Taking It to the StreetPrint
What it’s like to be down and out in America
By Jill Leovy
February 29, 2016
Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea by Mitchell Duneier; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $28
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond; Crown, 432 pp., $28
Directly observed, narrative studies of social phenomena tend to be more enlightening than those that rely strictly on quantitative or theoretical approaches. Narratives get closer to the heart of the matter, confronting head-on the complexity of their subjects—and when it comes to social science (or anything to do with human relations), complexity is the only game in town.
Just as tiny navigational corrections early in a journey ensure that a ship will not have strayed miles off course by the end, the social scientists who study the lives of their subjects firsthand end up continents apart from colleagues who don’t. Witness an anecdote in a postscript to Matthew Desmond’s powerful, monstrously effective Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. After spending months following the day-to-day lives of his subjects, he went looking for studies to help him understand what he had seen. He wondered, for example, how often people are thrown out of rental homes in the nation’s vast private housing market and what happens to them afterward. “Surely someone had looked into it,” he thought.
Someone hadn’t, so Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and a 2015 MacArthur “genius,” gathered the data himself, adding to the already crushing workload of his project, which documents with impressive steadiness of purpose and command of detail the lives of impoverished renters at the bottom of Milwaukee’s housing market. Storytelling—a serious discipline in its own right—doesn’t just yield new perspectives. It generates new questions, raises entirely new subjects. Done well, as it is here, research based on field observation and interviews flows naturally into quantitative and theoretical areas. None of this should come as a surprise: individual stories make up the collective experience, something that quantitative data can only roughly approximate.
But there is another reason narratives are so revealing: they aren’t merely a byproduct of social realities; they are reality. Stories make the world, the very shape and substance of it. Mitchell Duneier hints at this notion in Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. His book is an expanded meditation on a fraught word and a useful and thoughtful exploration of how scholars conceptualized the singular entrapment of American blacks in urban wastelands, perpetrated by real estate discrimination in the latter half of the 20th century. Duneier, a professor of sociology at Princeton, focuses on how our collective understanding of ghettos evolved over time and how this has informed policy efforts to address racial inequity.
But whereas Duneier offers a summary and analysis of narratives told by others, Desmond dives deeper, providing a wholly original take on the structural causes of urban poverty. He shows that the stories we tell about individual experience—about, say, the nature of human industry or the arc of misfortune—translate not just into policy but into hard, material reality. They help determine what our ghettos will look like, who is exploited, who suffers most, and why. This is important because, as Desmond makes clear, the structure of poverty is like a photographic negative of economic exploitation. “There was a business model at the bottom of every market,” he writes.
If a society accepts a story about deserving elderly and undeserving addicts, drug addiction will afflict many of its poor, and its horizon will be dotted by senior housing projects. If the story suggests that good governance means combating blight, nuisance abatement will become ascendant, and battered women will be more silent about abuse lest a 911 call prompt a nuisance citation against their landlord. Both examples are Desmond’s, and it’s hard to imagine them explained any better than he does.
In Evicted, Desmond follows the lives of eight families, some white, some black, living in slum housing and trailer parks in the Milwaukee area, where wind chills can hit 40 below. There’s Sherrena (the names are pseudonyms), an enterprising black slumlord whose tastes run to sweatsuits as evening wear. There’s also Crystal, a black former foster child, who speaks in tongues and sleeps in the Amtrak station; Scott, a white former nurse, whose frankness about addiction doesn’t make his own any easier to lick; and Larraine, a hapless white trailer park resident, who wastes her money on lobster and perfume. The story of Arleen, a depressed black mother with two children to care for, is almost too harrowing to read. Landlords reject her rental applications 90 times in a row before she finally finds housing. Even then, she’s threatened with eviction after paramedics respond to her son’s asthma attack.
In describing the plight of these people, Desmond reveals the confluence of seemingly unrelated forces that have conspired to create a thoroughly humiliated class of the almost or soon-to-be homeless. Implicated are not just housing scarcity and rising rents but also the professionalization of real-estate management and the ubiquity of credit-screening practices—“thousands of yes/no decisions” that produce a “geography of advantage and disadvantage,” Desmond says. Other factors include high-interest monetary judgments against tenants, the advent of aggressive national collection agencies, the outsourcing of policing to landlords and business owners, usurious storage-facility practices, and the unchecked tendency of landlords to bar children from their units. Among the justifications for the last, Desmond reports, are that children “could test positive for lead poisoning, which could bring a pricey abatement order.”
Desmond takes care with nuance. His tenants are by no means always sympathetic, and his portrayal of the self-justifying go-getter Sherrena—the landlord who is by turns infuriating and likable—is particularly memorable. He eschews moralizing. “If given the same opportunity, would any of us price an apartment at half of what it could fetch?” he asks.
He also convincingly sketches the important differences between black poverty and white poverty in Milwaukee. Both are macabre, but black poverty is, by every measure, worse. For anyone who has seen it up close—the multigenerational segregation, crowding, and isolation so unique to urban African Americans—it constitutes a different world. Many scholars have elucidated the complex reasons for this, but Desmond does a service by taking us inside. The white people in his narrative, desperate as they are, enjoy a comparatively larger margin of security than blacks, and they have better options—for example, greater access to housing in slightly better neighborhoods. For those living on a razor’s edge, a little margin means a lot.
Desmond’s emphasis on the utility of segregation as a business model is also instructive. “The ghetto [has] always been … a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation,” he writes. Extractive markets need to be taken into account when constructing remedies, he argues. The way the federal Section 8 program reliably transfers public funds to slumlords is a case in point. By the time Desmond proposes his solution—universal housing vouchers for the poor—his reader is ready to hear it.
But the power of this book abides in the indelible impression left by its stories. Following eviction and a prolonged, desperate search, Arleen lands a carpeted apartment in which every kitchen cupboard has a handle. “Once all the trash bags of clothes and boxes of canned food were moved in, Arleen sat on the floor. She found a soft bag and leaned back on it,” Desmond writes. Arleen’s young son lay across her legs, and “they stayed like that for a long time.”
It doesn’t last; they are soon thrown out, again.
Jill Leovy is the author of Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.