Street Kids: youth, struggle, public space…

12720883Street Kids is a thought-provoking ethnography of youth on the streets and those who try to reach out to them – and one that faces squarely all of the ethical issues involved in an academic studying such a population. I appreciated that so much, as I did the fact that she became an outreach volunteer for two years to complete the study. Thus

What I learned is that when young people tell adults anything about their lives, it is a gift (18).

Ain’t that the truth.

I also appreciated that this got beyond some of the more liberal heartbleeding to look at structural factors – the way that neoliberal privatisation of services and cutbacks in social spending has decimated service provision as the state makes way for private and often faith-based charities, the way that zero-tolerance policing and controls over public space by BIDs and others have forced non-white, non-hetero, non-middle-class populations out of the spaces they have long inhabited and into greater mobility, invisibility, and danger. One consequence of gentrification is even more deaths as youth find themselves under more stress from police, far from services and the familiar networks they rely on for survival, and in neighborhoods that are less safe. The majority of New York’s youth on or of the streets are not the highly visible white population of kids panhandling and scruffy and from around the country, but rather local kids of colour who do everything possible to hide the fact they are homeless, a high percentage of them queer, a high percentage of them escaping abuse. White middle-class residents of newly gentrified areas demanding that they just go home? Just not getting the dynamics are they. Not wanting to get them either.

Scholars argue that public-space laws that drive any perceived source of disorder from gentrifying or commercialized public spaces are ‘revanchist’ that they punitively deny people a right to space. In effect, these laws dismiss homeless people as legitimate social subjects with the right to exist in public… Public-space ordinances are being used to spatially exclude marginalized groups while simultaneously constructing some groups as deviant, disorderly subjects with no right to an orderly, commercialized city (13-14).

Thus society is ‘disciplining street youth into invisibility’ (19). Out of sight, out of mind. Out of funding.

There is a lovely discussion of ‘emplacement’, building on work by geographer Tim Cresswell – how have I not read him before?

Human geographers contend that social subjects are also spatial subjects, that as social beings, people understand the world through grounded and contextual categories. Moreover, places help naturalize social structures and hierarchies by their seemingly stable existence. In the popular lexicon, there is a place for everything, and everything has a place. Places are always both physical and social locations organized through powerful social ideologies. This sociospatial construction is a process of “emplacement.” Besides occupying spaces, these spaces makes us who we are; that is, we shape and are shaped by complex geographies, as both agents and subjects of places (25)

This not only offers insight into our characters and development, our own relationships to places, but also helps define what is at stake in the formation of place. Thus:

The presence of street youth marks a social fissure disrupting modern Western society’s imaginary of itself as orderly and just. Because street you present a type of social dissonance—a ripple in the social stream—social forces over the years have attempted to dislodge, explain away, reposition, reimagine, and erase them.

In an interesting addition to the whole debate about the use of the word ‘underclass’, she clarifies what I kind of knew but hadn’t vocalized – that it is grounded in ideas of youth, as well as race and class and gender. Unemployed youth, criminal youth, teenage mothers. Young people. Even more reasons to hate it, apart from how it’s been used to undercut welfare and demonize those in poverty. ‘They’ are different, outsiders when the term ‘community’ is mobilized as an ideal form in service of cleaning up and cleaning out, in service of attracting the middle and upper classes back to the city and creating spaces for capital.

I also liked her critique of the ‘end of public space’ argument mobilized by Mitchell, Davis, Sorkin and others, presuming that there was an earlier ideal. Instead:

Public spaces have never been open and accessible to everyone in society; rather, policing and shifting norms have functioned together to shift geographies of access and rights to particular spaces and subjectivities. Over time, women, children, and minorities have all struggled to gain the right to access, use, and be visible in public…public spaces become arenas for members of society to claim their rights. According to this view, public space is a process, a nexus of power relations, not a fixed state. Public space may not “end,” but it can shift in regard to power relations.

I really love this idea of the public and public space as process and power relations, I need to think about it more.

I have a few critiques of course. Street Kids moved from description and storytelling to theory, and what I’ve written above I found really useful, but other sections not so much and it made it a bit disjointed at times. I’m not the biggest fan of Foucault, for example, so to draw on him in discussing the rise of child labour laws and compulsory schooling as disciplining and the imposition of middle-class values on working-class children earning a living in the street I find a little maddening. Not that it isn’t true, but that is not the whole story – working classes fought hard for child labour laws and schools, these have always been contested areas and created new spaces of contestation in which struggle could play out. I always feel that Foucault condescends, that he loses that aspect of regulation, health and education services fought for and won (though not everyone would agree with me on that I suppose). The discussion of outreach as performance I also found interesting and disturbing truth be told. There is an element of performance in anyone’s activities in public, on the street. But in something like outreach, as I found in organizing, what you are striving for is connection. To get through performance to something deeper. Buber’s I-Thou, or Fromm’s work or anything in addition to performance.

Finally, there was only one mention of FIERCE!, who I love. Who organize and work politically for the preservation of their right to public spaces (being primarily LBGTQ youth of colour and as fierce as their name). Who question the whole social service framework and what is possible working within that framework. The ways it can save, empower, but more often I think, disempower. The ways this connects up to capitalism and gentrification. This book doesn’t really engage with the critiques they make. Interesting, because otherwise I so appreciate the focus on engagement, commitment, concreteness in turning academic work towards improving a situation and changing policy.

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