Literature Comparison: Poor Urban Communities in “The Broken Fountain” by Thomas Belmonte and “”Code of the Streets” by Elijah Anderson Essay
Literature Comparison: Poor Rural Communities in “The Broken Fountain” by
Thomas Belmonte and “”Code of the Streets” by Elijah Anderson
The underlying assumptions of urban life can be summed up as follows: development is only possible if people work hard. This assumption though is just an ideal: an ideal that cannot be approximated by reality. Reality tells the audience that life is not a simple arithmetic progression of wealth and development. Life itself is located in an arena of social injustice, poverty, crime, and prejudice. Thus, the theme of human existence cannot be wholly philosophical in nature; rather reality bestows to philosophical assumptions empirical foundations. What is thought of by the mind, undeterred by empiricism or mere observation, cannot hold true. Reality through experience is the only possible way of analyzing the evils of both rural and urban living.
Thomas Belmonte wrote “The Broken Mountain” (a classic of urban anthropology) to show the world the exigencies and difficulties of urban life. Specifically, the author focused on the life of the Neapolitan neighborhood, primarily composed of people belonging to the poor class. In the introduction of the book, the author wrote, “In Naples, in 1984, it was not uncommon for me to encounter garbage men and parking lot attendants who were experimenting sequentially and sometimes simultaneously with variants of folk religion, Catholicism … these people were, in effect, defenseless” (Belmonte, 1989). In a Neapolitan neighborhood, the individual is not only forced to experience hunger, poverty, and crime, he/she becomes incorporated to the situation itself. Instead of leaving the neighborhood, he/she is pulled inwards, unable to escape from the grip of the neighborhood.
In this book, Belmonte portrayed the urban poor class as the victim of social injustice and prejudice. The gritty streets and the wrecked buildings where most of the urban poor were located is an irony to urban life. Urban life, as many writers noted, ought to be individual-centered: individual development as the focus. Here though, the evils of urban life served as the mechanism to highlight the beauty of luxury buildings and lavishness of the rich. The poor urban people envied people who dwell in luxury buildings, forcing them to commit crimes to achieve the so-called urban ideal. The lavishness of the rich provoked hardened sentiments of guilt and defeat to the urban poor, preventing them to take effective action to upgrade their economic and social status. Thus, the emotions of the urban poor were filled with envy and guilt, giving the rich opportunity to further exploit the Neapolitan neighborhood. This mixed feeling of envy and guilt forced them to isolate themselves to other social actors of urban life. Thus, those at the top of the social ladder viewed them as gritty and illogical of urban life. Prejudice then was the offspring of social isolation. This can be exhibited in the language used by the urban poor. The author vividly described this condition, “the language of the poor was expressed in shout and song … seemed different from the conversational flow. In effect, there are two languages in Naples; and Italian , for the lower classes” (Belmonte, 1989:5). The urban poor, or the Neapolitan neighborhood, as what Belmonte called became an isolated community by itself, reaping the evils of urban life: crime, unemployment, poverty, and hunger. It was not the poor who created their condition, but rather the exigencies and lavishness of some sectors of the society. They bore the opportunity costs of urban prosperity.
When Belmonte came to Naples, he saw dark alleys and small apartments stained with paint and dirt. The streets of downtown Naples and the small food stalls owned by poor people highlighted the extent of poverty in the island. The broken doors, furniture, rooms, and windows of many humble homes in the Neapolitan neighborhood were significant “trademarks” of poverty. “Trademark” here was used to highlight the opportunity costs accrued to the urban poor while living in the city.
The “Code of the Streets” by Elijah Anderson highlighted the rules governing an isolated black community. Isolated here does not mean total economic isolation, rather the “isolated”, poor black communities were able to develop their own distinct cultures. In the paper, Anderson enumerated the actual causes of this isolation. Among of which are as follows: lack of opportunities, stigma of race, and economic fallout (they were the ones who bore the problems of city life, or in short, a significant portion of those problems were directed to them). These problems forced black communities to realign their values and social orientations. These values and social orientations though were negatively sanctioned by the larger, dominant society.
Thus, unlike Belmonte, Anderson identified the so-called “middle-class values” as the stimulating factor of this isolation. According to him, “Although there are often forces in the community which can counteract the negative influences, by far the most powerful being a strong, loving, “decent” (as inner-city residents put it) family committed to middle-class values, the despair is pervasive enough to have spawned an oppositional culture, that of “the streets,” whose norms are often consciously opposed to those of mainstream society” (Anderson, 1994: 80). Middle class values were highly desirable to the urban poor. They strived very hard to earn respect and dignity, which are the main qualities of being a “middle-class.” However, the forces of poverty, hunger, and social exclusion prevented them from attaining this ideal.
Thus, instead of incorporating their “being” to the mainstream society, they developed their own culture. This culture can be characterized as follows: 1) impugnant to the dominant society, 2) values highly opposed to the goals of the members of the dominant society, and 3) values which sought exclusion. The consequence was, like Belmonte noted, poor black communities became more and more susceptible to the evils to which they were trying to escape; a sort of enslavement to a particular social condition.
Unlike Belmonte, Anderson wrote extensively of the rules governing these isolated black communities. Instead of focusing to the correlation aspect of social relationships, he focused on the influences that draw people to commit lofty crimes and forms of aggression. The author called it as “Code of the Streets.” Generally, this is a set of informal rules defining the relationship of one person to a specific group. In poor black communities, violence and aggression were the norms. Thus, those who had the capability of stretching ones’ arms to a hostile environment enabled them to control such environment. In this case, respect was earned (respect is hard to earn in this social situation).
Nonetheless, unlike Belmonte, Anderson identified the institutions of mainstream society which encouraged black communities to isolate themselves from the mainstream society. According to him, “This hard reality can be traced to the profound sense of alienation from mainstream society and its institutions felt by many poor inner-city black people, particularly the young. The code of the streets is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system. The police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to protect inner-city residents” (Anderson, 1994:81).
Thus, the code of the streets was not a new way of reinforcing the conditions of poor black communities. It was a new way of adapting to the conditions of misery and economic exploitation. Because they lacked the opportunity to become a part to the mainstream society (which rejects them), the only solution was to project their condition through violence and aggression. In a way, unlike Belmonte, Anderson considered this as a form of retrospect feedback to the values of the dominant society: the lack of opportunity to acquire those values.
Anderson, Elijah. (1994). The Code of the Streets. The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, 273.n5 (May 1994).
Belmonte, Thomas. (1989). The Broken Fountain. New York, Chicago: Columbia University Press.