I am becoming more and more interested in the ethnography of public space — or perhaps urban spaces in general, and Elijah Anderson’s conception of Cosmopolitan Canopies emerges from such an ethnography to think about what works.
This ethos of getting along, as well as the tremendous growth in immigration, has given rise to the emergence of what I call cosmopolitan canopies — settings that offer a respite from the lingering tensions of urban life and an opportunity for diverse peoples to come together. Canopies are in essence pluralistic spaces where people engage one another in a spirit of civility, or even comity and goodwill. Through personal observation, they may come casually to appreciate one another’s differences and emphathize with the other in a spirit of shared humanity. Under the canopy, this sense of familiarity often breeds comfort and encourages all to be on their best behavior, promoting peaceful relations. Here racially, ethnically, and socially diverse peoples spend casual and purposeful time together, coming to know one another through what I call folk ethnography, a form of people watching that allows individuals informally to gather evidence in social interactions that supports their own viewpoints or transforms their commonsense understanding of social life. In this context of diversity and cosmopolitanism, a cognitive and cultural basis for trust is established that often leads to the emergence of more civil behavior. (xiv-xv)
Such an ethnography allows Anderson the ability to capture the nuances of race and space and the ways in which people who use such spaces develop their own sense of community and diversity. It’s important to note, too, that we are not all just city residents in the wider social gaze:
Wirth and Simmel describing urbanites blase indifference to one another, but given way to wariness, especially towards anonymous black males
As Anderson later writes:
A hierarchy of comfort can be discerned: white women, black women, white men and then black men. In public, ethnicity is not always visible and discernible, but color and gender are. When people look for a read visual cues, these characteristics become significant, and even operative, in determining who means what to whom in the public space. (226)
The book opens with a center city walking tour, Anderson describing a walk through the city spaces he will be describing in more detail through use of his journaled entries in italics. His focus is on those places where such typical wariness described above breaks down:
Yet there are heterogeneous and densely populated bounded public spaces within cities that offer a respite from this wariness, settings where a mix of people can feel comfortable enough to relax their guard and go about their business more casually. In these areas people display a degree of cosmopolitanism, by which I mean acceptance of the space as belonging to all kinds of people. (3)
I like this definition of cosmopolitanism. Also interesting is that the places under study here are not just public spaces:
Such goings-on peg this place as a hybrid institution, whose ostensible purpose is to provide fast food but which also serves as a site for slow-paces sociability. The Barnes & Noble bookstore up the street in the next block serves a similar hybrid purpose. (21)
Also key to the dynamic of the whole is the segregated city and spaces that segregation creates. No matter where you are, tehse segregated spaces are part of your map of the city and your commonsense understandings of its people — although almost all cities work to marginalise communities of colour, the ghetto remains constantly present in people’s interactions:
The most powerfully imagined neighborhood is the iconic black ghetto, or “the hood,” often associated in the minds of outsiders with poverty, crime, and violence. This icon is by definition a figment of the imagination of those with little or no direct experience with the ghetto or contact with those who live there, and yet, when a black person navigates space outside the ghetto, those he encounters very often make reference to this residential area in order to make sense of him, although their interpretation is often erroneous. (29)
What is interesting, then, are the kinds of interactions that cosmopolitan canopies make possible, and this idea of how people perform race differently depending on the space they are in:
Segregated neighborhoods and the cosmopolitan canopy exist simultaneously in Philadelphia. Under the canopy, people perform race. When they present themselves as civil and friendly, they may simply coexist. On occasion, however, they may interact, learning something surprising about others they had not known before. This practice can have an affect that extends far beyond the canopy. (30)
It is through the use of ethnography — and clearly long and intimate familiarity with these spaces, that Anderson examines where such interactions are possible. Interestingly, these are enclosed spaces, destinations:
Physical separation from the surrounding streetscapes and freedom of movement through the space it encloses are defining characteristics of the cosmopolitan canopy. (277)
This is a calm environment of equivalent, symmetrical relationships — a respite from the streets outside. (33)
An enclosed, monitored version of public space:
Few public spaces have an ambiance that generates such closeness and allows people to express themselves so openly. This ambiance is engendered at least in part by the physical closeness patrons experience int his space. The aisles are narrow and crowded; the dining tables are close to one another, creating a cafeteria feel, reminiscent of hundreds of high school students packed into a lunchroom. People literally rub elbows, overhear each other’s conversations, and make eye contact despite any attempt at avoidance. Such physical proximity yields a familiarity, an increased comfort level, and often direct engagement among diverse patrons of the market. (57-58)
This is the most successful space in creating both long term and short term encounters with the potential to be meaningful between different people. Part of this success, I think, is in changing people’s perceptions in ways that have the possibility of rippling outwards through their wider lived geographies and communities.
