn, what they observe, and they sometimes express it to friends who have never been to such places. At any rate, this is not a panacea for race relations, 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.

CONAN: You mentioned some of the qualities of these cosmopolitan canopies that makes them function. At Reading Terminal Market, yes, people eat each other's foods. The smell, I thought, was an interesting idea, that because it smells so good and so attractive between all the various cuisines and the flower stores and whatnot, it signals to people that this is a different kind of place.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, yes, yes, it is. Yeah, and I think it is a different kind of thing when you're eating somebody's food, and you're -the smells, I mean, all of that can make you feel better about yourself and other people.

I think these are things that you don't experience outside the canopy so much. But again, the Reading Terminal is a peculiar kind of space. It is...

CONAN: You also profile another space not too far away, a place called The Gallery, which was built as sort of a downtown version or designed to be a downtown version of a suburban shopping mall but turned into something else entirely.

Prof. ANDERSON: Right, exactly. Given the constant ups and downs of the economy, the upscale stores that initially were there and didn't last and eventually began to cater to people who were lower income. And in time there was sort of a departure of white middle-class people, and working people took over their stores, began to cater to them, and pretty soon it became more black, but also Latino and Asian, and very, very few whites went there.

Oftentimes they were quite discouraged by what they saw, and the reputation that developed of the place, and I characterize the place as something of a ghetto downtown. And that too has its own rhythms, as it were, not cosmopolitan the way you see things going on at the Terminal, even Rittenhouse Square, but diverse in a particularistic kind of way.

CONAN: Rittenhouse Square is a park that you also write about, and it's interesting because one of the things that makes that place function differently is the number of children who have returned to the (unintelligible)...

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, yes, yes, children all about, but not only children, older young people and teenagers and others who gather together. You have older people gathering together. You have mothers with kids in tow. You have nannies. You have businesspeople. You have black homeboys. You have the homeless. It's an incredibly diverse place. And yet the theme is civility.

Of course, it has its history that goes way back to the days when the elite roamed this space. And today it still carries some of that prestige. And so people who go there oftentimes feel, especially people coming from the more particularistic ethnic neighborhoods, the working class types and others, as they come there they sometimes present themselves with downtown behavior, they call it, if you follow me.

And this downtown behavior to some extent is civil and respectful of other people and at the same time emphasizing their own particularities, to some extent. So it's a mixed bag.

But the one thing that characterizes this place is civility...

CONAN: We're talking...

Prof. ANDERSON: ...civility across racial lines.

CONAN: We're talking with Elijah Anderson about his new book, "The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life." And we want to hear about the places where you have exchanged anonymous intimacies with strangers. What about those places made that possible? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can start with Rich, and Rich is with us from Cheyenne in Wyoming.

RICH (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

RICH: Many years ago, this would've been like 1981, I was a young sailor flying home from overseas and I had an overnight stop at Andrews. I figured: Hey, this is my one chance to go in and see D.C.

CONAN: Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington.

RICH: Right. And I had been up like a good 24, 36 hours before I even got there. This was on a Sunday. I went in, I took the bus in where they dropped me off where I can get on the subway. I said: Hey, when is the last bus back? And I was told it was like 9 o'clock.

It was the wrong time. I got back to that place at 6:45 to find out the last bus left at 6:30. I had just enough money for the bus. So I was stranded in downtown D.C., carrying my camera gear, I was a Navy photographer.

I went into a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there was a there was bulletproof glass across the top - the front of the counter. So I'm thinking: I'm in trouble. And as I went back to this area, again, I had been told that this was an area that had a lot of gang activity. Everybody else there were African-American, young African-American males mostly, and I was literally falling asleep on my feet, like leaning against a wall, with camera gear on my shoulder.

And the people who were there helped me with - this is pre-cell phone days - with the pay phones, getting in touch with people I needed to get in touch with out at Andrews, relaying messages, and generally looked out after me, took care of me.

CONAN: And it's something that's stuck with you all this time.

RICH: Well, it has, because I was so afraid I was in an opposite situation, and in fact when I got to back to my base in the Azores, I told someone the story and the guys said: I've been mugged there twice.

So you know, what was it about the place or my situation, whether they took pity on - I was a really young-looking kid. I mean, I was 21, but I looked much younger, you know, obviously military. Why they looked out after me, what caused it, I don't know. I'm just very thankful.

CONAN: Rich, thanks very much for that call, appreciate it.

RICH: All right.

CONAN: And it strikes me, Eli Anderson, that he's talking about something you describe as the imagined ghetto.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, yes. Well, in the book I talk about the iconic ghetto, and this is the area of the city where the black people live, supposedly. And many people imagine it oftentimes and know very little about it, including some black people themselves, who have this notion of the hood, as it were.

