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By Philippe Bourgois, Jeff Schonberg
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
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If you notice, it's real racial. Whites in one camp, blacks in another camp. And I live right in the middle, by myself. They're all a bunch of racist motherfuckers—both the niggers and the whites. The whites ain't no better than the blacks. They will rip you off too. I don't trust either group. So I'm alone. The only Latino ... I don't have nothin' here.—Felix
Toward the middle of the first year of our fieldwork, a lull in law enforcement allowed a central camp to emerge that was larger and somewhat drier than the other, more precarious encampments we had been visiting in the alleys behind Edgewater Boulevard. This new camp was protected from the rain by a supersize I-beam retrofitted in the decade following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to support a double-decker, eight-lane freeway. The site was also camouflaged by garbage and a canopy of scrub oaks and eucalyptus branches. A tangle of access and exit ramps further isolated the spot, which became its own miniuniverse, despite the thousands of commuters speeding by on the freeway above and the steady flow of pedestrians on the boulevard a half dozen yards away. At rush hour, the dull white noise of traffic made the camp feel almost safe, although it reeked of urine and rotting detritus and was wet and cold. One of the freeway's cement panels also thumped unnervingly when SUVs or trucks passed overhead.
Max was the first to settle the spot, followed by running partners Felix and Frank, who moved there after they were evicted from a more exposed site at the foot of the freeway embankment. Petey and Scotty, two inseparable running partners newly arrived from Southern California, were the next to move in. They slept together on a twin-size mattress laid out on the bare ground. At night they spooned for warmth under a thin blanket given to them by a church soup kitchen in the residential neighborhood up the hill from the boulevard. Felix nicknamed Scotty and Petey "the Island Boys" because they spent most of their daylight hours panhandling and selling heroin on the surrounding traffic islands. Felix maintained the more profitable and safer sales spot in front of the A&C corner store. The heavy flow of anonymous pedestrian traffic heading to the three catty-corner bus stops surrounding the corner store allowed Felix to camouflage his dealing as panhandling.
Al, a toothless, forty-year-old man, moved into the encampment soon after the Island Boys. He built a shack out of loading pallets that was just wide enough to fit a full-size double bed, which he shared with his "girlfriend," Rosie. She visited once a month, on the day he received his Social Security Insurance (SSI) disability payments for alcoholism, and stayed only long enough to help him spend his entire check on crack, leaving him, dopesick, within forty-eight hours. Felix and Frank resented Rosie's exclusive access to Al's crack and eventually persuaded him to kick her out. Al's only comment was, "She never even let me fuck her! She's got something against sex. Seems like her stepfather raped her when she was a kid." Al was exceptionally easy-going, and after Rosie left, he allowed "no-hustle" Hogan to sleep at the entrance to his shack under a makeshift tarp.
Hank, an old-timer in his mid-fifties, was the last to establish himself as a regular inhabitant of the camp. He slept in a bright red pup tent, having just been thrown out of a housing project apartment in the residential neighborhood up the hill, where he had been living for the past year. According to Felix, the apartment belonged to "an old dopefiend lesbian bitch" whom they had all known since adolescence. The night he first arrived, Hank had a fresh "stab wound" under his right armpit, but Felix dismissed it: "Probably just an abscess they cut out of him at the county hospital. Don't ever believe a word Hank says." Nevertheless, Felix and everyone else treated Hank well because he was exceptionally generous, sharing heroin and fortified wine. Like Al, Hank was also energetic, constantly building and cleaning when high. On weekends, he would scavenge overripe vegetables from the dumpsters at the farmers market half a mile down the boulevard and cook stew for everyone in the camp.
