King Kong on 4th Street: Families and the Violence of Poverty on the Lower East Side

King Kong on 4th Street: Families and the Violence of Poverty on the Lower East Side

King Kong on 4th Street: Families and the Violence of Poverty on the Lower East Side

King Kong on 4th Street: Families and the Violence of Poverty on the Lower East Side

Synopsis

In King Kong on 4th Street, Jagna Sharff chronicles an ethnographic team's involvement over a span of fifteen years with the people of a poor, largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York City. Anchoring her observations in field notes, she recounts the joys, fears, and disappointments of daily life as well as the drama of large events. Arson, the murder of a popular local teenager, the mobbing of a grocery store as an act of retribution for his death- all are projected onto a canvas of shifting local and national policies toward poor people and neighborhoods. Sharff provides new insights into gender and family roles, how adaptations to available resources from the welfare state may shape the membership of households, and how children may be trained for specific adult roles that will advance the family's well-being. She also reveals how the underground economy, particularly the commerce in drugs whose profits are realized outside of the neighborhood, undermines neighborhood-wide solidarity and sends people scrambling against one another for jobs in the quasi-licit and illicit sector. Following the lives of a number of families into the next generation, Sharff's ethnographic team documents how external political decisions that change the war on poverty into a war on the poor affected them. Paramilitary sweeps of the neighborhood, in tandem with gentrification and declining social services, produce severe dislocations and relocation to homeless shelters, welfare hotels, and prisons. But the reality described is not all grim. The book's vivid style shows that life is more than grim reality. People get real pleasure from raising children and taking part in the human drama around them. Kinfolk, real and fictive, keep each other afloat and reconnected to new neighborhoods and opportunities, including that of upward mobility through religious conversion. Adults and children achieve satisfaction and a measure of security through grit, wit, and acts of heroism and solidarity.

Excerpt

This book documents the societal violence against poor people, especially children, living in one community in the United States during a particularly critical juncture in time: the mid-1970s. the last major phase of deindustrialization was occurring in New York City, and the modest economic prospects of the working poor were deteriorating as a result of the loss of the manufacturing jobs on which their income depended (Gordon 1996). My focus on the lives of residents in a predominantly Latino neighborhood of the Lower East Side of Manhattan parallels stories from other urban areas in the United States where changes in corporate investment policy and priorities produced massive economic and social misery among Black, white, and Latino working people. By contextualizing certain behaviors of the poor that have been labeled as "deviant," my aim is to reveal them as survival strategies in a situation of great economic distress.

The theoretical framework and empirical data of my research are enfolded in the closely interconnected stories that move chronologically through time, given life by the people who lived them. I chose to carry the argument through a narrative flow to make it accessible to a wide range of readers, because it is more affecting and powerful than data that is presented either as faceless statistics or technical jargon. Arguments that advance economic equity using complicated or obtuse language are often rejected in favor of simpler and more convenient views that portray poor people as responsible for their own poverty. This book aims to add a perspective that lays the blame for poverty where it belongs: on the structural changes in the economy and their social consequences.

In spite of a flood of theoretical works challenging the labeling, poor people continue to be demonized by politicians as "the underclass." This divisive practice conceptually and in practice removes them from our shared social system, consigning them instead to the category of an "intractable" urban social problem (see also Gans 1995). It conjures up a gray, faceless mass, obscuring the variations among people classified as poor. Another aim of this book, then, is to bring individual women, men, and children into view to show through stories that span a time from three to fifteen years that poor people's lives contain myriad sets of goals, paths, and outcomes, even within the dreary constraints of material poverty. in the stories of the families we will also see some of the things and events that poor people find good, beautiful, admirable, and fun. the neighbor-

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