And the idea is that all manner of social ills can be found in the hood. And this is very important because the hood, of course, is racialized, and any black person coming, who appears in the city, so to speak, or even under the canopy, for some people has to - he has to or she has to sort of disabuse them of the notion that he or she is from this space, from this iconic ghetto.

And they increasingly - there are black people who have never been to the ghetto, black, middle-class people there are Africans, there are Indians, there are Arabs and other people, people of color, who have never been to the ghetto, and oftentimes people in this canopy sometimes get associated that first off, if you follow me...

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. ANDERSON: And have to work to show that they're decent and civil and all this. And they do. And this is part of what it means to be on downtown behavior, not just for blacks and others of colors, but even for Italians and Irish and Jewish people and other people.

CONAN: We're talking with Elijah Anderson. His new book is "The Cosmopolitan Canopy." If you've exchanged intimacies with a stranger, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Elijah Anderson writes in his book: The American city of today is more racially, ethnically and socially diverse than ever, with profound cleavages dividing one social group from another.

Yet there are public spaces that offer a respite, where a mix of people can feel comfortable enough to relax their guard and observe and talk with each other, regardless of ethnicity. He dubs these places cosmopolitan canopies.

Call and tell us where you were able to speak openly with a stranger. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Elijah Anderson's book is "The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life." You can read more about the city that inspired the book. He gives us a tour of public spaces in Philadelphia in an excerpt at npr.org. Again, just go to the website and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I wanted to read some of the emails that we've received, this from Amy(ph) in Minneapolis: I experience intimate conversations in the mothers' nursing lounge at the Nordstrom's store there. Any time babies are involved, racial, social and age differences matter less, and conversations flow well.

This from Devon(ph) in - I'm not sure where, but: I recently found a wallet lying in the middle of the street and brought it home. Upon looking, I found an email address inside and wrote the young man. We agreed to meet at my house, and I knew him immediately from his driver's license photo.

It occurred to me after the fact how much of a blessing it was not just for the very thankful recipient but also for the person who gets a chance to do a good deed for another. Good deed opportunities are, much like chivalry, on the way out or near dead already. Good street karma was bestowed upon me by that wallet's owner, but I'd have a tough time figuring out who walked away happier.

So that's interesting. There's another story you tell about the Reading Market, Elijah Anderson, and that's about a young man - there's a woman trying to get through a revolving door in a walker.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, well, I was sitting one afternoon at Pearl's Oyster Bar, having a cup of oyster soup. And it was about two in the afternoon. And at this time of the day the place has slowed down somewhat. The hustle and bustle is somewhat over, so to speak.

It was a rainy day, and typically the doors are wide open, swinging, but they were closed later in the afternoon. And as this woman was trying to get through the door, a black woman with a walker, clearly in need of help, assistance, I was sitting across the way- I couldn't get to her so quickly, but this white fellow with strawberry blonde hair was working close(ph) on and - Timberland boots and (unintelligible) young white fellow. He jumps up and runs to the door and helps her in, as though she's his grandmother or aging aunt. And he helps her through and very dutifully asks if she's okay. And she assures him she is, and then she ambles off.

And all of us, about seven people sitting around the dining area there, watched this out of the corner of our eyes, but not too intently, not -we didn't gawk. We just sort of noticed this.

But in fact, this young man was performing something that's quite normal in that space, this cross-racial interaction, where people see people as people. And I think that as we have all these tensions and the segregation on the outskirts of these places that sometimes dominates the conversation, in fact blacks and whites and other kinds of people get along more so than we would imagine, I think. And this points that out.

CONAN: Let's go next to Linda(ph) and Linda with us from Longmont in Colorado.

LINDA (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

LINDA: I just think it shouldn't be a matter of space. I think civil behavior should happen everywhere. And I speak to almost every stranger I see all day long, and 99.9 percent of the people are happy to reciprocate, you know, be it in downtown Denver, in the hood, or out on a path in the mountains.

You know, I just - I think if people everywhere just reached out and acted civilly to one another, every time I do it, it just feels good inside.

CONAN: It's interesting...

LINDA: And I don't think place has anything to do with it. I think we should all rise above that.

CONAN: Should and...

Prof. ANDERSON: I think we should.

CONAN: I think everybody agrees we should. But it's not easier - it's easier, I think what you're saying, Elijah Anderson, in some places than others.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, the canopy is a magical space. It's a virtual island of civility, a place of convergence located amidst segregated ethnic enclaves. And people from these environments may be at each other in these enclaves, but when they come to the canopy, it's time out. It's time out, and there's a chance then for them to see one another up close, to observe each other, to spy, to eavesdrop and to take back to their home community some of what they learn. I think the space is a humanizing space.

LINDA: Don't you think those spaces are everywhere, though?

Prof. ANDERSON: I think they - they're in many, many cities in this country, but some of these communities are rather particularistic and sometimes quite ethnocentric.

