Election Section

Street Corner Society By TED VINCENT

Tuesday December 27, 2005

Drunks and drug addicts are as much a part of city life as are the earnest citizens who seek to clear their neighborhood of undesirables. Recently, discussion in the Daily Planet of these issues has confused serious problems with discarded beer cans and used condoms. Some writers seem to think anyone walking past their residence is up to no good. If I lived on these writers’ blocks and I didn’t have a car I would sure feel tense passing their houses on my way to the bus stop. 

Back in the days of the “war on poverty” and earlier in the New Deal, there was much sympathy for those who had to walk and take the bus, sympathy for what anthropologist William Foote Whyte labeled “Street Corner Society.” He and other anthropologists who hung out on the corner reported the main activities were greeting friends and philosophizing about baseball, football, horse races and who was the prettiest female. From the 1940s to the 1960s the loving stories by Langston Hughes of his Harlem street corner character, Jesse B. Simple gave pleasure to perhaps millions. The romance of socializing on the street was captured in many a song from more humanistic times. There is, for instance, the “hippy” group, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner,” which goes, in part: 


Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up 

Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp. 


Down on the corner, out in the street, 

Willy and the Poorboys are playin' 

Bring a nickel, tap your feet. 


Rooster hits the washboard and people just got to smile 

Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while. 

Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his Kalamazoo. 

Willy goes into a dance and doubles on kazoo. 


Many a Berkeleyan from one of our old Eastern industrial cities might remember the pop song 


Standing on a corner watching all the girls go by 

Standing on a corner watching all the girls go by 

Brother you don't know a nicer occupa tion 

Matter of fact, neither do I 


The singer of this hit record was pop star Dean Martin. I heard it when in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a rather notoriously tough neighborhood then and now. My fellow pre-teens and I stayed out of trouble, not by hiding at home getting fat, but by going out and banding together for safety and for informative socializing, which in that environment included the Sunday morning strolls to scan the alleys to see how many condoms from Saturday night we could find. 

Another street corner song from that era includes the verse,  


There’s a pawnshop on the corner in Pitts burgh Pennsylvania 

And I walk upon and down neath the clock.  


“Who is this bum?” certain Berkeley grouches might ask. The sourpusses ought to let their hearts soften. They might try remembering when they were young, more social and adventurous—before they became home owners. We all get old. As the ballad says, 


Not a soul down on the corner, 

That's a pretty certain sign,  

That wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.  


Granted city life can be traumatic. It drives some to pack up and leave. Historian Lewis Mumford has written that from Babylon to the present, cities have needed newcomers in order to survive, because of a combination of those who can’t handle the intensity, and a low birth rate. In this regard, a study of the Boston census lists in 1880 and 1890 found, that in that supposedly stable town, four of every five names in 1880 were not there a decade later. Cities collect the very best and the very worst, they provide both the exhilaration of the protest march, and the horror of the drive by. Blues man W. C. Handy summed up his acceptance of these two sides in his tribute to that hang out for street musicians, Beale street in Memphis.  


I’ve seen the lights of gay Broadway,  

Old Market Street down by the Frisco Bay,  

I've strolled the Prado, I’ve gambled on the Bourse;  

The seven wonders of the world I’ve seen,  

And many are the places I have been,  

Take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first!  


You’ll see pretty browns in beautiful gowns,  

You’ll see tailor-mades and hand-me- downs,  

You’ll meet honest men, and pick-pock ets skilled,  

You’ll find that business never ceases ‘til somebody gets killed!