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With Slim's Table, Mitchell Duneier Returns to an Old Style of Face-to-Face Sociology

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Mitchell Duneier, the author of "Slim and Bart" and the book from which it is excerpted, sat at a table at Valois cafeteria on 53rd Street ten hours a day every day for four years. That's roughly 10,000 hours and 2,000 cups of coffee. Known locally as "See Your Food" because of a large sign out front, Valois (Val-OYZ) offers home-style dishes like Yankee pot roast and boiled potatoes, baked chicken and succotash, and enormous meat pies. Steam rising from the serving line at the back of the cafeteria fills the long room with beef and vegetable aromas. The smells coax diners to pick the large, more pricey entrees over the cold and odorless sandwiches. It's hard to choose turkey on wheat bread with an au jus mist in one's face. The cash register is hidden behind shelves of dessert--to see the Greek cashier one must peer past glistening, syrupy dishes of rice pudding coated with cinnamon and teetering plates of key lime pie five inches tall. A full lunch--enough for dinner for four--runs around five dollars. Negotiating the narrow aisles of the packed restaurant with a loaded tray is a bit like balancing an armful of beers past fans at a crowded ball park. After much dodging and weaving and finally coming to rest at a table, usually shared with other diners, the food offers an ample reward.

But of course it's not the food that draws Duneier, a 31-year-old University of Chicago-trained sociologist, to Valois. Indeed, he's had to train himself to resist it. Duneier likes Valois because he believes it offers a unique glimpse of its urban patrons. His book--Slim's Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity--is a scholarly but highly readable summary of observations he made at the restaurant.

One Valois regular has told me that 53rd Street is where the races meet in Hyde Park, and a look around the place bears this out. Whites and blacks of all ages sit throughout the restaurant, often at the same tables. Cops and laborers, professors and students, neighborhood professionals and retirees, and residents from a crummy hotel across the street fill the space with loud, free conversation.

It's hard to match the Valois atmosphere anywhere in Chicago outside of Hyde Park, a neighborhood urban planners call the most successfully integrated in the country, though it lies within what is called the nation's most segregated city. At first Duneier, who describes himself as a "white middle-class person," simply liked hanging out there. Valois seemed to him a kind of mini-ideal world in which interracial harmony, courtesy, and good humor came naturally.

Just outside the door, life was not so sweet. In the daytime, 53rd Street is Hyde Park's main business district, drawing patrons to upscale--for the south side--shops like Pier One Imports, Starbucks Coffee, and middle-class restaurants like the pleasant, wood-paneled, plant-filled Mellow Yellow one block west of Valois. At night, however, 53rd Street more closely resembles Chicago's other ghetto thoroughfares. On the street blacks far outnumber whites. Fast-food restaurants and the Hyde Park movie theaters, which often show films marketed to black teenagers, attract south-siders from outside the neighborhood, many of whom come to Hyde Park's neutral turf showing their gang colors. One black Hyde Parker called the teens "punks with their hats on sideways." Violence at the theaters has necessitated police presence at the otherwise peaceful Harper Court, the small square that art galleries, cafes, and shops share with the movie house. To avoid spillover traffic from the movies, Starbucks cut its evening hours. Duneier found that Valois offered patrons a sense of tranquillity amid the urban mix on 53rd.

For the first several months in the restaurant, Duneier just watched and listened from a table near the back, monitoring both the cooks and the patrons. Eventually he focused his eavesdropping on a table of elderly working-class black men who came to the restaurant for their lunches and dinners. Their conversation, he discovered, reflected their beliefs that society had changed in some ways for the better, but mostly for the worse. On a nightly basis their friendly interaction in the restaurant re-created the social and ethical world of Chicago's great south-side black ghettos, as if these men meant to preserve at a single table of acquaintances the values of church, family, and hard work they felt younger black men had lost.

To remain inconspicuous Duneier refrained from taking notes, dashing home for 20 minutes every few hours to furiously record what he'd heard. If some tidbit came up that required a quick note, Duneier took to the bathroom with pen and paper. After several months of collecting the men's stories and impressions, Duneier began to believe that his subjects at Valois offered possibilities for scholarly research and proposed such a study to his dissertation adviser, Edward Shils. Now in his 80s, Shils studied at Chicago under Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, the founders of what came to be called the Chicago school of sociology--for the first half of this century the most influential school of sociology in America. Duneier, who scorns the statistical bias of contemporary sociology, sought Shils as an adviser because he is the university's last direct link to the teachings of the pioneers.

