Tally's Corner - Then and Now

March 3, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

EXTERIOR, GHETTO NEIGHBORHOOD, MORNING. Long shot from above. The film is in black and white, sepia toned. We hear nothing except the music soundtrack, a muted trumpet. Small clusters of men stand at the corners talking. A truck crawls up the street and stops. We see the truck driver, a white man, lean his head out the window and say something. The men shake their heads, and the truck moves on, stopping at each corner with the same result. The truck moves away growing smaller till it’s almost out of the frame.


Lazy bastards. They wouldn’t take a job
if it was handed to ’em on a

It’s the opening of Tally’s Corner, by Elliot Liebow. I loved teaching that book, and each semester, when I would reread it, I would imagine that opening scene as a movie. The sepia tone must have seeped into my imagination from the cover photo.

Last week, the Washington Post (here) finally revealed where Tally’s Corner was – 11th and M Streets NW, Washington, DC. Less than a mile from the White House.

Liebow went to the corner every day for a year and a half in 1962-63. He came home every evening and wrote up his field notes. And in 1967, he published one of the great books in sociology.

He knew the men and their lives in a way the truck driver never could or would. After that opening scene, Liebow takes us back to the corner for a closer look. Most of the men have reasons for turning down a day’s work, reasons that even the truck driver would consider legitimate.

But then Liebow turns his and our attention to those few that might fit with the truck driver’s views. They are the ones we have to understand if we are to understand this world.
Despite their small numbers, the don’t-work-and-don’t-want-to-work minority is especially significant in that they represent the strongest and clearest expression of those values and attitudes associated with making a living which, to varying degrees, are found throughout the streetcorner world. These men . . . are carrying out the implications of their values and experiences to their logical, inevitable conclusions. In this sense, the others have yet to come to terms with themselves and the world they live in.
The book is about the realities of that world, realities (“experiences”) that make not wanting to work logical and inevitable. But it’s also about the men as individuals and as part of the streetcorner culture that attenuates their relation to conventional work and family roles. As Liebow says about the problem of work,
Some of the [reasons for not working] are objective and reside principally in the job; some are subjective and reside principally in the man. The line between them, however, is not a clear one.
That was then, nearly a half century ago. Now, Tally’s Corner looks like this.

The book is about race and income and poverty and social class and labor markets. How much those have changed is still an open question. But even if they had been completely transformed, I would still use and reread Tally’s Corner because it is also about the self and identity and micro-cultures, about how we construct these out of the ephemeral materials of social interaction, and how these intersect with the dominant social institutions of work and family.

UPDATE (March 4, 8 a.m.): If I were a college teacher, I would certainly have busted the above post as plagiarism. As Baptiste’s comment says, Mike3550 at Scatterplot posted about Tally’s Corner a day before I posted this. I unwittingly used exactly the same title for my post, and I used a photo from the same Google view that Mike links to. But honest, professor, I had not looked at Scatterplot when I wrote this. I got the idea from some other blog (which one I don’t remember, but it wasn’t Scatterplot) that had the link to the WaPo article.

Mike’s post is much better – more thorough and informative. Unlike my post, he provides real data – about the corner itself and about the gentrification of that whole neighborhood. Read it here.


Baptiste C. said...

Another comparison on scatterplot/wordpress : http://scatter.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/tallys-corner-then-and-now/

mike3550 said...

Jay -- Thank you very much for your kind comments about my post! You provide a much better and more thorough description of the sociological contribution of Tally's Corner.

I promise I won't fail you in the class =)