Voices from the sidewalk: Ethnography and writing race

  • Duneier M
  • Back L
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Flight BA 175 from London Heathrow to New York touched down on time. The transatlantic passengers snake through the immigration hall guided by the lines marked out on the floor. We come to a halt and wait to have our visas checked. I fill the waiting time by reading Mitchell Duneier's extraordinary ethnography Sidewalk (Duneier 1999). It is the story of the homeless book vendors who improvise a living from selling second-hand books on makeshift tables that line Sixth Avenue. Famously known as the 'Avenue of the Americas' it runs through the artistic enclave of Greenwich Village, home to writers and artists from Jane Jacobs to Bob Dylan. The booksellers are expert collectors, 'hunting' the trashcans and rescuing discarded fashion magazines and treatises in cultural theory and selling back to the affluent literary locals. Their right to trade in printed material is enshrined in the law, yet the barred city spaces of Manhattan make it almost impossible to find a place for them to find shelter or even to go to the bathroom. This is the paradox of uneven citizenship in America. In the richest nation on earth the most fundamental and basic human needs are denied to some.

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  • Mitchell Duneier

  • Les Back

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