The Gallery Mall: The Ghetto downtown
People here are more ethnocentric, suspicious of outsiders, especially whites.
In these respects, the Gallery Mall and its food court both challenge and extend my thinking about cosmopolitan canopies. Interaction between racial groups is observable here. Patrons do find a certain comity and goodwill, but their sociability seems cramped by the ever-present awareness that ghetto street violence — the violence commonly attributed to black ghetto streets — may intrude at any moment. Hence there is an edge to the quality of public interaction here, an edge not so prominent in the other canopies I have described. (74)
As such, the relationships formed here are less likely to have a broader impact:
Many relationships formed under the canopy are one-dimensional: they exist in a specific space and do not develop further, or progress deeper, outside that setting. (88)
This remains an important kind of space, however it may fall short of the conception of cosmopolitan canopies that is the subject.
The Gallery is essentially a black community under a canopy, not cosmopolitan in the same way as the other canopies I’ve observed, but nonetheless a place where diverse elements of one racial community may mingle peacefully and express themselves more fully. (93)
Here Anderson looks at the racism often visible in the treatment of people in the upscale restaurants, the nervousness in La Colombe cafe when someone of colour without obvious class status walks in through the door, and significantly writes:
Where black males seem to fit comfortably into the scheme of things at Rittenhouse Square is in the role of parking valet and doorman. (142)
A telling description of US public space. Just as telling as this:
But no forward movement in this long process is possible unless the races share space at close enough range to interact with one another. (148)
The Color Line and the Canopy
This book becomes its hardest hitting near the end, I can’t help but think that this is strategic to help ease white readers into uncomfortable truths about how people of colour must constantly navigate through all spaces. A good thing, everyone should read this.
The promise and real achievements of the civil rights movement have not remedied structural inequalities, and black skin color remains a powerful marker of second-class status. Norms of “color blindness” coexist with persistent patterns of discrimination, and interpersonal relations across the color line are highly charged. (152)
At any point this veil of politeness can be torn, W.E.B. du Bois invoked:
… blacks can still find the color line sharply drawn at any moment. … In the “nigger moment” the black person is effectively “put back in his place” — a situation that many in the middle class thought they would never have to negotiate.
The most problematic aspect of social relations under the cosmopolitan canopy appears when the color line is suddenly drawn… (154)
It is drawn too often, and its drawing outlines the limitations of all these nice, friendly conceptions of space in ways rarely written about.
In examining the places, times, and circumstances in which the color line is drawn, we learn not only about the social dynamics of racial inequality but also about the possibilities and limits of cosmopolitanism as an organizing theme of public life. (157)
From these more public kind of spaces, Anderson goes on to examine the workplace as canopy. He makes a distinction between two different ways, a spectrum really, in which people navigate workspace. It is between ethnos and cosmos — Between sticking only to your own — making this racialised moment impossible — or sticking to an ideal of cosmopolitanism where you are friendly but not too much so, making such a moment impersonal, not a betrayal. Just people doing what they do.
But first, a sense of what this moment actually means:
Emotions flood over the victim as this middle-class, cosmopolitan-oriented black person is humiliated and shown that he or she is, before anything else, a racially circumscribed black eprson after all. No matter what she has achieved, or how decent and law-abiding she is, there is no protection, no sanctuary, no escaping from this fact. She is vulnerable. (253)
Interesting to me — and not just because this is so much what I study — is the way that much of this continues to be based upon geographies, upon segregation. Civil rights and affirmative action have certainly changed things and achieved more racial incorporation, they have changed the complexion of both workplaces and public settings.
Yet the simultaneous existence of impoverished inner-city neighborhoods complicates the situation.’ (254)
Black people continue to be associated with ghetto. ‘Hence, the anonymous black person carries historical and social baggage, and thus may move somewhat self-consciously when in mixed company. Far too often, the treatment black people receive in public is based on negative assumptions, as strangers they encounter fall back on scripts, roles, and stereotypes that raise doubts about the black person’s claims to decency and middle-class status. (255)
More importantly, especially in thinking about a deeper transformation towards a non-racist society:
Hence the “nigger moment” turns on the issue of social place. (256)
He sees this as the biggest threat to the canopy, this fragile creation of relationships, these spaces that can positively challenge negative ideas of the other by supplying positive interactions. The cosmopolitan canopy as he describes it is visible in certain places, he argues:
The challenge of developing a more inclusive civility that extends beyond these magical but bounded settings involves changing what transpires in neighborhoods and workplaces as well as in public. (281)
In many ways Anderson is trying to grasp here what Gilroy is working towards as well through the concept of conviviality — trying to understand what is working. And it is working. But there is so much on the other side of the equation we need to work to dismantle. Cosmopolitan canopies are both a method and a measure of our success.
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