‘How Sixth Avenue Became a Sustaining Habitat’, from Mitchell Dunier, Sidewalk: A Synthesis

by on January 23rd, 2006

Mitchell Dunier’s ‘How Sixth Avenue Became a Sustaining Habitat’ is a portrayal of a paradoxical side of urban city life: a reality inhabited by the bottom strata dwellers of the status index within a designated urban population. In the instance of Sixth Avenue this reality is constituted by “..the presence of poor black panhandlers, scavengers, and vendors” (116).

Sixth Avenue captures the imagination of the urban policymaker as well as any that traverse its span as a visitor, commuter, or l0cal patron. “Once the home of shops catering to white middle-class residents, as well as a tourist destination for white youths from other parts of the city, the street has undergone a major transformation over the past two decades. Today, it is a destination for blacks and Hispanics as well as whites”. It is the phenomena of diversity, social stratification, and socioeconomic proclivities that combine to create seemingly un-salutary outcomes that beg constructive alternatives.

Describing the locale, Dunier illustrates what typifies the clime of Sixth Avenue: “..from some of the stalls, the sounds of sexual activity (ranging from masturbation to intercourse) would periodically dominate the room. It was not uncommon for a few men to be lathering up their genitals while half a dozen others were stripped to their underwear waiting for a sink to open up- all this while train travelers who didn’t know better were entering and then departing abruptly with shocked and disgusted looks on their faces” (124).

Dunier notes without pretense “..it is now well documented and almost universally agreed that race is central to the makeup of high-poverty neighborhoods in urban America” (121). Adding, “During the most recent year for which data are available, of those sentenced for crack cocaine, 88.3% were black” (121).

Rather than disseminating his argument from perspectives of racial or social shortcomings, Dunier chooses not to make one altogether. His solution while slanted, non-fundamental, and relatively inorganic, is perhaps nevertheless the most sustainable one within the status quo. In his portrayal Dunier celebrates the amusing personalities and ‘venture capitalist’ tendencies that make the stinking and the odious at least tolerable, and at best endearing.

He quotes Amtrack spokesperson Richard Rubel, “It’s not against the law to be homeless, to smell bad, or to look bad..”. So too, in Dunier’s illustrations, it is clearly indicated only a model of creative compassion would be a viable solution for treating the disparate symptoms of urban heterogeneity.

In like spirit, he lauds the homeless and the loitering for innovating a solution that serves everyone well. The homeless in Sixth Avenue have orchestrated such a remedy: they collect discarded, donated books, and sell them on the streets. This creates a relatively stable and alleviating sustenance not only for the aggregate homeless, but also for the Sixth Avenue in general. It becomes, despite its decadence, a hub for cultural commerce and intermingling. It is a model for the power of ideas and entrepreneurial thinking to integrate misfits into the context of modern Capitalism.

With the support of law such a lifestyle actually becomes sustainable. ” ‘The police said the literature and books was all right to sell,’ Joe Garbage recalls/ “Because the constitutional rights that they said. That we had the right to sell the reading literature. The reading material.”

Capitalism need not be a homogeneous, immovably stratified institution Dunier seems to conclude. It can creatively accommodate the choice of the individual, both the homeless and the hypercapitalist are reconciled under the awning of a creatively sustained, entrepreneurship based Capitalism with corollary policy and legal structures.

As far as ‘right to sell the reading material’, as a cultural phenomena, urban culture is a far cry from the intellectually visceral and virile days of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and the ennobling spirit of the first amendment. Nevertheless, while the spirit of the constitution may not remain a shimmering and constant beacon of rectitude, ‘when in the course of human events it becomes necessary’, the letter of the constitution may be deftly manipulated to usher in a semblance of stability in a reeling and dynamic society that thrives on overconsumption.

Alexander Rai