Chicago has been the subject of more sociological studies than any other city in the world. Part of the reason is that sociologists were in numbers at the University of Chicago before any other institution even considered establishing a department of such breadth and ambition. European and east-coast universities can claim an earlier generation of social theorists, but in the 19th century social scientists tended to be cloistered intellectuals who wrote about social structures and political relationships without ever venturing into their communities.

So if Chicago was not the birthplace of modern social science, it was certainly its nursery. The University of Chicago's first president, William Rainey Harper, forged an institution he hoped would both reveal and remedy society's problems. "[D]emocracy," Harper wrote in 1899, "has scarcely begun to understand itself. It is in the university that the best opportunity is afforded to investigate the movements of the past and to present the facts and principles involved before the public. It is the university that, as the center of thought, is to maintain for democracy the unity so essential for its success."

For the social scientists drawn to Harper's university, Chicago itself was an irresistible subject for investigation. A sociology graduate student wrote in the University of Chicago Weekly in 1893, a year after the university opened, that Chicago was an "excellent laboratory . . . to throw light on the great problems of American civilization."

Chicago may have been the perfect city for sociologist Robert Park and his younger colleague, Ernest Burgess. Here they could see every human condition crowded into a burgeoning urban population. In their 1925 book The City, Park argued that city life offered all of human society at once, something missed by anthropologists who concentrated on single, isolated tribes. "The same patient methods of observation which anthropologists like Boas and Lowie have expended in the study of the life and manners of the North American Indian," Park wrote, "might be more fruitfully employed in the investigation of the customs, beliefs, social practices and general conceptions of life in Little Italy on the lower North Side in Chicago." Based on their studies of Chicago, Park and Burgess developed general theories of urban ecology, exploring how cities became divided into separate zones for business and residential neighborhoods.

Park and Burgess believed that cities had a natural history that could explain urban cultural patterns. Under their guidance, a whole generation of young sociologists studied Chicago's problems and populations trying to determine that natural history, relying on personal contact between researcher and subject. Students would find an individual who typified a problem--a juvenile delinquent or dance-hall girl--and interview him or her at length. The best field research captured most fully the life of the interviewees. In his preface to Clifford Shaw's 1930 The Jack-Roller, an in-depth study of the career of a juvenile delinquent, Burgess called "life-history documents" microscopes through which to view "the interplay of mental processes and social relationships." Burgess described Shaw's study, which followed a single delinquent boy for six years, as "perfect" scientific research.

The studies from that period that most moved Duneier were those of race and ethnicity. He thought the old methods of interviewing subjects had yielded a better picture of Chicago's cultural mix and problems than the picture offered by more rigorously statistical studies, now the standard in sociology. For models of the work he was interested in doing he looked to studies done in the first three decades of this century. By then ethnic diversity had long been a feature of Chicago life: German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants had clustered in separate neighborhoods since before the Civil War. Immigrant Italians, Poles, and Eastern Europeans had been forming their own neighborhoods since the late 19th century. Relatively new to the city was a large influx of southern blacks, who had begun to crowd white European ethnic communities on the city's south and west sides.

The first Chicago sociologist to look at ethnic communities was William I. Thomas, who spent ten years researching Polish society and migration to America. His study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, written with Florian Znaniecki and published between 1918 and 1920, dealt in part with the Polish community in Chicago. Thomas looked particularly at the ways some Poles found assimilation difficult, describing how the rapid cultural changes encountered in urban Chicago weakened group solidarity and created an individualism that strained marriages, spurred teenagers to leave home, and led to violence. Not coincidentally, Duneier's discussion of older black men's alienation from their communities has similar themes.

In the 1920s, at the urging of Park and Burgess, Chicago sociologists produced a range of race and ethnic studies unprecedented for their breadth. Park's department was the first to send student sociologists to investigate neighborhoods troubled by conflict, making Chicago the wellspring of many pioneering race studies. Hundreds of interviews, some of them over 150 pages long, were conducted in the city's ethnic and black neighborhoods. Of the 51 sociology dissertations written at the university between 1919 and 1930, 25 related to race or ethnicity--far more than any other subject. These in-depth studies of individuals were offered to public and private service agencies as windows into the difficult lives of many of Chicago's new residents. The agencies in turn used them to develop programs intended to assimilate minorities into the city's cultural and economic mainstream.