LINDA: Well, I have found that all you have to do is reach out and people reach back - anywhere, everywhere.

CONAN: Linda, thanks for that.

LINDA: I'm well-traveled, and I do it all over.

CONAN: Okay.

Prof. ANDERSON: Beautiful.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

LINDA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mary, and Mary's on the line with us from St. Cloud in Minnesota.

MARY (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. It's a beautiful day here, finally.

CONAN: Finally it's a nice day here in Washington, D.C. too. But go ahead.

MARY: Yes. I have found that a common community support like, say, the Goodwill here, the Goodwills here, have been remodeling. And, of course, anybody who's a bargain shopper shares the joy of finding a steal or a great deal or that really rare, unusual thing. And everybody is in the same frame of mind.

And it actually happened last week with my father, and on Tuesdays here, it's $1.49 for certain color tags. So everything in the store that has that tag on it is $1.49. Now, that's a great, great deal. And you can find a silk dress for $1.49.

And if you say something to the person next to you - my dad and I were there, and I said: Oh, I'm looking for a dancing dress. I'm taking tango lessons. And she goes: Oh, look at that cute thing over there. It's got a yellow tag on it. It's small. It would fit you. Sure enough, it was a beautiful dress.

And then when we got home, my dad's phone was ringing, and I said: Dad, your phone is ringing. And he couldn't find it. And he's 85 years old. We got him a special phone because he's visually impaired. And he said: Well, I don't know where the phone is.

Well, so I answered the phone, and here somebody had picked up the phone and called all the preset dials to see if he could find out who owned the phone. And I went back to the Goodwill and picked it up, and it was a gentleman who was very dark-skinned, who my father, having experienced - he was in World War II, had experienced some of the, you know, racial inequalities of the war, you know, would have felt uncomfortable with this individual.

And I tried to give the gentleman $20. He said: Oh, no, no, no. I just -I knew it was a special phone. I wanted to return it. And I can't tell you how wonderful both of us felt that he was reaching out. You know, in a store or something like that, sometimes you never know what kind of -what lowlife is there. But there wasn't lowlife.

Everybody was there for the same reason, which was to get a good deal, and the money for Goodwill goes to a good cause. And so there was this sense of community, you know, a wonderful milieu.

CONAN: Mary, thank you for that, that's an interesting story. There's an email we have, Eli Anderson, that I wanted to ask you about, and it's part relating to another story that's in your book. This is from Michael in Mishawaka, Indiana: My favorite space to have a conversation with strangers is a sports arena.

At a hockey game or a baseball game, you already know you have a shared kinship with the person next to you. If they're wearing your team's colors, all the better. Even a fan of an opposing team is a half-brother, so to speak, as you are both there trying to enjoy the same moment.

You describe a moment again, sitting at that counter, I think, at the Down Home Diner, where a young - a white man taps you on the shoulder and says: You know who won the game last night? And you tell him, I think the Sixers had won. And that, you know, in that in that place at that time, he felt, you know, brave enough, I guess, or had permission to tap you, a stranger, on the shoulder.

But I also wanted to ask you - and you must have experienced this the last couple of years in Philadelphia - when a city is in the middle of a pennant race, and everybody's radio is on somehow during the game, and the play-by-play wafts out of a taxicab window and out of a storefront, that's kind of a magical moment too.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. You can feel the real kinship with people who, you know, have that interest, of course. And I've had that feeling in the Terminal. I've had that feeling outside the Terminal. I've had that feeling at various spaces in Philadelphia, especially with the winning sports team we had, the baseball team a couple of years ago, 2008, the World Series, in fact. And a bunch of us wound up singing spontaneously...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ANDERSON: ...the Philadelphia Phillies theme song, and a Jewish fellow and an Italian fellow and myself, all together, spontaneously began to sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We'll not ask you to repeat that.

Prof. ANDERSON: (Unintelligible) kind of thing.

CONAN: I wanted to - you mentioned earlier there are - Philadelphia has, well, strong - obviously there are black neighborhoods, but there are Irish neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods and Italian neighborhoods as well. When you say people are sort of wary if a stranger walks into the neighborhood and make sure that they find out who he is - I wonder, though: Is there something unique to places that are the opposite of the canopy? And that would include places that would be very elite in their characteristics - at a country club, or for that matter, at Yale?

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes. Well, a workplace environment is interesting this way, can very interesting because of course - I mean, the public space, people can be open, people can be civil very easily. In the workplace itself there's more at stake and so people could be hired, fired, promoted, and the interaction is a bit more intense. There's more at stake. And it's more bounded, so to speak. This is what I found.