Hank was the first person we actually saw "become homeless." Transitions to homelessness are often ambiguous, as individuals bounce in and out of single -room occupancy (S RO) hotels and the homes of ever-dwindling networks of family, friends, and acquaintances (Hopper 2003:77-85). Hank, for example, cycled through precarious housing arrangements for twenty-five years before he became homeless full time. Initially, he thought of it as "a temporary arrangement" on his way to "something better." When we asked Hank why he did not go to a public shelter instead of sleeping under the freeway in the cold, he replied without hesitating: "Shelters aren't safe. They got like gangs, like cliques, you know, running the show, and the staff doesn't know what's going on. Would you go to a shelter?" All of the Edgewater homeless referred to shelters with a similar disdain, if not with fear (see Marcus 2005:68-77 for a critique of a New York City shelter).
Besides Al's crack-smoking ex-girlfriend, Rosie, only two other women occasionally stayed overnight in the camp during our first year on Edgewater Boulevard. One, an acquaintance of Felix, worked at San Francisco's lowest-budget, sex-for-crack prostitute stroll on Capp Street, some twenty blocks away. The other woman was Nickie, who lived with her eight-year-old son in a project apartment a half mile down the boulevard, near the farmers market. Welfare paid her rent directly to the Housing Authority through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Nickie supported her heroin habit by combining odd jobs cleaning houses with panhandling and shoplifting from liquor stores. She also let some of the Edgewater homeless use her apartment to shower, wash their laundry, and inject in return for shares of their heroin and alcohol. Life on the street was more dangerous for women than for men (Bourgois, Prince, and Moss 2004). Our fieldwork notes, for example, contain several references to the rape and murder of two women on the periphery of our social network as well as to a serial killer's rampage against Capp Street sex workers (San Francisco Chronicle 2004, March 21).
Ethnic Hierarchies on the Street
During our first year, all the homeless in the central encampment were white, except Felix, whose parents were from Central America. We rarely saw African-Americans, Asians, or Latinos visit the encampments. In the immediate neighborhood, however, the daytime and early evening population was a kaleidoscope of San Francisco's ethnic diversity. The bus stops abutting the A&C corner store served five major bus lines linking three adjoining neighborhoods with distinct ethnic compositions. One route led to unlicensed garment and light manufacturing sweatshops in the warehouse district, where the labor force consisted primarily of Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, Chinese, Latinos, and a dwindling number of African-Americans. This same bus line continued on to Third Street, through Hunters Point-Bayview, the city's poorest African-American neighborhood. This area, surrounding defunct navy shipyards, had San Francisco's highest gang murder rates throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s (San Francisco Chronicle 2008, January 15; see also Kevin Epps's 2003 documentary Straight Outta Hunters Point).
During World War II, an unprecedented employment boom in the San Francisco shipyards spawned the large-scale migration of rural African-Americans from Louisiana and East Texas. The majority of these immigrants settled in the swampy flatland immediately surrounding their workplaces, and Hunters Point became San Francisco's largest segregated black community. Some of the newcomers managed to buy single-family homes on the steep hill overlooking Edgewater Boulevard, and that neighborhood became the city's most ethnically diverse census tract (Latino, white, African-American, Filipino, and Pacific Islander). This was the residential neighborhood where most of the Edgewater homeless had grown up, and it was where Philippe lived (a few blocks up from the A&C corner store). Like most of San Francisco, the neighborhood gentrified rapidly during our fieldwork years and began losing many of its working-class Latino and African-American residents (Thorne-Lyman and Treuhaft 2003). According to census data, between 1990 and 2000, the city of San Francisco as a whole lost almost a quarter (23.4 percent) of its African-American population (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991, 2002).
A second bus line headed north to the county hospital and continued through the heart of the poorer, but also gentrifying, predominantly Latino neighborhood known as the Mission District. A third bus line led to an underfunded local high school, home to several competing Latino gangs. Finally, three additional bus lines served San Francisco's southern suburbs, which were whiter and wealthier but retained scattered dwindling pockets of working-class communities.
