Code of the Street

Our West Philadelphia neighborhood was in the news twice last week, both for bad reasons. First there was the five-alarm fire in the apartment complex on 48th and Walnut, and then there was the knife fight that took place during the morning commute at the subway station at 46th and Market Streets.

Both of these locations are less than five blocks from our house, and put us a little on edge for the next several days. Jada is deathly afraid of fire and smoke, so we had to tread lightly on that issue, assuring her that we take all precautions possible to ensure that we won't ever have a fire in our house and keeping her away from graphic images on TV and in the newspaper.

As for the knife fight, this one cuts closer to home. That's the subway station we use all the time. And, the combatants in the scuffle were boys from two very good local schools, a Catholic school in one case and a prep school in the other case, all of them by all accounts good kids from good families and likely college-bound.

No matter, sometimes, on these mean streets. For competing for influence on the behavior of young men, in addition to middle-class parents with solid values and to an aspiring student's dreams of college and gainful employment, is the very real "code of the street." That phrase is a reference to a book written by Dr. Elijah Anderson, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and it refers to a moral code that young boys often feel bound by in inner city settings. It is not a totally unadmirable code, but it can be destructive and senseless at times, the guarding of "respect" leading otherwise upwardly mobile boys to do terrible things like hurl insults and stir up trouble and even pull a knife or a gun in a crowded public setting.

I do not wish for the homogenizing context of the suburbs. I like that many different people from many different walks of life are layered on top of each other in our big city neighborhood. But fire and knives are scary things. And it is uncomfortable to me how prevalent is the underlying ethos that governs the behavior of many of our young boys, because it is an ethos that can threaten to inflict collateral damage, and the next time something like this happens we might not be so lucky that there were no other negative impacts beyond those directly involved.

It is part of your kids growing up that you have to deal with big boy and big girl issues, I suppose. But I wish I had more time to figure out how to tell my little girl about fires and my little boy about what moral codes are out there and which it is I want him to live his life by.

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