And I did go into the workplace and spent a lot of time and talked to a lot of people in the workplace in a major corporation in Philadelphia. And I met blacks and whites and Jews and Irish, and all kinds of people and of color, Asians and others and just got to know what it was like to be a part of that workforce. And I see in that part of the book - I write in that part of the book, the canopy or the workspace - the workplace as canopy, and I developed that thought.

Then I began to kind of move into the issue of race relations. And so what I've done in the book essentially is to present this or at least offer this reinterpretation of American racial dynamics and to point out the significance and the place of the color line right now today.

And, of course, back in the day, back in the '20s and '30s and '40s and '50s and all, we as Americans had a very clear notion of where the color line was, blacks and whites. This was written about by W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American scholar. It's written about, Cayton and Drake, in their work "Black Metropolis." The color line was. And the point is that people had a very clear conception back in the day.

Today, in the day of Obama, in the day of great a large black middle class, in the day of tremendous immigration from colored countries all over the world, there's all those(ph) white countries but we're mixed up today more so than ever than before. We have more different kinds of people in our cities than ever before.

And this has implications then for the color line itself and where it is. It's just not the way it was back then. We made great progress, of course. But the color line can be drawn at any minute, you see, and is oftentimes drawn by some of the most particularistic people, some of the most conscious, racially conscious individuals, people who are very much concerned with where they sit and who's like threatening them and that kind of thing in their own minds.

And so this drama can play itself out, not only in the canopies on outside, but also the canopies in the inside, so to speak, or in the workspace itself. And I investigate this and talk with people and interviewed people and observe people in these settings to get a better idea about it.

CONAN: The book is called " The Cosmopolitan Canopy," the author, Elijah Anderson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Lynn(ph), and Lynn with us from Grand Rapids.

LYNN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Lynn.

LYNN: How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

LYNN: Welcome back.

CONAN: Thank you.

LYNN: It's funny that this is - the topic this week, or for today, because I just sent in an email last hour about why I hate to fly.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

LYNN: But if you want to know my dearest, darkest life story, sit next to me on an airplane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And you will spill.

LYNN: You know, it's a very it's a safe environment. I'm never going to see you again. And, you know, you just start a casual conversation and who knows where it's going.

Prof. ANDERSON: That's right. That's right. That's right. Well, there's something about the canopy that's like that, you know? I mean, the canopy is a metaphor and the canopy is a concept. It's an ethnographic concept. And there are places all about - all over the country, I think, like this. There are - especially the marketplaces in various cities, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Philadelphia to New York, the various places that...

CONAN: You talked to...

Prof. ANDERSON: ...some of the people gather together, you see, and they carry on spontaneous conversations very easily, you see. And I think the airplane or the airport is another such place.

CONAN: Lynn, thanks very much for the email and for the call.

LYNN: This book sounds great. It sounds very interesting. I'm going to try and pick it up.

Prof. ANDERSON: Thank you.

LYNN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. We'll go to Julia, Julia with us from St. Paul.

JULIA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

Prof. ANDERSON: Hello.

JULIA: I was calling in because I was reminded by your book about a time when I was on the Amtrak, and I was coming from Chicago to St. Paul. And I was sitting in the snack bar, working on something for law school. I was a law student. And this fellow came by - he was a young African-American gentleman - and he said, I bet we would make beautiful babies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JULIA: And normally in a club I would have just blown him off. But since we were there together on the train, I engaged him in conversation and I said, I bet you're used to women just thinking that's a wonderful thing for you to say and swooning. And I said, why don't you sit down? Let's have a talk. And we ended up in this long conversation about how it's okay to just be friends with someone. And it turned out he was - he had just gotten out of prison and he was coming from Chicago to St. Paul for a change of scenery, to live with one of his aunts. So it was a very interesting conversation.

CONAN: And did he tell you all kinds of stories about what his life had been like in prison?

JULIA: Yes. Actually, he did. And we ended up being in contact for quite some time.

CONAN: That's really interesting, Julia. Thanks very much for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JULIA: Sure.

Prof. ANDERSON: Well, the canopy itself is really a place of convergence. All different kinds of people do come to such a place. And it's amazing that a high number of biracial couples meet under the canopy.

CONAN: I wanted to end with this email that we have from Sarah in Utah: My place is Yellowstone National Park. Total strangers will rush up to tell someone else about a bison, an eagle or a flower. Priceless.

And I guess that's a canopy of a considerable size.

Prof. ANDERSON: Yes, yes, of a different sort. I think the canopy idea itself is pregnant, but it is a concept. We have to keep that in mind. It is a concept that was inspired through my field work in Philadelphia in these very spaces. But the big point is that white people, black people, different kinds of people have much more in common than they realize, and oftentimes this is manifested in the way they relate to one another in these places. There's much more of that going on than we think sometimes.

CONAN: Eli Anderson, thank you so much for your time.

Prof. ANDERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Elijah Anderson's book is "The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life." He joined us from Yale, where he's a professor of sociology.

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