On a typical warm summer evening, the main corner where the homeless spent a great deal of their time, in front of the A&C convenience store, attracted a half dozen very distinct groups of people. Most visible were the middle-aged African-American men who, on their way home from work, congregated and drank beer by a barbecue at the entrance to the alley behind the store. By nightfall, younger African-American crack dealers arrived. They camouflaged their sales by mingling with the barbecue crowd and by circulating among the Latino and Asian commuters around the corner who were waiting at the bus stops. Cars pulled up to the sidewalk, pausing just long enough for a subtle exchange of dollar bills through the passenger-side window. In the doorway of the A&C, two or three Yemeni men chatted in Arabic with the cashiers. Sometimes they chewed qat, a psychoactive stimulant imported from Eritrea. On rare occasions, the wife of the store's owner, fully veiled in a black chador that revealed only her eyes, walked out from the back of the premises carrying a shopping bag and a baby. Young, new-immigrant Latino men crisscrossed the sidewalk running late errands for the primarily white- and Arab-owned construction-related businesses along the boulevard.
In this mix, two or three of the white homeless leaned against a wall at the edge of the African-American barbecue scene or inside one of the bus shelters nodding in deep heroin sedation. Latino and Filipino youths, mostly high school age, in the latest hip-hop outfits, passed by to ask the Edgewater homeless to buy beer, cigarettes, and cigars for them. They would hollow out the cigars to prepare "blunts" of marijuana, but they rarely stopped to smoke on the corner.
The homeless, middle-aged, white heroin injectors we befriended were at the bottom of the corner's social hierarchy and often displayed their low status by begging in tattered clothing. An early set of fieldnotes reveals how rapidly we had to learn the meaning of our skin color in this scene. Even though we looked healthy and dressed in clean clothes, we were lumped by default with the low-status "stanky white dopefiends."
While accompanying Al and Hogan back to the main encampment, I slow down as we pass the barbecue scene in the alley, hoping to initiate a passing conversation with one of the younger African-American crack dealers. My attempt at friendly eye contact is dismissed with a wave of the arm and a gruff "Keep moving, keep moving." When I smile and nod hello, the young main shouts, "I said keep moving!" I overhear him telling his partner in a lower voice, "Damn! Do those motherfuckers smell bad!" Embarrassed, I hurry to catch up with Al and Hogan, noticing that Hogan has brown stains in the rear of his pants, presumably from having lost control of his bowels this morning as a result of dopesickness.
The ethnic hierarchies of street culture in San Francisco are not exclusive to drug culture and homelessness. The hegemony of African-American style extends throughout the United States and through much of global popular culture. It is historically inscribed in slang (from jive to hip-hop), in music (from blues and jazz to rap), in clothing (from zoot suits to sagging jeans), and in body posture (from handshakes to gait and facial expressions).
But the "coolness" of African-American street culture does not translate into economic and political power in the United States. On the contrary, blackness and expressions of hip-hop or working-class street culture exclude individuals from access to upward mobility in the corporate economy. Despite their clear subordination within the local street-hustler hierarchy and their exclusion from mainstream white society, the durability of racism in the United States allowed the homeless whites on Edgewater Boulevard to hold on to an ideology of white supremacy. Among themselves, for example, they used the word nigger routinely. When African-Americans were in earshot, however, they practiced deference, fearing violence or humiliation. At first, it did not occur to the whites that we might not share their racism. They treated racialized distinctions as self-evident common sense and often used the clichés of middle-class society when we asked them about race relations.
Philippe: Why is this scene so white?
Hank: I've never really thought about it. We keep amongst ourselves. The black with the black and the white with the white. That's about it, you know. Basically, blacks stay to themselves.
Philippe: But where are the black dopefiends? I never see any here.
Hank: Well, they're around, but they don't hang out. Everybody buys from everybody, but for actually sitting there and actually using together? They don't do that. I've got a lot of black connections, but if I was to sit there and use with them.... I won't use with them.
Matter of fact, you'll see very few black people homeless ... because they're knocking out kids on welfare.
Philippe: [surprised] 'Cause what?