The work that most shaped Duneier's study of the men at Valois was St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's massive study of Chicago's south-side ghetto, Black Metropolis, published in 1945. The authors collected personal narratives and analyzed them in light of data collected from demographic projects conducted in Chicago during the Depression by the Works Projects Administration. Like many WPA programs, the studies of Chicago's neighborhoods were among the first federally sponsored efforts to chronicle in systematic detail the lives of America's city dwellers. Though it was originally planned as a look at juvenile delinquents (a favorite topic of Chicago sociologists), the scope of the book grew. The authors wrote in their preface that the book "assumed the character of a study of the culture of the entire [ghetto] community, in order to determine the context within which the problem of delinquency could best be analyzed. [Our original inquiry] ultimately became subordinated to the larger problem of the description and analysis of the structure and organization of the Negro community, both internally and in relation to the metropolis of which it is part."

Novelist Richard Wright, an admirer of the Chicago school of sociology, contributed an introduction to Black Metropolis. "The huge mountains of facts piled up by the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago," he wrote, "gave me the first concrete vision of the forces that molded the urban Negro's body and soul." (Novelist Margaret Walker, in her memoir of Wright, said that she and Nelson Algren shared several studies with him, including The Jack-Roller. Wright, who was raised in the rural south, used the books to round out his picture of urban conditions in Native Son.) Wright found in Drake and Cayton two scholars who shared his commitment to offer up brutal truths, calling their study the first "scientific statement about the urban Negro, [picturing] the environment out of which the Bigger Thomases of our nation come." According to Wright, Black Metropolis focused on three topics: "(1) the relationship of Negroes to Whites in Chicago, (2) the kind of world which Negroes have built up under their separate, subordinate status, and (3) the impact of these twin configurations upon the personalities and institutions of Chicago Negroes."

Duneier hoped to create a new Black Metropolis, focusing not on the lives of a whole community but on a few men displaced when the ghetto community described by Drake and Cayton changed.

When asked to describe his years at the restaurant, Duneier goes hyper, like a disc jockey just let out of solitary confinement. Even after writing the book he has so many pent-up impressions that they tumble out all at once and a bit scattered. He speaks of his subjects with unscientific hyperbole as "wonderful old guys" with "great senses of humor," sounding like someone angling to get his friends invited along with him to a dinner party. One senses he lost his researcher's distance long ago because Valois was so much fun for him.

Once Duneier settled on Valois as his dissertation topic, he needed to find a way to plant himself there long enough to observe its daylong cycle. He took a night job as proofreader in a large downtown law office, working from 10 PM to 4 AM. Once home he would set his alarm so he could make it to Valois by 10 AM, when the restaurant was still offering breakfast to late risers and starting to roll out lunch to those on an early shift.

Though ultimately Duneier's book focused on one group, it took him several months to make sense of his observations at Valois. His first idea had been to study the life of a cafeteria, what Park would call a natural history: how populations came and went, and how relationships among the owners, employees, and patrons developed over time. The population in the restaurant, he observed, changed throughout the day; the racial mix in the restaurant shifted hour by hour. In the middle of the day there tended to be more white patrons, but by nightfall, when the atmosphere grew less hectic and more social, there were more blacks. Few regulars lingered before the evening hours, when the crowds petered out. Duneier says that customers like those in his study, who used Valois as a gathering place, were "respectful of the owners, who need to turn over the small number of tables several times during morning and lunch rush hours," when Valois serves most of its 1,200 daily meals.

Slim's table, according to Duneier, has been the meeting place for its regulars for ten years. The mix of people who gathered there changed somewhat from day to day (in the book he's given them pseudonyms), but they were anchored by a core group, all past middle age, who frequented the restaurant at night and on weekends. Duneier counted dozens of others in their acquaintance, who when entering the restaurant greeted those at Slim's table. Slim and his companions held friendly court over a broader, more loosely knit social circle, what the sociologist calls a "larger collectivity," greeting incoming customers and telling them to "come by more often" when they left.

