David Simon, Edward Burns-The Corner A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood

Review :

'The Corner' reminded me a lot of the Elliot Liebow book, Tally's Corner, which was a sociological study of black men that hung out on the street corners of Washington, DC in the early 1960's. 'Tally's corner was a type of immersive observer sociological study that produced a classic work. I was not surprised to learn at the end of the book that Simon and Burns, the authors, had used a style similar to what Elliot Liebow used--of embedding themselves into this neighborhood, one of over a hundred "drug corners" in Baltimore, and watching the goings-on, the tragedies, triumphs, hope mingled with sadness and all of the daily workings of a group of people they came to know.

The main focus of the group was on one family and their sometimes close, sometimes slight connections with various denizens of the neighborhood. The family included Fran Boyd, a heroin addict living in a shooting gallery when we first meet her. There is her ex, Gary McCullough, whose family figures largely in the book. It was McCullough's father who first arrived in Baltimore as a youth from Salisbury, North Carolina, after enduring one too many beatings from his father. Fran and Gary's son, DeAndre McCullough, also has a lead role in the book. DeAndre is 15 when we meet him, "slinging" drugs with a crew of semi-loyal friends and a cousin. Gary McCullough is now a dope fiend (the jargon used in the book) and needs to get his daily fix to put things right with the world. To get the fix, Gary, among other fiends, pulls what he calls "capers," which involve everything from stealing scrap metal out of houses to shoplifting irons in a suburban mall. Fran is also a dope fiend needing her daily fix and her sons DeAndre and DeRod live with her. Fran also has to hustle to feed her habit and take care of her kids. She's a conflicted character who clearly loves her children and has urges to straighten up and get "clean," i.e., get off the drugs. The main drugs used on the corners are heroin and cocaine in powder and crack varieties. Almost none of the sellers like DeAndre use hard drugs, most sticking with marijuana and beer.

The neighborhood has a recreation center funded by grants and run by Miss Ella Thompson, a woman whose 12-year-old daughter had been raped and murdered five years before. Ella channels her immense grief over the murder into helping kids of all ages at the Rec center and recruiting locals to coach a basketball team for the older boys and to teach art lessons to the younger children. She is almost an archetype in rough neighborhoods around America--the saintly woman who shepherds the children with love and forgiveness, while at the same time harboring no illusions about the grim realities of neighborhood life.

'The Corner' opens a window to a world that few Americans ever really experience. The really "bad" sides of a city, where few of the people are white, most are poor and some are quite dangerous. These are the sorts of areas that people from the suburbs avoid if possible and drive through with trepidation. Baltimore remains one of America's most dangerous cities, and the drug corners, far as I know, still exist, just as they do in most blighted urban hellholes.

Simon and Evans present a nuanced view. Yes, many are sucked into life on the corner, either selling dope, using it, or both. But some people get out and join the military or find jobs that give them more opportunities at ordinary, unfulfilled lives. They maintain ties to the old neighborhood only to go to church or visit family still living in the maelstrom. Likewise, one of the great strengths of the book is that it refuses to turn the corner's residents into stock characters. Humanity with all its mingling of good and evil, sorrow and joy, is brought out in various scenes the author's observed. Corner people routinely help each other, often sharing the same residence that is either abandoned or owned by one of them. Just as often, they will put the screws to a comrade, stealing his or her dope or failing to divide the spoils equally from a joint caper. The teenage males in the book rarely attend school, yet sometimes they do surprising things. DeAndre, for example, mysteriously volunteers to read Martin Luther King's, "I have a Dream" speech in front of a school assembly. He does such a great job that his teacher enters him in the city speech tournament, where he loses to more experienced public speaks but manages to deliver the speech with dignity and power. Miss Ella forms a rec center basketball team and DeAndre and his crew join up and enjoy playing despite losing every game. Gary McCullough, DeAndre's father, pulls capers to get his daily fix, but on many nights he pours over favorite passages in the Bible and peruses such writers as Karen Armstrong. At one time Gary had a good job making $55,000 per year and had a stock portfolio worth $150,000 which he had built up with wise investments--an astonishing accomplishment for anyone dealing with the vagaries of the stock market.

If you've watched the HBO series, "The Wire," then you've basically seen life on the corner. It is a world of addicts, dope sellers, stick-up men (usually males who rob dope sellers at gunpoint or steal the dope stash. The drugs are nearly always in another location in case the police happen to visit, which they do on occasion. Usually a crew sells the drugs, which in Baltimore are often supplied through contacts in New York City. Most of the sellers on the corner are black males, as are the crew. It is a coordinated effort as the seller hawks his product, one or two of the crew stand lookout for the police or the occasional robber, and another goes to the stash--the hidden place where the dope is kept--and gets the buyer his drug of choice. A favorite of those on the corner is the "speedball," a mixture of heroin and cocaine. Several corner junkies "get clean" while some other heavy users finally succumb to years of toll the drugs have taken on their worn-out bodies.

The authors pass no judgments on the residents of the corner. They are more critical of the society that has caused such a place to exist in almost every major city in America. Baltimore, so they say, had a mere 2000 heroin addicts in 1958. Now there is an estimated 45,000, though the actual number is unknown. Politicians and talking heads on TV constantly babble about the sudden "opioid epidemic" in this country--yet based on statistics of estimated heroin users, we've been experiencing this "opioid epidemic" for fifty years or more.

Reading this book led me down several rabbit holes. I began buying some books on the drug cartels of Mexico and Colombia and also started reading a book I've owned a long time, 'The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.' The authors ask the question, "Why do Americans use more drugs than any other nation in the world" I also wondered why! 'The Corner doesn't attempt to provide answers and, so far, I haven't found any, yet. What "The Corner' has done, though, is given us a window on a world few of us will ever experience and, I hope, has helped readers put a human face on a population largely disenfranchised in modern America.


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