Hank: You know, having kids. Every one of those black guys over there [pointing toward the barbecue grill in the alley] has three or four kids, and an old lady at home. They're all collecting welfare.
Have you ever seen a black guy really walk?
Philippe: [confused] Really what?
Hank: Walk. Just about every black guy I know owns a car, either a Cadillac or something new.
Yeah, they pretty much stay to themselves. I've never really got in to find out where they go or what they do, you know. Hell, they don't bother me, I don't bother them, you know. Keep the peace that way.
But when you start mixing the races, especially the blacks down there [pointing to the alley and rolling his eyes], everybody's kind of semi-prejudiced. So we don't really exchange information. We say hello—just general things.
Felix: [interrupting] Blacks are into crack ... scandalous crack monsters. You can't trust niggers.
Felix: They'll rob you. They'll steal from their own mother. None of the blacks want to work. All they want to do is smoke crack all night.
Hank: Can't trust niggers.
Felix: I hate selling to them. They'll come back and mug you.
The irony of the assertion by the whites that they were the victims of black violence and theft emerged years later when we coded our fieldnotes and transcripts. We discovered that during our first year none of the whites in our Edgewater homeless scene had been robbed by an African-American. In fact, their most generous patron was an elderly African-American man who was an evangelical Christian. When it rained heavily, he allowed several of them to sleep under an old camper shell in a storage lot he owned on the boulevard. Furthermore, the only case of black-on-white violence we recorded that first year occurred when one of the whites peripheral to our social network stole thirty dollars' worth of crack from an African-American dealer for whom he was supposed to be selling on consignment. He was beaten "as a warning" for "smoking up the product," and when he "came up short" again the next week, he fled from the boulevard and never returned.
Irrespective of ethnicity, the United States has consistently had the highest levels of interpersonal violence of all industrialized nations, and that violence is disproportionately concentrated in poor urban communities. Handguns were cheap and easily available on Edgewater Boulevard. No one who spends long hours on streets where drug sellers congregate can escape the background threat of violence. Early in our fieldwork, one of the young crack sellers in the alley was stabbed in the neck while Jeff was photographing a couple of yards away. On one of Jeff 's first visits to the corner, a crack seller, seeing Jeff with his camera for the first time, threatened him in a low voice, "You are not getting out of here alive." Overhearing the interaction, Hank confirmed, "He isn't joking. We have to go," and they hurried away. That particular crack seller, who flew into unpredictable rages when he drank too much, never came to like us, but on one occasion he shared a bologna sandwich, prepared by his wife, with a member of the ethnographic team.
Excerpted from Righteous Dopefiend by Philippe Bourgois, Jeff Schonberg. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: A Theory of Lumpen Abuse
1. Intimate Apartheid
2. Falling in Love
3. A Community of Addicted Bodies
5. Making Money
7. Male Love
8. Everyday Addicts
Conclusion: Critically Applied Public Anthropology
Notes on the Photographs
What People are Saying About This
"A deeply nuanced picture of a population that cannot escape social reprobation, but deserves social inclusion. . . . The collage of case studies, field notes, personal narratives and photography is nothing short of enthralling." - Starred ReviewPublishers Weekly
"Get this book and read it. . . . A hell of a story. . . . These people walk by you every day and should not remain invisible."San Francisco Bay Guardian
"Leaders and readers alike should pay attention to - and heed its warnings and advice. . . . Unflinching and objective. . . . Must be read - and seen."San Francisco Chronicle
"The authors dare you to ignore the subculture in their field notes and arresting black-and-white images, urging that our failed social systems need repairing and we cannot continue to let these outliers remain invisible."Utne
"One of the most original and important works of its kind. . . . A pathbreaking photo-ethnography, powerful in presentation, content and scope. . . . A must-read, [it] will rock the world of the sheltered middle class and shed new light on the pervasive structural inequalities plaguing contemporary society."Philadelphia