As Duneier's study progressed, he found that he could no longer keep his distance from his subjects. Like a child who joins the parade he's been watching, Duneier moved himself closer and closer to Slim's table, eventually acquainting himself personally with all the regulars. He once asked Slim about his relationship with Bart, a reserved, tight-lipped regular Slim drove home every evening. Slim told him he "didn't think it right that people neglect their elders."

The changes in Chicago's black south-side neighborhoods are the subject of a vigorous debate in modern sociology: different interpretations of census data yield different conclusions, first on the number of blacks who've ascended into the middle class since the 1960s, and second on what impact that shift has had on the character of the ghettos. Duneier does not take sides in this statistical battle. His interest lies in his subjects' perceptions of these changes. In their minds, there is no debate. The old neighborhood is gone, and vanished with it is a moral community that valued respect for others and hard work.

Duneier often heard the men comment on the loss of an old-time morality and the work ethic, two issues they often linked. Elvin told the group one day, "In our day we did things with our hands. Manpower. Nobody has manpower anymore. The younger generations, if you make them lift fifty pounds, their backs hurt. We lifted hundreds of pounds and never thought nothing of it. It was like fun. If now you tell kids to go get some groceries, they carry twenty-two pounds around and they're tired. . . . It's sad. Every young kid in school has either got a weapon, or dope, or he's gonna rob you. . . . If he knows you've got money he'll kill you. . . . because he wants his fix." A policeman near retirement added, "In the older generation . . . if your mom and dad smelled beer on you, oh my God, your mom would whip you, your daddy would whip you, and you might have to stay in for a year."

Historically, Chicago school sociologists focused on groups alienated from the mainstream of society. Studies in the 1920s and '30s of delinquents, sex offenders, hobos, dance-hall girls, gangsters, prison inmates, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, the displaced elderly, and divorced couples were all designed to elucidate society's stress points. Park and Burgess sent their students to settlement houses, family-service organizations, flophouses, and even Al Capone's organization to find subjects to interview. In one notorious instance, Burgess recruited Nathan Leopold, then serving a jail term for killing Hyde Park schoolboy Bobby Franks, to gather data for his prison studies. (Leopold, who eventually was released, offered his research association with the U. of C. as evidence of his worthiness for parole.)

One underlying purpose of this type of sociology was to devise ways that would help integrate the deviant, the wayward, and the alienated into America's melting pot. Black Metropolis, though it provided an exhaustive study of Chicago's south side, never suggested that blacks' isolation from whites and white culture should be perpetuated. Rather it was offered as a stepping-stone to meld the races together. (One of the first black sociologists at the university, Edward Byron Reuter, in his book The American Race Problem, went so far as to advocate intermarriage as the best solution to racial inequality.)

Though Duneier adapts the interview techniques of the Chicago school, he has shifted the focus away from the supposedly deviant or alienated subject. He chose the men who gather around Slim's table because he liked them and respected their values. In his view there was no "mainstream" into which they had to be reintegrated. Instead he saw them as the remnants of a vital community now reduced to a single restaurant table. Throughout the book one senses Duneier's wish that the ghetto of today would itself be reintegrated into the small world of the elderly black men he befriended.

But by singling out the small group as a role model, Duneier may have unintentionally undermined his attempt to resurrect the old Chicago school methods. Despite their exhaustive efforts, Chicago school sociologists never hit on any real solutions for integrating their subjects into society. At the end of the century their research inaugurated, Chicago remains segregated. Through the words of the Valois regulars, Duneier points to the old black neighborhoods as scenes of modern social ruin. How much more difficult the task of creating an acceptable moral "mainstream" must seem to sociologists of Duneier's generation than to those of Park's. For the pioneers the question was how to fit the fringe to the cloth, but for Duneier it's how to fit the cloth to the fringe. Then, too, it's difficult when the past, not the future, is one's model. There have been deaths among those Duneier set out to study.

When Duneier's book was accepted for publication, he returned to Valois to gather the men from Slim's table for a reading. They met in the small furnished apartment of one of the regulars who lives off 53rd. Over soft drinks, coffee, and beer Duneier read them all 170 pages, straight through. The men were first impressed by the detail he'd captured. Then they were moved, laughing and mourning over quirky Bart, who has since died, wondering why Duneier would comment on their shoes. Most of all, they were flattered and touched that he had observed and recorded the small world of their table so closely. The warmth with which the men received his book, Duneier says, made that evening the most wonderful of his life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/LLoyd DeGrane.


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